The dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore, the great cathedral of Florence, is among the most enduring symbols of the Renaissance, an equal to the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo. Its designer was Filippo Brunelleschi, a temperamental architect and inventor who rediscovered the techniques of mathematical perspective. Yet the completion of the dome was not Brunelleschi’s glory alone. He was forced to share the commission with his archrival, the canny and gifted sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti.
In this lush, imaginative history—a fascinating true story of artistic genius and personal triumph—Paul Robert Walker breathes life into these two talented, passionate artists and the competitive drive that united and dived them. As it illuminates fascinating individuals from Donatello and Masaccio to Cosimo de’Medici and Leon Battista Alberti, The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance offers a glorious tour of 15th-century Florence, a bustling city on the verge of greatness in a time of flourishing creativity, rivalry, and genius.
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Plague Of the Bianchi
In these extraordinary times, it appears that nearly all of the citizens of Florence, as well as those subject to the city and residents of surrounding cities and regions, have put on white linen garments, and ... joined in processions.
-- Provvisioni of the Signoria, September 10, 1399
In the summer of 1399, a religious movement arose in Lombardy, the northern Italian region around Milan, and began to travel southward toward Rome, attracting thousands of followers on the way. They were called the Bianchi, the Whites, for the white linen robes they wore as a sign of penitence and spiritual renewal. The pilgrims reached Florence in August, and their effect on the city was extraordinary. Shops and factories closed as citizens joined pilgrimages to smaller towns and villages, up the Arno and into the Apennine Mountains, "piously singing lauds, engaging in acts of penitence, abstaining from meat for nine consecutive days, and from wine for another day, not sleeping in beds ... the air vibrating with their voices." Old enemies swore new friendship, and there were cries to throw open the gates of the city prison.
The fervor cut across social classes, from impoverished cloth workers to wealthy merchants and manufacturers, though the rich could follow their religious path in more comfort than the poor. One wealthy merchant, Francesco Datini from the town of Prato, near Florence, wrote of joining a pilgrimage
on this 18th day of August 1399 ... clothed entirely in white linen and barefoot ... And that we might have what was necessary, I took with us two of my horses and themule: and on these we placed two small saddle chests, containing boxes of all kinds of comfits ... and candles, and fresh bread and biscuits and round cakes, sweet and unsweetened, and other things besides that appertain to a man's life.
An aristocratic and powerful Florentine merchant named Buonaccorso Pitti followed this movement from the isolation of the Palazzo della Signoria, now called the Palazzo Vecchio, or "Old Palace," the massive stone building, topped by a looming tower, where the nine members of the Signoria lived and worked during their two-month terms of office. The Signoria was the supreme executive authority of Florence, and the brief terms reflected both the total commitment required of those who served and the concept that a short term of office prevented any single man from gaining too much power. In fact, ambitious men found ways to consolidate power, but by the standards of medieval Europe, the Signoria and other Florentine institutions formed a noble experiment in republican government.
"During my term in the Signoria," Pitti wrote, "a great novelty was seen throughout Italy when people of all conditions began to don white linen robes with cowls covering their heads and faces, and throng the roads, singing and begging God for grace and mercy. While this was going on in Florence someone raised the cry: 'Open the Stinche prison and free the prisoners!' By God's grace the danger of armed riots was averted, though it was a near thing. In the end everything turned out well, for the pilgrims brought about many reconciliations between citizens." Pitti's own family made peace with the relatives of a man he had killed in Pisa, settling their difference in a written and notarized compact. Other families made similar efforts to overcome long-held vendettas, the seething, ritualized hatred of man for man and family for family that had poisoned Florentine society for centuries.
The spirit of brotherhood and forgiveness brought on by the Bianchi carried into the fall, and on September 10, shortly after Pitti's term of office expired, the Signoria issued a proclamation to the effect that "the lord priors are firmly convinced that all of this has proceeded from divine inspiration," but they could not free the prisoners who had been incarcerated for debt "without suspending those laws which prohibit this." Instead, the Signoria temporarily suspended the laws which limited their own authority to release prisoners, making it easier to show mercy in individual cases. It was a thoughtful and rational approach to a difficult situation: the Signoria could not suspend the laws that required punishment for debtors without destroying the very fabric of their mercantile society; yet neither could they ignore the will of the people.
Unfortunately, the Bianchi brought plague along with reconciliation. The pestilence had already struck Italy when the movement began, and the thousands of barefoot, white-robed pilgrims helped to carry it from town to town, so that it became known as the plague of the Bianchi. The sickness ran rampant through Florence, aided in its deadly course by a severe grain shortage in the winter and spring of 1400. By the time the carnage was over, some twelve thousand Florentines had died out of a total population of sixty thousand. It was a devastating blow to a city still struggling to recover from the Black Death of 1348, which had killed almost half the citizens of what was then among the largest cities in Europe. And it would not be the last such blow, for the plague would return with gruesome regularity throughout the Quattrocento, leaving a trail of death at the very time that Florentine art and culture blossomed with new creative life.
Beyond its personal toll, the plague of the Bianchi brought Florentine business to a halt. The timing could not have been worse, for the economy was already strained to its limits by heavy taxation to support a protracted war with Milan. Led by the brilliant despot Giangaleazzo Visconti, the northern Italian power had expanded its control throughout the decade, first in Lombardy, then moving south into Tuscany and beyond. In some ways, the Bianchi movement was a response to this militant expansion, a peaceful echo of Visconti's march; that the Bianchi proved more lethal than the army did not diminish their noble intentions. Visconti's own intentions were more questionable. He presented himself as a strong leader who could unify Italy ...The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance. Copyright © by Paul Walker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.