Why Florence?

Nicholas Eckstein   University of Sydney

My first serious research-trip to Florence, though not my maiden journey to Italy, was in 1985. In the quarter-century since then, countless friends and acquaintances, both professional colleagues and non-academics, have in various ways asked me: ‘Why did you decide to study Florence?’ Fellow Aussies always do so out of friendly interest, but they ask also because Italy is so very far from home, and conducting research there is self-evidently a complicated, time-consuming and expensive business. Europeans and Americans ask for a different reason. Even in the twenty-first century, outsiders – even many who have visited – seem to calculate the distance between Australia and the northern hemisphere in light-years rather than kilometres. To them Australia remains an exotic place, exquisitely remote from the major cultural centres of Europe. What essence, they wonder, fuels the unquenchable enthusiasm of antipodeans, a people apparently immune to the effects of jet-lag, who in the same week will cheerfully fly half-way around the world and back to attend a three-day conference on the Italian Renaissance?

For as long as I have tried to explain ‘why Florence?’ I have offered two related answers. The first concerns my parents, who in the year prior to my birth, 1959, undertook an extended voyage to Europe that included a southerly pilgrimage to visit artefacts of the Italian Renaissance they had studied as undergraduates at the University of Melbourne. Returning in 1975, they brought the additional baggage of two sons and mapped an Italian journey of three weeks, with stops of several days each in Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. My second answer relates to the historical accident of my growing up in Dandenong, only fifteen minutes by car from Monash University, where Bill Kent happened to be running undergraduate classes that have become legendary for those lucky enough to have taken part in them. In recent times, I think, I have come to understand the effect of both factors on my subsequent academic career.

Less faded than the 860 colour slides I took during that 1975 visit to Italy are the memories of it as a fourteen-year old which I preserve as a bricolage of sharply-focused images and brief, animated vignettes. The constituent elements of the latter – the human voices, ambient sounds, the smells and temperature of the surrounding atmosphere – seem to me as vivid as when I experienced them. In one we walk en famille from our Florentine pensione in via Faenza to attend a piano recital in the Palazzo Vecchio. As the soloist lifts his hands to play, a political demonstration erupts in the piazza outside, drowning his attempts to be heard. He persists stoically for ten minutes before admitting defeat. He apologises, the concert is abandoned, and the Florentine audience adjourns without missing a beat to join the highly-charged crowd that is cheering the amplified speeches coming from the rostrum, a few steps from where Savonarola was burnt in 1498.

Rome is the setting for another of these sequences. The convent by Saint Peter’s where my parents have booked accommodation is full, so although we eat with the other guests in the refectory, we stay some distance away in the apartment of an elderly lay friend of the order, a Signora Corsetti, who treats my brother and me as her own. During a fond farewell several days later, my parents thank the Signora effusively for her kindness and hospitality. The simple humanity of her reply, ‘Siamo tutti figli di Dio’, reduces my father, a non-practising, non-believing Jew who lost most of his own family to the Nazis, to tears.

Discovering the shape of one’s own career (‘order’ might too strong a word) is by definition a partly retrospective exercise. It occurs slowly and is ever a work-in-progress. Nonetheless, I began seeing connections between personal experience and academic inquiry just five years after the trip with my family, when as a second-year undergraduate I sat in Bill’s unforgettable tutorials, where insight so often surfaced amidst what seemed the most  informal kind of talk. I find it difficult to disentangle my sense of Bill as teacher, later as mentor and friend, from the lessons I learnt about early-Renaissance Florence as his student. For, like Bill himself, the larger-than-life Florentines he understood as well as any scholar alive took it for granted that intellectual inquiry is, or at least should be, part and parcel of one’s everyday humanity. Bill, it goes without saying, was fully aware that there can be no distinction between the studia humanitatis and the life well lived. I may perhaps be forgiven, therefore, for adapting lines he wrote in a recent tribute to his own late supervisor, Nicolai Rubinstein, and the wife of that great scholar, Ruth Olitsky Rubinstein, herself a distinguished historian of art: ‘One continues to miss him very much indeed. Not only for his contributions to Renaissance scholarship, but for the humanity (not without its lovable flaws) and kindness which were inseparable from his learning, for his example in leading a civilised, that is to say useful and expansive, life…’ (‘Nicolai Rubinstein (1911-2002), Ruth Olitsky Rubinstein (1924-2002)’, Renaissance Studies, 20, 3 (2006), p. 398).

Perhaps it is no accident that Bill chose to study a society whose people (their lovable flaws aside) display their humanity so frequently that one rapidly comes to take it for granted. In Florence during the Gulf War in January 1991, I escorted a group of Australian students on an intended site visit to the Laurentian Library at the Medicean parish church of San Lorenzo. We arrived to find the entrance locked. A sheet of paper had been hastily taped to the door, on it a handwritten announcement that the staff had closed the Library to protest against an unjustifiable war. With much of Florence already in the streets, we watched as men and women old enough to remember the catastrophe of warfare on their own soil marched alongside their children and grandchildren. The white-hot rage of that crowd at a senseless invasion is unforgettable, and in my mind it always triggers a comparison with the very different response of my own country. This massive, entirely peaceful, protest also reminded me of the fact – axiomatic to every student of late-medieval Italian society – that the public space of the city is the stage on which Italians instinctively perform their identity as citizens.

Another war was on the way in 2003, when I returned as a visiting professor with my wife, son and daughter to inhabit the scholarly nirvana of the Harvard Center at Villa I Tatti. This time Iraq was the target, and the western behemoth invaded on 20 March. Social researchers probably have a formula that would allow one to convert the number of rainbow PACE flags on each residential palazzo into the percentage of the Florentine population that opposed war in 2003. All I can say is that rainbow flags smothered every building, lined every street, and in months I met no Florentine who supported the war. In the hours and days that followed 20 March, as the Italian people magisterially enacted their constitutional right of ‘descending into the piazza’, my wife, children and I joined the larger family of the Florentine citizenry in the streets leading to the city’s ancient seat of popular protest, the piazza Santa Croce. The Florentines were angry, as I had seen them a dozen years before, but the atmosphere of the massive crowds now filling the streets of the centro storico every night is memorable not for its rage but its transforming serenity, its clarifying unity and sense of common purpose. Stranieri like us were actively welcomed as fellow citizens, because we shared the cause. My children, who proudly wore their PACE flags as capes to demonstration after demonstration, who display them still on their walls, who experienced democracy in action in the streets of the comune di Firenze, learned a lesson in applied civics that neither will ever forget.

As a student of Florence history, I continue to be most preoccupied by dynamics of sociability and community, the bonding forces which united and animated the astonishingly creative social networks of the fifteenth-century city. (I am equally interested in forces that threaten to undermine or shatter the myriad interlocking unities of the city’s social web.) Then as now, the citizens of Florence daily defined and remade themselves by occupying, exploiting, modifying and engaging with their public spaces. This is a principal reason for the cliché – true of course – that Italian city centres have traditionally evolved on a human scale. They are, and have always been, cities for walking; indeed they are cities where walking, where meeting and sharing public space with fellow citizens are political acts, and where living publicly in groups is the foundation of one’s collective identity in a humane, democratic society. It is this particularly Italian genius for living, I believe, that affords me the self-indulgence of a twinge of homesickness whenever I return to Australia.

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