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Florence Skyline

The City of Saint John the BaptistMap of Italy, Tuscany Highlighted

The Florentine Republic consisted not only of the city of Florence but the surrounding area of present day Tuscany with the exception of the Republic of Siena and Lucca. It covered a considerable area of central Italy with many vassals that it had conquered. Always wary of its neighbours, especially the ambitions of the Renaissance popes in the Papal States, Florence occupies a precarious position in the grand scheme of the Italian Peninsula.

Stubbornly proud of its Republican heritage, it nonetheless bullied or coerced the lesser states into obedience. Pisa, conquered in 1406, has always been an area of interest for Florence, where Lorenzo the Magnificent built the University of Pisa to buy Pisan loyalty. Volterra, also, has had a great hatred of Florence ever since its sack. Florence was very aware of the potential uprisings and revolts in the smaller cities, usually instigated by an enemy of the Republic. However, during the decade before Alexander VI's reign, a greater danger has been posed by continuous papal expansion in the Romagna. This region's political situation is where Florentine interests often conflict with that of the Pope. This led to the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478 where a direct assassination of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Giuliano de' Medici was backed by Pope Sixtus IV.

Florence and the Duomo

In the 13th century, Florence went through political turmoil where the popolo (the people) rose up against the elite (known as the Ciompi Revolt) and established a Republic. However, as the century wore on, the Popolo were divided between the middle and lower class workers and the artisans of the upper classes. The late 13th century was a time of expansion and building for Florence as population continued to grow, aided by the opulent wool industry that connected England and Italy to the courts of all the monarchs. In the 14th century, the workers rose up against the wealthy and powerful merchants. The wealthy merchants were forced to accept many of the constitutional reforms demanded by the lower middle class.

The 14th century turned out some of the greatest minds of Europe, showing the beginning of the Renaissance. Petrarch began the renewal of antiquity with his letters to Cicero, Boccaccio, writing in the time of the plague described the new hedonistic approach to life and most importantly Dante Alighieri wrote his Divine Comedy. This period between 1380 and 1420 was looked upon as a sort of Golden Age in republican government, where leading families and members of the signoria displayed a high level of just and efficient statesmanship. The long tradition of the republic itself went a long way in establishing the Florentine identity in the early Renaissance.

Art Patronage in FlorenceMadonna of the pomegranate by sandro botticelli

The Italian Renaissance movement in Florence is one of the most extensively documented subjects in history. The success of Florentine School architects such as Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and Alberti, sculptors Andrea della Robbia, Donatello, and Verrocchio, and painters Giotto di Bondone, Paolo Uccello, and Fra Angelico - among scores of Florentine Masters account for its widespread fame and seemingly preeminent position in the development of Renaissance Art. The fertile ground of republican Florence (the same can be said for Venice at this point as well), along with Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) contribute to Florence's prestige as the birthplace of the Renaissance.

The extensive patronage, civic improvement projects, church donations by the wealthy, and the establishment of many academies for the study of art and the humanities also spurred the development of Renaissance art in the 15th century. These artists were employed for manifold purposes: to display the refinement of the patron, to establish the authority and enhance the prestige of the group or family that commissioned the work, and to revitalize the dwellings, churches, and public spaces - which were always in various states of repair. The Neapolitan humanist Giovanni Pontano proclaimed in his 1494 publication De Magnificentia that this magnificence was a prerequisite for any lord or prince. To display it was a bit like giving your constituents proof of your ability to protect Detail, Birth of St John the Baptistand rule. Florentine elites maintained this process of patronage and display for over two hundred years. A happy result of this need for public display is the extant portraiture of many members of the Florentine nobility encased in the faces of saints, madonnas, and angels, as one sees in the purposeful donor panels and frescoes of Domenico Ghirlandaio's Sassetti Chapel.

