Blog: Tales of the city

Getting into character

He gets into a brawl in a notorious downtown tavern. He flirts with a fruit seller in the Old Market. He stands in front of the Cathedral workshop and wonders if a young sculptor called Michelangelo might do something with a block of marble that’s been languishing there for years (a decade later that block became the statue of David). “Giovanni” has definitely come a long way in the last two months. As “Hidden Florence” developed, so did he, and by the end of it all he’d taken on a life of his own – as any fictional character worth the candle should.

Comparing notes: David Rosenthal, Fabrizio Nevola in Piazza S Piero Maggiore
David Rosenthal, Fabrizio Nevola in Piazza S Piero Maggiore

I say the end of it all, but the app’s not there quite yet. There is still the accompanying website to complete. There are also a few technical glitches to iron out, but all the major gremlins have now been sorted as a result of the April trial in Florence. Jo Reid, the app developer, talks about that side of things below. And Nicola Barranger, the audio producer, gives her take on recording Fabrizio Nevola and me on the streets as the rain beat down (I still owe her for half an umbrella), before we all watched on anxiously as about 20 people plugged in and switched on.  They liked it.  Some of them loved it. Result.

Since then, we’ve been in overdrive. We now have the entire “Neighbourhood” (eight sites) and “Centre” (nine sites) clusters, with each scripted Giovanni recording – by English and Italian voice actors – matched to an interview-style “Hear More” piece by the historians. A few days ago Fabrizio gave the almost finished article a second birl in Florence, and he’ll be blogging on that any moment now…

In the meantime, a taste of Giovanni. What I realised as things evolved was just how much could be conveyed in under two minutes by tightly linking place to character and story.

Piazza della Repubblica, with column of the Dovizia
Piazza della Repubblica, with column of the Dovizia

Take the Mercato Vecchio, the Old Market. It’s completely changed. The Mercato, and the Ghetto beside it, were demolished in the 19th century and the entire space was transformed into the neoclassical expanse of Piazza della Repubblica that you see today. So … you are guided into the zone by GPS, and you find yourself walking into the Piazza while simultaneously seeing your progress on a fantastically detailed 1584 map of the city (you can toggle back to a modern map if you get disorientated). Navigating with the 1584 map is part of the fun, though. It makes it feel as if the past is under your feet and all around you. And you can zoom in and out! Believe me, it’s pretty cool. You are then asked – using pictures and brief instructions – to find the column of  the Dovizia, the copy of Donatello’s lost original. Once you’ve found it, you trigger the audio and Giovanni begins:

“Yesterday I met Francesca right here, underneath the statue of the Dovizia, the Goddess of Abundance …”

App map: The Mercato Vecchio in 1584
App map: The Mercato Vecchio in 1584

Giovanni starts by pretending he was just passing the market, since it’s near his work at the wool bottega  (he’s a labourer in the vast Florentine textile industry). But then he admits he came looking for Francesca, one of the treccole or female street sellers that weave their way around the heaving market stalls carrying baskets full of produce. Francesca turns out to be the daughter of a certain Cesare, and Giovanni reminds you that he’s talked about this Cesare, a very unlucky dice player, when he was leading you around his neighbourhood (which you may not have done yet, it doesn’t matter). He tells you what you can buy in the market. He tells you that the market is also full of ruffians and pimps, that the public brothel is next door, that there was a knife fight the week before in front of an image of the Madonna. He tells you the treccole are sometimes taken to be prostitutes, which is why – so he says – he likes to keep an eye on Francesca. When he finds her, they have a brief, coy exchange, and he buys some eggs from her, which he later takes round to Cesare’s place. “You know … as a gift to the family”.

It’s a very simple narrative. But without much ado you find out what Renaissance Italians ate, about food coming into city from the contado, the countryside around Florence (Francesca gets her produce from Cesare’s relatives who work a bit of land outside the city). You get a sense of the journeys a man like Giovanni makes from neighbourhood to centre in his everyday life, about his social connections. You also get a sense of women in the streets. This is what the “Hear More” for this location deals with, the presence of women in “masculine” public space, the prescriptions of moralists (don’t leave home except to go to church) and how the realities are different, especially for Florence’s lower classes.

As you go around the other sites, you build up a picture of Giovanni – the way he thinks about honour, family, friendship, community. He’s wry, he’s proud, he’s a bit of a gambler and a tavern-goer – “I’m no saint but I do believe in the power of God”. He lives with his mother and sister. You get his full-throated opinions on politics, crime, public artworks, sacred relics. He understands only too well how Medici money and patronage grease the wheels of the city’s notionally Republican politics. He calls himself a “friend” of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and he’s a recipient of Medici patronage, but he’s also keenly aware that non-citizens like him are shut out of civic institutions, that the “game is rigged”.

