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The Florentine merchant Giovanni Rucellai (1403-1481) wrote a description of Florence in 1457. This work, which was found in his diary, offers some insights into the optimism of the Renaissance, when art and learning were flourishing, with Florence at the heart of these achievements.
“Most people believe that our age, from 1400 onward, is the most fortunate period in Florence’s history. I shall now explain why this is so.”
Warfare – “Thanks to their intelligence, astuteness, cunning, and strategic ability, the Italians are now the best at seizing cities and winning battles.”
Learning – “There are more outstanding scholars of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew in Florence than even before. An elegant and pure Latin eloquence, the likes of which has not flourished since Cicero’s time, has finally returned to refine our literature.”
Expansion of Florence – “Likewise, the dominion of Florence has considerably expanded since 1400, controlling more land than ever before: it has conquered Pisa, Cortona, Borgo San Sepolcro, and Poppi, as well as many other towns of the Casentino.”
Buildings – “The city and countryside have also augmented in beauty – they are now embellished with new churches, hospitals, buildings and palaces with elegant facades and lavishly decorated interiors. Beautiful Roman worked stones – that is, stones worked in the classical Roman style – adorn these constructions.”
Artists – “The same can be said our masters in painting and drawing, whose ability, sense of proportion, and precision are so great that Giotto and Cimabue would not even be accepted as their pupils. Similarly, we cannot forget to mention our excellent tapestry makers and goldsmiths.”
Fashion – “Never before have men and women dressed in such expensive and elegant clothing. Women wear brocade and embroidered gowns covered with jewels and saunters through the streets in their French-style hats that cost at least two hundred florins apiece.”
Ships – “Since 1400, the Florentines have used massive ships to transport their products by the sea – an innovation which has brought great profit to our city, besides making its name world-renowned.”
Palla Strozzi – “This age has also had four notable citizens who deserve to be remembered. The first one is Palla di Nofri Strozzi, who possessed all seven of the things necessary for a man’s happiness: a worthy homeland, noble and distinguished ancestors, a good knowledge of Greek and Latin, refinement, physical beauty, a good household, and honestly earned wealth. Rarely do we find in a single man so many things conducive to happiness.”
Cosimo de’ Medici – “Then we have Cosimo de’ Medici, probably not only the richest Florentine, but the richest Italian of all time. Cosimo was born into a distinguished family and became a powerful citizen supported by many followers. In the whole of our history, no one has ever been as honored as Cosimo both in Florence and abroad. Suffice it to say that he managed to control the city government as if it had been his private property.”
Leonardo Bruni – “The third citizen I shall mention is Messer Leonardo di Francesco Bruni. Although he was born in Arezzo, he was an honorary citizen of Florence. He had a unique knowledge of and expertise in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and was more famous than any rhetorician after Cicero. Bruni revived Latin eloquence and refined it, as he did with the humanities and ancient rhetoric, which was rescued from oblivion.”
Brunelleschi – “Finally, Filippo, son of Ser Brunellesco, was a master architect and sculptor. He was an accomplished geometer and was endowed by nature with great intelligence and an artistic genius superior to any since the time of the Romans. He is the one who rediscovered ancient Roman building techniques.”
Piety – “Churches and hospitals are richer than ever, better supplied with gold and silk paraments and precious silver. There are numerous friars and priests caring for these places, which the faithful visit constantly. Men and women attend Mass and other religious ceremonies with greater devotion than ever. I shall but mention the lauds, the gospels, and the rhymed laments that are skillfully sung with sweetness and devotion throughout the whole year, especially during Lent. The citizens perform exquisite mystery plays, especially during the feast of St. John the Baptist.”
Taxes – “I must also add that very recently, in October, the government issued a law decreeing that the citizens of Florence were to be free of all taxes for a period of ten years; it would certainly be wonderful thing to have this law enforced.”
Wealth – “The citizens have never had so much wealth, merchandise, and property, nor have the Monte’s interests ever been so conspicuous; consequently, the sums spent on weddings, tournaments, and various forms of entertainment are greater than ever before.”
A full translation of Giovanni Rucellai’s note about Florence can be found in Images of Quattrocento Florence, edited by Stefano Ugo Baldassarri and Arielle Saiber, published by Yale University Press in 2000.
Learn more about Florence:
Renaissance Florence on Five Florins a Day
Florence Cathedral: The Design Stage
Past/Present: Leonardo Bruni’s History of Florence