When tourists began to visit Italy in large numbers in the eighteenth century, their favorite destinations were Venice and Rome. If they chose to stop in Florence they wanted above all to see the masterpieces from the ducal collection displayed in the Uffizi, notably ancient statues such as the Medici Venus and paintings produced after 1500, of which the most famous were by non-Florentine masters such as Titian and Raphael. In the course of the nineteenth century there was a gradual change in taste, as visitors began to admire the works of native Tuscans of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, such as the frescoes of Giotto and his followers, Ghiberti’s bronze doors on the Baptistry, and the paintings of Fra Angelico, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio. A decisive step in the establishment of the new attitude occurred in 1853, when Botticelli’s Primavera, which was probably painted in the early 1480s and had previously been kept in the reserves of the Uffizi, was first displayed to the public in the Accademia gallery. In 1859 a museum of medieval and Renaissance sculpture, the Bargello, was opened, and ten years later the monastery of San Marco was transformed into a museum devoted to the works of Fra Angelico.

During the past century and a half Florence has acquired a unique status as the art city par excellence. Some of the works produced there, especially in the decades after 1400, have been elevated to the rank of supreme masterpieces of Western art, unsurpassed in aesthetic quality and historical importance. These works are commonly regarded as products of a society in which the visual arts enjoyed an unparalleled prestige, in which artists rubbed shoulders with scholars and wealthy patrons, and in which the latest works of painting and sculpture were eagerly discussed and evaluated by citizens of every class. Florence is described in countless guidebooks as “the cradle of the Renaissance,” the city in which the transition was first made between the medieval and modern world, a transition increasingly associated, in the minds of many people, with the production of works of art. As Michael Levey writes at the beginning of his new book, tourists now flock to the city to encounter “a unique, narrow but tremendous experience, the explosion of art and culture which we call the Renaissance and which detonated first or most patently in Florence.”

The term “Renaissance” has all sorts of positive connotations, but no very precise fixed meaning. The idea of a rebirth of the visual arts around 1300, especially in Tuscany, and above all through the innovations of Giotto, was established by Giorgio Vasari (or more probably by his editors) in 1550, and it provided a counterpart to the already current notion of the revival of classical Latin as a literary language by a group of scholars known as humanists, who were inspired by a wider interest in the written legacy of antiquity, both Greek and Roman. In the nineteenth century, particularly through the work of Jules Michelet and Jacob Burckhardt, the Renaissance came to be seen as a distinct historical period, marked by wide-ranging changes in attitudes toward personal conduct, toward society, and toward the wider world, which both these historians characterized by the phrase “the discovery of the world and the discovery of man.”

Michelet believed that these changes occurred after 1500, mostly outside Italy, and especially in France. Burckhardt, by contrast, located the crucial developments in Italy, beginning in the fourteenth century and achieving their full flowering in the fifteenth. In his The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, which contains much about violence, individualism, and the growth of secular values, he does not deal explicitly with the visual arts at all. The Renaissance is thus a label that has been applied to something that happened in the fourteenth, the fifteenth, or the sixteenth century, and that involved the visual arts alone or much wider cultural, social, and intellectual developments, and was either confined to Italy or diffused throughout Western Europe.

Increasingly, and especially on the part of non-Italians, the label has been applied primarily to Florence in the fifteenth century, with pride of place given to the visual arts. There are several reasons for this, among them that a great deal of Florentine art happens to have survived, that it is much more accessible than the other cultural products of this period, for example humanist texts or even vernacular poetry, and that in the late nineteenth century Florence was popular among English, American, and German expatriates, who were attracted by its beautiful setting, by the modern amenities introduced during its brief period as the capital of united Italy, and by the still relatively low cost of living there. Many of these visitors believed that the best Florentine art was not so obviously tainted with Catholic superstition as the masterpieces of the Roman baroque, and some of them, such as the art historian Aby Warburg, a member of a prominent banking family from Hamburg, probably felt a marked personal identification with the well-to-do bourgeois patrons of the late fifteenth century, several of whom happened to be bankers.


This was the period most admired in the decades around 1900, when the reputations of Botticelli and Ghirlandaio were at their height. More recently this generation has been somewhat eclipsed by the artists of the first half of the century, such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio, whose supposedly revolutionary innovations have become an indispensable fixed point in art-historical survey courses. The Italians, in general, tend to be less enthusiastic about the fifteenth-century Renaissance, partly because they see it as a period in which many of the states of the peninsula lost their communal liberties before passing under aristocratic or even foreign rule, and partly because few of them are inclined to concede such importance to a single element in their artistic heritage, or—unless they come from Florence—to concede to Florentine artists the pre-eminent place accorded them by Vasari.

