The best art worth travelling for: Florence – Art to stir your soul and get you travelling

 
 

Following centuries of artistic standstill during the Dark Ages, the Italian Renaissance, where the European Renaissance movement began, was the most important event in Western European history and the world of art for the last thousand years. It transformed and shaped practically every form of art: literature, music, sculpture, painting, architecture and, as a result, politics. Italy was at the forefront of these incredible, monumental changes, and blossoming forth from the Renaissance's heart: Florence.

The Florentine Renaissance essentially created the concept of art as a profession. Before the 14th century, art was the responsibility of craftsmen and members of religious orders. But the wealth that poured into Florence from its prosperous banking families, such as the Medicis, meant that they had plenty of spare cash to splash to impress and intimidate other European noble families. One of the main things they spent the money on was art, establishing the system of patron and artist that dominated European art for centuries. Still today, the city is filled with some of the most iconic and beautiful Renaissance masterpieces and should be a required pilgrimage for all lovers of art. Here is just a small selection of the treasures displayed in Florence.

Many of the museums mentioned are extremely popular tourist destinations. As such, they can be difficult to navigate and there’s little chance of escaping the swarms of selfie sticks. For our LuxuryBARED PLATINUM members, we can arrange private tours at many venues to offer a much more pleasant and peaceful experience. Find out more about our PLATINUM Member benefits here. Here goes with the list…

 

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli – The Uffizi Gallery

The Uffizi Gallery is one of the most prestigious and important art galleries in Italy, and by extension, the world. And yet, the origins of the building could not be more humdrum. As the name suggests (Uffizi is Italian for offices), the building was commissioned by Cosimo I de Medici as offices for the town magistrates, with a small gallery on the top floor to entertain guests. But as the wealth of the Medicis grew ever larger, so too did their vast art collection: more and more of the building was given over to the display of art. It became a popular gathering place for artists, including such notables as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, seeking "beauty, work and recreation", according to Giorgio Vasari, author of the seminal Lives of Artists. In modern times, it contains one of the largest and most impressive collections of Renaissance and Antiquarian art in the world and is the most visited museum in Italy. If you can take in just one art gallery in Florence, this is the place.

Before Leonardo, before Michelangelo, there was Botticelli. The first great superstar of the Florentine School, Botticelli was responsible for some of the gorgeous pieces of Early Renaissance art and helped to define the system of patronage that fuelled the most important artistic movement in European history. And yet, for many years, he was banished to obscurity, overshadowed by the fame and prestige of later artists, despite their obvious debt to him. In more modern times, he has regained his reputation, and if you need to know the reason for this, look no further than the two most important and beautiful paintings in the Uffizi Gallery: The Birth of Venus, and The Primavera.

It is difficult to discuss one without the other, as either one could be seen as the origin of one of the most important factors of Renaissance art: the depiction of classical mythology on a vast scale. Before Botticelli, the vast majority of European art had been devoted to Judeo-Christian or contemporary themes. With these paintings, Botticelli defined what the Renaissance truly meant: not just the rebirth of the techniques of Antiquity, but also the themes and imagery. Both paintings are not dated, so it is hard to tell which came first, and while both are certainly marvels, it is the Birth of Venus that is the more iconic and has become one of the most famous paintings in the world.

As the title suggests, this vast painting depicts the moment of Venus, the goddess of love's creation as she emerges grown and fully formed from a wave crashing against the shore. To the left, the wind gods Zephyr and Aura herald her arrival, casting a breeze that sends Venus' hair billowing about her, beautifully and dramatically. To the right, a female figure, likely the Hora (a minor personification) of Spring by the floral patterns on her clothing, sweeps a rich cloak about the naked form of the goddess. At the instant of the painting, Venus remains nude, the gorgeous beauty of the goddess of love unveiled for all the world. Analysis of the proportions of the goddess reveals impossibilities: the neck and torso are too long, her stance weighs too heavily on one leg to hold such a pose, but this adds to the beauty and majesty of the piece. This is a woman drawn straight from the imagination, a symbolic depiction of all of the beauty, love and femininity in the world. How could she be constrained by such petty things as the accuracies of the physical world?

