Blog: Giovanni who?

In January this year Fabrizio Nevola and I began a project to create a history tourism app for Florence. The basic idea – the USP, if you like – was that instead of going to monumental sites such as the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio, we would show people aspects of the Renaissance city that mass tourism doesn’t usually bother with. Now, a month later, we have a bare-bones prototype, a list of places we want to visit, a pot of ideas about what we want to get across, and a way of presenting it through a character we’re calling Giovanni (more on him shortly). Smartphone technology offers urban historians all kinds of fascinating possibilities, and plenty of challenges. This blog is intended to document the development of this free, AHRC-funded history tourism app and the discussion informing it, as well as give some sense of what is shaping up to be a white-knuckle ride as we bring the project from drawing board to download by the middle of May.

Why make an app at all? In fact the project didn’t begin life that way. It started within the confines of the Tavernsproject (and is still closely linked to it – which is why this blog has a home here). The original plan was to create an online GIS (Geographic Information Systems). The point of entry was a little-known document from 1593, where a certain Bastiano de’ Rossi describes a “dream” in which he walks around Florence in a desperate and fruitless search for an open pub (The barfly’s dream). The idea was to recreate this imaginary pub crawl on the detailed “Buonsignori” map of 1584, feeding in data from a census of 1561 and attaching an analysis of the key place of taverns in the social geography of the city.

This idea was quickly dumped. There is a big project currently underway at the University of Toronto that is using the same Florentine map and census to GIS the whole city. It was pointless to replicate a small part of that. Instead, we thought, why not take Bastiano de’ Rossi’s virtual itinerary of drink and turn it into an actual walking ‘tour’? After all, the underlying historical concerns were the same, essentially the relationship between space, movement and identity. Indeed, there is something immensely attractive about asking a person to imagine past places and past journeys as they walk the same streets in the present day, especially since a significant strand of recent work in urban history (channelling theorists from Walter Benjamin to Michel de Certeau, and in a more general sense the psychogeography movement as a whole) is so closely linked to the idea of walking in the first place. The only stumbling block was that to the best of my knowledge not a single architectural trace remains of any Florentine tavern of the 16th century. You couldn’t have somebody plugged into their smartphone in front of a shop, apartment or streetcorner (and many taverns were at streecorners) without anything to look at.

However, this wasn’t a major problem. It simply meant expanding the focus. The project as it now stands, elegantly titled “Street Life Renaissance Florence: a Digitally Triggered Location-based Tour in an Augmented Reality Environment”, still takes a close interest in Bastiano de’ Rossi’s taverns, but isn’t centred around them. It’s also still using the Buonsignori map and census data, but now it is an attempt to capture the texture of a city that was criss-crossed every day by thousands of journeys: daily rhythms along habitual routes, to the tavern, streetcorner, piazza, workplace, church, apothecary shop, food market; unplanned diversions that often started or ended up in these same places; and the more choreographed movement of the procession – local, civic, sacred, secular.

Our first meeting in January, at the Bristol offices of app developer Calvium, produced “Giovanni”. Radio producer Nicola Barranger, who is doing the audio, suggested we needed a character to bring the app to life. We instinctively liked this idea. Being led around by a “period” character will hopefully make the sense of the past, and of place, more resonant. Apart from that, breaking the rules, inventing an individual, is an illicit pleasure that’s hard for historians to pass up. Who would this character be? That was more or less instinctive, too. If the app is about exploring others sides of the physical city, it’s also about the city as experienced in the everyday life of an ordinary Florentine. So we quickly decided that our composite Giovanni would be a wool beater, a “typical” worker in Florence’s huge textile industry and a member of the Renaissance Republic’s disenfranchised majority. The point is not to ignore the Florentine elites who built the imposing palaces, commissioned the now-iconic artworks and ran the government. The lives, spaces and cultures of rich and poor were far too intermeshed for that. But the app will take a ground level view of urban existence.

Giovanni's home turf: Piazza Sant' Ambrogio. Florence. Picture: ugo galasso
Giovanni’s home turf: Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio, Florence. Picture: ugo galasso

Both Giovanni and the way the app will work are starting to come together. There will be two clusters of sites, the “neighbourhood” and the “centre”. Giovanni lives in an outlying neighbourhood of the historic city, and he works in the centre, in a wool merchant’s bottega. More specifically he lives in the parish of Sant’ Ambrogio. In the prototype test two weeks ago (with Bristol masquerading as Florence) you’re guided by GPS into Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio and then asked to find a couple of marker stones wrapped around the corner of the church. Once you’re there, you trigger the audio and Giovanni starts talking – either in English or Italian. He tells you this is his home turf, that he’s a brother in the local confraternity that meets just behind you, that he rents a house off the piazza. He tells you that the signage in front of you has been put up by the artisans of his festive “kingdom” who gather there at Carnival or May Day. This is all done by a voice actor.

Do you hear a buzzing noise? App testing in Bristol, with Jo Reid, Fabrizio Nevola, Nicola Barranger, Richard Hull
Do you hear a buzzing noise? App testing in Bristol, with Jo Reid, Fabrizio Nevola, Nicola Barranger, Richard Hull

You can then choose to hear more. What you get are a few brief grabs by us sketching out the main themes: the social geography of the city; what these confraternities are all about; parish cults (Sant’ Ambrogio had a nice one that turned around a chalice miraculously filled with Christ’s blood); the ritual play of lower-class festive kingdoms.

It’s all work in progress. There will be about 15 sites that will put you – in any order you like – in front of a street tabernacle; inside the city’s old grain market; where a couple of notorious boozing and gambling dens once stood in the city centre; in the oratory of a charity that dispensed alms to the working poor; the central food market in what is now the Piazza della Repubblica. And so on. The app is designed to function at two levels, one for interested tourists, the other for students doing one of the many study abroad courses run in Florence. Apple’s app store has a 50M limit per cluster, which means less than two minutes of audio per site. So you can choose to “learn more”, which pings you to a website that expands on everything you’ve heard on the streets.

The creative challenges of producing the app are the province of Calvium (thank you Jo Reid and Richard Hull). For the historians, and the audio specialist, it’s the content. We want to cover a period from about 1400 to 1600, and we’re placing Giovanni around 1490, at the height of the power of Lorenzo de’ Medici. How change is dealt with is tricky – for example, the Piazza della Repubblica was also the site of the Jewish ghetto, constructed in 1571, long after Giovanni’s “time”. We’re going there, but we may leave it to the historians’ voice pieces. As for Giovanni himself, he’s in his thirties, but we’re still not sure if he’s married. He’s no puritan, but is he a guilty or a carefree sinner? Probably a little of both if you’re a typical renaissance Italian man. And of course he is a man, which makes sense for an app that’s primarily about public space (though artisan women were not as constricted as their patrician counterparts) but also presents the challenge of bringing the social history of women into the picture. Also, we’re still working on the tone of Giovanni – a touch wry, certainly, but does he always stay “in character” or do we allow him a little ironic leeway?

Early April in Florence is the first on-site trial. We’ll get outside the bubble and find out what real users make of all this. Will our Giovanni engage or irritate? Will anybody find the damn objects they’re looking for? For an unexpurgated account, see the next blog …

David Rosenthal


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