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May 2014
uring my familys stay in Floren-
ce, we also travelled to other
places in Italy. They were ma-
gnicent. But it was Florence where we
felt most inspired to be meaningfully,
deeply and creatively engaged in our
lives. Even more indicative of Florences
magic, we felt that we shared this sen-
se of purpose and meaning with other
Florence dwellers.
The pattern was familiar. Wed leave
the Santa Maria Novella train station
and immediately encounter Florences
rst great basilica and the train stations
namesake. A few steps more, depen-
ding on our path, we caught glimpses
of the Duomo darting in and out of
view, as if playing peek-a-boo with us.
Everything in our path home made us
feel alive and part of something spe-
cial. The draw of piazza della Repub-
blica, piazza della Signoria, the Arno,
the rust-colored medieval architecture
and the deep blue sky that it frames
was hypnotic and served as a frame of
reference for the genius of Brunelle-
schi, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Dante,
Botticelli, Donatello, Ghiberti, Giotto
and the Medici family.
Florence isnt the only city that has
a powerful essence. Genius loci is an
ancient Roman concept that originally
denoted the guardian spirit of a place.
The concept has evolved to refer to a
places underlying character. Now its
largely about the relationship betwe-
en architecture and sense of place.
Christian Norberg-Schulz, the Norwe-
gian architect and philosopher, states
in his denitive book on the subject,
Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology
of Architecture (1980), A place is a spa-
ce which has a distinct character. Since
ancient times the genius loci, or spirit
of place, has been recognized as the
concrete reality man has to face and to
come to terms with in his daily life. The-
re is a relationship between various na-
tural and human-made elements and
this relationship has a profound eect
on ones cognitive development and
perception of existence. Meaning and
structure are inextricably linked.
Norberg-Schulz explores genius
loci as a derivative of the relationship
between topography (such as rivers
and mountains), cosmic order (as sug-
gested by the conditions of the sky
and light), buildings and architecture
(including their color and design) and
cultural landscape (ideas, values and
beliefs shaped by history and the pas-
sage of time). Genius loci, therefore,
varies from place to place. As examples,
he describes Pragues sense of mystery;
Khartoums sense of a powerful na-
tural order; Romes sense of an eter-
nal presence and being the capital of
the world.
What is the genius loci of Florence?
While the physical structure of Floren-
ce is integral to it, what really captured
our hearts and minds is the sense of
community and shared meaning. The
historic center is primarily pedestrian,
relatively small, framed by historic piaz-
zas and the Arno, and it is dense with
inescapable evidence of the geniuses
who shaped it. There is an intersubjec-
tivity among tourists and residents ali-
ke, who know that the David, the Vasari
Corridor, Palazzo Vecchio, the Uzi, the
Ponte Vecchio and other great sites are
on each others minds. We have expe-
rienced the performances of the same
street musicians, artists and mimes.
We have shared the sounds of Giottos
campanile. We collectively played hide
and seek with the Duomo, the piazza
della Repubblica and the Palazzo Vec-
chio and know that others in the city
are experiencing the same spirit of
This sense of
community is
what makes Flo-
rence unique.
Antonio Vanni,
director of the
Jazz Performance program at AEF and
former Uzi guide, explained it this
way to me, What makes Firenze spe-
cial is that you feel that everything
you experience is done by men like
you. Bigger cities, like Rome, express a
transcendent reality. God is everywhe-
re. Its magnicent. But Rome pushes
you down. She tells you how big she
is. Firenze is a city built by merchants
for merchants. She makes you feel you
are part of her and celebrates us as
individuals. The Tuscan blue sky over
Firenze is beautiful, but that sky is also
in Arezzo. It is the sense of community
and the constant common understan-
dings about the greatness of Firenze
that give it its genius loci. Its not intimi-
dating but it asks you to be better and
you feel that sense of creative passion.
In Florence, we have a shared sense
of the greatness of humanitys capa-
bilities driving us to excel further. This
shared meaning is a powerful source of
Genius loci is more than a collection
of natural and human-made sites. It is
a quality of being that denes the very
existence of the people who occupy a
place. Experiencing the genius loci of
Florence and its sense of community
will do nothing less than enhance the
meaning of ones life while here and,
very likely, permanently.
! #$%&'(
The real genius of Florence
CREATIVE LINES 10 2%&&0 3%#.&.)*
Whether you are a rst-time visitor, a returnee or a permanent resident, it is nearly impossible not to be
captivated by Florences unique charms, as Larry Basirico, professor of sociology, chair of the department
of sociology and anthropology and former dean of international programs at Elon University, discovered
while serving as visiting professor at Accademia Europea di Firenze (AEF) in fall 2013 and living here
with his family. Basirico, who has authored articles about identity and the family as well as introductory-
level sociology textbooks, began this series, Experiencing Florence, in TF 198 digital version (ther.net/