Livorno: the Medici’s ideal City


In 1576 the Grand Duke Francis I de’Medici summoned Bernardo Buontalenti, an artist, military engineer, and court architect to his palace. The famous grand duke of Tuscany was possessed of a territory with a potent economy, powerful banks, and thriving industry, and was the ruler of Florence – the seat of Renaissance – which by now had transformed European culture. He lacked only one thing: a military stronghold that would secure his dominion over the seas. The Grand Duke’s gaze fell upon a little village called Livorno, which had sprung up on the Tuscan coast over five hundred years previously, and had for over a century been a key thoroughfare for maritime traffic to Florence. There, the Grand Duke’s father Cosimo I had already thought of constructing a giant breakwater which encouraged the flow of trade and goods into nearby Pisa. 


Francesco, however, was a expert in alchemy and astronomy – a visionary – and therefore had more ambitious plans that would give concrete reality to the virtues of the Renaissance. He wanted to found the Ideal City. The Ideal City of the Renaissance and its transformation from the Renaissance philosophy which posited man at the center of Creation into brick and stone resulted in a pentagon-shaped city. It was a form which, with its regular and rectilinear streets, mirrored the harmonious organization of the human body, and which harkened back to the ancient Roman cities of old. With its large seawater moat that completely encircled and isolated the city, Livorno boasted a “sea-ring” which sealed the marriage of the family Medici to the Mediterranean.

Livorno, so important to the commerce and culture of Tuscany, would come to be called “the key to our state” by the grand dukes. On the 28th of March 1577 – deemed an auspicious date by the court astrologers – the first cornerstone of the famous Pentagon of Buontalenti was laid. Between the 1600s and 1700s the city would be enriched with the construction of the New Venice quarter. With its canals and bridges the Venezia Nuova seemed to evoke many of Leonardo da Vinci’s concepts from his treatise on the ideal city. This quarter was and remains situated between two imposing Medicean fortresses and other bulwarks, and because of its canal networks, visitors to the city often referred to it as “little Venice”.

There are only four ideal Renaissance cities of completely new foundation in Italy, but Livorno, besides being of the greatest dimensions, was the only one to gain lasting success. Unlike the other “ideal” cities, Livorno remained not simply a laudable experiment, but for centuries flourished as one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean, just as the prescient Medici family of Tuscany had foreseen. Over the centuries Livorno, its piazzas, and its fortifications were often taken as models for many other European cities. For example, Piazza Grande inspired Inigo Jones’ design for Covent Garden in London, and was also a model for the Place Dauphine in Paris. Livorno continued to expand in the successive centuries with the construction of enormous piazzas, such as Piazza Repubblica, which is actually Europe’s widest bridge erected over Livorno’s largest canal, and other notable landmarks such as the grand central market, the Mercato delle vettovaglie, and the stupendous 19th century seaside promenade, a popular destination for Europe’s aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries.










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