Levey himself explains that his book is “not purely an historical account, nor is it offered as an outline of Florentine art through the ages, and still less is it a guide-book. But it partakes of all three categories of approach, mingling them as history and art are mingled in the city.” In practice, it consists mainly of an appreciation of a large number of Florentine works of art, treated chronologically and without any claim to comprehensiveness, blended with a very general account of Florentine history, which is mostly about the city’s rulers, first the Medici family and then the House of Lorraine. By far the greatest part of the text is devoted to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Levey spends little time with the art of the fourteenth century, but his sympathetic treatment of the patronage of Grand Duke Cosimo I, Vasari’s employer, and his advocacy of some of the relatively unfamiliar sculpture and architecture of later periods demonstrate his wish to broaden the taste of his English-speaking readers.

Unfortunately, his intentions have to some extent been frustrated by his publisher. In his foreword Levey apologizes for the fact that “my descriptions occasionally deal with works of art which ultimately could not be reproduced within the necessary publishing limitations.” This is an understatement, because he often gives detailed accounts of works, such as Michelangelo’s Holy Family in the Uffizi, which are not reproduced at all, or else reproduced so inadequately as to be virtually invisible, for example Giovanni da San Giovanni’s frescoes in Palazzo Pitti. In a book so closely focused on individual works of art, the inadequacy of the illustrations is particularly regrettable. Levey’s lucid, well-informed, and wide-ranging text deserves better.

Insofar as he uses the term in a specific way, Levey’s notion of the Renaissance is centered on the early fifteenth century, and he certainly subscribes to the idea that it was “an explosion of art and culture,” in that order. In his account historical events, too, take second place to the production of art, which becomes the central activity of the whole of Florentine society. Apart from some brief references to the wool trade and banking in the later Middle Ages, we are never told how most Florentines earned their living, producing the surplus that permitted the construction of so many churches and palaces and the creation of so many sculptures and paintings. Nor do we learn how and when the Medici assembled the vast collections which now fill the major museums of the city, while the fact that for centuries Florence has been a center of scholarship, learning, science, and literature is barely acknowledged.

Yet Levey’s restrictive approach conforms not just to the preconceptions of most foreign tourists, but also to those of many art historians. Florence is almost always given special prominence in general accounts of Italian art between about 1300 and 1600. At the same time, the numerous attempts to discern some close link between the artists of the fifteenth century and the humanists of the time underline a widespread concern to see fifteenth-century Florence as intellectually homogeneous. Likewise, the modern scholarly preoccupation with investigating the careers and personalities of those who actually paid for the art is based on the premise that such people customarily took a strong and informed interest in what they bought. In practice these assumptions are not easy to substantiate. Underlying the claims that are often made about the coherence of Florentine cultural life may be a strong element of wishful thinking.

Let us consider for a moment the most immediately seductive of these claims, that the Florentine artists of the early fifteenth century were engaged in something analogous to the activities of contemporary humanists. From the late fourteenth century onward, a large number of scholars throughout Italy were deeply interested in the recovery of manuscripts of forgotten classical texts. Over the next century or so, largely through their efforts, the canon of classical literature, first in Latin and later in Greek, was transformed, while in the same period classical, rather than medieval, Latin was revived as the pre-eminent idiom of scholarship. This revival of ancient letters, whose original impetus is usually credited to Petrarch, was hailed at the time as a major achievement, and its influence on later intellectual life throughout Europe was incalculable. It is not surprising that historians have repeatedly suggested that Brunelleschi, whose buildings are radically different from the Gothic ones of the previous century, or Ghiberti, Donatello, and Masaccio, who achieved a new degree of naturalism in their sculptures and paintings through their mastery of the human form and their use of the newly discovered principles of perspective, were also inspired by the example of ancient Rome. But the analogy with humanism, though superficially attractive, soon breaks down.


The humanists saw in the texts that had survived from antiquity a repository of knowledge that could be recovered and put to use, as well as a model for clarity of thought and expression. But while humanists and others were certainly impressed by the lifelike quality of some of the figurative sculpture of ancient Rome, there is no reason to suppose that anyone in the early fifteenth century thought that Roman art had a distinctive style, let alone a particularly admirable one. From the relatively few, mostly damaged, and mostly unimpressive sculptures that were then readily accessible, this would not have been an obvious conclusion to draw, even if artists and others had possessed the critical concepts that would have enabled them to do so. So far as Iknow, the first attempt to define the stylistic characteristics of ancient sculpture appeared in Francisco d’Ollanda’s Da Pintura antiga of 1548, a text that even today is available only in the original Portuguese or in a Spanish translation of 1563. At most, some artists might have found in the ancient remains a few hints for endowing their own figures with a greater degree of naturalism.