The Republic and SignoriaLorenzo de Medici

In Renaissance Italy, Florence was a republic with a complex system of government. The foremost citizens in Florence were called the Reggimento and wielded enormous power regardless of the members sitting on the councils. The official government consisted of the rotating nine Signoria (or Priori), which were drawn every two months from a purse filled with the names of eligible men. The foremost of these nine men was the gonfaloniere, which traditionally protected the people from the nobility. There was also the Florentine council of Eight, which acted similarly to the secret police and rooted out any dissenters or treason. The Ten of War was summoned in times of war and was given almost dictatorial powers but oftentimes stayed on at the instigation of the Medicis as a tyrannical body that controlled the city. The Balia was created by the Parlamento in the case of emergencies and had tyrannical power. It was used to for approval of government reforms. The Parlamento sat everyone who was able to participate in government, also called in emergencies. Anyone who sat in a seat of government must be a member of one of the city's 21 guilds. Seven of the Signoria were selected from the seven major guilds while two were selected from the more minor guilds. Membership into a guild was extremely selective and the Minuto Popolo, a mass of unskilled and skilled workers were barred from forming their own guild.

The last years of the rule of Lorenzo the Magnificent were marred by his mismanagement of the Medici Bank, which led to its failure. Upon his death in 1492, he was succeeded by his first son, Piero "the Unfortunate." In 1494, the Medici family were ousted from Florence in response to the political allegiances made by Piero. In its place came the theocratic republic of the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola of Ferrara. Savonarola preached the coming of a scourge from Heaven and onslaughts by foreign armies (the French were mobilizing under Charles VIII). His Apocalyptic style combined with his enigmatic oration and prophesies helped foment a fundamentalist religious revival. As part of his reforms, he orchestrated the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities. After openly defying the pope's orders to cease preaching about how he communicated with God through dreams, Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia!) excommunicated the friar and placed Florence under a papal interdict that imposed trade sanctions on the city. Savonarola was tricked into a Trial by Fire, arrested, tried, then hung and burned at the stake as a heretic. (A commemorative bronze plaque is set into the stones in the Piazza della Signoria where he and two of his fellow Dominicans were executed.) The secular republican system was reinstated with the election of Piero Soderini as Gonfaloniere for Life and Niccolo Machiavelli as Second Chancellor.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence With the return of Giuliano and Lorenzo di Piero de Medici (third son and grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, respectively) in 1512, Soderini and Machiavelli were exiled and power reverted back to the Medici. Their rule of Florence, Nemours, and Urbino was facilitated by the shameless removal of the della Roveres (Pope Julius II) from the duchy after the election of Giovanni de' Medici as Pope Leo X. The Medici family continued to dominate Florence, with the exception of a minor revolt during the Sack of Rome. In 1536, the Republican government was destroyed to make Cosimo I the Duke of Tuscany. Cosimo I was preceded by the unsavory Duke Alessandro (illegitimate son of Giulio de Medici) - the last male of the main branch of the Medici. Cosimo was the son of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and Maria Salviati. Cosimo consolidated his power and position and ruled with a firm hand, suppressing any revolt and eliminating any contest to his increasingly autocratic government. He married the sophisticated Eleonora of Toledo, daughter of the Viceroy of Naples (Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo). The Medici continued to rule for several generations. Their influence diminished in the 17th century, and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany fell to the Holy Roman Emperor Francis Stephen of Lorraine in 1737. Of paramount importance to art historians was the donation of and stipulation that all of the fabulous Medici art collection remain in Florence as a gift to the city, made by Anna Maria Louisa de Medici in 1737.

Florence Photos:

Courtyard, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
Inner Courtyard, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

Florence Cathedral at Night
Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence. The world-famous "Duomo" desgined and built by Filippo Brunelleschi, 1436.

Palazzo Medici-Ricardi
Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (designed by Michelozzo Michelozzi, built between 1445 and 1460). The original design included open loggia were walled in during the 16th century.
Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore
19th century Gothic Revival facade of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence

Please add more images of Florence to the
Florence Album
Map of Florence, c. 1500
Florence was known by it's symbol of the lily, and as "the City of Saint John the Baptist."

