Early Renaissance Man

Tristram Hunt finds inspiration for his study of civic consciousness in Tuscany and the lecture halls of Cambridge.

Perhaps it was the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View that did it for me. As a teenager I could think of little more romantic than eccentric Florentine pensiones, walks through the baking Fiesole countryside, and, of course, my very own Helena Bonham Carter. So aged seventeen, with some mediocre GCSEs behind me but with a growing interest in history, I headed off to Tuscany with the proceeds of five terrible weeks selling ice creams at Hamley’s toy store.

Staying with a friend, who cruelly declined the role of Miss Honeychurch, we explored the Chiantishire countryside: long walks and siestas on hay bales, wine-tasting in Montepulciano, site-seeing at San Gimignano. But it was when we reached Siena that my mind moved from the temporal to the historical. Here was a city which immediately presented a very different mental universe. Its tight, cloying streets, its incessant iconography, and its extraordinary civic spaces offered up a wholly novel notion of urban living. With Baedeker in hand, we affectedly scoured the Duomo, visited Santa Maria della Scala and rested in awe on the Piazza del Campo’s earthen bricks.

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