In the same way it is difficult to see why the surviving monuments of ancient architecture, such as the Colosseum or the Pantheon, should necessarily have been thought to provide authoritative models for the design of modern palaces or churches. Accordingly, we do not find in the art of the period the kind of close imitation of antique models that is so evident in the contemporary writings of the humanists. Brunelleschi, for example, never reproduced the specific details of any ancient building, although he may have acquired some practical lessons about construction techniques from the surviving structures of classical Rome.

It could be argued, of course, that humanists might have attempted to impose their own values on contemporary artists. But once again the evidence for this is lacking. There is scant indication of close or continuous interchange between the two groups. Leon Battista Alberti, to be sure, was the author of the first modern treatise on painting, the De pictura of 1435, which he wrote in a humanist Latin entirely inaccessible to the artists of his day. He then provided an Italian translation, which he dedicated not to a painter but to the architect Brunelleschi. There is very little indication that it had any significant circulation in the fifteenth century, and its influence seems to have been almost entirely confined to later writers on art, rather than to practicing artists. Alberti’s composition was an exercise in literary pastiche, probably in part reflecting ideas current among painters; but there is nothing in his book to prove that he thought that the ancients had useful lessons to provide for the principal activity of the figurative artists of his day, the production of very expensive pieces of church furnishing.

Even when, toward the end of the century, a few Florentine patrons acquired elaborate mythological paintings by Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo, they and the artists do not normally seem to have looked at all closely for classical prototypes. It is often supposed that at least some of these pictures, notably the ones by Botticelli, illustrate themes selected and elaborated by contemporary poets or philosophers such as Poliziano and Marsilio Ficino. But it still remains unclear whether intellectuals of this kind would have wanted their ideas to be translated into paintings, or whether the artists and the patrons would have thought it sensible to seek their advice, except on specific matters such as the appropriate attributes of classical deities who had never previously been represented in Renaissance art. Certainly, the popular notion of Botticelli picking up the latest philosophical ideas over a casual glass of wine or at dinner needs to be treated with skepticism.

Equally difficult to substantiate is the idea that early Renaissance patrons were knowledgeable about the art they commissioned. To be sure, they were invariably concerned about the choice of saints to be represented, and, much less often, about the selection of religious narrative subjects. But in Florence major issues of aesthetic judgment, for example the choice of artists by public competition or the selection of the best place to display Michelangelo’s David, were routinely decided by committees of experts, that is to say by those with professional experience in producing works of art. If Florentine businessmen were involved at all, this seems to have been because their practical expertise and administrative skills were essential for the successful achievement of expensive projects that could take years to bring to completion. This was surely why Lorenzo de’Medici, then de facto ruler of Florence, sat on a committee to consider various designs for the facade of the cathedral; but the idea that he himself submitted a project, still maintained by Levey, is without foundation. The sophisticated connoisseur of modern art is not to be found in the fifteenth century, indeed scarcely before the seventeenth. Still less is there any good reason to suppose, as Levey often claims, that the wider public took a close interest in contemporary art, eagerly discussing each new masterpiece as it was unveiled. There is no serious basis for supposingthat such public involvement was any greater or any less in fifteenth-century Florence than in, say, thirteenth-century Chartres, where the local cathedral was also decorated with elaborate figurative sculptures.

One famous episode to which Levey devotes much space is the competition held in 1401 for the commission of the second set of bronze doors on the Florentine Baptistry, eventually won by Ghiberti, and he is not alone in supposing that this must have caused great public excitement, even though no contemporary record of it has survived. We have two accounts of this competition, both written several decades later, one by Ghiberti himself and the other by Antonio Manetti, in his extremely laudatory biography of Brunelleschi. Manetti is the source of some of Levey’s most striking claims, such as the idea that Florentine chauvinism would not have permitted the commission going to someone from another town, and that the whole city was divided on the respective merits of Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. But the first of these claims is directly contradicted by Ghiberti, who names a number of non-Florentine sculptors invited to participate in the competition, while the second is not supported by evidence worthy of the name. More relevant, surely, is the fact that both writers were in accord that the various contributions were judged by a committee of practicing artists, whose verdict was regarded as final.