While you’re there, don’t miss: Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci; Medusa by Caravaggio; Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael

 

David, Donatello – Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Like most museums in Florence, the Museo Nazionale del Bargello began life as something wholly unrelated to art. In this case, it was the Palazzo del Podestà, the seat of the Capitano del Popolo, ‘the captain of the people’, the highest representative of the increasingly wealthy and important middle class of Florence, including merchants, craftsmen and other professionals, and later the podestà, the highest position of the Florence City Council.  Following the rise of the Medicis to prominence, they sought to increase their control by doing away with the office entirely. Instead, the building became the base of the Florence Police, the Bargello, in 1574, which gave the building its name. For nearly three centuries, it operated as police headquarters, prison and execution yard, until, in the wake of the exile of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, the new governor of Tuscany abolished the bargello and opened the building as a museum. Today, like many museums of Florence, it holds a fantastic collection of Renaissance art, along with more mundane, but no less beautiful goods of Florence's golden age, including ceramics, textiles, coinage, and an armoury.

In any other city, Donatello's David in bronze would be the most famous and widely regarded statue of that name. And despite the long shadow cast by Michelangelo's later piece, the wonder and importance of this statue remains undiminished. Donatello's David emphasizes the youth of the shepherd boy who would one day become king of Israel and the triumph as he stands victorious over the severed head of his gigantic foe, Goliath. A playful smile dances about his lips, and he is nude but for a broad, rustic hat and boots, borrowing images of the Greek god Hermes to add to his heroic presence. The importance of this piece in the scope of Renaissance art is indisputable. 

David was the very first unsupported bronze statue of the Renaissance, and the first male nude sculpture in Western Europe following the Fall of Rome. And yet apart from the techniques and the aforementioned references to Hermes, the piece owes nothing to the work of Greeks and Romans. The subject is Judeo-Christian, not that of Classical Mythology, while the stance with its casual step onto the head of the foe and jauntily placed hand on hip is alien from the positions of Classical sculpture. Despite the earliness of the piece in the time period of the Renaissance, already Donatello was proving that there was far more to the movement than simple mimicry of ancient masters. Such boldness did not go without controversy. For some reason the statue was never displayed in its intended position in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's Town Hall, and later writings referred to the right leg (up which the wing of Goliath's helmet reaches all the way up the inner thigh) as tasteless. Some have interpreted the stance as effeminate and believe it could be an expression of Donatello's supposed homosexuality or even his depiction of the homosocial tendencies of many Florentines. Sodomy was illegal in Florence during the Renaissance, and over 14,000 people were tried for the practice in that period, making such symbolism dangerous indeed. However, there remain no contemporary accounts of why the statue never sat in its intended position, leaving the reasons a mystery for the ages.

While you’re there, don’t miss: Bacchus by Michelangelo; Madonna di Santa Maria Nuova by Luca della Robbia; Il Pescatorello by Vincenzo Gemito

 

Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini – The Loggia dei Lanzi, Palazzo della Signoria

Florence is one of the best cities in the world for seeing art in the open air, particularly on and around the famous Palazzo della Signoria, the L-shaped square at the heart of the city. The Loggia dei Lanzi on the south-west corner is a particular highlight, being one of the finest open-air galleries of Antiquity and Renaissance art in the world. Built between 1376 and 1382, the name derives from when it once housed the Grand Duke's Landsknecht, German mercenary knights. The roof later became a terrace from which the Medicis would watch ceremonies in the Palazzo and is a continuing symbol of the importance of the most influential family in Florentine history.

Much of the art assembled above and beneath the sweeping arches of the Loggia are symbols of the Medici's power, from the twin Lions (heraldic symbols of Florence) to the Four Virtues along the parapets. The other marble statues are certainly beautiful, but there is one piece here that towers above them all, both figuratively and literally: the only piece in bronze, Benvenuto Cellini's magnum opus, Perseus with the Head of Medusa. 

The subject here is simple enough: Perseus using the head of Medusa to save the maiden Andromeda from a horrible monster was a popular subject in Renaissance art, as the symbolization of order, lead by divine providence, triumphing over monstrous, destructive barbarity appealed to artist and patron alike. What truly sets Cellini's piece apart is the method and material of its construction: bronze. Bronze as a material for large-scale work had been largely abandoned for almost fifty years when Cellini was commissioned to create a piece by his patron, The Grand Duke Cosimo I de'Medici. In comparison to marble, bronze was difficult to control, making it difficult to produce intricate detail in the casting process, and concerns over structural integrity restricted more fanciful poses on human figures. But Cellini decided to defy such conventions and naysayers, through his belief that the act of pouring molten bronze was analogous to lifeblood pumping through veins, creating statues that could be more alive than any marble or stone could achieve. 

