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Matchless feast

The Hindu, 23 March

Is there anywhere like Florence? Or any period of human creativity comparable to that which Florence hosted from the end of the 13th to the beginning of the 16th centuries? These 200 years left behind a material residue – paintings, sculpture, buildings, civic vistas – that never ceases to astonish. The sheer accumulation of beauty can overwhelm the visitor, as it overwhelmed the writer Stendhal in 1817 (he complained of palpitations and dizziness, and fled the city). In addition to the treasures hoarded in the city’s great museums, there are hundreds of masterpieces to be found in churches, monastic buildings, palaces and way-side tabernacles. And all within a compact, easily walkable area. It’s a matchless feast for the eyes, and though much has survived, it’s remarkable to think that even more has been lost.

To tour Florence is to encounter many of the greatest names in the history of Western art in their home city: Giotto, Ghiberti, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo… not to mention Orcagna, Lippo Lippi, Ghirlandaio, the Della Robias, Pontormo and a score of others.

Even more stunning than the quantity of art is its variety: to wander in and out of Florence’s sites is to commune with an extraordinary array of individual visions. The famous technical advances of the Renaissance – in the representation of space and the human body – provided a common platform for highly diverse personal signatures. The ethereal Fra Angelico, the sensous Lippo Lippi and the austere Andrea del Castagno were all painting at the same time, often for the same patrons, and usually dealing with the same subject matter (familiar episodes from the lives of Jesus, Mary and the saints) yet it is impossible to mistake the work of one of them for the others.

These days, the Florentine miracle is often ascribed to nascent capitalism. The free market, it’s said, promoted competition among patrons and artists and thereby gave birth to the world’s first consumer economy. It’s true that the material prosperity that enriched Florence during these years was the necessary basis for expenditure on inessential items like paintings. And it’s also true that, among their other innovations, the Italian Renaissance city-States created the apparatus of modern finance capital – bills of exchange, holding companies, insurance, double-entry book keeping. In 1252, the commune of Florence minted the first Florin, a gold coin which quickly became the monetary standard across much of Europe.

Initially, Florence owed its wealth to the wool industry, but the emphasis soon shifted to banking and speculation. This swelled the coffers of the richest families, famously the Medici, but gradually undermined Florence’s Republican institutions. Far from being a halcyon era of prosperous stability, the entire period was characterised by factional conflict among the elite and discontent among the lower orders.

In 1378, a woolworkers’ revolt succeeded in installing, for 41 days, a radical popular government. The regime cut taxes on essential items and suspended small debts. The merchants and the craft guilds coalesced to put down the rebellion, but its memory haunted the city. Indeed, the fear of popular revolution was a critical factor in the Medici’s gradual monopolisation of State power.

The Medici’s century-long progress from bankers to autocrats was stubbornly resisted by the people they sought to rule. Cosimo, the canniest of the dynasty, was exiled in 1433 because, his rivals claimed, he was setting himself above his fellow citizens. After his return the following year, he worked patiently to undermine the Republic’s constitution, rigging the secret ballots, bribing officials and keeping Milanese troops on stand-by for emergencies. Despite the power of the merchants and the mercenaries, Florence’s popular republican tradition repeatedly resurfaced. And each time the ancient, quasi-democratic mechanisms of government were resuscitated, the rich would find themselves more heavily taxed. No wonder Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo (Il Magnifico) commented: “In Florence things can go badly for the rich if they don’t run the State.”

The republic was restored in 1494, Lorenzo’s heirs were chased from the city and the family’s palace was sacked. Ten years later, Michelangelo carved his celebrated David, an icon of republican resistance to tyranny, which was placed in front of the town hall as a reminder to the citizenry of the values which made Florence great.

Unlike the humanist men of letters, who mostly belonged to the great merchant families, the painters, sculptors and architects hailed from a middle stratum: many were trained as goldsmiths, and their social status was that of skilled artisans. Crucially, their art reached a wide audience. Though nowadays it’s seen as “high art”, a specialist preserve of the educated, it was in its own time a popular art: accessible and comprehensible to a still largely illiterate public. For this public, the paintings were part of a spectrum of cultural activity, including comic theatre, sports (especially a rough and tumble version of football), and street preaching.

A favourite theme of the street preachers was the corruption of wealth. In 1206, at the very dawn of the new era of capitalism, the most powerful popular movement of the age was kicked off when a rich man’s son stripped himself of his clothes and renounced his family’s riches in Assisi’s public square. St. Francis not only preached a gospel of service to the poor, he practised it; like Gandhi, he made his life an example. In doing so, he unleashed a movement of human-centred Christianity that is as integral to the art of the period as the patronage of the plutocrats.

Today, the vast and eloquent silence of the 14-15th century masterpieces contrasts with the noisy babble of the tourist throngs. (And it does grate to have to pay €8 to enter a church.) But even at the height of the tourist season, the crafty visitor can manage to steal a few moments alone with a work of exceptional beauty. At which point, analysis and contextualisation fade into the background, and the artist’s wordless genius dominates all.