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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


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