In the spring of 1348, ten young Florentines gathered in the Piazza of Santa Maria Novella to plan their escape from the city. Florence was caught in the grip of The Black Death, and so they thought ten days spent in the verdant hills outside of town would be a good way to pass the time while the plague had its way with their fellow citizens. There would be tales of tragedy, trickery, and eroticism, along with plenty of teasing and flirting. The little stories that these fictional characters told each other became the collection known as “Decameron,” by Giovanni Boccaccio, a classic of Italian literature.
Fast forward to the spring of 2014 and I’m sitting in the very same square, waiting to meet my friend and tour guide, Elena. She is going to lead me on a walking tour of her native city and show me some of the highlights, including those connected to classic Italian literature, of which I have a particular interest. Back in Florida, I have a degree in Italian Studies awaiting just two more courses to complete my diploma. The class in Medieval and Renaissance literature was my favorite to date, and so I was anxious to visit the actual sites where literary history took place in Florence.
On her website, Florence with a Flair, Elena offers many specialized tours, including a visit to Dante’s neighborhood. If you’re not into Dante the way I am, she also offers artisan tours, garden tours, food tours, wine tours, and of course the more standard itineraries which include the top sites and museums. Florence is compact, but there’s A LOT to see, so a good tour guide is essential to make the most of your visit to la culla del Rinascimento, the Cradle of the Renaissance.
Italian Literature in Florence
Our first stop in Dante’s neighborhood was the Chiesa di Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi where Dante first encountered Beatrice, the woman who would become his life-long muse. The church is remarkable for its small size and historical significance, but otherwise there isn’t much to see or do here except channel your inner Poet and find inspiration from the walls themselves.
Dante is, of course, the best known figure in classic Italian literature, but he wasn’t its creator. In fact, Italian literature didn’t even start in Tuscany—it started in Sicily during the reign of Federico II during the first half of the 1200’s. Federico himself was quite a poet, speaking six languages (Latin, Sicilian, German, French, Greek and Arabic) and promoting the popular style of literature among his noble class, which was a Sicilian take on the provençal style. They wrote for pleasure, to entertain themselves, engaging in competitions to see who could pen the most obscure, artistic love poems.
It was a Tuscan merchant from Lucca, Bonagiunta Orbicciani, who brought some manuscripts from Sicily to Tuscany, which marks the beginning of the Tuscan School of Italian literature in the second half of the 1200’s. These new literary works were still love poems, like the Sicilian School, but were more direct and literal, and of course incorporated the Tuscan language of the day.
The final evolution, where we at last meet up our friend Dante, was called “Il Dolce Stil Novo,” or The Sweet New Style of writing. This group of writers held fast to their beliefs that love and a gentle heart is what brings a man closer to the Divine. It does NOT depend on noble lineage. This was key, because it was Dante who brought literature to the masses by writing his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, in the vulgar dialect of the people instead of Latin.
Just around the corner from Beatrice’s Church is the Museum of Dante’s House. Well, sort of. According to the best documents, this is the street address where Dante was born. However the current building is only 100 years old. Still, for only 4€ it’s worth an hour’s visit for anyone interested in Dante and the history of Italian literature.
The last stop on our tour was the workshop of a traditional goldsmith, who, unlike those high-priced hucksters on the Ponte Vecchio, is still more interested in his art than his “business.” Elena introduced me to Paolo, who is technically retired, but loves his craft so much that he still works a few days a week at Nerdi Orafi on the ground floor of Casa Artigiana dell Orafo. He’s an artisan in the truest sense of the word. I’m not sure exactly how old he is, but he shows you his studio and his tools with the enthusiasm of a child showing you their Christmas toys. He demonstrated some of his techniques for me, such as carving a mold out of a squid bone and creating wax models of intricate pieces of jewelry.
The experience evoked my days as a young dental student in Chicago when we used our own hands to sculpt tiny objects out of wax, and then cast them in gold the very same way as my new friend in Florence. In fact, I once made a gold ring for my mother using the exact technique as Paolo uses. He then introduced me to an even older method when the spring-loaded casting arm was preceded by a device similar to a sling, where the molten metal was spun around by a cord, using the centrifugal force to shoot the liquid gold into the void left by the melted wax.
The studio isn’t so easy to find, tucked into an alley near the river and within shouting distance from the tourists on Ponte Vecchio who are overpaying for their gold souvenirs. This location was ground zero for the 1966 flood that buried Florence in mud and destroyed many of its artistic treasures. On the wall of their shop, there is a mark to represent the high water line from that dreadful day. The goldsmiths, however, are still there. Go see them at work if you’re in the area.
When visiting Florence it can be tempting to just head to the main sites, especially when buzzing through town on a tour de force. Incredibly, some people nowadays even consider Florence as a day trip from Rome. What a shame. There’s so much to see in this Renaissance city beyond the Uffizi and David. Michelangelo has been dead for over 450 years, but there are many talented artists still at work in Florence, keeping the spirit of the Renaissance alive today. The museums are incredible, but this is the real experience. Slow down and check it out for yourself.