Florence and its Signs: A Late Mediaeval Diagram of the City

the Palace of the Judges’ and Notaries’ Guild, view from the street. It was built in the heart of the political space of the city. Photo by Sailko CC BY 2.5

In the 1360s the abstract portrayal of Florence was painted by Jacopo di Cione on the main vault of the Palace of the Judges’ and Notaries’ Guild[i]. This heraldic diagram is a peculiar visual political treatise, which legitimises the hierarchy of communities and the city’s political system. To this end, an unusual synthesis of knowledge was used, merging aspects of perception of the communal law, relevant political treatises and, overall, a vision of the world. There are two features of the image that appear outstanding: the use of the public signs, and the assumed structure. The latter is formed of concentric circles and has to be related with the diagram representation, a concept that was deeply rooted in the mediaeval epistemological system and visual culture.[ii]

Reading the diagram…

A square inscribed in a circle is featured at the fresco’s centre. Around this geometrically outlined centre, four rings are drawn. Inside the first one four coat-of-arms of the city were painted (the emblems of Florence; the Commune of Florence; the popolo and the Guelph Party). These signs and symbols are fundamental to the basic identities of a self-governed city, reflecting its institutional and political structure. The possible reading of the first circle is: The city of Florence, being a commune, is people-governed and supported by the Guelph Party and its ideology (traditionally, pro-papal, anti-imperial, and pro-Anjou dynasty).

The first circle of the diagram the photo by Sailko CC BY-SA 3.0

Inscribed in the circle of city’s coat-of-arms is the territorial arrangement – the four quarters (Holy Cross, Saint John, Holy Spirit, and Santa Maria Novella). Their names and signs are based on Florence’s four main churches. Their sequence and layout in the image is not incidental. First, their arrangement reflects the order in which the quarters were permanently named and enumerated in the communal legislation. Therefore, it ensures about the perception of the civic law and its influence on the image. Second, the position of the quarter’s sign determines the area’s location against the Guild Palace. Thus, the representation is ‘oriented’ in a way, and strongly related to the actual urban space.

The quarters have four respective pennons ascribed, representing the city’s 16 gonfalons (gonfaloni; i.e. heraldic flags, or banners) – that is, people’s companies which were tasked with defending the city in case of threat. The gonfalons, which initially were merely a structure according to which the city’s popolo was formed into companies of militia, began acting in the fourteenth century also as territorial units, as primarily attested by the period’s tax registers.

To sum up: the first ring features four as the key number: there are four coats-of-arms of the city, and four districts divisible into four smaller communities. Such a rendering of the city’s structure, in its territorial and political aspect, shows the central city’s institutions, their ideologies and identities. It also reflects the principle of participation in the city’s rule, based on a rotation of municipal term-holding officers whose number was proportionate to the administrative and territorial layout of the city, arranged into quarters and gonfalons.

… circle by circle.

The main vault of the guild’s meeting and judiciary hall of the Palace of the Judges’ and Notaries’ Guild. Photo by Sailko CC BY-SA 3.0

The next circle features coats-of-arms (very poorly preserved) representing the Florentine guilds: in spite of the legally imposed division into 7 major and 14 minor guilds, which also reflected the system of participation in the communal rule and ‘rationing’ of the influence on this rule, the emblems are shown as a single train of twenty-one items. Their apparently egalitarian representation indicate, however, a hierarchy of corporations: the first, and the most important, place belongs to the Guild of Judges and Notaries.[iii] The subsequent signs are related to the other six major guilds. The circle is enclosed by 14 signs of the rest.

The third ring is in a very bad condition, which prevents from a full identification.  However, like the guilds, there are twenty-one signs, which suggests that they were probably the patron saints  of the respective corporations.

The city’s walls form the last circle. They refer to the outer ring in the city’s fortifications completed in 1333, but their structure being highly schematic and dependent on the structure of the depiction. These fortifications definitely constitute the city’s outer limit and protective wall – topographically as well as symbolically.

