Last week on my course on Dante’s Florence we looked at the development of the city, and the concept of ‘courtly love’ in relation to Dante’s La Vita Nuova (New Life).
Today we know Florence as a Renaissance city and there is little left of the medieval city that Dante knew. Originally a Roman city, by the end of the 13th century it was an expanding wealthy city bounded by its 12th century walls.
The earliest view of Florence is in the fresco of the Madonna of Mercy 1342, now in the Museo del Bigallo. It shows the city walls, towers, and the Cathedral, which was much smaller then and its dome had not been added. The Campanile was not yet built and the most prominent building was the Baptistery. The churches and religious establishments now within the city were outside the medieval walls, for example Santa Trinita, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce (containing the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo and a monument to Dante who died in exile in Ravenna in 1321),
The River Arno runs through Florence, crossed by four bridges, including the Ponte Vecchio, built in 1345 after Dante’s death. It replaced a 12th century bridge that had been destroyed by floods in 1333. Floods have been a perennial problem, the worst one being that in 1966, when many buildings and works of art were damaged. The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in the city that survived the bombing during the Second World War.
Although Dante referred to the river in The Divine Comedy as the “cursed and unlucky ditch” as it was used as a rubbish tip, it has always been important to the city as the means of transporting goods and also for the textile industry. Wool was washed in the river and as it was used by tanners and purse makers in Dante’s day it must have been a very smelly place. Well known now for its shops there have always been shops on the bridge – butchers in the 15th century, then goldsmiths from the 16th century onwards.
Other prominent features of the city were the towers, as in other Italian towns (most notably San Gimignano). These were built from the 11th century onwards, with an average height of 225 feet. There were two types, defence and tower houses. I can’t imagine living in one, the only means of getting up to the rooms was by trap doors and ladders – I find it hard just getting into our loft! Representations of the towers can be seen in Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Madonna, now in the Uffizi Gallery, showing the Madonna and Child seated on a hugh throne surrounded by saints and angels and towers.
Set against the backdrop of this medieval city Dante theologised the concept of ‘courtly love’. This concept had originated with the troubadours in France and had developed as poets paid homage to and idolised married women from afar. In Dante’s case he fell in love at first sight with Beatrice Portinari when he was nine. Later they were both married (to other people) but he continued to put Beatrice on a pedestal, regarding her as a miraculous being. His love was unrequited and she died when she was 24, leaving Dante in despair. He wrote La Vita Nuova (1294) after her death in which he expressed, in a series of sonnets, his love and passion for her and his despair and grief at her death.