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Cities in the Renaissance



edieval city presents traditional and well-known characters: concentration of capacities, wealth, and population. By those caracteristics the city opposes the countryside around , and defends, or separates, itself from the country by one or more walls, containing and defending it while defining it. To the city inhabitants, duties are imposed and rights granted in economic, fiscal, and political fields, different and higher than those received by their compatriots in the countryside.

In Florence like elsewhere, the quantity of its inhabitants, and thus the size of its enclosure, has changed in the course of time. The Roman strengthened camp transformed into a strictly organized city in the plain, with orthogonal and regular streets, evolves first into a reduced and poorer "city-fortress", folded in a much smaller perimeter, during the high Middle Ages. But later, thanks to the economic prosperity and the military (relative) calm, Florence will not only go back to the Roman perimeter, but also reach the river banks, and the neighbouring hills, occupying gradually the whole Arno basin.

With the growth of the city, the city wall also enlarges by successive extensions or rebuildings correponding to the needs of the existing or planned population. Such enlargements can give rise to real estate’s lucrative operations or simply come to reinforce some military posting, when the evolution of military methods and weapons require it. The city wall, at times a limit to the urban development, can also at times turn out too broad, as after the "Great Plague" of 1348, which killed a good third of Florentines, not to mention the Europeans.

The medieval city is tightly enclosed in narrow lanes, entrapped by high constructions. There are rough hygienical conditions: the street receives every possible waste discarded from its inhabitants, washing-up and black water, tanning and result water of all kinds. Water, the common good so important and unavoidable basis to the founding of a city, arrives there through big and small rivers, wells or rain cisterns, and comes out, dirty, towards the same water-courses.

There are no cities without walls. But the city is never completely cut off from the “contado”, from which comes its nourishment, through which it goes, which it controls and sometimes owns or inhabits, at least temporarily. What’s more, the essential portion of total population is there, the urban population, as everywhere in Europe, being still a minority (15% in France).

The Renaissance city is built anew over the medieval one, but obviously not destroying all of it. So, the Renaissance ideal city is first of all an intellectual construction, a research over maps and plans, as for Leonardo da Vinci, or a pictorial representation, like in the Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s city portrait. For some, it has to be a city designed with pure and harmonious forms, keeping the golden balance between perspectives and volumes. For others, the project has to rest on the rationality of its functions (trade, transport, health, protection…), on the inhabitants’ grouping according to their social status and qualities, on balancing the power locations inside the city.

These were the lines taken into account for re-drawing and improving the existing cities, and for planning the new ones.
The Rinascimento cities live a golden age, according to political or legal criteria's (autonomy, one’s own administration, independence from other political powers…), demographic (a population threshold), or economical (fairs, specialized craftsmen…) and architectural criteria (buildings’ height and size)… The urban life concentrates in several points, always the same, well described by the literature of that time and still readable in the city’s features. The typical urban activities are easy to trace: markets, workrooms, handicrafts, trade, banks, Civil Service...
In Italy, cities enjoy an astonishing independence, compared for example to the French ones. It is not only a matter of political power, but also of legal and economical rules, or even military, when they freely recruit soldiers (and their condottiere) for their defense, and can establish their number, pay and service’s duration.

Italy is part of the large European “ridge” of the most populous cities. Florence is not in the number of the major urban demographic poles, like Naples and its area, or the plain of Po. But the city takes fully part in European exchanges, implicating the Florentines who represent it not only in Italy, but also in Lyon and Paris, as in Bruges or even in London.

The development of commercial networks and of international banks, undermining the authority of the old aristocratic castes of the city (the word “patriciate” is less and less employed), leads to a fast turn over of the traditional political structures of the cities. The “popolo grasso”, major protagonist in the ideas’ and culture’s circulation, takes the reins in Renaissance’s cities. The recourse to the increasingly wide networks of collaborators and contacts, as the increasingly broad range of action of its activities modifies its approach of reality. In its logistics (longer travels), its modes of payment and compensation (accountancy, bills of exchange, banks…). in the need to estimate, prepare and rationalize those activities. The methods thus acquired are also applied to the “good administration” of the cities. This emerging class of citizens evinces there also its characteristical taste for a certain danger, and the will of control over what goes with it, by accumulating and investing important amounts of money, out of reach of other classes. Their success allows the merchant families to acquire the power in a few generations. And, by their money, of cause, they are at the outset of the cities’ cultural revival during the Renaissance. It is with the capital obtained in the Wool Guild that the Florentine Filippo Giunta (1450-1517) creates his printing-house in 1497. The cities, now grown rich, are also the ones financing the colleges. Prestigious expenditure, the colleges become a community privileged by the city as well as teaching centres whose principals are chosen mainly by the municipality. The city donates the buildings, and in exchange asks the right to choose, with or without the ecclesiastical authorities’ agreement, the programs, principals and teachers of those schools. Starting from 1520, the cities take even more liberty in this respect: they carry out alone complete re-definition of pedagogy by imposing in the studies’ programs grammar, rhetoric, poetry, logic, arts. Municipal authorities require from the pupils, in general inhabitants of the city, to explain the Latin authors after the fashion of the day, to be well qualified in Greek, aiming to a special brightness for their notables. Despite these efforts, the cultural level of magistrates and that of craftsmen is, except for Latin, much the same, all the more so when the city is small.

The city’s life also consists of a number of collective experiences, particularly religious and festive. Everybody takes part in the same religious actions: the processions held for ordinary or extraordinary occasions: confession and communion at Easter, processions of pious and trade brotherhoods, attendance at the sermons of Advent and Lent, but also events of the private or semi-public sphere, as burials or weddings. These last are part of the profane, or less religious, festivities collectively organised, into which large amounts of money are invested, to which social networks and customers are involved in order to consolidate or protract the mutual relationships. For its feasts, the city of the Renaissance engages musicians of all kinds, three or four of them on average for each Italian city, employing them also as announcers "to the sound of trumpets" or drums. Any civic festival requires an ochestra, even small, and choirs and concerts are provided during the banquets, to praise the city. The theatrical plays are also a good means of mixing different social classes of citizens, urban and suburban. When the expense required for their material organization is too high, the load of it is shared between the city and the “ad hoc” brotherhoods, and the performance takes place in the main public square. The theatre as a specially built structure, on the other hand, does not develop until the second half of the XVI century, beginning in the northern part of Italian peninsula.

We can ascertain that the Renaissance undoubtedly occurs in Italy first, certainly first of all in the cities, and perhaps in Florence first. But this modernization is restricted to some places and some privileged social spheres, even if the historians, as those who were living it at the time, are and were under the impression of a society in advancing evolution. Modernization seems to come not only from the opening of spirit and the learning of new facts and ideas, but also from the welfare, a factor of lightheartedness, creating fashions, relishing the changes for change’s sake, and repudiating the past. The Renaissance, as its contemporaries were seeing it, fluctuates between a motion resolutely bound forward and a look, fresh from rediscovery, turned to the past.
The sudden widening of the world, the war of professionals, the methods of merchants and bankers, invite to develop the organization and logistics to carry through the transportation to new far countries and the colonization of new lands, and the means to pay the mercenaries in a permanent way and protect them on the battle fields. But that also brings to re-examine the cities’ organization and management. In the everyday life of certain cities the organizing function becomes a value.

Architecture takes up on its account the ideas of other professions. By promoting perspective and symmetry, it reconstructs itself pushed by a deep need of organizing, and gradually makes for functionality.
The attention paid to reality, the ability to clarify and the power of abstraction, transform the man – world relationship. The multiform medieval vitality is still present , but the ideals move towards seeking order and harmony in all things.