Thursday, January 17, 2013


     Today, no matter from which direction you approach Florence, Italy, the two tallest building in the city are the ones that stand out in the skyline: Palazzo Vecchio and Santa Maria del Fiore. The first is the town hall and the second the cathedral of the city. One is an isolated tower, the other a dome surrounded by other church buildings.

The Palazzo Vecchio, begun by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1299, was the first to reach its height of 94 meters or 308 feet by 1314. The Cathedral took longer, from 1296 to 1436; begun also by Arnolfo di Cambio, the apse chapels and cupola were completed by  Brunelleschi and its lantern by Michelozzo on designs of Brunelleschi in 1446. By then the height was 114.5 meters or 375 feet. The tower and the dome seem almost equally high, though, even when photographed in a closer view.

A bird's-eye view of Florence painted in 1475, once in the Museo Firenze Com'era
(closed for renovation) shows these two buildings at the center of the walled city, still
the two tallest among other towers and structures present at the end of the 15th-century
metropolis. Even the defensive towers at the city wall gates do not compete with the central buildings. The Campanile of the Cathedral, of about 1334, in this view looks close to the Cathedral's height, but the angle from which it's seen, southwest of the city, would naturally have blocked a portion of the dome in the cityscape. The Cathedral and Town Hall are the two tallest, despite the odd elongation of the Campanile.
              That the two most striking buildings of the center city have not changed since 1475 speaks of the concerted effort of the citizens of Florence over the years to maintain these two structures as the face of Florence. In the fifteenth century, city councilmen wrote statutes to ensure that no building would supersede the height of the dome of the Cathedral. And, even today, the city councillors have pushed any new architectural construction to locations outside the central zone of tourism and toward the Autostrada's encircling belt towards Prato. As a consequence, the skyline of Florence for the modern tourist is similar in principal structures to that of Botticelli's day. And noone viewing it would mistake it for another city. The tower and the dome make Florence the sight that people all over the world continue to return to see.