Cathedral of Florence
The Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiore

The Cathedral or Duomo of Florence as we see it today is the end result of years of work that covered over six centuries of history. Its basic architectural project was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio at the end of the 13th century; the cupola that has made it a symbol for the whole of Tuscany was created by that genius of the Renaissance, Filippo Brunelleschi, while the facade that completed it was carried out as late as the late 19th century. A whole series of structural and decorative interventions to both the exterior and the interior that were to enrich the history of the monument were carried out during this space of time: these range from the construction of the two sacristies to the 16th century marble flooring, and from the execution of the sculptures to the frescoes, signed by Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Castagno, Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari (the Last Judgement in the cupola). The cathedral (the cathedral is always the church that is the seat of the bishopric) was given the name of Santa Maria del Fiore (Holy Mary of the Flower) in 1412 in clear allusion to the lily symbol of the city. It was built on top of the second cathedral, which early Christian Florence had dedicated to Santa Reparata and which remained in activity for nine centuries, until orders were given to demolish it in 1375: considerable remains of this construction, which was slightly more than half the size of the present basilica and completed by two belltowers, can be seen today in the archeological area underneath the Cathedral.

Statue by Arnolfo di Cambio
In 1293, the Florentine Republic, at the suggestion of the notary Ser Mino de Cantoribus, decided to replace Santa Reparata with a larger and more magnificent catherdal, "so that the industry and power of man are unable to invent or ever attempt again anything that is larger or more beautiful". The population was expected to participate in costs: all last wills and testaments bore a tax which was then put towards the "Building" of the Cathedral. The project was assigned to Arnolfo di Cambio in 1294, and he ceremoniously laid the first stone on September 8th 1296. The brilliant head architect of the City Council was already revolutionizing the Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce and in 1298 also started work on the construction of Palazzo Vecchio. Arnolfo worked on the Cathedral from 1296 to 1302, the year of his death, and although the dominating style of the period was Gothic, he conceived a basilica of classical grandeur, with three wide naves that meet in the vast chancel where the high altar stands, surrounded in its turn by the "trefoil" shaped tribune (fleur-de-lys) on which the cupola rests. The planned diameter for this dome was 45.50 metres, just like that of the Baptistery. Thus Arnolfo spent the last few years of his life completing two bays and the new facade, which he only had time to decorate and complete by half: the sculptures (some by Arnolfo himself) were dismantled and transferred to the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.

Arnolfo's Cathedral
S. Reparata inside the Arnolfo's Cathedral

On the death of the architect, the work on the building ground to a halt. New impulse was however given to its construction when the body of St. Zanobius was discovered in 1330 in Santa Reparata. Giotto was nominated overseer for the building site in 1334 but, apart from the fact that he did not have much longer to live (he died in 1337), he concentrated most of his remaining energy on building his Belltower. Giotto was succeeded by Andrea Pisano (author of the South Doors of the Baptistery), until 1348, the year of the terrible plague that decimated the population, reducing it from 90,000 to 45,000.

Arnolfo's plan
In fact the fresco of 1342 in the Museum of the Bigallo shows us the building at this particular stage. Under Francesco Talenti, overseer from 1349-59, the Belltower was completed and a new project prepared for the Duomo, with the collaboration (1360-69) of Giovanni di Lapo Ghini: the centre nave was divided into four square bays (thus including fewer windows than in Arnolfo's design), with two rectangular lateral bays. The construction was already well advanced by about 1370 and so was the new project for the apse, surrounded by tribunes that amplified Arnolfo's "trefoil". Santa Reparata was pulled down in 1375: a sign that Santa Maria del Fiore was now ready to be the new cathedral of Florence.

Door of the Mandorla
The Door of the Mandorla

Work on the external marble revestment meanwhile continued as well as on the decorations around the side entrances, the Door of the Canonici (south side) and the Door of the Mandorla (north side), topped with a relief of the Assumption (1414-1421), the last work of Nanni di Banco (Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia also worked on this door). The problem of the cupola was still unresolved. Brunelleschi designed his first project in 1402 but kept it secret. In 1418 the Opera del Duomo announced the competition that Brunelleschi was to win though work did not start on it until two years later and was to continue until 1434. The cathedral of Florence was consacrated by Pope Eugene IV on March 25th (the Florentine New Year) 1436, 140 years after work on it first started.


History of Italy, Francesco Guicciardini
The History of Florence, Francesco Guicciardini
The Florentine Histories, Niccolo Machiavelli

The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall, Christopher Hibbert
Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de Medici, Miles J. Unger
A History of Florence, 1200-1575, John M. Najemy

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