Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 9, 2018
Niall Atkinson The Noisy Renaissance: Sound, Architecture, and Florentine Urban Life University Park: Penn State University Press, 2016. 280 pp.; 50 color ills.; 110 b/w ills. Hardcover $39.95 (9780271071206)

After first poking around in The Noisy Renaissance, I found myself wondering when during the day Donatello worked most efficiently, where he stashed his ready cash, whom he spoke with on a regular basis, and how he responded when he heard a bell ring. After reading Atkinson’s book, I know that Donatello’s response to the ringing of a bell would have depended on where he was, on which bell was sounding, and on the time of day, the day of the week, and the moment in the cycle of the religious calendar. Atkinson makes it clear that Renaissance Florentines needed to understand the meaning of every bong and ding. Unexpected clanging, especially if it came from bells controlled by the government, would have been alarming. Bells were vehicles that transmitted “messages across the urban landscape” (3).

Atkinson builds his case carefully, relating stories in chapter 1 that demonstrate the role of sound in Florence’s early modern history. In chapters 2 and 3, he documents when, where, how, and how often bells conveyed messages across the cityscape.

Atkinson’s study expands our understanding of what it was like to be alive in Renaissance Florence; with each such enrichment we can feel more confident about our perception of the roles that art, architecture, urban planning, and material culture played in the lives of citizens. Bells, he concludes, “connected inhabitants to the most intimate aspects of their lives: to their religion, their spiritual expression, their past, their dead, their government, their safety, their civic duties, their labor, and their collective celebrations” (11). It was sobering for me to realize that bells played a larger role in the civic experience than did the newest sculpture at Orsanmichele or the inclusion of a notable beauty’s portrait in a painting. While the history of Florence I had re-created in my mind had revolutionary works of art as guideposts, I’ve realized that such works played a small role in the lives of most Florentines. While the emphasis on material culture encouraged me to study objects that lie beyond the elitist limitations of “great art,” Atkinson’s work goes beyond the material realm, bringing into our consciousness the noises that flowed through the windows of artisans’ workshops.

For this septuagenarian, who took his first art-history class at Oberlin in 1960, Atkinson’s study demonstrates how broadly and quickly—or so it seems to me—our discipline has expanded. When I was in graduate school, the Florentine towers so important for Atkinson’s thesis were ignored except for the Duomo Campanile, which had been designed by “major” artists. The bells themselves would have been considered inconsequential and the sounds they made irretrievable. Now Atkinson’s research has demonstrated that the “soundscape” of Renaissance Florence can be re-created and that the ringing of bells established a daily “dialogue” between the city’s architecture and the bodies of its citizens (1). Given the richness of the Florentine archives, are there any questions that cannot be asked?

Atkinson’s mining of those archives demonstrates that one needed the approval of the commune to construct a bell tower and that the owner of an established tower could challenge anyone proposing to erect another nearby. The size of a bell—and hence its volume and resonance—was sometimes adjudicated in the courtroom. Atkinson uses diaries, poems, novellas, and other writings to explain how the bells impacted Florentines every day. A tolling bell could even bring to mind a historic event. When the Montanina—a trophy of war brought to Florence in 1303 after a victory over the Pistoians—rang out from the tower of the Bargello, many Florentines may have experienced a rush of civic pride. Reminders of historic victories can consolidate patriotic fervor and bolster support for the current government. The legislative activity around bells reveals that the government had a vested interest in controlling Florence’s soundscape: “Clear sounds meant clear messages, and they were as important an element of urban space as streets and squares” (142).

Organizations that used their bells to draw crowds held impressive power, and with power comes money. Atkinson cites the social historian Richard Trexler, who demonstrated that parish churches suffered losses of revenue when their crowds were drawn away by the bells of the mendicants, convents, and hospitals. Such financial implications meant that the city’s religious institutions were “continually vying for a position within the aural landscape” (140–41). The bells of the Bargello and Palazzo Vecchio drew the citizenry together for civic activities, announcements, and celebrations. The Florentine government had a more efficient way to communicate with its citizens than do local governments today.

