Travel Essay: Florence - Home to Heroes

Florence is frequently hailed as the epitome of a Renaissance city, a cultural gem from the middle ages, the birthplace of the original Renaissance man. And manly it is.

While the name “Florence” reminds one more of a soft-spoken maiden than a gray-haired scholar, the term is actually derived from florens, meaning “prosperous” and “flourishing”, which in the case of the Italian city, not only applied to its economic heyday in the middle ages, but also to its male inhabitants and their academic ambitions. Renaissance humanism of the time encouraged the idea that people ought to embrace all knowledge available to them and amass and develop their abilities to the fullest extent. Not all classes (or genders for that matter) were able to advance in their artistic, intellectual, physical and social abilities to such extent, but thankfully some gifted men took the idea to heart, not only prospered but also flourished, and became, what is now known as the original Renaissance men.

The wealthy town provided the perfect playground to foster the emergence of such polymaths. Great thinkers intermingled in Florence during the 14th through 17th centuries to propel creative potential to the next level. The exclusive club of such multi-talented folk is truly impressive: Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo, to name a few. Leonardo da Vinci usually tops the list as the most versatile of Renaissance men. While he is widely known for his paintings of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, he was also a feverish inventor of constructs like flying machines and automated bobbin winders. Galileo Galilei kept his expertise in the field of science, particularly the telescope and discoveries in astronomy. And Michelangelo – well, he gave us David.

It is hard to miss David when in Florence. With the original securely on display at the Galleria dell’Accademia, a perfectly passable reproduction is situated in front of the Palazzo della Signoria. Thus, one has two chances to meet David – the softly sculptured marble man, almost perfectly proportional, and quite perfectly naked. As a matter of fact, David was supposed to look different, possibly dressed, possibly at war. But Michelangelo decided to sculpt the muscly curves of this biblical hero right before his battle with Goliath, the gaze alert and ready for combat, while the body still tilted away from the giant. Even biblical David, it seems, could be considered an over-achieving Renaissance man at heart.

The city that bore the towering marble statue of David, however, also bore the wooden Pinocchio, an under-achieving, lie-telling, nose-growing marionette, that wished nothing more than to be a boy.

Times where different, when Carlo Collodi wrote the story about the carpenter Geppetto and his mischievous wooden construction in 1883. Unlike David, the strong and intelligent warrior, Pinocchio is nothing but a wooden creature with moral shortcomings. Unlike the banker’s son Michelangelo, Collodi stemmed from a simple, rural upbringing as the son of a cook and had served in the Tuscan army during the Italian wars of Independence. He had seen combat and he had seen human flaws. And unlike Florence of the middle ages, Florence of the late 19th century was less concerned with maximizing man’s overall abilities, but instead was dealing with an influx of peasant folk that were ill equipped for city-life. It has often been speculated that the book originally named “Adventures of Pinocchio” was written to serve as a cautionary tale for those who want to be more than they are. In the end, however, Pinocchio does become a boy, and Collodi (posthumously) a bestselling author for decades to come. And thus they all seemed to have fulfilled their Florentine duty of leading “prosperous” and “flourishing” lives, of becoming heroes after all - however unlikely and un-alike.