All four circles of the diagram – a cross-section the photo by Sailko CC BY-SA 3.0


The image namely pictures the rule, or authority, of the city, epitomised by the four coat-of arms set in the centre of the image; the popolo, organised into companies responsible for military defense of the city. The next circle, representing the city’s merchant and artisan communities, are those responsible for providing Florence with prosperity. Their identity, and the care about their actions, is probably reinforced by a circle of patron saints of the corporations. The vision is enclosed by the walls, which reemphasise the defensive capability of the city and an enclosed character of this strongly centralised and united urban community, whose individual parts have different functions. This interpretation is confinable to the triad: (1)power/authority – (2)safety/security – (3)prosperity/well-being. That is the simplest, literary reading.

Visualisation type

Dominant in the image is a circle, which by the time the fresco was painted, circle was strongly connected with an ideal image of town or city. It is set by the ring of city walls with gates open toward all the cardinal points, between which a total of twelve towers are situated. This ‘great and tall wall’ and the ‘twelve modules’ link the image of Florence with those of the celestial Jerusalem, the model which was based upon the apocalyptic vision of Saint John; but contrary to what the Evangelist indicates, it is not based on a square figure. Thus, it refers also to some early medieval circular imitations of Celestial Jerusalem, and to the representations of the terrestrial Jerusalem elaborated in the time of the Crusades, where in the mappae mundi the city is shown centrally as the axis mundi and the four cardinal directions being drawn and emphasized. It seems that instead of a direct reference to terrestrial or celestial Jerusalem, what one deals with there is, merely, an instance of use of the model in order to inscribe the city in a pattern that was quite plain at the time, so that Florence could be praised and idealised – all this embedded in the content essential for the ideology of the commune.

Divina Commedia and thema mundi

The fourteenth century saw the diagram become the major instrument with which scholastic knowledge was shared in an illustrative manner, and which enabled to create analogies, determine cyclical mechanisms, and explain the rules of the world’s functioning. Dante’s Divina Commedia was no doubt one of the major channels through which knowledge of the concentric structure of the world was conveyed, in a synthetic form. The circles described by the poet were presented as diagrams. They overwhelmed the imagination and diffused even wider the already popular visualisation model which was represented in the arts of the time by diagrams depicting the motif of thema mundi and the representations of the Creation that used the model whilst also drawing from the Platonic, neo-Platonic and Aristotelian cosmology, not to forget a reception of the Ptolemaic model of the universe, presented already in 13th century.[iv]

The use of the diagram in producing a representation of Florence is evidence, on the one hand, of the imaging pattern’s strong anchoring in the visual culture and, on the other, of an innovative skill that enabled its use as a tool so that the city could be shown as a complete hierarchical organism, based on the communal ideology. The skilful use of knowledge or image  based upon familiarity with the Aristotelian mechanics of the world is astonishing, as is the expert structuring of the diagram, with observance of harmony and symmetry. The latter is founded upon a centrally positioned image of the city’s division according to the number 4 and depiction of a total of four circles, in relation to the Four Elements as the structural principle of the universe. If the Florence diagram have been construed as an instance of reception and original application of the cosmological diagram, it may also be argued that the schematic representation of the Florentine walls refers to the last of the circles in the cosmological diagrams: Heaven/Empyreum. With the use of the diagram that refers to the construction of the universe, the city is depicted as a microcosm that reflects the structure of the macrocosm: hence, the communal order is juxtaposed with the Divine order.

The image of the city placed on a star-studded horizon, with winged allegories of the cardinal virtues, the Civil Law and the Canon Law. Photo by Sailko CC BY-SA

Public signs and civic discourse

To comprehend the adequacy of the diagram, it is crucial to perceive its content in the context of political treatises from the first half of the fourteenth century, where contents drawn from St Augustine’s and Aristotle’s writing are used in order to determine the principles of the functioning of an ideal community, the civitas being approached as a single organism, a corpus. The public good (bene comune) and social consensus is guaranteed by a political system based on a harmony of corporations and an equitable hierarchy, uninfluenced by particular interests or individual rule, which is highlighted by anti-individualistic and corporate character of the image, reinforced by a system of signs having no individual reference: a complex of public signs. Observance and preservation of this order ensures peace and the rule of law in the state.

