Finding Cosimo de’ Medici

Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) isn’t like most of our guides in ‘Hidden Florence’. So far, the characters we’ve discussed in these blogs – such as Giovanni, and in HF2 Ercole and Marietta – are fictional and in various ways at the bottom end of urban hierarchies. Cosimo, on the other hand, is real, and at the top of the ziggurat. As the pope’s banker and the man who took unofficial control of republican Florence in 1434, Cosimo was even more famous in his own lifetime than he is now, renowned for his stupendous wealth, his political acumen, and his patronage of architects, humanists and painters. What Cosimo allows us to do is to present a figure at the other end of the power relationships we’ve explored with our other guides, the kind of establishment authority figure that they, however obliquely, are in dialogue with. For a history walking app, he’s a particularly good figure to do this with, since, due to his extensive building programs, there’s plenty of Cosimo’s material legacy to visit in today’s Florence.

Marble portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici, 1460s, Andrea del Verrocchio (attrib.), Bode Museum

On one hand, the process has been no different to voicing these other characters. As always the key thing has been to draw out (and hopefully draw you into) the relationship between an individual and the places significant to them – to re-create lived experience in the Renaissance city. On the other hand, given the detail modern scholarship has gifted us on Cosimo, and on his involvement in most of the sites he takes you to, every element had to be highly precise. We wanted to go to the Medici palace, which meant we had to place Cosimo – at the earliest – in the very late 1450s. In the end we chose 1459. At this point Cosimo is 70 years old, at the height of his wealth and prestige, but also, as he is well aware, approaching the end of his life. This means that, as he takes you to the places that matter to him, he is often reflecting on the past, reviewing his legacy.

Again, thanks to the scholarship, there was not a lot of need to invent facts in order to shed light on this Cosimo. When he goes to the convent of Sant’ Apollonia, one of the ‘hidden’ stops on this itinerary, he can recall his personal links to two of the nuns, daughters of his late banking associate Folco Portinari. When he stops at the circular temple at the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, he can dwell on his ties to the former abbot Ambrogio Traversari and the humanist circles he once mixed in there. Which is not to say that we haven’t invented the odd detail to make a point and give colour to his narration. At a streetcorner near the Medici palace, where he mingles with the shopkeepers, we have him tell you that his grandson Lorenzo has started to come with him on these walks. We have no idea if that ever happened, but we liked the thought of 10-year-old Lorenzo (the future ‘Magnificent’) learning the lessons of everyday neighbourhood patronage at Cosimo’s side, lessons that would later pay a dividend in popular support.

Yet if few ‘facts’ have been fabricated, making Cosimo speak is, as with all our characters, necessarily a fictive enterprise. We’ve used fragments he is known to have said or written, adapted sentiments he was plausibly reported to have expressed, and to an extent adhered to the contemporary view of him as laconic and wry. But his overall ‘voice’ is another matter. Soon after Cosimo’s death, the Florentine government, a Medici government steered by his son, Piero, declared him to be pater patriae, father of the fatherland, a benevolent and paternalistic statesman. Forty years ago, Anthony Molho suggested historians had been blinded by the encomia surrounding Cosimo and argued that we should really think of him as a padrino, a mafia-like godfather. It’s not a debate that has ever completely gone away. More recently, Dale Kent, the most important modern historian of Cosimo, has been criticised for playing down his political motives in order to argue that he was pious and civic-minded, that his charity and patronage of religious institutions attest mainly to a rich man’s bid to expiate his sins.

We’ve looked to tack through these arguments, and in fact they represent some of the issues we wanted to explore with this character. When we meet Cosimo, he’s just staged a ‘coup’ in which he seems to have consolidated the Medici grip on the republic, and so we’ve made him a touch defensive and self-justifying as he takes you from site to site, fully aware that some see him as that most Florentine of bogeymen, a tyrant. Naturally, his self-presentation is not entirely reliable, but we’ve contrived to make that apparent, to construct a voice pitched between civic piety and – more than Cosimo realises – hubris. Plagued by gout and only five years from the crypt, our Cosimo is indeed fearful for his immortal soul, and he does care for the honour of the city, but at the same time he’s a wily, slightly sinister and at times ruthless political operator. In other words, he’s complicated – and we hope you’ll find him and his take on mid-fifteenth century Florence engaging. Just don’t cross him.