The magic of those two figures in the landscapes is still maintained by the body politic. Palazzo Vecchio is still the center of civic government and Santa Maria del Fiore the center of ecclesiastical power and they balance each other in function and shape.
         What is the magic produced by these two structures and why are they still the tallest? Why, too, are they preserved in their original forms?
          In order to understand the power of the "palagio dei priori" (as Palazzo Vecchio was known in the 14th and 15th centuries) and that of the "cattedrale" or "Santa Reparata" (as the cathedral was known before its new dedication as Santa Maria del Fiore), one must return to the language used to name them.         
         It is my contention that the most prominent shapes visible in the cityscape of Renaissance Florence are directly related to the language used by the builders of those shapes. There is a direct correlation between the emergence of Italian as the dominant language during the Trecento and Quattrocento and the emergence of architectural forms imitating the sexualized nouns in the oral language of the time. As Latin fades into the background as the dominant language (its vestiges still preserved in Florentine contracts, formal documents, and in erudite poetry of the period), Italian pushes forward as the language used orally, in written documents, in letters, in poetry, in inventories, in prose and theater productions, in diaries, in zibaldoni (instructions for heirs). Italian’s dropping of the neuter nouns of Latin in favor of the masculine and feminine forms of nouns encourages an emphasis, in every aspect of Italian life, on the polarity of the sexes and the tension and balance achieved between them. This emphasis can be found in every art form produced in the Quattrocento, including architecture.
          The masculine title for the Palazzo Vecchio is Palagio dei Priori (Palace of the Priors); the o's at the end of most Italian nouns indicate that the noun is masculine; the masculine article "il" is used for the palace in this case, too:  "il palagio" and "il palazzo" are both names given to the town hall tower and they are masculine names and articles.
        A's at the end of most Italian nouns indicate that the noun is feminine. Santa Reparata or Santa Maria del Fiore are both feminine names for a female saint, and the name for the cathedral is, thus, also feminine. Another name for the central church is "la cattedrale" or the cathedral (except in English the neuter is used for almost every noun, so the feminine gets lost in translation) and in Italian "la Cattedrale" is feminine, too. "La chiesa", the Italian word for "church", is also feminine. (For those who know the cathedral is often called "Duomo", the origin of that name for the major church in any Italian city is the Latin word "Domus", "House", which is feminine.)
          It is not a coincidence that these two central buildings' prominence is protected just at the same period that the language of the people who create them is being promoted by writers and humanists. The language and the architecture are indelibly linked in the history of the city, perhaps in the history of all the cities where that language is spoken. The two buildings, the Palazzo Vecchio, or the Palagio dei Priori, and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, are the architectural equivalents, writ in large form literally, of the masculine and feminine nouns in the Italian language itself.  The emergence of Italian as a strong oral and written language and the letting go of Latin as the official language of documents occurs just in the same period that these buildings are built in Florence.
          In the Italian language every part of the grammar is affected by the use of masculine and feminine nouns. For an English speaker it is hard to fathom the importance of the gender of nouns unless they try speaking a foreign language where those are crucial.  An English speaker has to remember whether a noun is masculine or feminine and adjust the adjectives, verb variants, and pronomial direct and indirect objects, in effect adjust a whole sentence or way of thinking, whereas an Italian speaker grows up knowing them and instintively adjusting for the gender differences. In Latin the neuter is still present in the language, but Italian oral and written language of the 14th and 15th centuries has no neuter. In fact, the first poem written down in Italian, in the volgare, is by Francis of Assisi, and is a poem about Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Frate Sole e Suora Luna, a division of masculine and feminine for objects in nature but also in the new language.
         What happens in Italian beyond the masculine and feminine nouns is that adjectives, articles, and possessives used to describe those nouns are also masculine and feminine, depending on the noun. Verb forms, like the past participle, take either masculine or feminine, depending on the subject or object. This principle then applies to pronouns and articles used for direct and indirect objects. Everything in Italian is sexualized in a grammatical sense because of the sexual division of its nouns. But is it only in a grammatical sense? Don't the architects of the culture respond also to the sexual grammar in the shaping of their buildings?
          The Palazzo Vecchio or Palagio dei Priori is a masculine building. 

It is strong, defensive, protective and powerful. It is designed to protect the entire population of the city within its walls when it is built. The projection of the tower is sexually suggestive in its thrust upwards from the base

    and the rough-hewn walls are designed to evoke power and strength.
              The tower was set within a piazza where artists kept adding sculpted male heroes (David, Hercules, Perseus later), reinforcing the original function of the building. Two sculpted lions guard the entrance and actual lions were kept in a cage behind the structure in the 15th-century (the street there is even today named Via dei Leoni, the lions also masculine plural). The bell in the bell tower was used to warn citizens in case of enemy approach. The rustication of the exterior stone as well as its brown and beige colors are designed to promote a sense that it is a large military impenetrable shield, and the height of the tower was designed to instill fear in the viewer. The holes under the top moldings were for pouring out hot oil on enemy trying to scale the walls. The crenellations at the top emphasize the fortress-like quality of the edifice and the whole is a phallic shape, meant to remind viewers of masculine power at its height, literally. Even now its aggressive nature commands respect and awe, and holds the viewer's gaze from below looking up. It has sharp edges at the corners and in the crenellations.
               Once installed in the landscape, the tower might have been left by itself to represent Florence, the city-state. But in my interpretation of the constructions of the Early Renaissance in Florence, this building is the MALE NOUN.  It, then, needed a FEMALE NOUN, to balance and counter it within the Comune as the female nouns balanced the male nouns in the language of the Florentines.  And, sure enough, begun before, but not finished until much afterward, there is a competing structure in the city that represents all the feminine, as the palazzo stands for the masculine.  And that building is the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Fiore.
      The Cathedral of Florence is begun in 1296 by Arnolfo di Cambio, and he completes much of the nave and transept.  It is a building that is sheathed in the most precious and colorful marble, pink from the Maremma, green from Prato (next door), and white from Carrara, a building for a woman, dressed in a beautiful gown of multi-colored marble.  Even within the marble panels are inlay colored marble sections that resemble flowers.

