History And Archaeology Of Medieval Florence

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History and Archaeology of Medieval Florence


Florence is among the main historical cities in Italy. Currently the most enduring tourist destination in the country, Florence is lauded for its stable economy, diverse culture, politics, and outstanding architecture. For many archaeologists, it is the center of heritage across the world. Also known as the ‘Athens’ of the middle ages, the city played a major role facilitating trade and finance, making the region generally wealthy and enduring.  The history of the city, learnt through its archaeology is perhaps the major reason for its current glory. Therefore, in an attempt to understand the city, it is critical to explore its history as exemplified by its archaeological aspects.  This discussion is intended to offer a deep exploration of the City of Florence as reflected by its archeological evidence including buildings and excavations. There was a myriad of activities in the city of Florence, and many of them have provided essential archeological evidence to understand what was going on until the renaissance period.

History of the City of Florence


History continues to offer conflicting views on the founder of Florence (Hibbert, 2). Amidst the controversy, the common and widely accepted narrative states that Emperor Julius Caesar was the founder of the city in the 59 BC. It is important to note, however, that the area known as Florence was used by the Etruscan inhabitants of Fiesole and was part of their city-state, mostly used for farming, foundries, transportation on the river, and sometimes for graveyards.  Most Etruscans stayed away from the River Arno because of violent, unpredictable flooding made it uninhabitable. The Romans knew better how to deal with water containment. Julius Caesar made the area a garrison and a place of control of the Via Flaminia, which connected Northern Italy and France (Gaul) to Rome. Day (7) notes that there is archaeological evidence supporting the existence of another Etruscan village in the 200BC. The foundation of the city was walled and it was set up like all Roman colonies on an orthogonal grid. The city boundaries of a castrum town formed a rectangle, usually not very stretched in one direction or the other, so that we can refer generally to this kind of town planning as to a squared one. The walls delimited the rectangle and the internal streets were organized in an orthogonal grid forming the inhabited quarters (insulae).  There were 50 insula in the original town of Florence.  The main N-S Street was always called the ‘Cardo Maximus’, and the E-W was the ‘Decumanus Maximus’.  The original town was "staked out" in the ancient Etruscan fashion as all Roman cities, dwellings and towns, with a furrowing of the perimeter.  In the very center of the town was the Forum (exactly where the current, modern Piazza Repubulicca is today). After creating the garrison and demarcating its boundaries, Caesar named it Florentia and had it serve as place for the army veterans. ‘Florentia’ loosely translates to the ‘flourishing one’ probably as a recognition of the victory of the veterans.

Florentia saw a rapid development partly due to its strategic position and partly due to its role in at the height of territorial organization within the region. It soon became the economic powerhouse of Northern Etruria. Trade and other commercial activities thrived as a result of availability of land, critical communication routes, and availability of water from the Arno. The intense commercial activity explain the presence and existence of oriental merchants who, according to Machiavelli (56), introduced both the Isis cult and Christianity in the 2nd century. The early evidence of Christianity is rooted in the deacon Lorenzo’s cults as well as Felicita, the saint from Palestine. It is here that the first Florentine churches trace their origin: San Lorenzo and Santa Felicita in 393 and 4th-5th century respectively.

Byzantine and Lombard period

This is the epoch between the 5th and 6th centuries. The importance and fast rise of Florentia would be greatly hampered by the Barbarian invasions together with the 5th century Gotho-Byzantine War (Schevill, 18). Earlier, the city had managed to stop Radagaisus invasion, but later succumbed to the ferocity of the Gotho-Byzantine War. The intensive contest for the city by the Goths and Byzantine warheads all refer back to its strategic location and economic importance. Between 541 and 544, new walls were erected around the city using the typical Roman building styles like those used for the Campidoglio. These modest size of these trapezoidal walls are the among the major archaeological evidence of the decline of the city. Mariotti et al. (218) estimate that the city probably hosted less than a thousand people. At the end of the 6th century, the Lombards seized both Central and Northern Italy, thereby bringing Florence under their rule. Mariotti et al. (221) considers this period the darkest in the history of Florence when it was alienated from its major routes as the new conquerors thought it was vulnerable to Byzantine (Byzantines still controlled eastern Italy) incursions. It literally vanished momentarily. However, it was not all doom and gloom for a city once prosperous and vibrant. Most of the significant religious buildings came up at this time including the San Giovanni Baptistery. Archaeological discoveries revealed the foundations of the ancient church in the subterranean of the current formation of the church.

