A Tuscan spark of renaissance

Tuscany. Some might have read the book under the Tuscan sun, and to an extent it is all about the life. Like the character in the book – Frances, there have been many who sought a new life in this region of Italy. And why not? After all, Tuscany is filled both cities, towns and villages that beckon to you.Tuscany sights

Back in the day, we were part of a tour group getting around the boot that is Italy. From Rome we had made swing southwards to Naples (here) before sling shooting up to Venice via the monastery of Assisi and tiny San Marino (here). Here we were in the last segment of our coach tour. And we were visiting the cities that in our opinion are compulsory as an introduction.

But there is a wider story around this essay. It is about how the Tuscany came to being from a disparate number of city states. For it was not always called as such!

With so much to cover, let’s begin. Where else to start then,

The Cradle of the Renaissance

Florence01Florence or Firenze as it is known to the locals, was one of the many stops we made at that time. As you might recall in our other stories, we’ve said in the middle ages Italy was not one country but many tiny states. Each had sovereignty over a specific territory and there were strong rivalry between these states. Frequently, these states centered on a city or important town –where tradesmen or free men lived. Florence was one such city and in the 14th century began an ascendency as the leading Italian state.Florence03

Under the Medici family that dominated it from the early 1400s, the renaissance can be said to have been born. So when one comes to Florence, there will be so much to check off on the to-do list.

One such sight is the Basilica of Santa Croce, which is the largest Franciscan church in the world. Here, some of the most famous Italians are buried: Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. You will hear these names a lot in this city, as they are some of their more famous citizens. In yet another wonder, we visited Florence cathedral, the fourth largest church in Europe. Its length is 153 meters and its height 116 meters. Considered a “sky scraper” of its day when it was first constructed in 1296. It only became structurally completed in 1436 –  taking ‘only’ 143 years to complete…Florence02

These are important buildings not just in the religious sense, but also in the fact that they demonstrate the power and wealth of the city in the 14th till 16th centuries. Do you know that the Florentines “reinvented” money in Europe? Ok, for students of monetary history this would be blasphemy. It was the Gold Florin that was struck from 1252 that was carried throughout Europe gaining wide acceptance in commerce. Florentine banks had “branches” throughout the continent and the currency spread far and wide. Important banking families such as the Medici came to power through their network of patronage that they controlled the supposed democratic city state. It was such wealth that brought power to the city and financed lavish building of churches and monuments.

Florence13Florence12An excellent way to see the entire city and awe at its immensity and wealth is from the Piazza Michelangelo. Located on a hilly portion of the city, you can see the Duomo and the Arno river. We came here in the afternoon, but imagine how it’d look like with the lights turned on at night!

One other must visit in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio. It is a Medieval bridge over the Arno River, noted for still having shops built along it as was once common. Butchers initially occupied the shops a long time back; however the present tenants are jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers. Florence07It just that a different kind of butcher have opened shops there now. Beware husbands who bring their wives here! However, the jewelers of Florence are indeed renown for their workmanship and a short trip might be alright so long as you keep your purse tight.Florence06

Today, the influence of Florence is far and wider than you think. Do you know that the language spoken in this city in the 14th century is still accepted as the Pan Italian language? Almost all the writers and poets in the Italian literature of the golden age are somewhat connected with Florence, leading ultimately to the adoption of the Florentine dialect above all the local dialects, as a literary language of choice.

And because of its immense wealth in that time, the city of Florence was also known as the “Jewel of the Renaissance”. For those who are not acquainted with this term, it refers to the period when there was a great revival of learning, culture and seeking of intellectual pursuits that evolved into the modern era. A lot has been debated as to whether the Renaissance actually started in Florence. But really, this is no discussion at all – once you have been to the Galleria dell’ Accademia and seen one of the largest collection of Michelangelo’s work.

All this is wonderful. But that is too much art and wealth. How about visiting,

Italy’s loveliest medieval citySiena4

Why is it given the title we don’t really know. But it seems the internet chatter point this city to be Italy’s best. Did you know that the city was the site of a republic too? Recall that the Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215. But a full 36 years before, Siena already had its first written constitution! Of course like England, the city remains dominated by its main noble families. So this was not a democratic republic in the modern sense.Siena3

So what would be the most iconic view in the loveliest medieval city?

For one thing, the Duomo is absolutely beautiful. You know with all architectural wonders, the original design would have been even more wondrous had there been sufficient time and monies to build it. Well, this Duomo suffered the same fate. Its design was larger and envisioned to surpass all the western world (back then). But alas the lack of funds curtailed it and today we are left with a “subdued” version as they say. Which is still ornate and spectacular don’t you think?Siena1

Come here though to the square in front of the Duomo in early July and August and the Palio horse race would be in full swing! See the 10 horsemen with the banners of the wards of the city gallop through.

Like its rival Florence, the city thrived also on banking. In fact the world’s oldest operating bank (Monte Dei Paschi) was founded in this city state in 1472. Unfortunately, history would not be on its side as it lost a war to the Spaniards who then turned the city over to the Florentines!

But the tragedy that is to be shared is more than

Why did the tower lean?

Pisa02The ecclesiastical city of Pisa began life as a seaside settlement around 3,000 years ago and was first laid out in the mid-eleventh century. Aside from the leaning tower, Pisa is also known for its excellent university, which was established in 1343. One of its famous sons include Galileo.

For more than 500 years, can you believe that Pisa was one of the six mighty maritime republics that vied for supremacy in the Mediterranean? LPisa05ike its counterparts, it thrived on trade and with the immense wealth that it accumulated went on to patronize the arts and culture. But with political intrigue and alliances shifting, this mighty maritime republic eventually fell to the Florentines who created the Dukedom of Tuscany.

So, onto the tower. For over 800 years, engineers in Pisa have been trying to overcome the leaning, in the fear that the LePisa07aning Tower of Pisa might collapse completely. The underlying cause of the tremendous leaning is due to a sand foundation to one side of the base of this tall tower.

At one point, it tilted so much that it had to be supported, cement pumped into the foundation to support the structure. Construction started in 1173 and when the builders reached the third level in 1185, they noticed that the tower has started to subside and was leaning slightly – around 4cm.Pisa03

Masons inserted wedge-shaped stones to correct the problem, but this only made the tower start to tilt the other way. At a loss as to what should be done, worked halted for almost a century. It resumed in 1275 and after much calculation and discussion, and a further three uneven storeys were added, tilted in an attempt to counterbalance the lean, giving the tower its slight ‘banana’ shape! Finally in 1350 a lopsided Gothic belfry was added at the top of the tower, making the Leaning Tower of Pisa 51m. Engineers… sigh. Today if one climbs to the top, one will be rewarded with fabulous views, though the queue can be long.

The Baptistery on the other hand, is the much less known part of Pisa and much less photographed. In a way it is no less spectacular then the tower, but it the leaner that gets all the attention!Pisa10

You see the underlining thread of history that runs through all three Tuscan cities? It was one of accumulated wealth and the patronization of the arts and culture. This was one of the seeds that sparked the renaissance. And we have not even touched many of the other Tuscan cities such as Lucca or Arezzo.

When one drives along the Tuscan roads, one can now imagine how it would be like to re-start a new life. What would it really be like to have a little manor house in Tuscany and harvest olives for their oil?

This journey took place in July 2001

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