The Stones of Florence: How a Medieval City Remembers and Forgets

By Meridith Beretta

FLORENCE, Italy – By “reading” the sculpture of Florence, visitors can learn something about what this Renaissance city chooses to remember, and what it chooses to forget. The memoria are important also to residents.

The equestrian statue of the Ferdinando I, grand duke of Tuscany, in the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata

“The contemporary population must look upon these monuments and remember their history and how proud they are to be a part of it,” said Lorenzo Falchi, Mayor of Sesto Fiorentino, a suburb of Florence.

As history, the sculpture can be considered a kind of narrative, both for the city’s tides of visitors but also for its residents.

“By understanding the meaning of statuary, paintings, and types of architecture, one understands the city’s history and past,” said Freya Middleton, an Australian-Italian citizen and Florentine tour guide. “Each (work of art) is like a time machine to understand a large part of society at the time.”

Hercules and Cacus outside the Uffizi gallery in the Piazza Della Signoria

One example is a sculpture outside the Uffizi, “Hercules and Cacus.” The work was commissioned by the ruling Medici family to emphasize the physical strength and compassion of their rule in harmony with their spiritual strength, represented by an imitation of Michelangelo’s “David” also just outside the Uffizi.

Of course, today that message is obscured, included in selfies as just another example of Roman and Greek mythology.

“Often, [the government] uses symbols and themes from the past to express a contemporary message,” Freya said.

Erasure and forgetting

What is not remembered or memorialized can say much about a city, as well. Contemporary Italian political erasure would include the removal of markers of Fascism. The city has removed traces of Fascist officials and of its “martyrs.” Giovanni Berta was once memorialized in Florence as a martyr who died in 1921 at the hands of Communists, including having a sports stadium named for him.

The stadium name has been changed, his name was erased from the streets. The only memorial to Berta to remain is his family name engraved on the sewer grates along a city road.

A more local example of erasure can be found in one of the “Big Four” basilicas in Florence, the Basilica of Santa Croce. Florence’s catastrophic flood of November 1966 swamped the basilica, threatening some of the world’s most precious artistic treasures. Answering the call for help, American ex-pats turned up in number to rescue art, relics and valuables, earning them the nickname of “Mud Angels.”

Santa Croce once played up this aspect of its recovery, of the involvement of Catholic Americans and Jews, who also rushed to the Uffizi museum to help. These volunteers even brought fresh food and water to elderly Italians trapped in their homes.

Since 2012, this history has largely been removed from the narrative told at the church through its signage and displays. As a state-run site, this choice is an interesting one.

“Art is a dialogue of the human experience which transcends through time,” Pitallis said. “When we are without memories, we are blind, deaf, and mute.”

Going public

Piazzas are a common location for memorial, for obvious reasons. They are public, open, social gathering places – spaces in which to see and be seen.

“Florence is an exemplary city to show that art in the public arena is the result of a deliberated move on behalf of the public bodies in the city,” Freya said.

For Mario Pittalis, an architect with the city of Florence, the city’s public spaces “must tell the many stories of different times, and you must think of its history,” he said. “When you are there you can understand your favorite story, but the others cannot be ignored.”

Falchi said he believes there is a role to play by municipal government in remembering and celebrating history in part to learn from the mistakes of the past.


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