Renaissance Florentines learned to be resourceful.  Their creativity in the arts, architecture, and literature has become legendary.  Some political families like the Medici managed to find ways to hold political power against great odds and in constantly challenging circumstances, including being expelled from Florence at least 4 times.  Yet the most resourceful Florentines were the poor, and above all poor women.  With fewer legal rights and fewer opportunities than men, they needed to be particularly creative at the arts of survival.

Our guide Marietta is certainly resourceful, creative, and determined.  She is also grateful and generous, knowing that as an orphan and then a widow, she has survived thanks to the help of many Florentine individuals and institutions.  She works hard at weaving silk, and she is ready to give back when and where she can.  She takes us around a Florence that many tourists may not think about very much:  not the Florence of rich bankers, powerful politicians, or artistic geniuses, but Florence as the poor experienced it.  The city’s narrow back streets hummed with the noises of adults and teenagers working in their cramped homes, and of young children playing and yelling.  They were choked with the smoke and smells pouring out of workshops. As evening fell, social life took over: the sounds of youths laughing and playing music, groups arguing and yelling, prostitutes calling out and neighbours responding all bounced off the walls.

Florentines certainly lived in their streets.  As Marietta takes us around them, she also shows us some of the charitable institutions that assisted the poor at critical periods of their lives, in particular at birth and near death. Orphanages, hospitals, shelters, and food banks were meant as tools for those in need, and civic pride and public purpose put them on public squares and major roads.  Other tools for the poor were discretely hidden away, like the licensing office of the magistracy that regulated prostitution – a tool that some poor women, like Marietta’s long time friend Antonia, also used when other resources for survival were not enough.

Nicholas Terpstra

To cite this essay, we suggest:
Nicholas Terpstra, ‘The art of survival’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter,

Further Reading

Niall Atkinson, The Noisy Renaissance: Sound, Architecture, and Florentine Urban Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

Philip Gavitt, Gender, Honor, and Charity in Late Renaissance Florence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Diana Bullen Presciutti, Visual Cultures of Foundling Care in Early Modern Italy. London: Routledge, 2016.