When you’re in the heart of Florence, it’s hard to remember that anything happened there other than the Renaissance. You can find the Etruscans in the nearby village of Fiesole. Sienna is essentially a medieval town. But Florence seems to be all Renaissance, all the time.
In fact, the city of Florentia was founded by the best known Roman of them all, Julius Caesar, in 59 BCE as a settlement for veterans of the Roman army. It came to be an important stop on the trade route to the sea and a center of the Roman textile industry. This stuff is not included in the guide books.
My Own True Love was determined to see something of Roman Florence and I was certainly willing. After all, the Roman baths turned out to be one of my favorite things in Bath, England—a city which is as closely aligned with the Georgian period as Florence is with the Renaissance. Besides, at some level the Rnaissance was all about reconnecting with the classical past, right?
For the most part, the Roman past is a ghost in Florence. Built on the plan of a Roman military camp, the grid of the central streets, remains, though I will admit that is is not readily visible to someone who lives in Chicago, where the grid is absolutely clear.* The two major streets from the Roman era, the Via Roma and the Via Coros still cross where the city’s forum once stood. The Via Proconsul, which takes its name from the title of a Roman official, follows the line of the now invisible Roman city wall.
It took some digging to find something concrete to look at.** The Palazzo Vecchio is in some ways a microcosm of Florentine history: Renaissance rooms in a medieval fortress built over a Roman theater. The Palazzo itself is stunning, but we were on a quest. We started with the Roman theater. While I have my issues with audio tours, in this case I strongly suggest that you download the tour app at the top of the stairs before you enter the excavations. We went through the excavations without it the first time and were frustrated by the general lack of signs and our own ignorance. We went back upstairs, My Own True Love (who is less easily discouraged than I am) loaded the app on his phone, and went through the excavation again. This time we understood what we were looking at and came away with a sense of the structure of the theater, its role in the Roman city, and a renewed appreciation for Roman engineering. ***
We later learned that you can see the ruins of an early Roman Christian church and an even older Roman home under the Duomo. If we’d just gone down the stairs to the gift shop, we’d have been right there. Maybe next time.
*Except where it isn’t. Angled streets, rail yards and the river add elements of confusion.
**Literally and figuratively. Concrete was one of Rome’s major contributions to world architecture, along with the arch and the vault.