On our recent visit to Tuscany, we spent four days in Florence – a city we never get tired of. The art of the early Italian Renaissance, with its vivid depictions of recognizable human beings, speaks to us across the centuries.
Capella dei Magi
The Capella dei Magi was the private chapel of the Medici family in their 15th C home, now known as the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. The chapel is so called because its walls are decorated with imagined scenes of the visit of the Three Magi to the newly born Jesus, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459.
Although the scenes are imaginary, the human faces are real, and many depict prominent individuals living in Florence at the time. That’s Cosimo de Medici (known as Cosimo il Vecchio, the old one, to distinguish him from later dukes fo the same name) and his son Piero, in red hats, at the front of the procession of onlookers on the left. Cosimo is riding a donkey as a sign of humility – I notice that he’s leading the procession, though.
These frescoes are so beloved in Florence that every year, on the festival of the Three Kings (January 6), there is a parade in which many prominent local citizens wear costumes based on those shown in the frescoes.
The wearing of costumes based on historical paintings is similar to the practice during the Quintana of Ascoli Piceno, when every section of the city outfits local citizens in period dress. I’ve often wondered where these costumes come from – it’s not like you can buy them at Renaissance’R’Us. They must be hand-made.
During the time of our visit, there was a small special exhibit about the frescoes, explaining more about the life and times of Gozzoli and the production of the frescoes. Gozzoli’s father had been a tailor, which might explain the incredibly detailed depictions of fabrics in the artist’s painting. One item included in the exhibit was a letter from Piero de Medici to the artist, reassuring the artist that the baby Jesus as depicted was perfect as it was – he was as enchanted by the image of the baby in an (improbably flowery) meadow as we are today.
Outside of the chapel, most of the Palazzo Medici-Ricccardi is not available to the public. It is used by the city for some local government meetings, and it has an apartment for official visitors. There is, however, a wonderful Madonna by Filippo Lippi.
Although Gozzoli is perhaps not as well known today as some later Florentine artists, those artists certainly knew who he was. This depiction of the Nativity, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the mid 1480s, was clearly influenced by Gozzoli’s earlier work.
The Uffizi is not a large museum – you can do a quick tour in about 2 hours, and if you’re willing to spend half a day you can see almost everything. But it has, in my opinion, the most stupendous collection of art per square inch as any museum I have visited.
The museum used the downtime during the lockdown to improve its viewing space. Many of the most famous works are now set off in their own alcoves, which means you don’t have to fight crowds to see them.
One of the first exhibit rooms in the Uffizi contains a series of Madonnas from the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Only 25 years separate the Madonna by the Sienese painter Duccio de Buoninsegna (1285) and the one by Giotto (1310). But the paintings are very different. Duccio’s Madonna follows the Byzantine pattern – she is presenting her baby to the world, with a masklike face devoid of expression. And her throne, along with the angels supporting it, are floating in space. Giotto’s Madonna wears a serene, more human, expression. And her throne sits solidly on the ground, which angels arranged in step like fashion around her. We’re not in the land of Renaissance perspective yet – but Giotto seems to be anticipating it.
The Uffizi has a whole room full of Botticelli – some, like the Allegory of Spring (c 1480), very well known; others like this fresco of the Annunciation (1481) somewhat less so. The Annunciation gives us some idea of what the room of a contemporary Florentine woman, albeit a well-off one, might have looked like.
Filippo Lippi, a slightly older contemporary of Botticelli, had an irregular life. GIven to a monastery at an early age, he didn’t have much of a religious vocation. This Madonna is widely believed to depict his lady love and their baby Filippino, who also grew up to be an artist. Filippo was forgiven by the Florentines because he painted so well. He had a particular love for painting little angels, some as here with less than angelic expressions.
The Uffizi also has a collection of Flemish art. There were a lot of Florentine merchants in Bruges and Antwerp, and those merchants were as anxious to commission art from local artists there as there were in Florence. When Flemish paintings started reaching Florence in the 1450s, they caused a sensation when because they were painted in oil, which produced more brilliant colors. Most of the late 15th C Florentine artists were using egg tempera (colored pigments mixed with water). Oil eventually became the medium of choice for Italian artists too. Here are two early oil paintings – a Deposition by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden (1450), and a Madonna by Antonello da Messina, a Sicilian artist working in Venice (1475).
A bit further on is a painting of the baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio (1478), assisted by his talented pupil Leonardo da Vinci, who is believed to have executed the angel on the left, and Jesus’s hands. The museum also ownsLeonardo’s Annunciation (1475), whose overlong arm appears to be normal-sized when viewed from the right – a masterful demonstration of perspective.
Raphael is represented by a pair of husband and wife portraits (Agnolo Dono and Maddallena Strozzi, 1506) and the Madonna of the Goldfinch, painted around the same time, in which Jesus is shown holding a goldfinch, a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection. Raphael is particularly well known for the lovely faces of his Madonnas. But his depiction of hands is pretty amazing, too.
By the early 16th C, depictions of the Madonna and her baby were less about religion, and more about the human relationship between mother and child. Here are Madonnas by Giulio Romano (1520) and Pontormo (1530). We’ve come a long way from Duccio and Giotto.
