Teaching with Hidden Florence

As the full launch of four new Hidden Florence walks fast approaches, I’ve found myself reflecting on the project and my collaborations with the larger Hidden Florence team. I joined the project in 2018 to help develop the “Marietta: City of Women” and “Ercole: Crime and Punishment” walks. My own research specializes in gender and sensory history in early modern Florence, analyzing the soundscapes that surrounded Florence’s many female institutions: orphanages, conservatories, reform houses, and convents. As many of the Hidden Florence guides tell us, Florence was a noisy place and sound served as a locative tool that reflected the city’s class and gender dynamics, social character, spatial experiences, and the rhythms of daily life.

Alongside my collaboration on creating new Hidden Florence content, I also used the project as a teaching tool. Digital humanities projects like Hidden Florence offer new opportunities to animate university teaching and bridge research and pedagogy. This was my goal in an undergraduate digital humanities course I recently taught at the University of Toronto called Step Forward. The course invited advanced undergrads to collaborate on two on-going digital humanities projects: Hidden Florence and The Digitally Encoded Census Information Mapping Archive (DECIMA). Over the course of the term students worked to craft walking routes for two new Hidden Florence walks, researched important Florentine sites, and sketched character profiles for both Marietta and Ercole, our newest guides.

I wanted to use Hidden Florence as an opportunity to teach Florentine history, and urban history more generally, in a new way. By collaborating on the early creation of Marietta and Ercole, students accessed premodern Florence from the ground-up. Seeing the city through the eyes of a birro and a textile worker offered a unique perspective. Rather than focusing on Florence’s great artists, wealthy families, and ornate cathedrals, Step Forward students experienced the city as the vast majority of early modern Florentines would have. In the case of Ercole this was a world of petty crime, run-ins with the law, political scandal, social gatherings, and a city that both pitied and punished its’ criminals. In the case of Marietta, students discovered a world in which girls and women laboured, socialized, and moved about Florence. Marietta also provided a view into the charitable homes, convents, and institutions that housed thousands of Florentine girls and women. Behind institutional doors female wards built rich communities, and civic and religious authorities worked to both discipline and care for female bodies and souls.

The creation of Marietta emerged as a particularly useful teaching tool. Many of Marietta’s experiences draw from my own archival research. Marietta’s stint in the Orbatello widow’s home, her descriptions of Florence’s noisy streets, and the experiences of her friend Antonia, who works as a prostitute, are emblematic of larger themes that often marked women’s lives in the early modern city: charity, institutionalization, sensory discipline, and the politics of purity. These are all themes I explore in my own scholarly work. Using Hidden Florence as a teaching tool brought my research to life and allowed me to share it with a wide audience through the character of Marietta.

However, undergraduate students in the Step Forward course did more than just learn through Marietta and Ercole: they actively collaborated in shaping these characters. In doing so, they were able to learn about Florentine history at the exact same time as they put that knowledge to use. Moreover, they brought enthusiasm and dynamism to the project—an energy that is still reflected in characters of Marietta and Ercole. 

At the end of the university term we handed over our Hidden Florence research to the larger team, who continued to work on developing content and characters. While our work in the course came to a close, the new Marietta and Ercole walks stand as a testament to the happy weeks spent in the classroom mapping possible walking routes, researching Florentine sites, and discussing the unique experiences of an early modern police officer and textile worker.

Julia Rombough

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