Florence as Luther Saw It

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We must count among the dozen or so people in the past half-millennium who have come to Florence not for the art or culture but only and expressly to see what Luther saw. Ah well, this is the life of the pilgrim, not the tourist.

After a blessedly late start we meandered our way through the smog and traffic (boy, Florence is so not the sleepy Renaissance town I was expecting) across the river to the Piazza Santo Spirito, so named for the church of the Holy Spirit squatting over it. Its 18th-century façade of plain plaster didn’t offer much for the delight of the eyes, though the inside was one side chapel after another showcasing the works of Quattrocento masters. The madonna and child rated highest for popularity, followed by St. Augustine and his mother St. Monica. This is because Santo Spirito is the church of the Augustinian friars—and Luther himself celebrated the mass here on his way through, probably right around Christmas. Andrew talked to the friar who was monitoring the tourist visits. He was quite delighted by our project, being a one-time pilgrim on the Santiago de Compostela himself. He knew who Luther was and agreed that Luther was a “good Augustinian.”

Then we angled our way across the city, past the Palazzo Pitti, over the Ponte Vecchio, along the Uffizi museum (no time for us to stop in, alas), through the Piazza della Signoria, up to the Duomo—far more magnificent in realiy than in photographs, with a matching baptistery—and finally to the Spedale degli Innocenti. As with Santo Spirito, the Spedale was designed by Brunelleschi, and in Luther’s day it was an orphanage. It had a revolving door so infants could be left with their parents’ identity undetected—a good idea if the goal was to get those infants to safety. It’s one of the few things Luther mentioned later about his stops en route to Rome, and just about the only thing he said about Florence. This is a little astonishing to us today, who associate Florence with the glorious heights of Renaissance artwork. But while Luther did have a certain artistic taste—definitely in music, and to a lesser extent with the visual arts (he was good friends with the Wittenberg painter Lucas Cranach)—he was of a practical turn of mind. He noticed useful inventions and institutions that improved ordinary people’s lives. The orphanage made such an impression on him for exactly that reason.

That pretty much filled up our day. OK, we did stop for gelato at one point. And we discovered that for all the irritating motor scooters and goofy souvenirs, the tourist industry has figured out how to target eggheads like us too. I stumbled across three shops specializing in hand-printed paper, including everything from diaries to wrapping paper to stationery, and fought a mighty battle with my covetousness; while Andrew was drawn to a Leonardo da Vinci museum with working reproductions of inventions based on the great man’s drawings—but not time for that either. Next time, I guess.

We met up with Paul and Melissa again, then took the train back to Castelfiorentino where we’ll all spend the night before taking off again tomorrow morning from Caiano.

5 thoughts on “Florence as Luther Saw It

  1. I only made it to the train station in Florence on Wednesday, so I am enjoying your experience vicariously.

    I have a question about the revolving door. I can imagine at least one reason myself (e.g., members of family X have been targeted by some group or authority figure); however, from your perspective what are some reasons an infant might have not been safe if the parents’ identity were known – especially around Luther’s era?

    Much grace to you, and peace,

    1. Actually, our friends Paul and Melissa went there and told us that those pictures were away on loan… so just as well!

  2. I was just wondering: How do we know for sure that Luther was in Florence? What source material is there? Is the assumption based exclusively on Table Talk?

    1. Luther mentions in his table talk having said mass at Spirito Santo, and being impressed with the newly completed (Brunelleschi designed) Opedale degli innocenti, a large orphanage. The route mentioned in the “Map for Pilgrims from Germany To Rome” mentioned previously lists Florence as a stop. The Roman imperial road crossed the Apennines farther south; political struggles during the middle ages forced the road inland from Bologna, contributing to the rise of Florence and Siena as major powers. Luther’s going through Florence would have put him on the main road of his day.

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