David Rosenthal


Marietta’s Story

In the previous two posts, we talked about developing the character of Ercole, the Romagnol cop who will be guiding users along our upcoming Crime and Punishment tour. Today, I want to present a sneak peak at the Sex and the Sacred walk – and its guide, Marietta degli Innocenti. This character was written and developed in coordination with Julia Rombough, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, who works on the sensory experience within Florentine convents and charitable institutions during early modern period.

Marietta was abandoned as a baby, and she grew up in the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the foundling hospital of Florence. While still a child, Marietta learned the basics of silk weaving, and she spent most of her adolescence working inside the walls of the orphanage. Eventually, she found her way out of the institutions that shaped her young life, got married, and had a child. But, by the time our users meet Marietta, her husband has died and she is back to working the silk loom.

With this walk, we wanted to highlight the challenges faced by the abandoned children of early modern Florence, and especially those difficulties which were particular to young women. Foundling hospitals and care homes provided the abbandonate with what few advantages they possessed – nourishment, trade skills, dowries – but they also enforced strict labour regimes. To highlight this, we developed a character, Marietta, whose personality was shaped by the opportunities and dangers of her upbringing.

Gate to the Orbatello, Via della Pergola 56

In our story, Marietta’s life in charitable institutions gave her a gift for spotting opportunities, as well as the sharp elbows needed to reach the front of any given line. First at the Innocenti and then in the widows’ asylum just down the street (the Orbatello, above), Marietta carefully cultivated her image as a dutiful worker and devotee of the Virgin Mary. When she speaks, she has the confident voice of life experience married to a strong internal narrative.

To be sure, Marietta is an extreme case: a winner. But she’s well aware that many of her Innocenti sisters ended up in less comfortable situations. Some would still be living on the inside, being worked to the bone in a convent or other charitable institution; others, like her friend Antonia, maintain a precarious independence on the outside through a combination of sex work and poorly-paid jobs in the textile industry.

Marietta is as completely a Florentine as our other guides, and she’s happy for the chance to present the city to our users. But, like Ercole, she also knows that life can be tough for the urban poor. An experienced wheeler-dealer, Marietta knows all the best ways to make a living and stay safe in the big city, a service she wants to provide to you, her newest friend. We hope you enjoy meeting her in the upcoming Sex and the Sacred walk!

Daniel Jamison

Building Apps and Finding Voices

Hi – this is Daniel Jamison!

I feel very lucky to have joined the project for this round, since Calvium has provided the team with a ready-to-go app-builder. The builder gives us direct and ongoing access to the content management system (CMS) for a beta version of Hidden Florence. In other words, I can record a version of Ercole the cop talking about Le Murate, visit the site and test the app, and then perform revisions to the dialogue – all without needing to wait for updates! That’s definitely handy, since, as David’s post describes below, the experience of visiting a location in the flesh sometimes demands a complete re-think for the script.

For me, part of the fun of getting to draft a ‘complete’ beta version was inserting my own recordings of the guide dialogue. As the draft scripts took shape, I developed a very clear sense of what Ercole sbirro would sound like: gruff and bluff, but with a softer side. Then, I sat down with my computer microphone and GarageBand and just gave it my best shot! Through my amateur efforts to bring him to life, Ercole got a little Brooklyn accent – I’m not sure, but I may have been channeling my grandfather, who was a detective with the NYPD.

Once the Ercole recordings were finished and uploaded into the app-builder, I could head to Florence and see how well my birro fit in. My partner Terri and I did a full walk-through of the ‘Crime & Punishment’ beta last Wednesday. The Verdict: Ercole, the tough cop with a tender heart, may be ready for the big (tiny) screen, but I probably don’t have a future in voice-acting. That said, I’ll keep working at it!

blog pic murate

Next time I check in, I’ll have more to say about another composite character: Marietta, a wheeler-dealer textile worker and widow being developed as the guide of the second of our four new walks.

Labours of Ercole

Yes, welcome to HF2! Four exciting new walks and four intriguing new characters are in the pipeline. We’re not even near the beta stage yet, but for the purposes of these posts that doesn’t matter. What we want to record here is the development process, and we thought a good place to start was with one of the characters we’ve been workshopping intensively in Florence over the last week or so – Ercole lo sbirro, Hercules the cop.

Like Giovanni the woolbeater (remember him?), Ercole is an ‘invented’ character. In this case invented by Daniel Jamison. Unlike Giovanni, who was from the 1490s, Ercole is based in the 1550s or 1560s, after the definitive end of the republic and under the government of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. Ercole has his own journey to make, around the theme of justice and policing, and what we’ve been doing in Florence is juggling character, place and historical context, all with an eye to creating the experience we want HF users to enjoy. This is something you really can only do on site – by walking, looking and listening, and at times also smelling and touching. This is what experiential research essentially means.