Carolingian Period for Florence

The Carolingian period was between the 8th and 10th century. After its unfortunate momentary collapse, Florentia must have been revived during this period. Archaeological evidence points to establishment of a feudal system, which made the city a Holy Roman Empire county (Najemy), further facilitating its re-establishment.  The evidence further indicates the rebuilding of a bridge earlier destroyed across the Arno River as well as reconstruction of more fortification walls to strengthen the borders of the city during this period. At the end of the 10th century, Countess Willa established a Benedictine abbey in remembrance of her husband the Marquis of Tuscany. The abbey was named ‘Badia Fiorentina.’ It was among the most prestigious buildings in the Medieval Florence. Countess Willa’s son, being one of the contributors in the constructions, left the Capital Lucca and moved on the banks of Arno located within the city banks. The relocation greatly aided the rebuilding of Florence as it reinforced the city’s administrative standing.

Early Middle Age

In the middle of the 11th century, Florence’s lost glory was beginning to return, this time, slowly but surely. It had regained its position in Tuscany as its major rival; the Capital Lucca had lost its role as the seat of the marquisate.  Florence was also playing a central role in the church reform movement making it even more significant. Its cultural and political importance was slowly overshadowing the roles Lucca played as the capital city. The church reform movement aimed at putting ecclesiastical matters before secular interference (Brucker). It also sought to establish papal independence from the ruling imperial powers. With a steadily shining star, Florence was chosen to host the council of Pope Victor II alongside Emperor Henry III and 120 other bishops in 1055 (Henderson, 97). Later towards the end of 1059, Bishop Gerard (Nicholas II) re-consecrated the Baptistery. With an octagonal plan, the building comprised a semicircular apse and together with three entrances. Following the death of her husband (Geoffrey the Bearded) and mother (Countess Beatrice), Matilda ascended to the throne as the sole Countess of Tuscany. She was a staunch supporter of church reformation, which placed her on a collision path with Henry IV. The victory of Henry IV in 1081 led to the deposition and abandonment of the Countess in all the cities of Tuscany with an exception of Florence, where, she was surprisingly greatly welcomed. The Countess’ close relationship with Florence and fallout with the Emperor led to a positive change where an effective defense system was built replete with new walls. The city’s infrastructure generally improved. The walled enclosure traced the lines of the Carolingian walls faithfully, except on the north where they included the Baptistery, Countess’ residence, and Santa Reparata Cathedral. A further partition of the city saw it divided into quarters which were named from the four gates Porta del vescove to the north, Porta San Maria to the south, Porta San Piero to the east, and Porta San Pancrazio on the west (Mariotti et al. 224).

The ‘Communes’ Period and the 13th century

Matilda, the Countess, died in 1115, a time the Florentine populace had already formed a commune. A commune refers to a town council. Inspired by her rebellion, the populace undertook an action against the emperor by autonomously organizing an attack to weaken the imperial domination. In 1125 after the demise of Henry V (the last Franconian dynasty emperor), the Florentines charged towards, and decimated Fiesole. The two counties united in every aspect except ecclesiastically where Fiesole kept its own diocese. The first official commune, however, came to be in 1138 where a ‘League’ was constituted during a Tuscan cities meeting to deal with Henry the Proud whom they suspected would become the next Emperor (Lucas 142). The community, during this time, had two major social levels comprising the secular and religious representatives. Along the levels were three primary social groups namely the nobles divided into the merchants, consorterie, and horse soldiers (who controlled the army). The merchants drove trade and other commercial activities, thus, contributing largely to the growth and development of the city. In the face of such an effective organization, Florence enjoyed demographic and economic expansion until Frederick Barbarossa extended his territory south into northern Italy. He disorganized the city and even brought back the marquisate of Tuscany. The tribulations were short-lived as Barbarossa died followed by his successor. Henry VI, thereafter, regained control of the city.

