A fiercely independent spirit—a strong sense of “us” and “them”—characterizes the people of central Italy, and this is especially true for the Florentines. That passionate independence accounts for centuries-old battles between Florence and its rival, Siena. It accounts for how mere hilltop villages like Montelupo Fiorentino became ceramics meccas, exporting their colorful wares all the way to Constantinople and beyond; and it’s how it came to pass that a particular type of embroidery is known even today as the “Assisi stitch.” Tuscans are ferociously proud of their culture and their native arts.
Of the central Italian city-states, Florence grew to predominate the region, politically, economically, and artistically. By the 1400s, artisans of all stripes worked diligently to supply the needs and whims of nobles and newly rich merchants in Florence. A lucrative international silk trade filled the coffers of Florentine traders and inspired artisans to create luxurious designs for clothing, church vestments, and other rich textiles. Nobles commissioned ceramic artists to create “his-and-hers” plates ornamented with the elegant profiles of bride and groom to decorate the newlyweds’ homes. Just outside of Florence, ceramicists in the towns of Montelupo Fiorentino and Sesto Fiorentino created commemorative vases with coats of arms to mark important political alliances between families. The wives of Florentine bankers shopped for gold earrings and bracelets on the Ponte Vecchio.
Henry James’s description of Florence as “colored a mild violet, like diluted wine,” sums up the beautifully muted yet rich tones of the city. Florentine style is deeply rooted in the Renaissance, and the city’s colors seem to have leapt from the palette of a Renaissance painter—from the warm ochre of the cathedral’s terra-cotta roof, to the soft, crackled yellow stucco walls of centuries-old palaces, to the weathered brown wood of hulking arched doorways that lead into buildings and from one section of town to another.