One of our projected sites brings this locative, and collaborative, process into focus. Ercole’s walk begins in the heart of the centro storico, in the Piazza della Signoria, and works its way outwards towards the old gate at Porta alla Croce (just outside the gate you would have found the city gallows). Along the way is the convent of the Murate. In Ercole’s time this was one of the city’s most prestigious convents, where aristocratic women religious were murate or ‘walled up’. In the 19th century, the convent and the nuns’ cells were converted into a prison, and now it is a mostly public space where you can relax and get something to eat and drink.

Our first question was: does Ercole talk to you as you face the entrance to the convent on via Ghibellina? He has things to tell you about policing the streets around convents. Sbirri such as him responded to the sisters’ complaints about prostitution, gambling or other ‘brutture’. The nuns may have been ‘walled up’, but sound travelled. Or does our cop take you right into the courtyard, where despite all the architectural changes you get a feel for what convent enclosure was like? But then another factor literally came into view. At the corner where Ercole turns into via Ghibellina, a few steps from the Murate entrance, there is a flood marker half way up the wall, dated 1547. The Arno has always been prone to flooding, and the sixteenth century saw three very severe inundations in Florence. The 1547 flood was one of them. Like any urban disaster, flooding created law and order issues. But we also recalled that one of the richest sources for sixteenth-century flooding was written by none other than an abbess of the Murate, who gives a devastating account of events at the convent itself.*


‘1547 Arno was here on 13 August’ Corner via Ghibellina/delle Casine

The point is that connections were made on site that otherwise may not have been made at all. So, is the 1547 flood marker too good to ignore? Do we have two stops on this walk very close to each other, or just one? The material is juicy, but how will Ercole join up the dots in a way that is stimulating for the HF user? As I said, it’s all under construction, and you may have to wait for HF2 to emerge to get the definitive version.

As for our other characters and walks, it might be best to be a little circumspect at this point. But we’re pretty sure one of your other guides to the mid-sixteenth century city will be a young artisan woman who, in a very different sense, is intent on keeping her head above water. And, from the other end of the social spectrum, we have reason to believe that a certain powerful and wealthy banker will be showing you his Florence in the 1450s. We’ll keep you posted.

David Rosenthal

* Sister Giustina Niccolini, The Chronicle of Le Murate, ed. and trans. Saundra Weddle (Toronto, 2011)

Welcome back!

After a couple of years’ silence Hidden Florence is back on the move. In fact, since the original publication of the app we’ve remained busy, with some research publications (see News for links) as well as the surprising coverage in Travel Man Christmas special in 2016 with Rebel Wilson and Richard Ayoade, viewed by nearly 3 million people! We had a software update in 2016 to keep the app working on newer phones and improve sharing services.

From March 2018 we have really stepped up activity thanks to further funding from the AHRC to create a 2.0 version of Hidden Florence which includes a number of exciting collaborations. We’ve teamed up with the DECIMA research group at the University of Toronto led by Nick Terpstra and are working with a new researcher on this shared project, Daniel Jamison to create series of new walks that will include new characters, destinations and historical moments in the city’s remarkable past. We’ve also linked up with Donal Cooper at the University of Cambridge to explore various art historical implications of location-based technologies, and are exploring how we might take 3D digital models of lost historical buildings back into the field through AR. As part of this new phase of our work we’ve also directly engaged with new project partners from the museum sector, with the National Gallery (London) and Polo Museale Toscano (Florence) to explore how our itineraries might work to reconnect sites and monuments in Florence with artworks now displayed in London. Finally, with the support of the Florence UNESCO office we’re beginning to consider how the alternative itineraries proposed by Hidden Florence might help to redistribute visitors in this beautiful, often crowded and delicate urban environment. Last but not least, we’re continuing to work with our amazing technical partners, Calvium, to develop the new app, due for launch in early 2019.

Over the next few months members of the project team will write short entries to give some insights into the new stories coming up, the exciting new design and AR features we’re testing, as well as insights into the research process in the field. We hope you’ll follow us on the project pages as well as on twitter. #hiddenflorence @giovanni1490s

Fabrizio Nevola


Blog: Mission impossible

Thursday, May 9

Emailing and texting my colleagues from the moment I left the house to arrival in hotel in Florence. It felt a bit like that old TV programme – Challenge Anneka. Travel across Europe, find a wifi hotspot good enough for downloading a new full app, and then go on a treasure hunt.

