Search form

About The Blogger

Liz Sarles's picture
I fell in love with the subject of history when I was a sophomore in high school and that love has guided my professional development for the last 25 years. As much as I enjoy reading, researching...
Back to Blog

Teaching the Renaissance: Using Florence as a Case Study

The Renaissance is one of the units in my Modern European class that most excites me. There are three distinct reasons for this. One, the Renaissance allows for a truly multimedia approach to teaching and offers so many positive uses of technology. Two, using a case study of Florence encourages classes to get to know a specific location historically while also learning about themes in a broader unit. Three, this close study also permits me to focus on important skills such as critical reading, primary document analysis, written and oral debate and argument construction. I should also add that this is a unit which seems to inspire and intrigue the students: they like the art and architecture and can connect to the modernization processes taking place in various areas of the city.

When the students enter class on the first day of this unit, they have read an overview of the Renaissance which includes information about geography, social interactions, political structures and economic development. They have also read an overview of how the Renaissance developed in Florence. My job is to push them deeper into each of these categories and to hopefully inspire them to care about the Renaissance and connect it to the contemporary world and their place in it. I do this over the course of five classes, carefully dividing and organizing the material by a particular theme.

Day One: As a class, we explore the geography of the Renaissance and do so with a critical look at Florence. If I had to name this class, it would be ‘Physical Florence’ as we engage in an in-depth study of the city during the Renaissance. We start by comparing two maps via projection on the whiteboard - one of Florence in the Renaissance and one of Florence today (you can find all links for materials at the end of this article). I ask the students to write down five similarities and five differences between the maps, and then we discuss these as a class. We watch a walking tour of Florence that takes them through the old city and exposes them to many Renaissance monuments. In the second half of class, the students get into small groups and pick one of the landmark sites from Florence (think Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Maria Croce or the Ponte Vecchio). They have approximately twenty minutes to research their site with focus on the purpose of the building and how it contributed to Renaissance life. The students find an image to project for the class and then give a brief (two minute) presentation on this architectural site. In the final moments of class, we discuss how and why physical Florence contributed and showcased the rise of the Renaissance. For homework that night, the students write a pretend journal entry entitled ‘A Day in the Life of a 14th Century Florentine’. They need to use their past readings and the class material to craft this written assignment.

Day Two: Once we have established the physical base of Florence, we move onto the social stratum and how classes interacted with one another in the 14th and 15th centuries. I start the class by seeing if anyone wants to share a portion of their written assignment, as this journal entry allowed the students to combine analysis of physical Florence with the social hierarchy. After this, we build a pyramid on the board that includes all the social classes of Renaissance Florence and how they interact with one another. The students put these pyramids into their notes. Once we have established a basic understanding for the social ladder, we move into a game called ‘Speed Dating in Renaissance Florence’. The kids LOVE this game and it is so effective at teaching them the complexities of social class. (Look for a copy of this game on another post). In basic form, I split the class into two groups - parents and young adults. The parents are looking to find a suitable partner for their own children, and the young adults hope to climb the social ladder by marrying above their stations. They have all been given descriptions of their character and social class, and it is their job to sell themselves to the best of their ability in the 2:30 time slots. After all individuals have been interviewed, the parents propose to the young adults to answers of yes, no or maybe. We record the matches on the board, and then assess them - who moved up or down the ladder, which groupings made sense, how they would fit into Florence, etc. The class is always fun and funny (we have had a Medici propose to a gambler before, to the great surprise of the group). For homework that night, the students write a fake online dating profile for one of the characters from the game (imagine Lorenzo de Medici on

Day Three: This class focuses on the economic modernization that took place in Renaissance Florence. There are two parts of this class: the first half focuses on financing the Renaissance through specific changes in the Florentine economy while the latter half is a critical study of the Medici family and their contributions to banking. We open class by generating a list of economic changes that occurred during the Renaissance (examples include letter of credit, gold florin, or holding company). The students define these using their readings, and then we connect them to modern interactions (how is the letter of credit like a credit card? of what does a holding company remind you?) This compare and contrast activity pushes the students to understand the importance of finance in historical change. Once they seem to comprehend the financial structure of Florence, we watch a portion of a film about the Medicis and their takeover of European banking during the Renaissance. The guiding question for the film (I always use one question when we use documentaries or readings or other sources) is the following: In what ways did the Medicis use banking and financial management to push the Renaissance forward? We watch approximately 20 minutes of the film, and then the students move into small groups and discuss the guiding question for five minutes, using the content of the film as well as previous readings. For homework, the students read excerpts from Nicolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and ‘Discourses‘ (see links below).

Day Four: We open class by establishing the basics of the political structure in Florence and comparing the Florentine republic to the signoris of other Italian city-states. Once the students grasp the workings of the republic, they move into small groups and generate a list of benefits and drawbacks about the Florentine government. They have five minutes to do this, and then we regroup and discuss their ideas. In the second half of class, we cover Machiavelli’s writings. The students move back into small groups and spend approximately fifteen minutes reviewing the sources. I use a model called ‘3-2-1-*’ each time we look at a primary document, asking the students to find 3 interesting points, 2 important quotes, 1 thesis and then * the significance/purpose of the document. By the time we cover the Renaissance, the students are habituated to studying primary sources this way - usually, the analysis and preparation for discussion is smooth and targeted. After small group work, we return to the larger group and review their findings. We assess how they feel about Machiavelli, using quotes from the text to drive the discussion. In the final moments of class, I ask the students to come up with one piece of advice that they think Machiavelli would give to a leader today. This advice must be one sentence of less, and needs to draw from the sources but also be relevant to the contemporary era. For homework that night, the students must create a meme of Machiavelli using a quote or saying we learned that day and connecting it to the modern era.

Day Five: On the final day of this unit, we move to looking at humanism and its impact on the art and architecture of the Renaissance. I ask students to share their Machiavelli memes first, if they desire. This is usually a pretty funny way to start class as the students appreciate the activity and find humor in the creations of their classmates. Once we have finished this, the students go on a virtual tour of the Uffizi Gallery. They get a sense of some of the major works from the Renaissance, before we use the Uffizi’s website to look at specific works in more detail. We spend considerable time looking at Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Leda and the Swan and Michelangelo’s David and Sistine Chapel ceiling. The driving question is how and why do these paintings showcase humanism. The class is heavily group-based, meaning we are looking at projections of the art via the whiteboard and discussing them all together. In the final 20 minutes of the class, the students must find a piece of Renaissance art that they like and prepare to share it with the class - explaining why they chose the work in question and how it represents humanism and modernization. This activity personalizes the students’ connections to the Renaissance as well as pushing forward their research skills.

As I mentioned earlier, the students tend to really enjoy this unit and feel like it has relevance in their lives: they have often seen some of the paintings or traveled to Florence or heard of the Medicis, and they are interested in learning more about the history of these concepts. Rather than doing a dry coverage of the Renaissance through a close textbook reading, we approach the unit from a variety of angles and deepen the study. This does slow the class down in terms of coverage of areas and content (think: we are challenging the concept of a survey class) but the benefits are great — more focus on skills, greater ability to really entrench the material across varied learning methods and ultimately more engaged students.

Relevant Links:

Carta della Catena (Map of Florence, 15th Century)
Map of Florence, Modern
Walking Tour of Florence
Medici Documentary
Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, Excerpted
Machiavelli’s ‘Discourses’, Excerpted
Uffizi Gallery
Virtual Walking Tour of Uffizi