Getting Lost in the Italian Renaissance: The Geography of Urban Disorientation


A merchant in fourteenth-century Naples has to relieve himself at night in an alley, a woodcarver in fifteenth-century Florence decides to ignore a dinner invitation, the poet Petrarch finally arrives in Rome for the first time, and a Roman servant returning to his native city can’t remember where his mistress’ palace used to be. What do all these characters have in common? They are all hopelessly lost. Pre-modern city-dwellers in Italy constructed their sense of self by linking their fates to the structures and people with which they lived. But what if those same city-dwellers found themselves in unknown territory or suddenly found that the streets they thought they knew had become a series of alien encounters? This presentation explores the nature of the relationship between familiar and unfamiliar urban spaces in the Italian Renaissance. Contrary to prevailing assumptions about the emergence of the modern individual as a self-made entity, these episodes reveal just how unstable one’s identity actually was and just how difficult it was to actually “know thyself.” Such knowledge was always a negotiation between the self, others, the past, and the built environment.