The Founding Fathers of Ancient Florentia

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An Essay by Dr. Andrea Galdy, art historian and Context Florence docent.

 

 

Back in the 16th century, many Florentines might have told you proudly that Florence was founded by Hercules (the Lybian one), who one day stood on the ramparts of Fiesole looking into the valley and thinking what a nice place for a city this would be. In fact we have record of presentations given on this topic in the Accademia Fiorentina (founded 1541) and treatises published in the ducal press. In previous centuries, Hercules had appeared on the seal of the Florentine Republic, and his deeds are depicted on the relief of the Porta della Mandorla of Florence’s Cathedral. The door is currently under restoration, but you can see a beautifully cleaned fragment in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo.

Even those who disagreed with the Hercules myth during the Renaissance insisted that Florence was an ancient city, perhaps even older than Rome. Florentines were aware of the remains of an ancient civilization resurfacing all over the city whenever the foundations for a new building were laid. They knew, for example, that their new town hall (Palazzo Vecchio) rested on the ruins of a Roman theatre.

So, if not Hercules, who founded Florence? There were several contestants promoted by various political factions. The dictator Sulla and Julius Caesar were preferred by those in favour of a Florentine Republic, while the emperor Augustus was chosen as founding father by duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in the 1560s. Very appropriately, Augustus is represented in the Foundation panel on the ceiling of Palazzo Vecchio’s Salone de’ Cinquecento; Hercules is relegated to a crest on the helmet at the feet of Marc Antony.

Nevertheless, Hercules remained popular. Small bronzes by Etruscan, Roman, and Tuscan sculptors–many of which had at some point been owned by the Medici family–can still be admired in the Bargello and in the Museo Archeologico. The idea of an artistic development on Tuscan soil from the mists of time to the Renaissance and beyond, as formulated by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives, had prompted duke Cosimo to install what could be called a “Tuscan Museum” in a small room on the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio. Needless to say Hercules played a prominent role among the exhibits in the Duke’s study room.

We know today that Hercules did not found Florence one sunny summer afternoon. But since the city is still peppered with depictions of this ancient hero, one could be excused for thinking the contrary.

Andrea M. Galdy, Ph.D., researches the Renaissance fascination with the antique in Florence and leads walks for Context Florence.

PhotoCredit: “Giorgio Vasari and Giovanni Stradano, Foundation of Florentia , Ceiling of the Salone de’ Cinquecento, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, 1563-1565 (photo: Soprintendenza per i beni artistici e storici, number 31121, Fototeca Berenson)”

WHERE TO SEE TRACES OF THE ANCIENT CITY IN FLORENCE:

The Museo di Firenze Com’Era which gives you a wonderful introduction to over 2000 years of Florentine history with the help of numerous models and paintings from antiquity to modern times.

The Archaeological Park of Fiesole with its excavated temples and the theatre and the adjacent museum.

The Palazzo Vecchio, in particular the Salone de’ Cinequecento, where you can see the Foundation panel and compare it to the model of ancient Florence in the Museo di Firenze Com’Era.

The Palazzo dei Giudici e Notai (restaurant Le Murate) which can be visited by appointment and not only contains the oldest portrait of Dante but also hosts the remains of a Roman laundry (fullonica) in its basement.

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