The extensive urbanization of Florence evidences the power the city had acquired during the 12th century (Day). Populous suburbs mushroomed within Matilda’s walls making the Commune to incorporate new districts and further the expansion of the walls in 1172. The new wall had a perimeter twice the size of the older one, and it enclosed an area three times bigger than the previous size. The Arno played a major role in facilitating communication within the city, providing water, and supplying energy for the industries. There is documentary evidence of approximately 35 of the towers that decorated the Florentine skyline in the 12th century. However, archaeologists speculate that there were numerous other towers, which had both a residential and a military role throughout the century. The number of small churches also grew proportionately with the expansion of the city to three times in just two centuries. Henderson (102) notes that in the dawn of the 13th century, Florence had up to 48 churches with 36 of them being parishes and 12 being priories. The churches serves as testimony to the rise of Christianity in the City. The century also saw the rise of new religious orders: Carmelite, Dominican, Servite, Franciscan, and Augustinian. The Dominicans, in the face of religious prosperity, enlarged their Santa Maria delle Vigne monastery between 1246 and 1278 while Franciscans’ church, Santa Croce, was revamped and refurbished to its current form. Apart from merely enlarging and reorganizing their churches, the religious sects in the City established numerous complexes serving to organize the urban population’s communitarian lives. The churches, and religion by extension, not only played a cultural role, but also took an essential part in the political welfares of the region. All these churches built at the twilight of the 13th century, alongside Santa Maria del Fiore (construction started in 1294), became the major examples of Gothic religious architecture in the City of Florence. In fact, even today, these churches offer archaeologists and researchers a critical insight into the Gothic style of building and architecture. In this manner, one can easily see the beginning of the Gothic architectural style that dominates the city of Florence today, and has spread from religious buildings to commercial buildings and even residential buildings in certain areas.

Guelphs and Ghibellines

The period of peace Florentia enjoyed previously was to be short-lived as 1216 brought with it conflicts which divided the citizens into two rival factions of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The former supported the papacy while the latter were pro-imperial. In a bid to obtain favor from the merchant middle class and enjoy the economic prowess of the merchants, the Ghibelline nobles in power, in 1244 opted to expand the government marking the start of a period referred to as ‘Primo Popolo.’ Their luck changed in 1250 when the artisans and the merchants turned the tables, took power from the Ghibelline nobles, and mark the start of a new political order. The first order was to completely abolish Societas militum as a means of preventing the nobles from usurping power from the merchants and the artisans. Consequently, the towers in the city were trimmed down to 29 meters as a symbol for the new order. Peace returned to Florence during this regime. Archaeologists discovered a gold coin dating back to 1252, which is an evidence of the economic and financial prosperity during this period (Schevill 142). The gold coin was used together with the silver coin that had been in use from 1235.  The ‘Primo Popolo’ period led to another phase of rebuilding of the city with new public buildings coming up to accommodate the growing population. Palazzo del Popolo, the current Bargello, is one of those buildings constructed with a view to hosting the Councils of the Commune. It was different from the others to symbolize a new political policy. In particular, the building had the highest crenellated tower among the city towers and an imposing mass.

