Italian beauty comes in styles of language, taste, artistry, architecture and landscape. One of my favourite elements, the Toscana landscape, consists of green, low-lying hills and graceful curves offering panoramic views of live orchards, vineyards and cypress trees. The land speaks of natural movement and rhythm, featuring an endless horizon of moving green pastures and winding roads that twist in curious ways. It is these features that entice people to the outskirts of such a breathtaking province. Not before, however, stepping through the streets of the Italian city called ‘Firenze,’ where ancient Florentine architecture, art and the inhabitants of the city are the foundations of the sublime.
The fabric of Firenze or ‘Florence,’ is a mesh of artistry, human experiences and beauty, predominantly found in detailed art and architecture. There is at least one tool that frames such beauty; it has four features and is named the quatrefoil. Speaking from my own experience, I found the city to be attractive and enticing through the eyes of this device. Quatrefoil stems from the term quattrocento, which is a word that resonates with me when I think about Florence. I find the strong sense of beautification, where piazzas sing of spectacular splendour and reverence, prompt my memory and I am reminded of the delicate gold frame of the quatrefoil. It speaks of “the first year of the century” in Italian, and is synonymous with the earliest true Renaissance images of the fourteenth century.
This symbol resonates with my story in Florence, as its origins (being the Early Italian Renaissance) is also the period of history I first studied in the great city. My initial stay in Florence came about upon my twenty-first birthday when my Uncle offered to organise a two-week art history course for me in Florence, studying with the British Institute. Through the institute, one may choose to study the Italian language, art history or art. Being the art history devotee that I am, I gratefully chose to partake in the “Early Sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance Course.” From this experience, I learned that art, architecture and history contribute even more so than I thought, to a city and its beauty.
In the European Summer of 2015 I started my Florentine adventures and study, having travelled to Italy twice before. It was in our first class that my lecturer first spoke of the quatrefoil as a symbol located on Baptistry doors, leading one through “The Gates of Paradise.” This resulted from a competition that was held in ancient times to find an artist to create a pair of bronze doors for the Baptistry of St. John, the oldest remaining church in the city. These proto-Renaissance doors now consist of twenty-eight quatrefoil panels, with the twenty top panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. Following that lesson about the doors and their ancient ornamental quatrefoil design, the symbol of four lobes was recognisable in many forms of architectural tracery, as it resembles a flower or clover leaf.
The quatrefoil is associated with Florence significantly more than her sister, Rome. Whilst I do love Rome and do always wish to return there, it was spending two weeks in Florence on this trip, getting to know new forms of the sublime that changed my outlook on Italian living and the art of “framing beauty,” something I believe the art and architecture of Florence to be particularly good at.
The ancient city sings praises of its medieval leaders and religious history, primarily through divine architecture (almost always featuring the quatrefoil). A prime example is the Medici family rulers who have their coat-of-arms appearing within the four leaves to testify their significance and influence over the Renaissance period in building Firenze as a thriving city.
The art produced during the sixteenth-century in Italy literally frames the great artistic developments and innovations that occurred under the patronage of the powerful and the discerning. Artists of this period, particularly in Florence, created groundbreaking works that are still considered to be landmarks in the history of Western art. There are a dizzying number of collections that consider the political, social and religious context of life in Italy, and critically analyse beauty through the eyes of its various patrons.
It is well acknowledged, that for art lovers, there are few cities other than Florence where one can find such sublime Renaissance collections. These works may be found in Renaissance churches such as the Basilica di San Lorenzo and Santa Maria Novella. Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Botticelli (his Madonna and Child with Five Angels being one of my favourite masterpieces), are some of the masters of art who are exhibited.
Although the quatrefoil appears in these great works, it is a symbol that has been re-interpreted and re-contextualised in a phenomenon which art historians refers to as an “iconographical drift.” The associations with the shape are constantly shifting depending on where it’s used, who is using it, and what purpose it is used for. Nevertheless, in most cases, whether the pattern is found on a public rubbish bin, a wallpaper, or used as ornamental design, it is used to enhance the sublime.
Whilst taking in the sublime art of the city, I too studied the ancient books available to me through the British Institute. I began to understand that works of art are never to be examined in isolation, but are to be firmly placed in their social, political, religious and historical context. As well as learning to identify specific styles, I saw the importance of using ancient techniques, materials and frames such as the quatrefoil to create Renaissance works of art.