This does not mean that those responsible for financing the decoration of major religious buildings, which in Florence usually meant the guilds, were reluctant to spend large sums of money for this purpose, but extravagant patronage and aesthetic discrimination do not necessarily go hand in hand, although the Florentines were certainly fortunate in the talent that was available to them. It is worth recalling, too, that such expenditure was not always encouraged by those in authority. Probably the most admired man in fifteenth-century Florence was the archbishop Antoninus, who was later canonized; yet his tenure of office was marked by a dramatic reduction in major sculptural projects at the cathedral. The city’s government itself seems to have been scarcely less reluctant to devote public funds to art, at least until after the enforced, if temporary, departure of the Medici in l494. As a result, the decoration of the town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio, was far less elaborate than that of the equivalent buildings in, say, Siena or Venice.

If the idea that Florentines of the early fifteenth century had a uniquely intense interest in the art of their time is impossible to substantiate, so too the claims that are made for the historical importance of the works that were actually produced in these decades often seem excessive. After all, the production of monumental figurative sculpture, or for that matter bronze doors, declined rather markedly in the second half of the century, especially in Florence, while Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, neither of whose works are reproduced by Levey, seem to have had more immediate influence on local painters than Masaccio. It is certainly true, as Levey claims, that the great masters of the period achieved an unprecedented naturalism and expressive power in their individual figures, and were the first to exploit the potential of perspective. But there are plenty of other episodes in the history of European art which were equally revolutionary and equally influential, for example the innovations of Van Eyck or Caravaggio or the neoclassicism of David. To assert, as so many writers on art still do, that later European art is a river whose main tributary runs through fifteenth-century Florence is to claim too much.

The main reason why this belief has taken such strong root is that the first and for long the only history of art before l550 was written from a Florentine perspective, by Vasari, and dedicated to Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici. The book was only one aspect of a wider program of cultural propaganda, based primarily on the ultimately successful claim that Tuscan, as established by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, should become the written vernacular of all Italians, and on the supposed Florentine pre-eminence in the visual arts, exemplified above all by the figure of Michelangelo. Cosimo also engaged in lavish artistic expenditure, filling his city with major works of public sculpture which consciously harked back to the achievements of Ghiberti and Donatello. He was the first ruler to use art so aggressively in this way, and his courtiers even retrospectively and rather fancifully credited the fifteenth-century Medici with a comparable enthusiasm for artistic patronage.

Cosimo’s example was to be followed by rulers throughout Europe, not least in Florence itself, where several seventeenth-century Medici, notably Cardinal Leopoldo, devoted immense sums to creating vast collections, which were not confined to the products of local masters, although these were inevitably well represented. Tuscany might have become politically insignificant and economically unimpressive, but it skillfully used its art as a source of pride, prestige, and ultimately of tourist income.

If one looks at old catalogs of the Uffizi, the first major public art museum of Europe, and of the other Florentine galleries, it is striking how the display was changed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to cater to the tastes of visitors. In the early nineteenth century, the main emphasis was still on antiquities and on the works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But these were subsequently removed to the reserves or banished to the less frequented rooms of the huge Palazzo Pitti, and the main rooms of the Uffizi were given over to a panoramic display of Renaissance painting, with a particular emphasis on Florence itself. From the later nineteenth century onward various attempts were made to restore or re-create Florentine Renaissance domestic interiors, the most notable and imaginative example being the Palazzo Davanzati. During the same period many buildings were constructed in a neo-Renaissance style, such as Berenson’s Villa I Tatti, designed by the English architects Cecil Pinsent and Geoffrey Scott. To judge from the postcards produced in the early decades of this century, which show a far wider range of local art than those available today, the taste of tourists has become increasingly restricted even since World War II. And not just of tourists, because until only a few decades ago the authorities were still prepared to damage Baroque church interiors in a misguided attempt to get back to the supposed purity of the Renaissance or medieval originals. Modern Florence, by the standards of most European cities, is remarkably well preserved; but the selection of what to preserve has often been motivated by reference to a simplistic historical myth, and one that happens to have a particular appeal to foreigners.*

Florence has long lived off its art, and there is no reason why the locals should not have exploited their heritage to meet the expectations of visitors. But just because that heritage is so remarkable we need not suppose that it has it has always or indeed ever preoccupied the Florentines to the exclusion of more mundane concerns. The claim that they invented banking may well be correct (although it sometimes seems barely credible to those who have to use its banks today). But there is no dispute that for well over half a millennium the city has excelled in the production of luxury goods and especially of fabrics. So the crowds of prosperous Japanese and other visitors in search of dresses and handbags with well-known Italian labels could claim to be following the traditions of this extraordinary city just as much as the high-minded tourists, clutching their guidebooks, who regard them with such disdain.

This Issue

October 31, 1996