Livorno and the Medici

The Fortezza Vecchia and the old port of Livorno The Fortezza Vecchia and the old port of Livorno Livorno's foundation as a city and the important role of its foreign communities

Although the port of Livorno was already well-established in medieval times, the small settlement numbered only around 700 inhabitants when the town was bought by Florence from Genoa in 1421. Livorno represented a strategic point for the Florentines, especially since their port of Pisa, a short distance to the north, had begun to silt up.

The ‘new’ city was founded at the end of the 16th century when the Florentine rulers, the Medici, decided to develop the whole area, employing their architect Bernardo Buontalenti to design what he called the ‘ideal city’. The first stone was laid in 1577, and Livorno was officially given city status in 1606.

Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany also opened up Livorno to the rest of Tuscany by building the Navicelli Canal between Livorno and Pisa, therefore ensuring a connection with Florence via the River Arno.

Livorno quickly flourished thanks to its port, which attracted ships and trade from all over the Mediterranean and beyond. The city became known as Leghorn to British merchants, a name that the locals still like to use today as a translation of Livorno.
Ferdinando I de' Medici, Quattro Mori statue, Livorno Ferdinando I de' Medici, Quattro Mori statue, Livorno

In order to populate his new city Ferdinando de’ Medici passed a series of laws, known as the Leggi Livornine, primarily intended to invite Sephardi Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal to settle in the city. The laws guaranteed religious tolerance, but also tax benefits to those who set up business in Livorno, and this encouraged foreign merchants to come from all over Europe. As a result, Livorno became a cosmopolitan city, home not only to a large Jewish population, but also to Greek, Armenian, Dutch, French and British merchants.

These foreign communities, or Nations as they became known, played a major role in establishing Livorno and developing trade there. The history of Livorno is unique in Italy because of the presence and participation of these different Nazioni, although this aspect is often sadly underestimated, particularly by the local people. 

The most obvious traces of these communities can be seen today in the places of worship and the cemeteries that each community established during its time in Livorno.
The 17th-century English Cemetery’ in Via Verdi, for example, is the oldest Protestant cemetery in Italy, and the British nation's two churches, the Anglican Church of St George and the Presbyterian Church of St Andrew (both from the 19th century), still stand on either side of the graveyard. A second English Cemetery lies in Via Pera and dates from the early 1840s. It is still open to burials, though it is in a sad state of neglect.

The Dutch-German community left behind a beautiful Neo-Gothic church (Scali degli Olandesi), which is currently undergoing restoration work, as well as their own burial ground (Via Mastacchi).

Via della Madonna, a partly-pedestrianised street in the centre of Livorno, contains the remains of the old Armenian Church, the Greek United Church (facade restored in 2012) and the 17th-century Church of the Madonna with its four altars dedicated to the French, Corsican, Portuguese and Dutch nations once present in the city.

A Greek Orthodox cemetery lies in Via Mastacchi (next to the Dutch-German one).

The original Jewish Synagogue was one of the most important in the Mediterranean but was demolished after WWII. There are two remaining Jewish cemeteries in the city, as well as a modern Synagogue (Piazza Benamozegh).

There were once several other non-Catholic cemeteries present in Livorno, including one belonging to the Turkish nation, but these were gradually covered over as the city expanded.