Façades

Peter Burke

  • The Building of Renaissance Florence: An Economic and Social History by Richard Goldthwaite
    Johns Hopkins, 459 pp, £16.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 8018 2342 0
  • Public Life in Renaissance Florence by Richard Trexler
    Academic Press, 591 pp, £29.80, March 1981, ISBN 0 12 699550 8
  • Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice by Edward Muir
    Princeton, 356 pp, £10.80, August 1981, ISBN 0 691 05325 1
  • Venice: The Greatness and the Fall by John Julius Norwich
    Allen Lane, 400 pp, £12.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1409 2
  • Ruskin and Venice edited by Jeanne Clegg
    Junction, 233 pp, £10.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 86245 019 5
  • The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin and Jan Morris
    Faber, 239 pp, £12.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 571 11815 1

Why Florence? What made this particular European city so important for the arts in the Renaissance? It’s a problem many historians have tried to solve. The latest is Professor Goldthwaite, an old Florentine hand who has moved from a study of the ways in which the Florentines made their money to a study of the ways in which they spent it.

‘Never show off your wealth,’ the Florentine citizen Giovanni Morelli anxiously advised his sons early in the 15th century, ‘but keep it hidden, and always by words and acts make people believe that you possess one half as much as you have.’ Goldthwaite’s story is essentially that of the shift from this attitude to its opposite, from a culture of thrift to a culture of display, or in contemporary Florentine terms, from masserizia to magnificenza. The renaissance of the arts, he writes, ‘occurred in an economy where immense wealth was spent in conspicuous consumption. Nothing was more conspicuous and more expensive than building.’

He goes on to analyse the building of Renaissance Florence in terms both of demand (the reasons for building and the distribution of wealth) and of supply – the organisation of construction, the production of materials, working conditions, and the role of the guild and of that new arrival on the building scene, the professional architect. His seven careful, lucid essays, based on the many surviving account-books of the period, are semi-independent of one another, and some (notably the one devoted to the mechanics of brick-production) will have a rather specialised appeal. But Goldthwaite’s central argument deserves a much wider audience.

The Florentines, so the argument goes, had accumulated wealth by export-led economic growth. This wealth was spread relatively widely. ‘The high level of total spending on the arts,’ we are told, ‘was the result of an aggregate of individuals each spending at a relatively low level.’ What did these individuals want? In the 14th century, they lived in modest houses, and the great building projects were public ones. In the 15th century, by contrast, not far short of a hundred private palazzi were built – ‘palatial’ by virtue of their size and of their grandiose stone façades. Palazzo Strozzi is a spectacular surviving example. There was no practical need for houses built on this scale, enclosing vast private spaces, underfurnished by later standards, in which the owner’s immediate family, together with a handful of servants, must have rattled like a shrunken nut in a large shell.

Why, then, build them? Goldthwaite’s conclusion is that the new type of house was an outward sign of the new values of wealthy Florentine families. The façade expressed the increasing emphasis on competitive display and the interior space expressed the increasing value of domestic privacy. He may well be right, but unfortunately he has little to say about the reasons for changes in values at this time, and his views on the importance of the nuclear family, as opposed to the extended family, among Florentine patricians are not shared by all his colleagues, as the skirmishes in the footnotes reveal. It is also unfortunate that little is known about the way all this space was used, the functions of the different rooms. The evidence does not seem to permit a study of the Florentine palace of the Renaissance along the lines of Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House.

However, Goldthwaite has put his finger on an important problem, all the more important because the example of the Florentines was followed all over Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Genoa, for example, where the palaces of the financial aristocracy of the late Renaissance have now been taken over, appropriately enough, by the banks. In Naples, where the barons invaded the city and carried on their traditional internecine warfare by other means, building to outdo one another or even to spoil a rival’s view. In Milan, where one nouveau riche built a vast palace described in 1578 (not, as Goldthwaite asserts, by its former owner, but by a surveyor) as ‘extremely splendid’ but ‘not very practical’, because ‘loggias, porticos, hallways, staircases and other dignified parts take up most of the space and leave little to live in.’ These palaces were essentially status symbols. Italy was becoming a land of façades.

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