The Renaissance at a Glance. The Panoramic View of Florence

  • Paul van den Akker (Speaker)

    Activity: Talk or presentation typesTalk or presentation (not at a conference)Academic


    It is most likely that a traveller to Florence will visit Piazzale Michelangelo. There,
    from a wide terrace in the southern hills, a beautiful panoramic view unfolds. One
    can see at a glance the Renaissance Tuscan city along the Arno river as the Medici
    had left it. Since the invention of the camera it must have been photographed
    innumerable times. The earliest pictures date from the late fiftees of the 19th
    century, taken from nearly the same spot, at San Miniato or the Bobboli gardens.
    Thus when in 1869 the urban designer Giuseppe Poggi constructed Piazzale
    Michelangelo he drew on an existent tradition. But even before the camera’s arrival the spot had already fascinated painters. The earliest one, as far as known, was Louis Gauffier at the end of the 18th century, followed by the more famous Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot who recorded it on canvas around 1835-40.
    However, there is more to the popularity of this panorama than its picturesque
    beauty. It can hardly be a coincidence e.g. that it was the sight of the old city
    looming up before his eyes which deeply impressed Corot’s fellow country man
    Stendhal, making him realise to enter the place where civilisation had once been
    reborn (Rome, Naples e Florence, 1819). Or take George Eliot, who chose the San
    Miniato prospect for the cinematographic opening scene of Romola (1863), her well founded historical novel situated in Savonarola’s Florence around 1500. One of the early photographs aptly faces the title page of its first edition.
    George Eliot for one, was very well acquainted with the growing 19th-century
    literature, scholarly as well as literary, in which the Italian Renaissance came to
    be interpreted as the awakening period of modern man liberating himself from
    medieval religious ties. Soon Florence, uptil 1800 hardly visited and studied except for its local history, would be honoured as the cradle of individual thinking and genial creativity. Its main spokesman, Jacob Burckhardt, characterized the city as ‘the most important workshop of the Italian, and indeed of the modern European spirit’ (Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, 1860).
    It will be stated that this 19th-century interpretation of Renaissance Florence played its part in raising the panoramic view of the city from the south to an iconic status. Underlying many 19th- and early 20th-century studies on the Italian Renaissance was a search for historical roots of a fast changing modern society. It asked for a kind of birth certificate, which the iconic image of the panoramic view of Florence was to provide. The succes of its spread will be interpreted in the light of what the sociologist Everett Rogers, as quoted by Alex Mesoudi in his Cultural Evolution (2011), has identified as the characteristics of successful innovations, such ‘The Icon as Cultural Model: Past, Present and Future’ 23 as a relative advantageousness over alternatives, compatibility with what is already known, and sufficient simplicity such that it can be quickly and easily understood.
    Period25 Jan 2018
    Event titleThe Icon as Cultural Model: Past, Present and Future
    Event typeConference
    LocationAmsterdam, NetherlandsShow on map
    Degree of RecognitionInternational