The invented character of Giovanni is closely linked to the wider aims of Hidden Florence. If the agenda is to explore aspects of the physical city that most tourism tends to neglect, it is also about the city as experienced by ordinary, often overlooked, Florentines. Giovanni is an artisan, a member of the Renaissance republic’s disenfranchised majority during the time that Lorenzo de’ Medici was at height of his power. He lives in Sant’ Ambrogio, a largely working-class neighbourhood, and works in the heart of the city where most of the city’s textile workshops were located. Through Giovanni, the visitor is given a sense of the Renaissance city as a lived experience: the structures of everyday life; and the rhythms that took men to taverns, streetcorners, the piazza, the workplace, and the food market. Giovanni also goes to several of the monumental sites that feature in any tourist itinerary, such as the Palazzo Strozzi, Orsanmichele and the Piazza della Signoria. However, when he does, he presents a ground-level view of urban existence, as well as his robust opinions on palaces, class, and civic politics.
In this way, Giovanni brings together a number of the agendas that have driven social history in the last two generations. In the first place, there has been an immense effort to reconstruct the experience of the politically and socially marginalised. Linked to this has been a focus on the anthropology, or “microhistories”, of daily life, which has provided new insights into the nature of identity, power and agency in the early modern world. While “place” has always had a central role here, more recently historians have turned to the idea that “space” itself is produced by the interaction between people and the built environment. Movement has become central to this new urban history – the notion that moving through the streets becomes a dynamic process by which both the spaces of the city and one’s sense of identity and community are shaped.
So, as the user of the app follows in Giovanni’s footsteps, they explore both the character and the city. Giovanni is based on a wealth of historical research, and the app builds on that to create a fictional individual. One example. In the city centre, Giovanni passes the bronze statue of Saint Stephen, the patron saint of the Wool Guild, at the guild church of Orsanmichele. He tells you something about the competition between the guilds to have the flashiest sculpture. Then he tells you about the textile industry, how workers like him stream into the city every day to beat fleeces in the merchants’ workshops. Beyond these well-known facts, Giovanni also tells you that Orsanmichele reminds him that, unlike the merchants, workers such as him can’t have guilds, that they are shut out of civic institutions, that, as he says elsewhere, “the game is rigged”.
On one hand, we possess little direct evidence of a wool worker’s thoughts and opinions. However, we do know that these labourers staged a revolution a century earlier, suppressed but never forgotten, and that class tensions persisted in the fifteenth century. We also know that artisans like Giovanni created groups called potenze, “powers”, and that for a few days every year these potenze and their “kings” lorded it over the Florentine elite, a reversal of roles that was playful but also spoke to the gulf that separated rich from poor. Giovanni tells you that he dreams of creating a potenza of Woolbeaters outside Orsanmichele, something that in fact took place a few decades after his time. In effect Giovanni gives all these fragments a voice – a wry, tendentious, politically aware voice that is based, plausibly, on the sources. The user’s relationship to Giovanni is not unlike the one a reader is encouraged to have with the protagonist of a well-researched historical novel – with the added layer that you are standing at the same sites and looking at the same objects as your “contemporary” guide.
Elizabeth and Thomas V Cohen, Daily Life in Renaissance Italy (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001)
Lauro Martines, Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988)
John M Najemy, A History of Florence, 1200 – 1575 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008)
Richard C Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (New York: Academic Press, 1980)