A decade or so later, artists felt free to depict actual mothers and children, as in this portrait of Eleonora de Toledo (wife of Duke Cosimo I de Medici) and her son Giovanni by Bronzino (1545).
The Uffizi has several works by Caravaggio. The portrait of Bacchus (1598) is more famous, but I was more drawn to this depiction of the Sacrifice of Isaac (1604). The artist catches the moment when the angel gives Abraham the countermanding order; Isaac is still terrified, and the little goat has no idea what is about to happen to him.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino is one of the paintings now given its own viewing alcove. It’s interesting to compare this to Manet’s Olympia, which also features a naked woman lying on a bed, with flowers and small animals. In contrast to Titian’s passive woman waiting to be ravished, the woman depicted by Manet is much more assertive about her sexuality. Unfortunately, since these two paintings are in different countries, and much too valuable to travel, they are unlikely ever to be seen side by side except in photos.
Although the Uffizi is best known for its Renaissance art, it has a fine collection of Roman sculpture, most of which is exhibited in the passages between the galleries and easily missed. During our visit, we checked out a small exhibit of Roman portrait sculpture, including these two young people, dated from the 2nd Century.
The Uffizi is also developing a new room to exhibit its collection of self-portraits. Here are self-portraits of two contemporary artists: the Italian Renato Guttoso (1940) and the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (2010). I’m not sure why these self-portraits have not been given much attention up to now. But I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.
The church of Santa Croce, begun in the late 13th C was the headquarters of one of the two major preaching orders, the Franciscans. (The Dominicans had their base at Santa Maria Novella). These churches were huge because they were designed to host large numbers of the faithful listening to the preaching friars. Both churches became huge repositories of art and today are better regarded as museums rather than places of worship.
Santa Croce is known as the church where Galileo and Michelangelo are buried, but Dante isn’t. But to me some of the most beautiful sculptures surround the tomb of a now forgotten 15th C notable, executed by Desiderio di Settignano. Desiderio was particularly noted for his depictions of children. He died young (in his early 30s) and little of his work left Florence, so perhaps he is not as well known as he should be.
One of the Santa Croce’s most famous works is the fresco cycle of the Life of St. Francis – one of the few depictions to show the Saint without a beard. I also liked the statue, Libertà dalla Poesia (the Freedom of Poetry) by Pio Fedi, who began working on the piece in the 1870s and which may have inspired Bartholdi’s more famous version.
The church of Orsanmichele was originally known as San Michele in Orto, because of the small garden (orto) that used to be there. When it was built in the early 14th C, it was in the commercial heart of Florence, and merchants regarded the church as theirs. The church also had a de facto administrative function – the city had no modern equivalent of a “city hall”, so local merchants would often sign their contracts in the church, perhaps in hopes that entering into an agreement in the presence of God would keep the parties honest. The church was also used for grain storage, which explains the unusually low ceiling on the ground floor – the grain was stored in a cavernous room above the ceiling.
After the Black Death had raged through the city – it is estimated to have killed half the population of Florence at the time – the city commissioned a magnificent altarpiece by Nardo di Cione, known as Orcagna, to surround the Madonna painted by Bernardo Daddi before the plague. This beautiful work, built in gratitude by those who had survived a devastating pandemic, perhaps has more meaning to us today than it might have just a few years ago.
Beginning in the first decades of the 15th C, each of the the city’s merchant guilds commissioned a statue, either a patron saint or a religious subject of their choosing. The statues, 14 in all, were originally put in niches around the four outside walls of the church. The statues were eventually moved indoors for safekeeping (the ones outside now are high-quality copies). Two days a week, you can see the original statues upstairs in what used to be the granary..
One of the most amazing works is the depiction of Doubting Thomas, by Andrea del Verrocchio (1467-83). It was commissioned by the guild of notaries, who were often called upon to resolve disputes between merchants. Perhaps that function dictated the choice of subject – Trust, but Verify.
I also have a sneaking admiration for the work commissioned for the guild of stonecutters and carpenters. The work, by Nanni di Banco (1409-17) is officially called Four Crowned Saints. But I always call it Four Italian Guys gabbing it up – or as modern Italians would called them, the four Chiacchieroni.
The Bargello sculpture museum is one of our favorite museums in Florence, and we always try to find time to stop there. Works of the15th and 16th Centuries are the majority of what is on display. Some of my favorite works include the depiction of young John the Baptist by Desiderio di Settignano (1450-55), and the bust of Francesco Sassetti, attributed to either Andrea del Verrocchio or Antonio Rosellino (1464).
One of the most poignant works is this bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini of his mistress, Costanza Bonarelli – a relationship which ended rather badly for Costanza. Perhaps it’s better to focus on the beauty of the work rather than the ugly personality of its author.
This guy sure looks familiar.
In addition to sculpture, the Bargello has collections of medieval ivories and enamels, as well as some textiles. This 15th C Flemish tapestry, recently restored, depicts the Battle of Roncevaux, where Charlemagne defeated the Moors in the 8th C.
Views Views Views
We’ll leave you with some wonderful views of Florence on a spectacularly clear day, taken from the Piazzale Michelangelo, the Bardini Gardens, and along the Arno..
If you want to see more pictures, you can find them here.