You Can Learn More About Innovation From Renaissance Florence Than From Silicon Valley

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There's the first grade-separated skywalk. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Florence, Italy, could be a dangerous place during the Renaissance. (So many family feuds.) So when the Cosimo I de’ Medici bought an impressive pile of a palazzo from the bankrupt Buonaccorso Pitti in 1549, he needed a safe way to get between it and his offices in the Uffizi over half a mile away. He hired architect Giorgio Vasari to build a grade-separated skywalk like you find today in Hong Kong or Calgary, down the street and across the existing bridge full of butchers’ stalls (so they could throw the offal into the river below) for his private and secure use. Vasari completed the project in just five months. Then he kicked out all the butchers and gentrified the joint with jewelers.

Vasari corridor
The original grade-separated skyway. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The project is an example of the talent, ingenuity, engineering skills, money and unbridled power that existed in Florence at the time, much as you find today in Silicon Valley. In fact, writing in the Harvard Business Review, Eric Weiner makes the plausible case that Renaissance Florence was a better model for innovation that Silicon Valley is today.

Apple headquarters
Now that is a palace!. (Photo: Apple)

There are so many superficial similarities, such as the energy and money being spent building vast and expensive palaces to house their entourages and retainers. But Weiner goes beyond the buildings. Some of his lessons from Florence:

Talent needs patronage

Lorenzo Medici, who evidently walked the streets instead of the corridor, saw a kid carving a piece of stone.

He invited the young stonecutter to live in his residence, working and learning alongside his own children. It was an extraordinary investment, but it paid off handsomely. The boy was Michelangelo. The Medicis didn’t spend frivolously, but when they spotted genius in the making they took calculated risks and opened their wallets wide. Today, cities, organizations, and wealthy individuals need to take a similar approach, sponsoring fresh talent not as an act of charity, but as a discerning investment in the common good.

Potential trumps experience

Pope Julius II had a ceiling in Rome that needed a paint job, and could have given it to the local boys with track records and experience painting. Instead he hired that young Florentine sculptor, Michelangelo, that the Medicis kept going on about:

The pope clearly believed that, when it came to this “impossible” task, talent and potential mattered more than experience, and he was right. Think of how much that mindset differs from what we do today. We typically hire and assign important tasks only to those people and companies who have previously performed similar jobs in the past.

Weiner mentions a few other lessons one can learn from Florence, and they are all good ones. He also mentions Filippo Brunelleschi in a discussion about embracing competition; I think there's another point to be made about Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, the Duomo, that is not such a pretty and positive Silicon Valley parallel.

duomo florence
So why didn't they finish those balustrades?. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

If you look up at the exterior of the dome, you can see a line of arches, called a balustrade, on the right; on the left, there is just a blank space. Brunelleschi was working away at finishing the building but Michelangelo, now rich and powerful and an arbiter of taste, listened to by everyone, didn’t like the design of the balustrade; he said that “it looked like a cage for crickets.” The project was stopped and all these years later, it has never been finished. How many promising projects have been cancelled because some so-called rich and powerful expert just came in and pulled the plug?

Manelli tower
He huffed and he puffed but he couldn't blow that Manelli tower down. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

But there's another lesson from 500 years ago that has relevance today. When Cosimo I de’ Medici was building his corridor, everyone bowed to his power, sold him the air rights on their properties and let him do what he wanted because he was so feared. But when they came to the end of the Ponte Vecchio, there was a tower in the way, the Torre dei Manelli. The Manelli family refused to allow it to be changed or demolished, no matter how much Cosimo pushed. Finally, Vasari was forced to jog around the tower with a much narrower, far less grand hallway clipped to the outside, where it was probably hard for the Medici litter bearers (you don’t think he walked, do you?) to get around the corners; it's tight in there.

Which proves that then, as today, there are people willing to stand up for their rights, that the rich and powerful can’t always get what they want. And that we can learn all kinds of lessons from Renaissance Florence.