A view of Florence and the nature of History.

This is the find of the week for me, something I’ve not seen before that I suddenly noticed adorning a book jacket. A view of Florence c1490, painted I hope by the anonymous gentlemen pictured in it. It’s amazing what art can do. Today I was feeling pretty humdrum, nothing much to stir the juices, then two or three hours ago I caught a glimpse of this and suddenly everything went into warp drive. This little post is the result.

A View of Florence.

It’s proper name is “Carta della Catena” and here is the writeup from the Firenze Musei, who know infinitely more about its history than I do.

“The so-called “Pianta della Catena” attributed to Francesco di Lorenzo Rosselli between 1471 and 1482, is the first known example in the history of cartography intended as a complete representation of the city of Florence, Italy, including all of its buildings and dense network of streets and squares. The name derives from the padlocked chain (Italian: catena) that frames the map. The artist, depicted from behind in the right foreground while sketching the the walls of the city on a sheet of paper, draws attention to the author’s perspective from the southwest of Florence, illustrated as a “bird’s eye view” conforming to the medieval genre but with modern intentions of perspective realism.”

But I think it’s much more than just a map. One could dwell on the details for hours. Note how the artist in the right hand corner is drawing the same view. Glimpses of realism live along crowded left bank, & iconic buildings rise out of crowds of identically dressed houses to draw the eye. You can see how meticulously the creator has been in packing detail into this sweeping view of a late medieval city. Using renaissance perspective to achieve an almost embossed effect and how the convincing, lofty view achieves a cinematic curvature the near walls where the River Arno flows down to meet us. Those icy blue tones, flowing under the city’s four proud bridges are an instant and dramatic counterpoint to the terracotta and olive tones of the close packed, immovable city and the stolid, serene overlooking hills. It seems as if you can see the water surging between the embankments and racing through the arches.

Look closely and you can see the names of the buildings.

In essence this panorama is actually a portrait. It is the flesh and blood face of a city in its historical prime. Formed by that collage of red roofs & white facades and given character by the landmarks that identify the sitter as Florence. Into that you can also read a story of history itself. How the millions of stories that make up everyday life around the more dramatic ones become mere backdrops that hold in their simplistic lines and colour’s more common truths and less exceptional heroism.

I really hope this really is a self portrait of the artist.

Maybe it is a trick conjured by that mysterious figure in the bottom right, or maybe it is my own imagination but longer I look at it the more that the impersonal, almost frenetic mob of tiled roofs and simple stucco come to dominate the picture. People play a very small part in the foreground of this scene, the street’s are empty and the population is hinted at rather than shown. So in a way it’s an allegory for the living, breathing city, the painter couldn’t capture otherwise. And indeed the more time spent on the details causes the close packed multitude of common houses and lesser piazza’s to join forces and overshadow even the great cathedral dome with their numberless intricacy, surging and overspilling the crenellated brown containing walls to flood the green bowl below the tree clothed hills beyond in which the city sits. This is the transitory greatness of the silent majority, whose generational hubbub is an untranslatable weave of simultaneous heartbeats, and is destined to be but set dressing to those soaring stars, whose light demands, nay, commands our attention. Today only the great buildings, bruising the multi textured fabric of the greater picture, like the great stories that survive, remain to remind us of that greater bustling hive of life that once surrounded them and still does today but in a different form. Perhaps that in itself is an echo to be found in a centuries old painting. It is a view we will never see again, and yet one of the things that make it so striking is the broad similarity in atmosphere that it conveys, look at a photo of modern Florence and you’ll see.

If you enjoyed this post then you must watch this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_3MfZJUvWo


2 Replies to “A view of Florence and the nature of History.”

  1. You describe this as “A view of Florence c1490, painted I hope by the anonymous gentlemen pictured in it.” The painting itself (in the Palazzo Vecchio) is from 1887. It is designed after a c. 1500-10 engraving by Lucantonio degli Uberti (?), which is done after an earlier design by Francesco Rosselli (c. 1471-80).

    1. Very interesting additional info, Ray, I’m sure people will be interested. I have read that the figure at bottom right is thought to be the original artist as he is drawing the same scene.

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