A sweeping and magisterial four-hundred-year history of both the city and the people who gave birth to the Renaissance.
Between the birth of Dante in 1265 and the death of Galileo in 1642, something happened that transformed the entire culture of western civilization. Painting, sculpture, and architecture would all visibly change in such a striking fashion that there could be no going back on what had taken place. Likewise, the thought and self-conception of humanity would take on a completely new aspect. Sciences would be born—or emerge in an entirely new guise.
The ideas that broke this mold began, and continued to flourish, in the city of Florence in northern central Italy. These ideas, which placed an increasing emphasis on the development of our common humanity—rather than other-worldly spirituality—coalesced in what came to be known as humanism. This philosophy and its new ideas would eventually spread across Italy, yet wherever they took hold they would retain an element essential to their origin. And as they spread further across Europe, this element would remain.
Transformations of human culture throughout western history have remained indelibly stamped by their origins. The Reformation would always retain something of central and northern Germany. The Industrial Revolution soon outgrew its British origins, yet also retained something of its original template. Closer to the present, the IT revolution that began in Silicon Valley remains indelibly colored by its Californian origins. Paul Strathern shows how Florence, and the Florentines themselves, played a similarly unique and transformative role in the Renaissance.
Novelist and historian Strathern (The Borgias) paints an accessible portrait of Renaissance-era Florence as a city of "revolutionary" ideas where geography, a burgeoning banking industry, and luck contributed to the evolution of humanism, artistic breakthroughs, and the scientific revolution. Strathern notes that Florence had the good fortune to be the birthplace of Renaissance figures including Dante, Petrarch, and Leonardo da Vinci, and benefited from its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, with knowledge from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East passing through the city-state. Vivid biographical sketches cast famous Florentines in a more dynamic light than most modern portrayals. Galileo, for instance, emerges as a brilliant and stubborn youth who "roistered in taverns and bordellos," while the "prickly" architect Filippo Brunelleschi hid his ambition to unlock the secrets of Rome's Pantheon even from his traveling companion, the artist Donatello. Strathern draws from the marital correspondence of middle-class merchant Francesco Datini to illustrate the city's vitality as a trading hub, and lucidly describes the impact of new technologies such as Arabic numerals and oil paints. Buoyed by incisive details and a brisk pace, this is a welcome introduction to the city and the personalities behind the Renaissance.