Reflecting on Florence

Student, Kate Mani, reflects on her experience of studying The Renaissance in Florence at Prato.

Siamo in arrivo a Prato Porto al Serraglio (We are now arriving at Prato Porto al Serraglio)

This welcoming announcement, as we pulled into the train station in Prato’s historical centre, became a familiar sound for the 2016 Renaissance in Florence study tour. Over four weeks both Prato and Florence became our home territory as the monuments we saw and the streets we walked became critical clues for understanding Florentine life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. With morning trips to Florence and afternoon lectures in Prato, the tour offered us the rare opportunity of a 360-degree immersion in Renaissance history.

View of Florence. (Photo, Hannah Fulton.)

On our first day in Florence, student-led presentations at various points across the city allowed us to introduce each other to the monuments and sites that would become part of the vita quotidiana (daily life) of a Florentine history student. For those of us who had studied previous Renaissance history units, we relished the opportunity to put ‘faces’ to the churches, palazzos and paintings we’d heard about in lecture halls at Clayton.

Our next task involved ‘reading the street’ at Borgo di San Jacopo on Florence’s Oltrarno, where we worked in research groups to discover the street’s Renaissance attributes and functions through its architectural and spatial characteristics. It was the first of many tasks throughout the course which fused both methodological and historical learning, with our setting becoming more than a backdrop but a primary source that we learnt to decipher.

Our weeks of interpreting Florence’s piazzas and palazzos and decoding and discussing their importance culminated with attendance at the Prato Consortium for Medieval and Renaissance studies, held in the Monash Prato Centre. Listening to lectures by professors and PhD students, we learnt how the broader, general Renaissance concepts that we’ve studied can form the foundations for highly specialised investigation. It was exciting to hear new areas of research being presented, such as at a guest lecture by Dr Monica Azzolini where we learnt how a Renaissance appreciation of religion and science could be applied when studying Rome’s response to the 1703 earthquake. We were also lucky to be present at the PhD workshop where the incredible focus and detail of the post-graduate presentations made us realise how much more there is still to learn about the Renaissance. 

Our understanding of Renaissance studies was further expanded through a presentation by Renaissance Quarterly editor Nick Terpstra on what lies ahead for this area of historical inquiry. His explained how Renaissance studies have become interdisciplinary, with the line between religious life, social life, artistic life and even medical life often blurring. This prompted us to make links between the different areas we’ve studied. He also encouraged us to explore the unconventional in the Renaissance, such as focusing on the role of marginal figures and considering the global effects of Florentine humanism and external influences that may have influenced Italy.

Ultimately, the Prato Consortium and the study tour as a whole have shown us there is room and opportunity to continue to investigate and interpret Renaissance history through new avenues. We’ll return back to Australia with improved historical skills, a deeper understanding of fifteenth-century Florence and feeling inspired to learn more.