The Double Rivalry of Rome and Florence

Rome and Florence were double rivals, as both cities tried to present themselves as capitals of antiquity, and as capitals of Christendom.
Economically Florence was triumphant: its 100,000 residents made it one of Europe’s largest capitals, and every nation used Florentine banks and exports.  In contrast, Rome had never rebounded from the Plague of Justinian in 541-2 CE. The imperial capital built for a million people was now hollow, its 20,000 residents clustering near the Christian sights which ringed Rome’s abandoned core, since the city offered little employment apart from the Vatican itself.  Politically the influence was reversed, since papal authority could tip the balance anywhere in Europe, making Rome a political threat to the strongest monarchs.  In contrast, Florence’s tiny merchant republic was an object of scorn in many foreign eyes, which saw the city that laid such golden eggs as a resource, but not a peer.  

Mismatched economically and politically, Rome and Florence competed through culture, both wrestling with the contradiction of appropriating pagan relics while promoting Italy and themselves as centers of Christianity.

Two Classical Capitals

Both cities claimed antiquity.  Florence was the birthplace of humanism, and fastest to erect the neoclassical edifices and impossible bronzes which made it feel like a new Rome.  Yet how could Florence be a new Rome when Rome was only a few days’ ride away?  Renaissance Rome profited from humanism, gaining international esteem, and controlling the lion’s share of Italian antiquities.  Even Petrarch had confirmed the supremacy of the eternal city by choosing to be crowned poet laureate in Rome.  The Vatican’s wealth and prestige made it easy for Rome to hire away the best of Florence’s artists and scholars—or demand their services with threats if need be—so Rome grew grander and more classical with every Florentine innovation.  Florentines tried many strategies to advance their city’s status as a classical capital, presenting Florence as a new Athens, supreme in culture over Rome, or as a new Roman republic, a truer successor to antiquity than the papal monarchy.

Two Christian Capitals

Both cities also claimed Christianity.  Florence’s famous cathedral, undertaken in 1296, was conceived as a project to build the greatest church in Christendom, to demonstrate Florence’s supreme piety.  Florence’s grandest classical bronzes were not pagan figures but patron saints, its most ambitious neoclassical buildings churches and hospitals, its most famous humanists priests and theologians, and its symbols John the Baptist and the classical-yet-Christian virtue Charity.  As papal corruption became more infamous, Christian Florence styled itself an alternate Holy City, purer than rotten Rome.  Florence also fostered radical theologies, from the virtue-centered Platonic-Christian syncretism of Marsilio Ficino to the ferocious reform theocracy of Girolamo Savonarola, which prefigured many elements of the Reformation.  Rome responded by incorporating some of humanism’s new theological ideas, condemning others, frequently threatening Florence with interdict or military action, and undertaking the new Saint Peter’s basilica expressly to surpass Florence in the splendor and ambition of its Christian piety.