DV Bishop tells Historia how valuable it is to get your feet on the street when doing historical research, as he found while writing his novel, City of Vengeance, set in Florence in the 1530s.
Writing my historical crime fiction debut, City of Vengeance, was a journey of many steps, as with any creative endeavour, but in this case the phrase has a literal meaning.
The novel is set in Renaissance Florence, with events spanning 12 days during the winter of 1536. I knew I would have to visit modern-day Florence if I was to have readers believe in a setting almost 500 years in the past. What I didn’t anticipate was how influential walking those streets would be for my telling of the story, and also for my understanding of Florence as a city.
I had spent years gathering reference materials and researching the period. I wanted to know how people in Renaissance Florence lived and loved, how they worked and rested, what life was like in such a tumultuous time. But books and journals and academic papers only get you so far as a writer. Secondary sources are a good start, but for those sensory details that help to bring a place alive on the page, it is always better if you can go there.
Alas, there are no time machines available to transport writers back into the past. But there are significant parts of central Florence that remain much the same as they did in 1536. (I was researching City of Vengeance before the Covid-19 pandemic made travelling all but impossible.)
Many of the buildings my characters visit in the novel remain standing today, though their purposes have changed over the centuries. Streets in Florence now often have different names than they did in 1536, but the heart of the city remains much the same. Besides, modern visitors should be grateful that most streets are no longer made of packed dirt or mud with a channel of waste running down the middle of them.
I was fortunate to revisit Florence midway through writing the first draft for City of Vengeance. I knew my story well enough that I could walk the specific routes characters were taking on the page. For example, the protagonist of my novel is Cesare Aldo, an officer of the Otto di Guardia e Balia, the city’s most feared criminal court. He lives south of the Arno in what was then the least reputable area of the city. But the Otto was based north of the river at the Palazzo del Podestà, so Aldo had to cross the Arno to do his job.
I planned to have Aldo rise before dawn one day and walk the streets while pondering the puzzle that City of Vengeance presents him. I happened to be in Florence in the first week of January, on the same dates as that part of the novel. So I got up before dawn and took his walk, starting from Piazza della Passera where Aldo lived in a bordello that was sited there in 1536.
I strolled the narrow streets that led to Ponte Vecchio, the most famous river crossing in Florence and the only bridge not detonated by the Nazis when they fled the city.
Ponte Vecchio looks flat and even when viewed from along the river, but is surprisingly steep when you cross it. These days it is lined with shops selling jewellery; in 1536 it was home for many butcher’s shops, blood from their premises dripping into the river below. In the days before the pandemic Ponte Vecchio was usually crowded with tourists, but before dawn it proved eerily empty, a good site for a fictional murder or two.
From there I wandered north-east, staying away from the main roads, using the side streets that a native of Florence like Aldo would prefer. I took no map, trusting my sense of direction would guide me to his destination – but soon became confused.
I had imagined the majestic Duomo would be visible from most parts of central Florence. In fact the three-storey buildings that crowd the narrow streets there mean it is rare to catch a glimpse of the Duomo’s iconic terracotta tiles. The Arno is equally hidden from view across most of Florence, even though the river runs right through the city.
Instead it is smaller landmarks that help Florentines navigate their way around the city today, just as their ancestors did in 1536: tabernacles at street corners where the faithful could pray, family crests carved into stone on the sides of palazzi, and the small wooden windows on the ground floor of buildings that sold the best wines brought in from country estates.
Getting lost as dawn coloured the sky above Florence altered my perception of the city, and it directly influenced the story told in City of Vengeance. I gave my confusion about where I was to a bandit who visits Florence but gets lost and found, with deadly consequences.
Later, during chapter 14 of the novel, Aldo follows in the footsteps I had taken while he is unravelling the complex conspiracy that drives the novel’s narrative. How I wrote those sequences was a direct result of walking those streets, albeit five centuries later.
There are other ways that going to Florence alters your perception of the city. The lustre of the stone buildings when the sun shines on them, for example, or how beautiful it all appears when seen from a distance.
On the last day of my visit I went out into the hills and looked down at the city, as Aldo does in chapter four of the novel. Florence is stunning to see, but smaller than you expect. I realised then perhaps it was this very closeness and density that precipitated so much remarkable history.
With many artists living in such proximity to one another, it is no surprise Florence became the cradle of the Renaissance. Yet the city was also the scene of numerous conspiracies and murders, inspiring Niccolò Machiavelli to write The Prince, his notorious treatise on political power and how to retain it.
I have just finished writing the second Cesare Aldo novel, again set in Renaissance Florence, and am already making plans for the next. I am eager to return to his city and walk the streets once more, to see what new mysteries they inspire. I suspect there will be beauty and there will be blood. After all, it is the Florentine way…
DV Bishop is an award-winning screenwriter and TV dramatist. His love for the city of Florence and the Renaissance period meant there could be only one setting for his crime fiction debut. City of Vengeance won the Pitch Perfect competition at Bloody Scotland 2018, and he was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship by the Scottish Book Trust while writing the novel.
Find out more about City of Vengeance.
Siege of Florence (in 1530), fresco by Giorgio Vasari, 1558: via Wikimedia
Ponte Vecchio, Florence: photo taken and supplied by DV Bishop
Narrow streets, Florence: photo taken and supplied by DV Bishop
Florence now: (part of) photo by Steve Hersey via Wikimedia
Woodcut of Florence from the Nuremberg Chronicle