Read an Excerpt
One September morning in 1433, a thin man with a hooked nose and sallow skin could have been seen walking towards the steps of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence. His name was Cosimo de' Medici; and he was said to be one of the richest men in the world. As he entered the palace gate an official came up to him and asked him to wait in the courtyard: he would be taken up to the Council Chamber as soon as the meeting being held there was over. A few minutes later the captain of the guard told him to follow him up the stairs; but, instead of being shown into the Council Chamber, Cosimo de' Medici was escorted up into the bell-tower and pushed into a cramped cell known as the Alberghettino - the Little Inn - the door of which was shut and locked behind him. Through the narrow slit of its single window, so he later recorded, he looked down upon the city.
It was a city of squares and towers, of busy, narrow, twisting streets, of fortress -- like palaces with massive stone walls and overhanging balconies, of old churches whose facades were covered with geometrical patterns in black and white and green and pink, of abbeys and convents, nunneries, hospitals and crowded tenements, all enclosed by a high brick and stone crenellated wall beyond which the countryside stretched to the green surrounding hills. Inside that long wall there were well over 50,000 inhabitants, less than there were in Paris, Naples, Venice and Milan, but more than in most other European cities, including London -- though it was impossible to be sure of the exact number, births being recorded by the haphazard method of dropping beans into a box, a black bean for a boy, a white one for a girl.
For administrativepurposes the city was divided into four quartieri and each quartiere was in turn divided into four wards which were named after heraldic emblems. Every quartiere had its own peculiar character, distinguished by the trades that were carried on there and by the palaces of the rich families whose children, servants, retainers and guards could be seen talking and playing round the loggie, -- the colonnaded open-air meeting grounds where business was also discussed.
The busiest parts of the city were the area around the stone bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, which spanned the Arno at its narrowest point and was lined on both sides with butchers' shops and houses; the neighbourhood of the Orsanmichele, the communal granary, where in summer the bankers set up their green cloth-covered tables in the street and the silk merchants had their counting-houses ; and the Mercato Vecchio, the big square where once the Roman Forum had stood. Here, in the Mercato Vecchio, the Old Market, were the shops of the drapers and the second-hand clothes dealers, the booths of the fishmongers, the bakers and the fruit and vegetable merchants, the houses of the feather merchants and the stationers, and of the candle-makers where, in rooms smoky with incense to smother the smell of wax, prostitutes entertained their customers. On open counters in the market, bales of silk and barrels of grain, corn and leather goods were exposed for sale, shielded by awnings from the burning sun. Here also out in the open barbers shaved beards and clipped hair; tailors stitched cloth in shaded doorways; servants and housewives gathered round the booths of the cooked-food merchants; bakers pushed platters of dough into the communal oven; and furniture makers and goldsmiths displayed their wares. Town-criers marched about calling out the news of the day and broadcasting advertisements; ragged beggars held out their wooden bowls; children played dice on the flagstones and in winter patted the snow into the shape of lions, the heraldic emblem of the city. Animals roamed everywhere: dogs wearing silver collars; pigs and geese rooting about in doorways; occasionally even a deer or a chamois would come running down from the hills and clatter through the square.
Not many years before, though Dante had denounced their luxurious manners, the Florentines seem to have frowned upon any untoward display of wealth. They had dressed very simply, the standard costume for all men who were artisans being an ankle-length gown of dark-coloured cloth, buttoned down the front like a cassock. Their houses, too, had been unassuming. Even those of the richest families had been furnished with plain wooden tables and the -- most uninviting beds. The walls were generally whitewashed, tapestries being unpacked from chests to be displayed on special occasions only; floors were of bare stone, rarely covered with anything other than reed matting; the shuttered windows were usually made of oiled cotton. Glass and majolica ornaments were few and discreet; silverware was produced from the sideboard, or from a locked cupboard in the master's room, for none but the honoured guest; and few families yet had forks. In more recent years, however, though the Florentines continued to enjoy a reputation for frugality, they had become noticeably less abstemious and restrained. The stone houses of the well-to-do still presented a severe, even forbidding appearance to the street; but behind the glazed and curtained windows of the upper storeys, the rooms were frequently carpeted, the walls painted with murals, hung with tapestries, religious pictures and occasionally concave looking-glasses to reflect light onto a table or desk. Fireplaces were much more common so that on cold winter nights warming-pans and scaldini -- earthenware jars filled with hot charcoal -- were not so necessary. Much of the furniture was painted or decorated with marquetry. The canopied beds, standing on raised platforms and surrounded by footboards, were very large - often twelve feet wide - big enough for four people or even more to sleep in them side by side, lying naked beneath the linen sheets and breathing in air made sweet by scent or by herbs burning slowly in pierced globes hanging from the ceiling. The House of Medici. Copyright © by Christopher Hibbert. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.