Meticulously researched, Paul Strathern’s book is crammed full of intriguing detail and vigorously written, covering four centuries in the history of the city of Florence. Strathern’s book is of medium size and thickness divided into nineteen chapters with a prologue and epilogue. A map, bibliography, Medici family tree and index are also included and there are illustrations embodied in the book in two separate places.
Strathern examines in depth life in Florence from the late fifteenth century to the early seventeenth century as the city itself as the melting pot of the Renaissance.. Florence’s peak times under the Medici and its slow periods during war and plague are charted.
We follow the history of Florence from Dante’s birth in 1265 through to the death of Galileo in 1642 and Florence’s dynamic contribution to the Renaissance in art, science and politics.
Florence the city is treated as the main character and we meet its friends and enemies, following its tumultuous history and turbulent politics, noting Machiavelli, the Ciompi revolt, the inner city wars, the rise and fall of the Medici (especially the glorious periods of Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici),with their patronage of the arts, assorted popes, kings, dukes, generals. The book also looks at the changes in maths, trade, economics, the development of accounting and banking.
This is also not to forget the developments in warfare and navigation. We read about Toscanelli and Vespucci and their maps, explorations and the development of the gnomon, a measuring instrument still used today, the chronometer and the telescope.
As it is so close to the Mediterranean, Florence absorbed knowledge from Africa, Europe and the Middle East (for examples, the use of Arabic numerals, double entry book keeping and the development of oil painting and the use of canvas).
Equally important is the change in philosophy and education with the expansion of learning, Guttenburg’s printing press and the increase in books, and the turn towards the development of the humanities and the arts – eg Botticelli, Donatello, Giotto, Leonardo, Ghirlandaio, Uccello , Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo. the growth of the Renaissance through to the development of the ‘Mannerist’ period in the arts, leading on to the Age of Enlightenment.
Maths (in particular Fibonacci) and science (Galileo) aren’t forgotten either and how they helped the development of astronomy and the like.
A section is devoted to the building of the landmark dome by Brunelleschi of Santa Maria del Fiore and how challenging it was to get the architecture right.
Instead of the Medieval belief that human beings only existed to prepare for an afterlife, the Church’s dogma was questioned, with a growth towards global humanism.
There is also an analysis of the rise and fall of Savonarola with his charismatic preaching and the ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. In literature we learn of the lives of authors such as Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch and others.
Individual chapters are devoted to Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Galileo. The book also looks at the attitude to homosexuality at the time – were Leonardo and Michelangelo gay?
Vivid characterisations are given of ‘very important people’ – prickly, secretive, irascible Filippo Brunelleschi hid his research into working out how the Pantheon in Rome was designed and developed, which he hid even from Donatello, his fellow traveller.
Galileo is portrayed as a determined, ingenious youth who ‘roistered in taverns and bordellos’. Merchant Francesco Datini’s, ‘the merchant of Prado’) life is examined to show expansion of trade in Florence.
Botticelli’s sad last years are described. The varied life of mercenary Sir John Hawkwood is also mentioned .
This was a fascinating, in depth book about the history of Renaissance Florence.
THE FLORENTINES was published by Allen and Unwin in late May 2021
Number of pages: 384
Weight: 775 g
Dimensions: 240 x 164 x 35 mm
Featured image : The main cathedral in Florence