Well that’s exactly what I did. I set off from home near Oxford, email coming in from Jo warning that the app might be too big to download, with David noticing some audio files had been muddled up, with Nicky getting worried she’d sent the wrong stuff over to Jo – that sort of thing. Meanwhile I’m texting and emailing the people in Florence to check there will be some people to trial with and that meeting are set up.

Radio silence as I fly across to Pisa and of course, land, turn on the phone and pick up another load of comments and progress reports. By this point Jo has left the office for other work and Tom has stepped in on app operation control. He’s confident changes are more or less made – but yes, the app containing both walks will be a big baby. 100MB: we’re so proud!

Phoning in ...
Phoning in …

Check in. Dump bag. Look at emails. No sign yet. Set off to phone shop to get a fast SIM card for the iPad to set up a hotspot to download the app. Get that, come out of the shop. Email arrives – ready to go. But I need to rejuice the phone … oh my God, I am such a novice at technology.

So I go to Palazzo Strozzi – there’s a cafe there and I remember being told good wifi. So coffee for me (essential), plug for the phone and wifi. The app is delivered. Its a beauty. Ready to go – and I even installed it on my mini iPad for better visibility.

So, having bought sundry SIM cards to set up personal hotspots for my trial group tomorrow , I made a last minute change of plan and email the trial volunteers to meet at Palazzo Strozzi where the wifi is phenomenal.

Well this is getting tedious to read. But you can see perhaps I found it all quite involving …

Set off out to try the new “route” starting from Ponte Vecchio. The app opens into the Bonsignori map – and then as I get near to our first location, it all fires off. In the crowd of tourists – I almost whooped. Here I am, walking in 2013 Florence, on what looks like the standard Google map shuffle (you know – head down looking at the screen, plugs in ears). Instead I’m an immersive historical experience – I can see the real streets and bridge, but also how it looked in the Renaissance on the map. And then Giovanni starts to tell me to look at the view from 1490 – the barges of goods coming up the river, the procession going by me, the bustle of hat and glove sellers,  and occasional butcher. And so on to the hanging man at the Bargello, the bread riots on Piazza della Signoria, and the street sellers at Mercato Vecchio.

Enough about that.

Friday, May 10

Morning tried out a few bits of the walk again. Palazzo Strozzi (originally missed off – an oversight) was fixed in a late-night marathon by Tom. He’s also moved a few locations and fixed a few gremlins I’d reported back. Thanks Tom.

Then into a meeting with Dr James Bradburne – Director of the Palazzo Strozzi museum. Really very useful; some excellent suggestions. But above all he liked it!

Then a quick “culture break” and I went round the “Springtime of the Renaissance” show in the Palazzo Strozzi – very much worth a visit. Many old friends, including St Matthew (of bankers’ guild fame – listen to the app!).

Then off to the outskirts near the airport for a meeting with the head of the Comune di Firenze tourism office. Again, another very useful meeting. They will help us with publicity. Fantastic.

Back to the centre – Palazzo Strozzi is beginning to think I’ve moved in. Meet my trial group – the heavens open. I’m sure that’s why we end up being quite a small group. Pochi ma buoni (few, but excellent). And patient. After we’ve set up the phones (no android, sigh!), we set off in what has settled in to be a steady rain to try it all out. I ask them to just do a couple, then we’ll go for a drink. They love it and we do almost the whole thing. They love the new navigation features (the map toggle, the instructions) and the content … well, they’d just like to have more!

After all that a few of us go for a drink and something to eat – and I try not to bore for England about the app.

Saturday, May 11

A new challenge. Today I go to a studio, meet Roberto Andrioli – the voice of the Italian Giovanni (Colin Guthrie does the English version) – and we go to a recording studio to record his scripts. Nicky is in England on Skype telling us how to do things, and the very professional Massimo also has ideas. Not good for me to be in the middle as the main interpreter. Anyway, we get things sorted, it takes a bit longer than planned, but we record all 19 pieces in about three hours. It then takes almost as long to get them sent over the internet some how. This is an 800MB “raw” baby … I guess it’ll have to shrink before it joins the final app.

I call all that a pretty busy few days. And I cut it down! Certainly kept some variety there in my diet – you don’t get further from a day in the library. I confess I don’t get there as much as I’d like at the moment. Maybe when this is all over.

Fabrizio Nevola


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)

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