People make a city and Florence has had the good fortune of being home to some all time greats. They physically altered the shape of the city and invigorated it with new ways of observing and contemplating the world. Their art and ideas form the foundation of Western culture and have been so absorbed by society that they are nearly taken for granted today. But if you could imagine a world without their contributions or somehow delete them from history civilization would be vastly altered.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
Latin evolved haphazardly after the fall of the Roman Empire and different forms of vernacular developed throughout the Italian peninsula. Grammar was chaotic and Dante’s consolidation of the Tuscan dialect became the basis for modern Italian. His epic Divine Comedy trilogy set a benchmark for Western literature and remains a bestseller seven centuries later. Dante grew up along the medieval streets of Via Santa Margherita but was later exiled by the Pope and died from malaria in Ravenna.
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)
Brunelleschi is everywhere in Florence. He crossed boundaries and redefined the possibilities of art and architecture. He put the dome on the Duomo and was involved in dozens of projects that shaped how the city looks today. It all began in his family’s jewelry workshop and may have taken a different turn if he had won the competition to decorate the Baptistery doors. Instead he lost and set out for Rome where he rediscovered the values of classical architecture and was able to reinterpret them into revolutionary designs that marked the beginning of the Renaissance and a new era in creativity.
Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492)
Greatness doesn’t happen by accident. The necessary conditions need to be in place to foster it and when a man like Lorenzo the Magnificent is in charge everything is possible. He was an extraordinary politician who was able to settle many of the city’s internal and external disputes allowing for unprecedented growth and prosperity. Lorenzo was also a lover of the arts with a good eye for talent. He sponsored dozens of young artists and gave the unknown Michelangelo his first commissions.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Perhaps the greatest change in the Renaissance was the crossing of divisions that separated different skills and occupations. It became possible for a painter to sculpt and an architect to compose poetry. Knowledge was no longer rigidly confined and no one demonstrated that better than Leonardo da Vinci. His boundless curiosity led him in many directions at once and inspired him to experiment with all the arts. He wasn’t just dabbling but pushing artistic and scientific boundaries further than they had ever been before. Still, on his deathbed he regretted not having the time to learn and do more.
The Renaissance wasn’t only about visual arts. It also generated new ways of thinking and Machiavelli was a prodigious man of letters who understood his times and developed new ways of interpreting the world. He was a poet, historian, philosopher and playwright whose circle of acquaintances included Popes and Kings. Talent and opportunity made it possible for him to create the theoretical foundations of modern political science. He was widely read then as now and buried with honors in Basilica Santo Croce.
Michelangelo was an ambitious genius who didn’t have limits and brilliantly succeeded in everything he undertook. That didn’t make him a nice guy. He was known to be short-tempered, unsociable and miserly. He lived in apparent poverty and dressed shabbily but the chests of coins found upon his death were worth more than Palazzo Pitti. Whatever his personality his creations are unrivalled and have become enshrined within the pantheon of Western art. Many of these have remained in Florence and the artist himself was buried in Santa Croce next to others greats.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
Galileo was the first scientist since Aristotle to be puzzled by things most people took for granted. He ushered in the modern era of analytic thought by asking why and searching for intelligible answers. These often conflicted with conventional reasoning and ruffled Vatican feathers. Originally from Pisa Galileo was invited to Florence where he discovered moons, theorized about sunspots and observed the universe through telescopes he built himself in the house (Costa di S. Giorgio 19, closed to visitors) where he lived and worked on the Oltrearno hillside.
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