The New Districts of Florence


Florence’s New Districts were, it seems, designed by an architect called Arnolfo di Cambio who was also involved with the construction of magnificent Florentine buildings such as the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio. Of course, this new project did not just involve the building of single buildings, but of entire towns which would be located in the higher regions of the Arno Valley. The purpose of the project was to expand the Florentine Republic in an attempt to upstage the city of Arezzo, its main rival in Tuscany, and also to protect Florence as a great economic and commercial power.

The construction of Florence’s first New District, which was named San Giovanni Valdarno, was authorised in 1296. It was decided that the settement would be developed along the convenient main road which stretches alongside the riverbank and crosses an expanse of land which was gradually growing in size. Not long after, the development of Florence’s other New Districts, Terranuova Bracciolini and Castelfranco di Sopra, closely followed. These districts were both concentrated in the areas near to San Giovanni Valdarno.

So, as we can see, the project, which was given the name New Districts or Confined Districts was very carefully planned out and a map, left by Roman Colonies, was used as a template for the layout of these towns. Just like the layout given by this map, each of the towns feature a rectangular layout with straight roads meeting at right angles and crossroads, at the centre of which there is the main piazza which is also the location of the townhall. All of the town’s main roads lead to one of it’s four main entry points. Finally, each of the towns is enclosed by high wall. San Giovanni Valdarno’s encompassing wall, traces of which still remain today, features 24 towers and is also encircled by a deep trench. In honour of its creator, the town’s elegant and slimtown hall, still goes by the name of Arnolfo today.

The New Districts were an immediate success because those who went there to live could enjoy a ten year tax evasion. Moreover, the richer and more powerful families of society in those days were prevented from both living and buying property in these new areas, only those of the lower classes. As a result, many of the poorer families were able to cut all their previous obligations to the richer, usually royal, families (like the Medici family of Florence) as they no longer needed to work as servants to these families in order to earn enough money to pay high living expenses, such as taxes, that were typical of Florence. In fact, this where the old Medieval expression, which says The air of these towns brings freedom, comes from.

Unfortunately, despite its good intentions, the project would not bring equality to the citizens of these districts as it had initially hoped. In fact, the project even predicted that the rich families would eventually find a way of gaining power of the new districts as they always did. Their houses were directly facing the main roads of the new districts, whilst, like all other Medieval towns, all the other buildings got smaller the nearer to the city walls they were, for defense purposes.

In any case, Florence’s colonial project succeeded for a short time, despite the initial protests by local towns in the areas surrounding the new districts, who felt that their interests were being overlooked. The new towns would soon become important economic and artistic centres being full of churches, splendid palaces and every type of art work. It is not by accident that San Giovanni Valdarno gave rise to that genius who was one of the founders of the Renaissance: Masaccio.

Over the centuries, although they have managed to conserve their original layout, these towns have lost part of their defensive structure. An example of this can be seen in San Giovanni Valdarno. However, the town of Castelfranco di Sopra has been much less damaged over time. The construction of this town was deliberated in 1300 and was entrusted to Ser Petracco dall’Ancisa, father of the poet Francesco Petrarca. In this case, the construction was concentrated around a main road which was pivotal during this period. The road was called Seven Bridges and links Florence with Arezzo, passing through the hills of Pratomagno along the way. Also here, a great piazza appears right at the point where the main roads meet at a crossroads, thus dividing the town into 4 smaller districts where the inhabitants who wanted to escape their feuding owners originally lived.

A part of the town’s walls still remains today with patrol trenches, which were known as its original narrow street along the wall and, above all the great port-tower called Florentine Port with its 3 big arches. Inside the surrounding walls, a criss cross layout of roads has developed, with many secondary roads branching off from the main roads, all of which run parallel to each other and are, at times, very straight and impressive.

Finally, in 1337 Castel Santa Maria arose, which subsequently saw its name change firstly to Terranuova and then to Terranuova Bracciolini in honour of the great humanitarian Poggio Bracciolini who was born there. The town’s structure was the same as the other New Towns. Its walls contain 24 towers, of which 4 are situated at angles and 4 are at the defense of each port. Part of the city walls, complete with patrol trench, is still in tact. Of the angular towers, which used to stand at 9 metres taller than the wall level, now only 3 metres remains of the original towers.

Terranuova was the last New Town to be constructed within Florence’s territory. However, originally the project wanted to provide many more of them in the hope of accommodating a growing population and to provide the ever growing city with even more prestige and power. Just a few years later, however, in 1348, in Tuscany and in every corner of Europe, the terrible bane of the Peste Nera, which eliminated literally all of the city’s inhabitants and its surrounding countryside, prevented the project from going any further as much time was needed to concentrate on rebuilding the city rather than developing new districts.


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