The second lecture in the limelight-arts-travel series is a time-travel through Nerida Newbigin’s expertise into the Renaissance world of Florence where mystery and miracle plays, and processions, were de rigueur.
One of my first acquaintances with Florence came so many years ago when reading one of my now favourite books, E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View.
Set in England’s Edwardian era in the wake of The Grand Tour, Miss Lucy Honeychurch travels to Florence for cultural enlightenment where she meets the gorgeous, but lower-class George Emerson, who is searching for life’s hope and meaning.
At one point George says, ‘… you are NOT to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me … we shall simply drift.’ And further into their drifting exploration, ‘The well-known world had broken up, and there emerged Florence, a magic city where people thought and did the most extraordinary things.’
Founded in 59BC as a settlement for Julius Caesar’s former soldiers, the city name was Colonia Florentia, meaning flowering colony. How apt was that to become when during the Renaissance creative experimentation was flourishing.
Even after my own explorations of Florence and the nearby hill town of Fiesole, where during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci used its slopes as a launching pad for his flying machines, I was enriched by the layering of Nerida Newbigin’s lecture.
Florence at the time was the city of creatives: the Medici family, Petrarch, Giotto, Dante, da Vinci, Brunelleschi and Machiavelli et al. It was the centre of drama where performance spaces included barges on the river Arno, churches, piazzas and cloisters.
Public and private performances were everywhere. Many of the paintings and frescoes seen today reflect these experiences.
Florence was the epicentre of the Renaissance: the blossoming of the arts, humanism, technology and scientific discoveries. All of which melded into the performance space.
Weddings were celebrated with liveried musicians where trumpeters were hired or poached from visiting princes. Professional poets – canterini – accompanying themselves on violas would sing of saints and battles.
Feast days (like today in Italy) were scenes of great entertainment for the people. Churches had extensive ‘stage’ equipment built into their domes where Christ or the Virgin Mary would ascend into the heavens. Children from the orphanages dressed as angels and boy sopranos were given red stockings as payment for singing. They can be seen in many of the church’s paintings.
Haloes on the performers were packed with gunpowder – a dove was attached to a line with a light that would fly along the row of halos igniting them to represent the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. What a spectacle! That is until a fire in Santo Spirito burnt it to the ground.
It was a time of processions and horse racing and betting as part of the celebrations, as were processions of drummers and flag throwers – much like I saw recently in Siena.
Art and pageantry evolved into performing troupes travelling from city to city in the form of the Commedia dell’arte.
This and so much more was gleaned through Nerida Newbigin’s extensive and richly-sourced lecture; a renaissance of its own in offering an awakening to those on the other side of the zoom screen.
And to once again look at Florence through the eyes of George Emerson in A Room with a View … ‘Italy … it gave her light, and – which he held more precious – it gave her shadow.’
- This was the 2nd in the visual and performing arts lecture series with Limelight Arts Travel. You can subscribe to any within the series. Look out for archaeology; women composers and utopias.