We all assume we know quite a lot about Renaissance houses – the ‘palazzo’ (a recogniseable type of domestic architecture) was invented in this period. But of course, palaces were homes to only a very small percentage of the urban élite – for most people, a regular casetta, casella or habituro was the norm: a little house. As Giovanni says, this vast majority were tenants rather than home owners, and they moved house as the size of their family and their fortunes changed. In areas like Sant Ambrogio and across the city to the south-west in Camaldoli, most of the property belonged to religious institutions and was let out at reasonable rents in what were almost exclusively working-class districts. Streets were made up of row housing – or terraces – and each vertical unit might be divided up into apartments, with shops or workshops on the ground floor. The street just beyond where Giovanni lives was originally called Malborghetto – scruffy little street – on account of the generally poor quality of the housing there.
The fluid and mobile nature of the family Giovanni describes may also seem surprising, but again we shouldn’t be confused by the norms of noble and merchant lineages. So for example, when plague struck Florence (and this was a common event) in 1458 the painter Neri di Bicci who lived with wife, two sons and his mother, took in two sisters (one of them was pregnant), who had both lost their husbands to the epidemic; each sister came with a son, one had a slave, they had few movable items. Such change clearly put a strain on living arrangements, but so did the birth of children (who usually went out to wet nurses even among artisans), young teens leaving home during their apprenticeships, or grandparents moving in with their children who might support them in their old age.
What appears nevertheless to have remained stable for artisans like Giovanni was their neighbourhood. While they might move house a number of times during their lifetimes, it was usual to remain in the same neighbourhood throughout.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘The worker’s home’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/giovanni/3-the-workers-home/
Sandra Cavallo, ‘The artisan’s casa,’ in At Home in Renaissance Italy, ed. M. Ajmar-Wollheim and F. Dennis (London: V&A publications 2006), 66-75
Samuel Kline Cohn, The laboring classes in Renaissance Florence (New York : Academic Press 1980)
Alan S. Morrison, J. Kirshner, A. Molho, ‘Epidemics in Renaissance Florence’, American Journal of Public Health, 1985 May; 75(5): 528–535
Paula L. Spilner, ‘Ut civitas amplietur’: Studies in Florentine Urbanism., Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 1987