For greater understanding of interpreting Florentine beauty, I found the British Institute school useful in meeting professionals in the various fields of artistic and cultural preservation. For nearly sixty years, the British Institute of Florence has offered courses on the History of Art. Under the direction of Ian Greenlees in the early 1960s, courses were instituted in order to provide expertise and instruction in English on the various collections that have enticed foreigners to Florence for centuries.
After classes where time was spent gazing at oil paintings and marble sculptures of the Renaissance era, some of my most memorable experiences in and around Firenze included running through the glorious hills of Tuscany, and strolling the city of Florence to capture the inordinate. In my opinion, striking appeal is apparent in so many aspects of the Italian city. From flamboyant, gesturing Italian people offering passers-by pistachio flavoured gelato, to hidden Renaissance churches lost in the crevasses of piazzas. The romanticised physical elements are endless.
In addition to art, one finds that many architectural sites best exemplify the values and affluence of the Medici Rulers. Whilst the Duomo is a primary symbol of Power and Wealth, I find Palazzo Pitti to be a wonderful example of a site that reflects fifteenth and sixteenth century early Renaissance prosperity. It is exciting to frame this period through the eyes of the elite, in a classical, passionate sense whereby art and architecture romanticise an era of divided wealth.
Sightseeing vacant buildings in order to frame the Renaissance architecture of Florence is also feasible. Certainly, places like the Academia and Duomo are never quiet and have constant streams of people; however Tuscan castles, Renaissance churches and piazzas on the outskirts of the city may be dormant. I found silent, hidden places such as the church of Santa Maria del Carmine and Montegufoni Castle in the midst of an existing fabric, and these places turned out to be the most memorable treasures. A solitary journey through an empty building is an unnerving experience, which allows you to unpack its detail. It’s a wonderful way to transport yourself into another romantic or ancient era where you can leave behind your daily obligations and schedule. In particular, Santa Maria del Carmine evoked a fire within in me to study the way in which churches frame historical figures, such as Saint Cecilia and her musical gifts. I found that giving myself time in solitude forever changed my perspective and nurtured my many idealistic loves.
In addition to physical features that frame the magnificence of Firenze, the feel of the city is almost always declared as being “warm,” and I would like to expand upon why this is. I learnt on this trip that luminosity is a fabulous aspect to the feel of Florence, particularly by the edge of the Arno River that divides Florence into two entities. In the moonlight, the city streets around Ponte Vecchio become warm and evoke a rustic air similar to a country town.
Classical street lamps and yellow rendered walls light Florence. Whilst the river is not the main landscape feature, it does aid in creating reflecting light patterns, which enliven, in a visual sense, the decorations and embellishments of the city. Like stain glass, the river creates movement and scatters the light into the very darkest places of the riverbanks.
There is significant townscape value in Florence, and I understand this to be because aesthetic qualities are found in architectural ensembles. In Florence, there is enclosure and definition of outdoor spaces for human comfort through cobble stone squares fenced by buildings. These piazzas don’t often have specific uses or user groups; however, they are very important in creating conversation between Florentine buildings. They have historic value, landmarks and identifiable character, which I believe, give Florence a strong sense of place and cultural identity.
Florentine architecture often exhibits rhythm, repetition, Renaissance and Baroque themes, focal points and intense façade details. I have understood the significance of the quatrefoil shape as being one of the most prominent in framing Florentine details. These are key architectural qualities which create a prominent relationship between projections and deflected urban spaces with hidden crevasses.
Furthermore, Florence has taught me that it’s not necessarily “the picturesque building” that makes the experience; rather, it is the entire urban fabric and the elements that frame it. It is the buildings surrounding a piazza and warmly lit walkways that give the city a homely feel. The architecture accentuates the sublime, but really, it is the conversation, the cobble stone paths and the squares of laughter that formulate Florentine beauty. Evidently, this compassionate city welcomes its guests and plays host to wonderful creativity and artistry, even centuries on from its beginnings.
1. Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Plates 1-994. Vol. 2. Phaidon, 1968.
2. Gombrich, Ernst Hans, and E. H. Gombrich. The story of art. Vol. 12. London: Phaidon, 1995.
3. Holmes, George. Florence, Rome and the Origins of the Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 1986.
4. Lucas, Henry S. The Renaissance and the Reformation. Harper, 1934.