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What was Renaissance Florence? - A Survival Guide with Award-Winning Author D.V Bishop

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

Staying alive is relatively easy in modern Britain, at least compared to most other eras and places in history. Heck, many people are so confident about their state of continued living that they will happily cross a road without stopping, looking, and listening, all whilst wearing oversized headphones and staring vacantly at their phones!

Things were different in the past, surviving was much harder. That's why, just in case you invent a time machine and then get stuck in the past, we've decided to put together a series of articles that will teach you how to survive the worst that history can throw at you.

In a previous post we looked at ‘How to Survive in Victorian London’ and now it is time to check out some top tips for visiting Renaissance Florence. And who best to advise us on sustained survivability than author D.V Bishop, the writer of not one, not two, but three brilliant historical fiction novels set in Renaissance Florence? If anyone can keep us alive, it’s David!

Modern Florence, where the Renaissance was born! Photo courtesy Steve Hersey.

So, David, Renaissance Florence, when in history are we talking about here?

Essentially it is the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, roughly 1400-1600. Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages, with people rediscovering achievements and ideas from classical antiquity. The city of Florence became a crucible for the Renaissance, thanks to its wealth from banking and business. This enabled the rich to fund incredible new work by artists, architects, inventors, and writers.

Unique talents such as Leonardo di Vinci and Michelangelo were drawn to Florence and the work of such amazing creative individuals would help change the world.

Righto, well, let’s imagine I’m wandering down the streets of Florence, taking in the sights, just chilling out, what kind of people would I see?

You can expect to encounter hawkers and others selling their wares, with stallholders eager to bring in trade, apprentices hurrying to work, and messengers running past you. Young men often cluster in doorways playing dice and cards. Women are not often seen on the streets in Renaissance Florence, unless they are servants or other poorly paid workers. The wives and daughters of well-to-do families remain indoors at home, leaving only to attend church or go visiting. It is estimated one in eight women are cloistered in convents, and many were enclosed, so the nuns never went outside.

And what different events or situations could be taking place around me?

Dozens of businesses call the fabled Ponte Vecchio home. On the humped bridge, you can get a haircut, and buy a pair of shoes for yourself – or your horse! But the smell from butchers’ shops and fishmongers can be overpowering, especially at the height of summer. At the riverside, workers lay out fleeces for washing, while tanners cure hides by soaking them in horse urine and dipping them in the waters of the Arno. The food can be marvellous in Florence but maybe think twice before eating any of the fish caught from the river…

The Duomo certainly looks spectacular, just a shame about the lack of seating.

Where should I visit in Renaissance Florence? And where should I definitely try and avoid?

The Cathedral – known by locals as the Duomo – is a marvel of engineering and architecture. But you can’t sit down to admire the mighty dome’s interior as the church has no pews. The largest square in Florence is Piazza della Signoria, a centre of civic life in the city. Jousts and tournaments are sometimes held here and more often in Piazza Santa Croce but watch out for pickpockets ready to lift your coin purse. Florentine football at Porta al Prato is entertaining but far different from the modern game – more a cross between rugby and soccer, yet more violent than either.

Sounds nasty! What are the main dangers to be aware of when visiting Renaissance Florence?

Getting lost is easy for newcomers. The Duomo and the River Arno are significant landmarks, yet both are often hidden because streets are so narrow and buildings on either side are often three stories tall, blocking your view. Florentines can be hot-tempered people and known to lash out, especially in the sweltering summer when the wealthy escape to their country villas. Watch out for carts that hurtle through the narrow streets and avoid walking down the middle of the road – it’s often no more than a channel full of human and animal waste.

Stepping in poo is bad enough, let alone falling into a small river of the stuff! What are your top tips to survive in Renaissance Florence?

Don’t talk with women you don’t know as they may be courtesans and their company can prove costly. Avoid public executions as these bring out the worst in normally friendly Florentines. Take more money than you need and keep half of it well hidden. Don’t carry a stiletto or other blades as possession of deadly weaponry can get you arrested and fined – or worse. Visit the city during spring or autumn when the air is warm but not unbearable. If you hear bells tolling as the sun sets, hurry back to wherever you are staying. Florence has a curfew, and it is illegal to be out of doors at night.

That’s some excellent advice! Finally David, could you tell us a little about your upcoming book, Ritual of Fire?

It is a historical thriller set in Renaissance Florence that features Cesare Aldo, an officer of the city’s most fear criminal court, the Otto di Guardia e Balia. Forty years earlier, Florence executed a firebrand monk called Girolamo Savonarola whose sermons had held the citizens in his thrall. Now someone is performing ritual killings while claiming the spirit of Savonarola has risen to cleanse the city. Can Aldo and his colleague Carlo Strocchi find the murderer before more people die?

Ritual of Fire is the third book in my award-winning Cesare Aldo series, but you can enjoy it without having read any of the others. It is being published June 1st 2023 by Pan Macmillan in hardback, audiobook and next year in paperback.

A huge thank you to David for all his life saving survival tips. If you are a grown-up - sorry kids, wait until you're older - and would like to pre-order Ritual of Fire, be sure to click here.

To catch up with Cesare Aldo's previous adventures, City of Vengeance and The Darkest Sin, (both now available in paperback) simply follow the links!


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