In the first post of this series, we took a look at the major qualities a real-world place would need in order to resemble J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings.
- It has to be vertical, with walls, and a place people can call home.
- It should also be home to the elite as well as symbol of something intangible and good to all people.
- Finally, its construction should show a balance between the works of man and nature.
While not a requirement, since Minas Tirith is a fictional city, it’s appropriate that the top three places on this list are in Europe, for Tolkien said (emphasis added):
The action of the story takes place in the North-West of ‘Middle-earth’, equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean (…) If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 294
Other than latitude, what other similarities might Florence have?
#3. Florence, Italy
I was actually thinking more along the lines of walled cities like Grenada or Toledo in Spain, but they fall outside of Tolkien’s northwestern Europe designation.
A case can be made for Florence just based on the author’s designation, but an even stronger similarity is found when we look at the impact both cites had upon their respective worlds.
Remember that Minas Tirith – the Tower of Guard – originally was Minas Anor, the Tower of the Setting Sun. Faramir still thought highly of it even as the War of the Ring was about to begin:
I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith at peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book Four, Chapter 5
Minas Tirith is much older and has a much richer history than any movie could convey. The high points are documented in the “Tale of Years,” at the end of The Lord of the Rings.
It was established as Minas Anor in 3320, Second Age, on the mainland after the western island of Númenor was destroyed. Over 2,100 years later, in the Third Age, Sauron’s Ringwraiths captured its sister city Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Moon, and Minas Anor was renamed Minas Tirith – the Tower of Guard.
About 50 years after that, the Ringwraiths killed the last king of Gondor and the reign of the Stewards began. Frodo and Sam then had their talk with Faramir, son of the steward Denethor, in an Ithilien refuge 969 years later.
So Minas Anor has existed for three millennia by the time of the War of the Ring, and those years have been rich in human history, with many good things but also civil war, plague, political factionalism, etc.
In the Third Age, it preserves the memory of the ancient but advanced culture of Númenor in architecture and art, tools like the Seeing Stones, and books. More practically, it keeps open the River Anduin for trade and communication with the descendants of Númenor, as well as with the other human as well as Elven and Dwarf lands in the north.
There is no other place like it in Middle-earth, and if it falls to Sauron, a great light will have been extinguished forever.
Fortunately, evil Sauron doesn’t exist in the real world, but then neither do Elves.
What we do have is artists…
polymaths (perhaps the closest real-world equivalent of wizards)…
ruling classes, politics and warfare…
…and they all called Florence home.
It’s the birthplace of the Renaissance of the 14th-17th centuries, but Florence actually is over two thousand years old.
In any event, it was initially built to be a Roman camp on the Arno River, but thanks to its location on the main route between Rome and the north (hmmm…) as well as the rich soil of the river valley, it quickly developed into an important commercial center.
There were ups and downs over the centuries as the empire fell and wars came through, but the city survived and grew.
Florence’s first golden age began some 920 years after its birth when Margrave Hugo of Tuscany decided to live in Florence rather than Tuscany’s capital city of Lucca.
About 300 years later, Florence still was booming, an independent republic whose rulers came from elite merchant and banking families.
There were elections, but they were carefully set up so no one family could control everything. This worked out until the 15th century, when the Medici family took over everything.
Why did the Renaissance start there? Well, Wikipedia’s answer is probably not spot-on, but it’s interesting:
The surge in artistic, literary, and scientific investigation that occurred in Florence in the 14th-16th centuries was precipitated by
the arrival of Númenoreans from the Westthe Florentines’ preoccupation with money, banking and trade and with the display of wealth and leisure.
Added to this, the crises of the Catholic church (especially the controversy over the French Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism) along with the catastrophic effects of the Black Death were to lead to a re-evaluation of medieval values, resultant in the development of a humanist culture, stimulated by the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio. This prompted a revisitation and study of the classical antiquity, leading to the Renaissance. Florence benefited materially and culturally from this sea-change in social consciousness.
By now Florence was one of the biggest cities in Europe, and certainly rich and influential. However, nothing lasts forever.
It wasn’t Orcs that led to the city’s eclipse but rather the extinction of the Medici line and various military and political conquests, beginning around the middle of the 18th century.
The city has carried on, though, and still thrives today as a center of business, fashion, culture, education and politics.
Hitler and the Ponte Vecchio
Indeed, Florence accomplished something more important symbolically than anything Minas Tirith ever did in the age-old war, both in Middle-earth and our world, between good and evil.
The city was occupied by Germans during World War II, and during their retreat, it was decided to blow up the bridges over the Arno River. However, 20th-century Sauron equivalent Adolph Hitler ordered that the ancient Ponte Vecchio must not be destroyed – it was too beautiful.
Man and nature
I think the case is pretty strong for Florence as a real-world place that resembles Minas Tirith. There is one final criterion that seals it, though – the balance between the works of man and nature.
Renaissance humanism arose in Florence. Now I don’t know what Tolkien’s views on the Renaissance were, but in his works mankind is one of two races (the other being the Elves) created by the legendarium’s god Ilúvatar.
The existence of Elves is always tied to that of Arda (the larger creation in which Middle-earth exists). Humanity, on the other hand, has some special fate that’s not known. They die and pass beyond the realm of Arda.
This is why Arwen’s choice to become human and marry Aragorn was so difficult – her family will exist as long as Arda itself, but she will die and leave Arda forever.
Somehow this specialness of humanity reminds me of Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” and something written by an Englishman during the Renaissance:
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Categories: Tolkien Tuesday