In 1260, during the Montaperti war, the Sienese hosts defeated Florentia, afterwards, undoing everything the Guelphs had accomplished both politically and economically. The Ghibellines took power back, destroyed the buildings which the Guelph party had both in the city and in the surroundings, and restored their institutions. Florentia became a city in rubbles and debris as a total of 85 towers, 103 palaces, and 580 houses came tumbling down (Mariotti et al.). In the face of this ruthless and merciless decimation of the city, opposing factions mushroomed allover and put pressure on the Ghibellines who eventually yielded to a mediation by Clement IV who represented the Guelphs. After 6 years, the Guelphs finally came back to power and reintroduced their political policies and institutions. Meanwhile, among the masses, two political parties were coming up steadily and strongly. They were the ‘Magnati’ representing the entrepreneurs and ‘Popolani’ comprising the artisans and merchants. In 1293, the ‘Magnati’ faction was condemned from being part of any political process in the city.

Towards the end of the 13th century, Florence reached the climax of its population growth and economic development. Najemy (56) supposes that it is during this period that great milestones were achieved in town planning and building architecture as a result of the growing financial and commercial activities. The population increased creating a necessity for more city walls. In 1282, and enclosure of 430 hectares-the sixth city wall- was commissioned and became one of the biggest financial undertakings by the Commune in Florence. It was not finished until 1333 as it was plagued by wars and periodic wrangles. There is still clear evidence of these walls and the major gates even though much of it was demolished in the 19th century. More buildings came up while the previously demolished one were also rebuilt. Some of the notable ones include Palazzo della Signoria, Cathedral of Santa Reparata, and the church of Santa Croce. All these buildings and reconstructions are attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio who was the designated government builder. In 1292, the city was re-organized into districts and new walls were built (Mariotti et al.) alongside numerous other urban measures. All factors considered, Florence was rightly the major city of the West by the end of the 13th century.

The 14th century and the lead-up to the Renaissance

In the flourishing Florence, social class factions emerged in the names of popolo Grasso and popolo minuto (Machiavelli). The former comprised wealthy merchants while the latter comprised lower and middle class merchants. While popolo Grasso held onto power, popolo minute attempted to moderate their rule through several ways including establishment of Guilds. Under intense pressure, popolo Grasso accepted institutional reforms, which lobbied for formation of Guilds. Five Guilds, Tintori, Dyers, Ciompi, Farsettai, and Cosreteers were constituted to represent the various workers and factions. The guilds collapsed later due to internal wrangles. Among the popolo Grasso who were now strongly in power, further rivalry emerged among two families known as the Neri (‘black’) and the Bianchi (‘white’). The Neri were the richer members of the society while the Bianchi were the reformists (Lucas 142). Since the Pope was in favor of the ‘black’, the leaders of the ‘white’ were apprehended and excommunicated. The period was one of the most turbulent in the history of Florence. The internal strife was fueled by epidemics and famine. The disastrous plague of 1348 and the floods of 1333 made the situation even more precarious. The flood almost decimated all bridges along the Arno river save for the Rubaconte. Urban development slowed down significantly. In light of the ongoing crisis, the government turned to undertaking completion of projects started earlier instead of commissioning new ones. The city’s principal piazzas including Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Signoria were reorganized. Archaeological analysis of the reveals that buildings from this period have a striking resemblance. Most of their façades comprise rough-hewn blocks pietraforte mostly at the bottom section, and several arches corresponding to the ground floor. According to Brucker (74), a ‘Florentine’ arch had round-headed intrados (sometimes flat) and pointed extrados.


The history of Florence resonates between periods of fortune and those of great misfortunes. Long periods of economic prosperity precede internal wrangles, factional feuds, and wars-the cycle continues. Beyond the beauty and glow of the modern day Florence, there is more than meets the eye. The rubbles beneath the Romanesque and Gothic style buildings conceal a troubled history of war, plagues, and destructions. Thanks to archaeology, the history cannot only be studied and accurately dated, but can also be understood from a very close perspective. It is through the city’s archaeological history that one can make sense of the broken-down walls that dot the city, and numerous other objects unearthed during the archaeological excavations going on in parts of the city. Finally, by revisiting the history and archaeology of the city, one can comprehend the similarity between most of the religious and commercial buildings within the city.

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