The process was not without complications: the inattention of Cellini's assistants lead to the bronze clotting in the initial cast, and it was only through his swift action in remelting the bronze that the work was saved, an action that has been compared to a resurrection and has entered legend in the realm of sculpture. His efforts were a resounding success, as the intricate detail across every inch of the statue, and the heroic stance of Perseus surpass almost any other statue in Florence. The ultimate triumph was its placement in the Loggia dei Lanzi, as it stands victorious above the marble statues, symbolically using the head of Medusa to turn the other figures to stone and banish them to death.

While you’re there, don’t miss: The Medici Lions, by Fancelli and Vacca; Menelaus Carrying the Body of Patroclus originally by Vacca, restored collaboratively by Pietro Tacca and Lodovico Salvetti; Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna

 

The Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti – The Florence Baptistery

While Florence Cathedral with its magnificent terracotta dome is the most iconic and recognisable church and building in the city, it is the Baptistery nearby that is the heart and soul of the city. Completed in 1128, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city, this octagonal structure, done in Florentine Romanesque style was built for the express purpose of, you guessed it, baptisms. While the interior has a truly breathtaking medieval mosaic ceiling, it is the doors on the entrances on the North, East and South walls that are the true wonders here. 

Each one is a magnificent creation in bronze, the South by Andrea Positano, the North and East by Lorenzo Ghiberti. But for the purposes of this piece, we're highlighting the eastern door, famously dubbed by Michelangelo to be worthy of the Gates of Paradise. The name has stuck, and it is truly an apt description for they are incredible. This incredible visage, consisting of ten panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament, Ghiberti spent over a quarter of his life creating them, taking 27 years. They are masterpieces of spatial awareness, as Ghiberti worked hard to depict the recently rediscovered theories of perspective. Different techniques are used for the figures and objects on the panels to enhance the depth and angles of each scene. Ghiberti was immensely proud of his work, declaring it to be "the most singular work that I have ever made", and included a bust of himself and his father in the centre of the piece, a case of almost sacrilegious (yet well earned) vanity in such an indisputable masterpiece.

While you’re there, don’t miss: The Tomb of Antipope John XXIII by Donatello and Michelozzo; The mosaic ceiling by various mosaicists from Siena; The Beheading of St John the Baptist, statues above the south doors by Vincenzo Danti

 

David, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni – Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze

Founded in 1784 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze devotes itself almost entirely to works of art created in Florence. This limited scope makes it quite a small museum, and yet it's the second most visited museum in Italy, for one very important reason.

Michelangelo's David. You had to know this was coming. The most recognisable, iconic piece of sculpture in the world, David is the most famous symbol of Florence. The statue depicts the Biblical King David, a popular subject for Renaissance, but it differed from other depictions at the time (such as Donatello's David, discussed above). Rather than showing David triumphant from his famous battle with the giant Goliath, here David stands alone. His eyes search the horizon, his expression with an almost apprehensive cast. He rests back on one leg, his left-hand holds his sling, the right a rock. This isn't a triumphant warrior-king David, this is the young shepherd boy, preparing to face the giant, perhaps just as the mighty warrior steps into view and the enormity of the task has dawned on him. And yet there is determination written across his brow, and veins and muscles bunch and tense, ready to spring into action. This fortitude and bravery spoke to the people of Florence, which, despite its wealth, was at the time just a small independent city-state, threatened on all sides by huge, mighty rival states.

The huge (over five metres tall) statue was originally commissioned as part of a series of statues of the Biblical Prophets for the rooftop of Florence Cathedral. However, the sheer scale of the piece made the practicalities of hoisting it to the roof an impossibility, so it was originally displayed at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio (Fun Fact: the thirty strong council of Florentines that decided upon its placement included Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli, both artistic titans in their own right). The evidence of David's original intended placement remain on the piece, as the iconically oversized hands and head (notably defying Michelangelo's usual perfectionism) were intended to increase their visibility from far below.

While you’re there, don’t miss: The original plaster modello of Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna, The Palestrina Pietà attributed to Michelangelo likely by a different sculptor, Tebaide by Paulo Uccello

 

Special Mention: The Casamonti Museum

If you somehow get tired of Antiquarian and Renaissance art (if that’s likely, then Florence might not be the city for you), the Casamonti Museum is just the place for you. Housed in Palazzo Bartolini Sambolini, this previously private collection of the esteemed art collector, Roberto Casamonti, consists of a truly impressive collection of modern art dating back to the early 20th century. With pieces from modern masters including Picasso and Warhol, as well as the latest names in contemporary Italian Art, this is the perfect antidote to the perfectionism of Renaissance art and a chance to see how much art has evolved in the centuries since.

Looking for a hotel in Florence? Find our full list of Florence hotels here.

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