Book Review: Florence, the Biography of the City

Florence fascinated – and still fascinates – millions of people over many centuries. Countless travelers, authors, photographers, poets, historians and artists have set out to explore it. However, I dare say, we are yet to see more thorough, full and colourful book on it, than Christopher Hibbert’s Florence: the Biography of the City. And is exactly what it says on the tin: a biography, exploring all periods of a long and turbulent life.
Speaking of Florence, we are (well, I certainly am) often tempted to jump straight to the era of Renaissance glory. No doubt, this period gave us most of the beautiful artworks and splendid architecture, which constitute Florentine charm today. However, this same period tends to be somewhat overrepresented and over-glamorized in the media of all kinds – from textbooks to videogames. This phenomenon creates a strange impression: as if the history of Florence before the Renaissance constituted a black hole, and after it – a sad, desolate landscape. Which is, needless to say, not quite true.

Probably, the most iconic view of Florence. Courtesy of Gary Ullah from Flickr.

Probably, the most iconic view of Florence. Courtesy of Gary Ullah from Flickr.

Hibbert explores this period thoroughly, of course; but he shows us a different Florence as well. Florence as a mercantile Roman town, basking in the last rays of the dying Empire. Florence in the early medieval world of barbarian emperors and warrior Popes. Florence as a plucky, frugal Republic, resisting every attempt of foreign governance and flying its banners with utmost pride. Florence after the Medici – an immortal source of inspiration for writers and artists from all over Europe. Florence as a haunt of English novelists and brilliant hostesses. Florence, caught in the grip of unification movement in the restless 19th century. Florence, caught in the grip of Mussolini’s regime in the 20th century, which turned out to be even more restless…
That is not to say, that this book doesn’t pay enough attention to the centuries of Renaissance, of Florence’s greatest flourishing. We will see, that by that time Florence had a larger population, than London; that its merchants dealt in spices and silks, gold brocades and dyes, supplying the discerning courts of Northern Europe; that Florence was famous for its parades and carnivals, festivals and revels, mock battles and splendid fireworks.
But the author reveals another side to this familiar image of magnificence. “There were also many slaves, the importation of which had been authorized in 1336 after an outbreak of plague had severely reduced the numbers of native servants. These slaves, many of them young girls under twelve years of age bought cheaply in the markets of Genoa and Naples, were for the most part Greeks, Russians, Turks, Circassians or Tartars. The Tartars were said to be the most conscientious workers, but the Circassians better natured and better looking, many of these becoming pregnant by their masters and having to take bundles of swarthy babies to the doors of the city foundling hospitals”…
I should note here, that, despite the presence of chilling insights like this, and some interesting details about the life of working people, the balance in terms of representation is still undeniably skewed towards the upper classes. For example, describing the life and customs of Florentines in the 18th century, the author really describes only the life and customs of the 1%. But, unfortunately, this is a very frequent issue in non-fiction and fiction works alike.
But still, if I were to compile some “5 books you should read, if you are going to Florence” list, I will put Florence: the Biography of the City right on top.




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