Holidaying in Tuscany looking for a slightly different way to see its cities of art? We propose a set of destinations, including Florence and Fiesole, to help you get to know the local centres of the arts and businesses of the Middle Ages, among the strongest in medieval Europe.
Fiesole has yielded a large number of archaeological finds dateable to the Lombard era, which suggests that the little city came again to play an important strategic role as the Roman Empire declined and the Gothic wars got underway. Thanks to its hillside position overlooking the Arno Valley, on the cusp of the Apennine passes, Fiesole was a crucial stronghold for the Lombards.
The foundation of the Cathedral of San Romolo at the start of the eleventh century, after a critical moment in Fiesole’s history, showed the city’s will to a rebirth, driven largely by Bishop Jacopo il Bavaro. A visit to the cathedral is one way of understanding how the medieval town was linked to the preceding periods, and of simultaneously discovering the original appearance of the building and the rituals that it hosted.
Though best known as a cradle of the Renaissance, Florence is also a city of civic liberty, which guilds and trade groups helped to foster. It was largely thanks to these organisations that Florence’s economy flourished so spectacularly, allowing her to grow into one of the richest and most powerful cities in medieval Europe. The old palazzi served as headquarters for the artisan guilds, and other buildings nearby often show a particular guild’s coat-of-arms.
More can be learned about these unique schools and ancient guilds on a tour of the city centre. The patron saints of each guild are pictured at the nearby church of Orsanmichele.
A visit to the Palazzo Vecchio will let you see traces of the medieval past in the rooms of the current monumental districts. You can then picture the ambiences and functions of the public and private environments, such as the chambers in which the Priors, elected from the guilds, were confined during their two months of government office, before they were rendered defunct in the sixteenth century by the advent of the ducal state.
Calenzano is home to illustrious families, such as the Lamberti, the Cavalcanti, the Scali and the Della Tosa: all of them were usually at each other’s throats, often on the battlefields of Montaperti and Campaldino. Thanks to an exciting itinerary, visitors can discover the goings-on in a medieval castle, in the words of its inhabitants (a merchant, a farmer, a knight, a monk etc), and the typical activities within the community, such as weaving, pottery, and stonemasonry. Scale models in the Municipal Museum of the Historical Figurine will shed light on it all, and young ones can get involved in the everyday life of long long ago.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Florence boasted as many as six large hospitals that offered aid to pilgrims, beggars and the poor, as well as a network of confraternities that worked to help children. The Museo degli Innocenti spotlights ‘the welcoming city’ via the artworks connected with some of the charitable organisations that operated in medieval Florence, some of which are still active today. Of special note are the confraternities of the Misericordia, of the Bigallo and of Orsanmichele.