Fraser Forum

Florence—a circle of art, commerce and freedom

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“Guess what I bought in the San Lorenzo market?” my wife asks, beaming mischievously. I shudder a little, remembering the 500-Euro boots and handbags I saw yesterday.

We are in Florence for a week, introducing our six-year-old daughter to the birthplace of the Renaissance. She seems more interested in gelato (and chasing the pigeons around the Piazza della Signoria). Long museum visits are usually the norm here (“art fatigue” was a term coined to describe a visit to Florence), but we are happy to soak up the atmosphere in the market stalls and back streets, marvelling at the rich array of leather goods, ornate Florentine stationery, watercolours and oils, wood carvings and antiques. The world clearly comes here to appreciate the masterpieces hanging in museums and churches, but they also flock to the city to buy art and artifacts from all ages.

We bussed up to Piazzale Michelangelo to get a view over densely packed streets.  There were painters and woodcarvers offering their wares. “No, I am only a dealer,” responds one middle-aged man, when I compliment him on his skill. “I bring art from all over the city up here to sell for them.” And so the life of art continues in this historic art haven.

Few cities offer as rich a history in the relationship between markets, politics and high (and low) culture. The names associated with great advances in artistic form and experimentation—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Massaccio, Giotto, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi—all were living in Florence through its golden age (1300-1600). The greatest Italian authors—Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio—were also Florentine, and exerted such influence that the Florentine vernacular became the de facto form of Italian written and spoken throughout the Italian peninsula. What we sometimes forget, however, is that Florence was first a commercial town (a major producer of leather and wool, for instance) and then became an international banking centre. It was only after this creation of wealth that the city was able to afford such ambitious artistic achievement.

We normally think of the Medici family, and Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici in particular, as dominant players in the patronage of the arts and humanities during the Renaissance. It’s important to remember, however, that there were many wealthy families who commissioned works of art, special buildings and promoted liberal arts education. It was the general wealth and a relatively liberal spirit that promoted artistic innovation, a return to classical themes, and a toleration of secular subject matter amidst a dominantly Christian population (Florence also produced the florin, a coin with certified quantities of gold, so it became a currency used across Europe).

Even now, in the early weeks of rainy March, the streets are clogged with tourists of every nationality. Fillipo, the night attendant at the hotel reception, waves a hand at the crowds, clearly annoyed at the throngs coming home from restaurants and gelato stands. “Every day, from now up to September there is many many people. Too many.” Fillipo, beautifully dressed with perfect hair, is a little lugubrious and fed up with the multinational circus.

“But isn’t it good for business?” I ask. “The tourists spend so much money here.”

Fillipo isn’t impressed. “Yes, but on what? On little statues of the Duomo, of David on t-shirts and underpants…” he waves it all away with a gesture of disgust.

And so markets and money are at the foundation of Florence’s (and indeed the world’s) greatest art, but the art continues to generate an economy of its own, attracting waves of creators, buyers and sellers.

So, what did my wife bring home from the San Lorenzo market? “It’s an apron with a picture of the naked David on it…”

What else?



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