Florence and the English-Speaking World
Few mid-size cities enjoy the same kind of international fame as Florence, and many are surprised on their first visit at the relatively small size of the historic center, which can be crossed on foot in just half an hour. So why, despite its modest population of under 400,000 residents, is it so renowned abroad?1
As any Florentine will proudly tell you, their city is known as the “cradle of the Renaissance,” referring to the major cultural shifts in literature, science, and art that took place in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. Florentines of this period are credited by scholars internationally with the revolutionary thought and creativity that sparked these changes, and some of the most notable figures of the age once called the city home.2
While Florence undoubtedly played a central role in the emergence of revolutionary Renaissance ideas, its image as the art capital of Italy was carefully cultivated and promoted in the 19th and 20th centuries by non-Florentines, especially well-to-do English travelers and expats. 3 Drawn to the city as part of the “Grand Tour,” a months-long jaunt through continental Europe meant to improve one’s knowledge of languages, history, and art, British aristocrats became especially fond of Florence. 4 The city’s idyllic countryside and evocative old buildings appealed to the aesthetic of the romantic period, a 19th century art movement that resisted contemporary ideals about rationality and productivity born of the Industrial Revolution. Romantics, who idealized craftsmanship and the sublime beauty of nature, found Florence’s historic art and architecture especially inspiring. Indeed, scenes from Italian life observed in cities like Florence inspired mid-nineteenth century English painters appropriately labeled “Pre-Raphaelites.”
But Florence was appreciated for more than its outward beauty, for British travel diaries of the period frequently comment on the availability of fine accommodations, its pristine streets and piazzas, and access to the comforts of home. An English factory at the nearby port of Livorno ensured easy access to familiar products, and long-established diplomatic relations between the Grand Dukes of Tuscany and the English court meant that there were many English expatriates living in Florence. These expats opened establishments aimed at attracting the growing influx of British tourists and went to great lengths to entertain their visitors. These luxuries, in addition to high standards of urban maintenance fostered in the 18th century by the Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo, led to frequent declarations by British travelers that Florence was their favorite place to stay in Italy 5.
Aside from Florence’s graceful aesthetic and the luxuries available there, British visitors of the late 18th and 19th centuries were drawn to the city by the idea that its history as a merchant republic in the Renaissance mirrored that of contemporary Britain. Just as the British now enjoyed the fruits of free trade and growing industry, so the Florentines of the fifteenth century had reaped the benefits of a successful banking and manufacturing economy. British writers ascribed the flowering of the Renaissance to the efforts of enterprising Florentine merchants, whose business allowed them to invest in culture. To them, England was undergoing a similar Renaissance, since the abundant profits British merchants gained from international trade had allowed them to build their own art collections and beautify their cities. Of course, the British were not the only ones who pushed the narrative that Florentine entrepreneurship was the inevitable catalyst of the Italian Renaissance. Florentine intellectuals nurtured this idea as a way to renew civic pride in their city as Pietro Leopoldo worked to bring the city into the modernity of the European enlightenment. 6
The idea that fifteenth-century Florentines’ steadfast approach to business inspired social progress and creativity also appealed to nineteenth-century Americans, who saw themselves as the modern successors of Florence’s enterprising legacy. By the turn of the twentieth century, trends in art, architecture, and even furniture in the United States imitated Renaissance Florentine models. Wealthy US citizens who visited Florence would often stay in Renaissance villas that had been carefully restored and refurbished by American intellectuals who had relocated to the city like Bernard Berenson. These intellectuals seized on this opportunity to encourage their well-to-do compatriots to aspire to the great leaders of Renaissance Florence, who acted as great patrons of art and culture while simultaneously immortalizing their reputation. Soon, Florentine craftsmanship was synonymous with class in the United States. 7
The English-speaking world’s love affair with Florence is far from over, and the city on the Arno still hosts a large number of British and American expats as well as the renowned British Institute and numerous US study abroad programs. Perhaps due in recent years to the unforgettable and breathtaking images of Florence and Tuscany that can be glimpsed in films like Room with a View or Under the Tuscan Sun, Florence continues to be one of the top destinations for romantics, art lovers, and those who simply want to taste fine wine while soaking in a beautiful view. One thing is certain, Florence still has a certain je ne sais quoi that leaves its visitors spellbound.
- A list of famous people that lived here reads like a veritable “whose who” of European history and includes Michelangelo, Macchiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Galileo to name only a few. Read more on these figures and many others in my upcoming posts!
- See Patricia Rubin,”Bernard Berenson, Villa I Tatti, and the Visualization of the Italian Renaissance,” in Gli Anglo-Americani a Firenze. Idea e costruzione del Rinascimento, ed. Marcello Fantoni (Rome: Bulzoni, 2000), 207-21.
- For more on the fascinating history of the Grand Tour, see John Towner, “The Grand Tour: A Key Phase in the History of Tourism,” Annals of Tourism Research 12.3 (1985): 297-333.
- Rosemary Sweet, “British Perceptions of Florence in the Long Eighteenth Century,” The Historical Journal 50.4 (2007): 841-846
- Ibid., 855, 858.
- Elisa Comporeale, “Visioni americane d’interni del Rinascimento italiano: dalla Gilded Age agli anni Venti.” Archivio Storico Italiano 173.3 (2015). 485, 487-88. 492-93, 496.