Urban Portraits: How Florence has invented and reinvented itself throughout history.


an essay by Monica Shenouda

graduate fellow in architectural history and Context Florence docent

A portrait is never neutral. The image we present results from a complex process of selection based on how we want the world to see us. This is as true for cities as it is for people. Through maps, city views, and painted scenes, Florence has manipulated the way we see her throughout history. Walking through the city today, one can read a hidden agenda in a variety of artworks.

We can start with the current map of Florence handed out at the tourist kiosks, which define the city in terms of tourism: The major monuments, train station, and restrooms, areas where visitors are most likely to spend time and money, are all highlighted. But this is just the latest iteration of Florence reinventing itself through an urban portrait.

One of my favorite urban portraits is found on the Baptistery doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, known as the “Gates of Paradise.” The last panel depicting the meeting of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba gives us a portrait of Florence in Biblical disguise. The Old Testament story of East meets West is updated however in this portrait: The council of eastern and western churches took place during the time of the panel’s creation and is here conveyed. The background reflects the interior of the Duomo, located just over our shoulder. The crowd of exotic-looking people probably reflects the influx of visitors to the prestigious event in Florence. The significance is hard to miss. The cathedral topped by Brunelleschi’s cupola (finished in 1436) becomes the Temple of Solomon. In this portrait Florence is the New Jerusalem.

In Santa Maria del Carmine’s Brancacci Chapel, fifteenth-century Florence again takes on the identity of Jerusalem in the fresco The Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha by Masolino. A contemporary viewer would have recognized the similarities in the architecture between the square in the fresco and the piazza directly outside of the church. Perhaps the viewers would have identified themselves with the people in the artwork who witness the miracles performed by Saint Peter. Such mirroring was useful in that underlined the religious meaning by bringing it closer to the viewers’ own world.

The frescoes of the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinita’ use realistic urban settings to deliver messages as well. Commissioned by the Medici banker Francesco Sassetti between 1478-85, the frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio depict scenes from the life of St. Francis, Sassetti’s patron saint. Several of the scenes incorporate cityscapes from recognizable cities like Pisa and Geneva, where Sassetti served as general manager for the Medici bank. The two main scenes that historically took place in Rome, The Confirmation of the Rule of St. Francis and the Resurrection of the Roman Notary’s Son, are clearly taking place in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria and in front of Piazza Sta Trinita’ outside the church, respectively. Florence has now become the new Rome, inheritor of an ancient empire’s greatness and site of Christian renewal.

These are but a handful of examples that we find, strolling through Florence, of a city inventing and reinventing itself, subtly but significantly, through images. And just one more example of how, in this city, one can always read deeply into a pretty picture.

Monica Shenouda is a Ph.D. candidate in architectural history at the University of Virginia. She leads walks for Context Florence.

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