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Ye olde travel guide: Florence 1380

Cassandra Clark urges visitors to dress to impress in an up-and-coming, yet unfinished city where image is everything

Published: March 1, 2013 at 12:00 am
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Three kinds of people will want to go to Florence this year: wool or silk merchants, Lollards keen to see how the new republic is shaping up, and mercenaries hoping to join one of the free companies in the war between Milan and Florence...

When to go

Take your choice: if you travel in winter you risk the terrors of the Alps, and in summer the dangers of the Tuscan war zone. Weatherwise, April to June and September to October are pleasantly English. August is hotter than the fires of hell.

What to take

Letters of credit, stout boots, a wool cloak and your best sword – a bodyguard if funds allow. On arrival buy a stiletto (knife or dagger). You’ll need it. Also take or buy presentable garments: a slovenly appearance is despised. Look the part, even if your undergarments are threadbare. In Italy it’s known as bella figura (cutting a beautiful figure) and even the lowest menial cuts a dash.

Cost and money

Exchange credit notes for local gold florins on arrival but until you get here you can’t know how much anything costs. It depends on the blockade. The priori (city rulers) had the foresight to store grain throughout the civil war in the massive Orsanmichele church near the signoria (town hall) so the price of bread is constant. Luxuries come through Venice when the armies allow but are subject to taxes. Hone your bartering skills.

Sights and activities

No, you haven’t arrived on a building site though it looks like it – old edifices being modified, new ones rising overnight. Santa Maria del Fiore, for instance, a monumental cruciform basilica begun in 1296, is still unfinished. Giotto’s Campanile, nearby, is unfinished. The doors on the ancient Baptistry of St John are unfinished except for the south door – a masterpiece of bronze casting by Leonardo d’Avanzano. Inside, marvel at the octagonal dome, 85 feet across, in shimmering Byzantine mosaic depicting heaven and hell. That is finished. You can almost see the saints’ robes flapping in the breeze.
Elsewhere, pray beneath crucifixes by Giotto or Cimabue. Frescoes at every turn. Then witness the flight of La Columbina on Easter Sunday when a silver dove stuffed with fireworks artfully swoops across the piazza into a cart of explosives – the smoke predicts the state of trade in the coming year.
Despite the wars, the usual religious processions take place but the main activity is talking. Stand in the portico off the Piazza della Signoria where political reputations are made and unmade. Listen but hold your tongue. Florentines speak the language of Dante but even he was exiled for shouting his mouth off. And ‘Bicci’ de Medici, the pope’s banker, a low-key fellow, has partisans among the defeated Ciompi – wool-carders and leaders of the lesser guilds who ruled the roost for two years until ousted by the goldsmiths.

Dangers and annoyances

As a city at war the dangers are obvious. Even inside the walls the republic is still teetering on the brink of civil strife. You’ll experience shortages of essentials, eruptions of street violence – but a different kind of danger comes from masons’ apprentices heaving great slabs of marble above your head.

Sleeping and accomodation

Accept an invitation to stay in the town house of your business associate. Grim fortresses, their iron-studded doors offer tight security. The rattle of the merchants’ bone chips from the counting house might get on your nerves but it’s simply the sound of money being made – and safer than a public inn.
Are you a would-be mercenary? Then take what accommodation you can get near Piazza della Repubblica, where you can rub shoulders with Sir John Hawkwood’s recruiting officers. Known here as Giovanni Acuto, that’s Sharp John to us, Hawkwood commands the region’s most successful company of fighting men. Expect the usual straw bales to sleep on.


Food is just as hearty as northern cuisine. Vegetables are grown in gardens within the walls, spices are stockpiled, as is cheese. Try pecorino (sheep’s milk) or ricotta (cottage cheese.) Huntsmen risk death for wild boar when they can get outside the walls.
Enjoy white beans and sage, kale, spinach, artichoke, bread soup. Try schiacciata, a flat bread made from chestnut flour, or castagnaccio toscano, a cake made from flour, eggs and olive oil. What keeps everybody going is panforte, a recipe imported from Siena, made of almonds and honey.

Getting around

The Romans built Fiorentina as an army camp so it’s easy to find your way around the central grid. Most activities take place in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Repubblica, as well as the guild workshops located in the streets between.
Cassandra Clark’s fourth medieval crime novel, The Parliament of Spies, was published in October 2012 by Allison & Busby

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