Born in Arezzo, the humanist and historian Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) spent most of his life in Florence. He translated key texts by Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers into Latin, wrote an influential History of the Florentine People and dedicated his life to defending the Florentine Republic. Today, you can visit Bruni’s tomb in the church of Santa Croce. This Panegyric to the City of Florence (c. 1402), modelled on a classic Greek text, celebrates the wonderful city Bruni called home.
Would that God immortal give me eloquence worthy of the city of Florence, about which I am to speak, or at least equal to my zeal and desire on her behalf; for either one degree or the other would, I think, abundantly demonstrate the city’s magnificence and splendour. Florence is of such a nature that a more distinguished or more splendid city cannot be found on the entire earth, and I can easily tell about myself, I was never more desirous of doing anything in my life. So I have no doubt at all that if either of these wishes were granted, I should be able to describe with elegance and dignity this very beautiful and excellent city. But because everything we want and the ability granted us to attain what we wish are two different things, we will carry out our intention as well as we can, so that we appear to be lacking in talent rather than in will.
Indeed, this city is of such admirable excellence that no one can match his eloquence with it. But we have seen several good and important men who have spoken concerning God himself, whose glory and magnificence the speech of the most eloquent man cannot capture even in the smallest degree. Nor does this vast superiority keep them from trying to speak insofar as they are able about such an immense magnitude. Therefore, I too shall seem to have done enough if, marshalling all competence, expertise, and skill that I have eventually acquired after so much study, I devote my all to praising this city, even though I clearly understand that my ability is such that it can in no way be compared with the enormous splendour of Florence.
As a starting point there is what is the greatest sign of prudence: we can detect that in its quiet and settled suitability, Florence took care to be as far as possible from doing things for ostentation’s sake or pursuing dangerous and pointless bragging. For, it was placed neither on the highest mountains from where it could show itself off as famous, nor in the widest evenness of the fields, where it would have been open on all sides. Rather, most prudently and by the best counsel, this city was established… and positioned so that it is the mean between the extremes (which is highly regarded in all things) and was far from both the uneven mountain and the distasteful plain. The city itself is surrounded by a most beautiful crown of walls, though not so extensive that it might seem the city is fearful of its own strength or so ill-looked after that it could be held to be careless and ill-advised. What can I say of the thronging of people, of the splendour of the buildings, of the adornment of the churches, of the unbelievable and remarkable stylishness of the whole city? Everything – by my word – is eye-catching and adorned with outstanding beauty.
From the beginning to the end, everything is present which can make a city blessed. If you like antiquity, you will find here very many remains of the ancient in both public and private buildings. If you look for what is new, nothing could be more magnificent or splendid than the new constructions. Of the river, which runs through the centre of the city, it is hard to say whether it serves practicality or charm more. Four bridges magnificently built of stone link the riverbanks so that you can conveniently walk through the city as if it were not divided by any water.
From what breed come this city’s people? Who were its parents? By what mortals was this famous city founded? You know, Florentines, you know your stock and ancestry! Count yourselves the most famous of all races! The Roman people, lord and victor of the lands of the earth, are your progenitors. But in what age did the race of Florentines arise from the Romans? This I see as very important… This most splendid colony of the Romans was founded when the power of the Roman people flourished the most, when the strongest kings and most warlike races submitted to its arms and virtue… Caesar, Anthony, Tiberius, Nero – they and their type, a plague and ruin of the republic, had not yet taken away its liberty. It is, I think, from this that we can see what was and is the most outstanding element in this city-state, before all others: the Florentines delight greatly in the liberty of all and are firm enemies of tyrants. I believe I have said enough about the gloriousness of their race and the virtue of the city, what it is and of what sort at home and abroad, remains to be discussed.
The virtue of this city really must be marvelled: it is in every sort of praise the unbeaten exemplar… Witness the many city-states which, when suffering from a conspiracy of its neighbours or the violence of tyrants, are supported with advice, resources, money and are protected in the darkest times. Who will ever praise this city abundantly enough for such beneficence and liberality? Or what city-state is there in all the world, which can compare in this sort of praise?
Adapted from Laudatio Florentinae Urbis by Leonardo Bruni. Several translations are available.
Discover Bruni’s hometown on the Idler Retreat to Florence and the Chianti in June 2020. Find out more here.