Only two considerable rivers flow from the Apennines westward into the Mediterranean. The Tiber makes Rome; the Arno makes Florence. In prehistoric and early historic times, the mountainous region which forms the basin of these two rivers was occupied by a gifted military race, the Etruscans, who possest a singular assimilative power for Oriental and Hellenic culture. Intellectually and artistically, they were the pick of Italy. Their blood still runs in the veins of the people of Tuscany. Almost every great thing done in the Peninsula, in ancient or modern times, has been done by Etruscan hands or brains. The poets and painters, in particular, with few exceptions, have been, in the wide ethnical sense, Tuscans.
The towns of ancient Etruria were hill-top strongholds. Florence was not one of these; even its neighbor, Fiesole (Faesulue), did not rank among the twelve great cities of the Etruscan league. But with the Roman conquest and the Roman peace, the towns began to descend from their mountain peaks into the river valleys; roads grew important, through internal trade; and bridges over rivers assumed a fresh commercial value. Florence (Florentia), probably founded under Sulla as a Roman muni-cipium, upon a Roman road, guarded the bridge across the Arno, and gradually absorbed the population of Fiesole. Under the later empire, it was the official residence of the “Corrector” of Tuscany and Umbria. During the Middle Ages, it became, for all practical purposes, the intellectual and artistic capital of Tuscany, inheriting in full the remarkable mental and esthetic excellences of the Etruscan race.
The valley of the Arno is rich and fertile, bordered by cultivable hills, which produce the famous Chianti wine. It was thus predestined by nature as the seat of the second city on the west slope of Italy. Florence, however, was not always that city. The seaport of Pisa (now silted up and superseded by Leghorn) first rose into importance; possest a powerful fleet; made foreign conquests; and erected the magnificent group of buildings just outside the town which still form its chief claim upon the attention of tourists. but Florence with its bridge commanded the inland trade, and the road to Rome from Germany. After the destruction of Fie-sole in 1125, it grew rapidly in importance; and, Pisa having sustained severe defeats from Genoa, the inland town soon rose to supremacy in the Arno basin. Nominally subject to the Emperor, it became practically an independent republic, much agitated by internal quarrels, but capable of holding its own against neigh-boring cities. Its chief buildings are thus an age or two later than those of Pisa; it did not begin to produce splendid churches and palaces, in emulation of those of Pisa and Siena, till about the close of the 13th century. To the same period belongs the rise of its literature under Dante, and its painting under Giotto.
This epoch of rapid commercial, military, and artistic development forms the main glory of early Florence.
The 14th century is chiefly interesting at Florence as the period of Giottesque art, finding its final crown in Fra Angelico. With the beginning of the 15th, we get the dawn of the Renaissancethe age when art set out once more to recover the lost perfection of antique workmanship. In literature, this movement took the form of humanism; in architecture and sculpture, it exhibited itself in the persons of Alberti, Ghiberti, Della Robbia, and Donatello; in painting, it showed itself in Lippi, Botticeili, Ghirlandajo, and Verrocchio.
We start, then, with the fact that up to nearly the close of the 13th century (1278), Florence was a comparatively small and uninteresting town, without any buildings of importance, save the relatively insignificant Baptistery; without any great cathedral, like Pisa and Siena; with-out any splendid artistic achievement of any kind. It consisted at that period of a labyrinth of narrow streets, enclosing huddled houses and tall towers of the nobles, like the two to be seen to this day at Bologna. In general aspect, it could not greatly have differed from Albenga or San Gimignano in our own time. But commerce was active; wealth was increasing; and the population was seething with the intellectual and artistic spirit of its Etruscan ancestry. During the lifetime of Dante, the town began to transform itself and to prepare for becoming the glorious Florence of the Renaissance artists. It then set about building two immense and beautiful churchesSanta Croce and Santa Maria Novellawhile, shortly after, it grew to be ashamed of its tiny San Giovanni (the existing Baptistery), and girded itself up to raise a superb cathedral, which should cast into the shade both the one long since finished at maritime Pisa and the one then still rising to completion on the height of Siena.
Florence at that time extended no further than the area known as Old Florence, which means from the Ponte Vecchio to the Cathedral in one direction, and from the Ponte alla Carraja to the Grazie in the other. Outside the wall lay a belt of fields and gardens, in which one or two monasteries had already sprung up. But Italy at that moment was filled with religious enthusiasm by the advent of the Friars both great orders of whom, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, had already established themselves in the rising commercial city of Florence. Both orders had acquired sites for monastic buildings in the space outside the walls and soon began to erect enormous churches. The Dominicans came first, with Santa Maria Novella, the commencement of which dates from 1278; the Franciscans were a little later in the field, with Santa Croce, the first stone not being placed till 1294.