I’m talking about him as if he is a real character, not a fictional composite that draws upon, and interprets, a body of scholarship. Maybe I’m in too deep. But then that’s the idea, to allow people to engage imaginatively with the “experience” of being in Florence, moving through its streets, as an artisan in 1490, an experience that did indeed link stories and characters to places. Oh, and did I mention you can zoom in and out … ?

David Rosenthal (historian)


Designing the experience

Jo Reid, with Nick Terpstra (left) and Niall Atkinson
Jo Reid, with Nick Terpstra (left) and Niall Atkinson

Within the “experience design” framework that we invented for developing apps such as Hidden Florence, we emphasise the importance of user testing on location and assuming design iteration based on those tests. This trip further confirmed the value in that approach. Whilst Fabrizio and David know Florence, the hooks for engaging users with that knowledge through present day street furniture relies on effectively relating what you hear with where you are and giving users a tangible and obvious anchor to ground their attention. It is in the minutiae of detail such as a phrase that gets you noticing something that you hadn’t seen before that help create the magic moments within an experience. The trip allowed us to hone the way our stories connect you with the streets and understand the best way to use Giovanni to help us transition back in time.

The user testing feedback was also invaluable for confirming the need to allow multiple ways of interfacing with the app :

  • a guided tour for those who prefer to be led
  • The ability to see a modern day map in addition to the 1584 Bonsignori map to help with way finding for those who might be concerned at getting lost
  • And finally the challenge of working out where you are by relating buildings that are on the Bonsignori map to those that are still there.

For me this “game” of piecing together the buildings you could see on Bonsignori with those around you was amazing and a real highlight of the trip. The other highlight was the pleasure of collaborating with such knowledgeable people and being able to eat with the locals.

Some things are always the same. GPS and Android phones are always problematic! But working out creative solutions to mitigate problems is all part of a developer’s lot in life …

Jo Reid (app developer)


Sound bites

“Could we try that again? Just one more time?” It’s something I normally find myself saying to a contributor in a nice warm BBC studio somewhere in the middle of London.

However here it’s pouring with rain, we’re outside sheltering under an umbrella and I’m holding a microphone trying to record an interview with David Rosenthal about life in the taverns in the 15th Century. Typical London weather you would think or Birmingham perhaps on cold mid-winter’s afternoon?

No. Certainly not Florence in April when it should be temperate, a light wind at most and above all – sunny. Sadly for us it was gloomy, heavy cloud and most of all … wet!

However here we were trying to imagine the student or tourist, hungry for more information about how people lived in the period. They’d be walking the streets of Sant’Ambrogio probably in sandals, and if they had any protection at all it would be from the sun.

Back in January at a meeting in Bristol with Jo Reid and Richard Hull from Calvium (the wonderful app people who have designed and built the thing) we discussed how to best take the general tourist and history student around unknown Florence without it sounding like a lecture.

“How about creating someone from the period to take us around?” We could invent a character from the 15th century, I suggested, taking the visitor around his home stamping ground. Suddenly we had given birth to a thirtysomething renaissance wool worker – Giovanni. David Rosenthal and Fabrizio Nevola would create this character and write his script and I would edit it for audio and then record an actor. Fabrizio also had an idea he’d first heard on BBC Radio 4 in the hugely successful series A History of the World in 100 Objects. However where my BBC colleague Paul Kobrak had interviewed a series of experts, here there were to be just two – Fabrizio and David. This does make the exercise far more difficult of course since by now we had got to know each other far too well, and it’s an old journalistic wisdom “Never interview your friends”. None the less, the situation in my opinion does have a couple of advantages; gentle persuading/bullying/nagging would be more acceptable, and we could do it do it again.

We were in Florence to hear what had been already recorded in situ and to test the idea of interviewing the experts on the streets. For me, it did mean a couple of very late nights, editing the audio in my hotel room hacking back an average six minute interview to about two, but frankly what a small price to pay for working in Florence. Jo would then upload the audio onto the app overnight. On the last morning of the trip, a team of students and academics working in Florence gathered in the Café letterario at the Murate on via Ghibellina to try it out for the first time. We collectively held our breath. Would they like it? Would they manage to download the app successfully? What would they think of David and Fabrizio’s interviews?

Again please: Nicola Barranger, Fabrizio Nevola
Again please: Nicola Barranger, Fabrizio Nevola

It was a delight to follow them around the streets of Sant’Ambrogio (now in sunshine but be-puddled the day before) with earphones and looking up at the spots David and Fabrizio had chosen. And then best of all, the smiles afterwards confirmed that yes, we had got it right. A few niggles of course, but then, this was our first audience, and there were still a few gremlins to sort out. They loved our Giovanni and finished the tour wanting more, which is always a good sign. However the real test will come when our historical baby grows up and we really have to let our 15th-century imaginary Giovanni go out into the real 21st-century Florence.

Nicola Barranger (audio producer)

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