The story of a bell at the Monastery of San Marco suggests how bells were perceived in Renaissance Florence. Most Florentine bells received nicknames from the citizenry, in itself an indication of their popularity, and the San Marco bell was called La Piagnona, “the Wailer or Weeper,” as if it were just another follower of Savonarola. After his execution, La Piagnona was sent by the signoria into exile. As it was paraded through the streets prior to expulsion, La Piagnona was whipped by the city’s hangman and jeered by the crowd. Yet another guilty bell was cut in half, silencing it. When Alessandro de’Medici brought the last Florentine republic to its close in 1520, he had the Leone, the communal bell that had rung out what one Florentine called the “sweet sound of liberty” from Palazzo Vecchio, taken down and broken. Such episodes reveal the power and personality granted Florentine bells.

In chapter 4, Atkinson explores the evidence for all the other sounds that invigorated Florentine life. Trumpets introduced public pronouncements, for example, and the tack of the commune’s horses was decorated with small bells, “echoing in miniature the city’s celebratory sounds” (153). There were readings from Dante and Boccaccio, storytelling, celebrations, lamentations, and the shouts and chants of uprisings against this or that power. On a daily level, of course, there would have been salutations, financial exchanges, expletives, and gossip. Imagining the raucous laughter that would have followed a good Florentine Renaissance joke made me wonder about the topics probed by such jokes. Elizabeth Johns once told me that she especially lamented not knowing the jokes that were circulating in nineteenth-century America. Jokes expose a culture’s character and its obsessions; those that my wife Ann and I heard in Florence after the 1966 Arno flood exposed not only the well-known Florentine cynicism but also, and more importantly, a courageous resilience that helped us deal with the tragedy and gave us confidence that the Florentines would cope and recover. By spring 1967, to our amazement, the city was buoyant and ready for the Easter influx of tourists. Atkinson’s efforts to re-create all the sounds experienced by Florentines in the early modern period made me wonder what punchlines lay behind the guffaws that surely enlivened many an exchange.

Silence too held meaning. No bell was allowed to sound in Florence between the evening of Holy Thursday and the tolling that marked Good Friday. After La Piagnona was exiled, San Marco’s friars “were forbidden by governing proclamation even to utter Savonarola’s name, to participate in processions, to pray in common, or to sing their favorite hymns” (63). At the same time, in silence, “they had to endure the noise of obscene and insulting songs that their enemies hurled at them throughout Florence” (63). Noisy Renaissance, indeed!

In chapter 5, “Sonic Discord, Urban Discord,” Atkinson argues that bells were crucial in creating a well-run and secure urban center. Well-conceived illustrations, maps, and diagrams clarify Atkinson’s conclusions; owning the Kindle edition would enrich one’s exploration of the back streets and piazzas of Florence.

Today many Florentine bells are silenced, and our attention is drawn to personal, local, national, and even international events by the ring tones of our smartphones. We respond as quickly as did Renaissance Florentines when they heard a particular bell at a certain time. And, like the Florentine bells, today’s emails, messages, and tweets can draw large groups of citizens to communal and political activities, as the demonstrations that evolved into the Arab Spring demonstrated. Most often, however, the communiqués we receive daily on our devices are personal, intimate, often trivial, and sometimes unwelcome. And, of course, we have the option of turning our devices off if we wish not to be disturbed. In contrast, the bells of the Florentine Renaissance could not be turned off; they were regular, predictable, and an aspect of city life that bound citizens together in work, worship, and governance. Is it safe to say that now, in 2018, isolation has trumped community? The times are changing but, fortunately, so is art history. My thanks to Atkinson and others who are moving us so interestingly in new directions.

David G. Wilkins
Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh, and Senior Faculty, Duquesne University in Rome