Rather than being an aesthetic portrait of the city, the image comprises contents that were comprehensible and topical for the fourteenth-century viewer. Hence, it is crucial to use an urban sign discourse, that is, a public heraldry defining identities within a single city. The local system of signs applied there is inscribed in a universal model and thus fills the diagram with a content. No less importantly, a universal form employed constitutes such a system of the city’s identity signs, which is not static at all: whilst striving for static status, the system is basically still negotiable, as testified by the occurrences of the fourteenth-century political history. This, in particular, refers to the signs of gonfalon banners and guild emblems, which are indicative of the legal status and the aspirations of guild communities.[v] The signs vary in status within the framework of the communal law and refer to the various city orders: political, administrative, that of professional corporations. The use of a diagram as a ‘superstructure’ arranges and standardises the language of these sings, this being one of its major functions. The signs of the communities are referred to one another, their meanings and roles in the urban organism being confronted against each other. The hierarchy of the communities is determined, their appropriate place within the communal system defined. A special role of the guilds in the system is worth emphasising. Rather than portraying the offices or councils, the diagram pictures the community division principle, according to which citizens partake in the rule of the city.

This is the first post in the series on the Florentine heraldic diagrams. The paper was presented at the conference: URBAN VISUAL CULTURE(S): Productions and Perceptions of the Visual  in Late Medieval and Early Modern Cities, 22 & 23 June 2016, Durham.

Research funded by National Science Centre (2014/15/N/HS3/01768)

Cite the article as: Anna Pomierny Wąsińska, "Florence and its Signs: A Late Mediaeval Diagram of the City", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on Hypotheses.org), published: 14/09/2016, Internet: http://heraldica.hypotheses.org/4880.

[i] Eve Borsook, ‘Jacopo Cione and the guild hall of the Judges and Notaries in Florence’ (shorter notices), The Burlington Magazine, vol. 124, no. 947(1982), 86-88.

[ii] About the fresco and its interpretation see especially: D. Friedman, Terre Nuove. La creazone delle cittá fiorentine nel tardo Medioevo, Torino 1996, 243-7; M. M. Donato, ‘Gli affreschi del Palazzo dell’Arte de’Giudici e Notai’, Annali della Scuola normale Superiore di Pisa. Classe di lettere e Filosoda, s. 5, no.7/1(2015), 3-33; the most recent and extensive study: I. Wartenberg, Bilder der Rechtsprechung. Spätmittelalterliche Wandmalereien in Regierungsräumen italienischer Kommunen, Berlin 2015, 110-127.

[iii] The sign of judges and notaries is a golden eight-pointed star is featured against a blue background; see: V. Favini, A. Savorelli, Segni di Toscana. Identitá e territorio attraverso l’araldica dei comuni. Storia e invenzione grafica (secoli XIII-XVII), Firenze 2006, 161-181.

[iv] See K. Lippincott, ‘Giovanni di Paolo’s ‘Creation of the World’ and the Tradition of the ‘Thema Mundi’ in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art’, The Burlington Magazine , vol.132, no.1048 (1990), 460-468; Theodore J. Cachey, Cosmology, geography, and cartography, in Dante in Context, eds. Z.G. Barański & Lino Pertile, Cambridge 2015, 221-240.

[v] R.C. Trexler, ‘Follow the Flag: The Ciompi Revolt Seen from the Streets’, Bibliotheque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 46 (1984), 357–92.

Anna Pomierny Wąsińska

Anna Pomierny-Wąsińska is a PhD student in the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History in Warsaw (Polish Academy of Science). She obtained the MA degree in Medieval History at Warsaw University. Currently she is working on her PhD dissertation on the topic “Urban Space of Late Medieval Florence: Representations and Perception (14th Century).”

3 Responses

  1. Alex Maxwell Findlater says:

    Very interesting; thank you.

  1. 12/10/2016

    […] “Florence and its Signs: A Late Mediaeval Diagram of the City”, Anna Pomierny Wąsińska described a fresco painted by Jacopo di Cione on the main vault of the […]

  2. 12/10/2016

    […] text on this blog, entitled ‘Florence and its Signs: A Late Mediaeval Diagram of the City’ (https://heraldica.hypotheses.org/4880) I presented the heraldic diagram painted at the main vault of the Palace of Judges’ and […]

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