Two Sides to Every Story
Dante’s Vita Nuova, the autobiography of his young soul, was only the beginning of Florentine analysis; Petrarch, who was the introspective ‘first modern man’, was a Florentine born in exile; Ghiberti was the first artist to write an autobiography, Cellini wrote one of the most readable; Alberti invented art criticism; Vasari invented art history; Michelangelo’s personality, in his letters and sonnets, looms as large as his art.
In many ways Florence broke away from the medieval idea of community and invented the modern concept of the individual, most famously expressed by Lorenzo de’ Medici’s friend, Pico della Mirandola, whose Oration on the Dignity of Man tells us what the God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling was saying when he created Adam:
…And I have created you neither celestial nor terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that, like a free and able sculptor and painter of yourself, you may mould yourself entirely in the form of your choice.
To attempt to understand Florence, remember one historical constant: no matter what the issue, the city always takes both sides, vehemently and often violently, especially in the Punch and Judy days of Guelphs and Ghibellines. In the 1300s this was explained by the fact that the city was founded under the sign of Mars, the war god; but in medieval astronomy Mars is also connected with Aries, another Florentine symbol and the time of spring blossoms.
Whatever dispute rocked the streets, Great Aunt Florence often expressed her schizophrenia in art, floral Florence versus stone Florence, epitomized by the irreconcilable differences between the two most famous works of art in the city: Botticelli’s graceful, enigmatic Primavera in the Uffizi and Michelangelo’s cold, perfect David in the Accademia
The ‘city of flowers’ seems a joke, even though its symbol is the iris; it has nary a real flower, nor even a tree, in its stone streets; indeed, all effort has gone into keeping nature at bay, surpassing it with geometry and art.
And yet the Florentines were perhaps the first since the Romans to discover the joys of the countryside. The rough, rusticated stone palaces, like fortresses or prisons, hide charms as delightful as Gozzoli’s frescoes in the Palazzo Medici; Luca della Robbia’s dancing children and floral wreaths are contemporary with the naked, violent warriors of the Pollaiuolo brothers; the writhing, quarrelsome statuary in the Piazza della Signoria is sheltered by a most delicate and beautiful loggia.
After 1500, all of the good, bad and ugly symptoms of the Renaissance peaked in the mass fever of Mannerism. Then, drifting into a debilitating twilight of pietra dura tables, gold gimcracks, and interior decoration, Florence gave birth to the artistic phenomenon known as kitsch.
Since then, worn out perhaps, or embarrassed, this city built by merchants has kept its own counsel, expressing its argumentative soul in overblown controversies about traffic and art restoration. We who find her fascinating hope she some day remembers her proper role as the bearer of the torch of culture.