 The 1296 building was intended to replace a smaller building that had also been dedicated to a woman, Santa Reparata, a local saint.
         The new dedicatee was St. Mary of the Flower and she is appropriately dressed. This cathedral also has a feminine shape. When Brunelleschi begins building his sections of the church between 1420 and 1436, he adds on apsidal chapels that are round, choosing to make the church look like a flower, with the nave as the stem and the apsidal chapels as the petals at the top or end of the stem.

 Then he designs and builds the dome, the breast shape, the Cupola, that completes the structure.

The rounded ends of the building on the street below

accompanied by the rounded form of the CUPOLA, not to mention the 8 oculi (circle windows) in the drum and the concave shell niches added to the apsidal outer walls, embody the curving female forms. Sharp edges are muted, the curves accentuated by the white marble ribs.

The FEMALE NOUN, CHIESA to complement the MALE NOUN, PALAZZO, in a city where the local language already divides every noun into female or male. 
      Just as the Palazzo Vecchio is strong and imposing and phallic and protective, the church of Santa Maria del Fiore is full of soft colors, soft curves, concavities and covexities, and is the home of a female saint. The church represents the receptive side of life as opposed to the defensive and protective side, the all-accepting love of the mother as opposed to the fierce fortress security of the father.  Weapons were not allowed in church in the 15th-century (the Pazzi Conspiracy is an anomaly because of that), so it was meant to be a place where violence could be put aside.  It was a place associated with charity, as the church as an institution gave to the poor and encouraged generosity and kindness.  The emphasis on the Virgin Mary and her role as mother means that the church is the ecclesiastical center and the nurturing, mothering center, a place well suited to a building with a breast shape.

And although there was no separation of church and state in Italy even in the Renaissance (some civic functions were held in church and some church functions held in the Town Hall), and certainly the church was run by men, women were at least in the congregation in the "chiesa", while in the Palazzo della Signoria or Priori, no women participated in the government in the same period. Women were allowed inside the "chiesa" and the original statue of Arnolfo of the Madonna and Child welcomed women from the facade in the 15th century. 
    When a visitor saw the city from a distance, he would be aware of both buildings above the others, female and male, and feel at home with the language mirroring.

 When Florentine citizens walked up the hill to view the city from the church of San Miniato (already there in 1063), by 1436 they would have realized that the two structures, the palazzo and the chiesa, were the manifestations of the two sexes, the two genders. They would have observed them as natural architectural emanations from their own language choice to separate and categorize nouns as either female or male.
Each kind of noun from the language had its own representative in the largest buildings in the city, and, in that way, the citizens felt most at home with that division, so much at home that, for every year up to and including the years of the 21st century, the buildings stand out and stand for the two poles (one is literally a “pole”).  The silhouette of the city outline, then, is fixed with the two noun genders of the city's major language.
      There is a reason why the two tallest and most impressive buildings in Florence in the 15th century were masculine and feminine shapes and names.  These structures emerge from the ground, as it were, to present the reality of the language to the very people who speak the language; is it a conscious choice to design the buildings this way?  Yes, insofar as the Florentines wish to convey the very differences between men and women in the society, and insofar as they wish to convey the very differences that are articulated by each citizen from birth to death in their own language.  And the very different functions of the buildings are designed to polarize the two different approaches to life:  the masculine and the feminine. If visitors to the city today are attracted to the skyline projections, it is because the buildings resonate with the feminine and masculine sides in all of us. The magic lies in the tension and attraction between the genders, the magnetic resonance and electricity between the cathode and anode. Let us hope the preservation of the "lingual view"will continue long past the usurpation of the Italian language by the global one threatening to take over in a new linguistic development, inglese.

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