Travellers visit Florence, the capital of Tuscany and the cradle of the Renaissance, to take a selfie with Michelangelo’s David, which is in close competition with the Mona Lisa for the title of the most mediatised artwork, to hang around on the Ponte Vecchio, having not bought a thing, and to try apparently authentic pizza, which was never a highlight of Florentine cuisine, but no one wants to delve into those details. Nancy Huston wrote about Florence’s sunsets and hordes of tourists a few years ago in her excellent novel Infrared. It is truly the case that it is impossible to examine the pristine beauty of the city without an X-ray machine; it is just like the restoration of a Renaissance fresco, hidden under numerous layers of plaster and oil paint that were added later on, and needing to be cleaned thoroughly and in several stages. Florence is the same: one needs to take a circuitous route, avoiding, as much as possible, the “sunny Italy” which is on offer. This is very important.
You do not need to queue up to get into the Uffizi Gallery, when just round the corner is the Bargello, the oldest public building in Florence, which at various times in its history was a police department, home to the “podesta”, the highest magistrate of the Florence City Council, a prison, and a barracks. Now it is a museum of sculpture, housing countless Renaissance artworks. Here is Donatello’s David, miniature and effeminate, the precursor to its namesake from the Palazzo della Signoria, and the eternal competitors Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, who took part in an open contest set up by the Arte di Calimala, the Cloth Importers Guild, to design doors for the Florence Baptistery, which was won, as we know, alas, by the traditionalist Ghiberti. Or, finally, the museum houses the great Michelangelo’s Bacchus, conceived and executed as a pastiche of an ancient Roman park or garden sculpture.
Everyone knows about the Medici Chapels, but no one would guess that there is another, earlier one, constructed as a private chapel for Cosimo de’ Medici in his family seat, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Art historians call it the Chapel of the Magi after the frescoes by the most joyful and vibrant artist of the Renaissance, Benozzo Gozzoli. Gozzoli painted the journey of the Magi to the cradle of the baby Christ, with the Biblical Kings, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar strongly resembling members of the Medici family, who commissioned the frescoes. The bankers and oligarchs of the Medici family needed to legitimise their power, and images like these, which were borderline sacrilegious, ideologically validated their high-handed rule.
Another masterpiece of religious painting, known as the “Sistine Chapel of the early Renaissance”, and completed half a century later by Filippino Lippi, is located on the opposite bank of the Arno river, in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. The Brancacci Chapel is a family chapel, known throughout Italy during the Middle Ages thanks to the sacred Madonna del Popolo preserved on its walls, and is decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The most famous of all, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, or The Tribute Money, are the first examples of linear and aerial perspective, marking the beginning of European figurative art.
Back to the roots
The wealth of art in Florence forces the traveller to forget about anthropology and sociology, the two disciplines that are crucial for an understanding of the Renaissance. The Museo della Misericordia, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, and the Istituto degli Innocenti tell us, in unusual ways, about the history of ideas, the establishment of national identity, and the formation of humanistic ideals.
The Misericordia was Europe’s first emergency service, and here, as well as exhibitions, the museum shows the kind of medicine that was available in those times, illustrated through artefacts, and has an archive of documents that can tell you a lot about the morals of Florence in the Middle Ages. The sick note of the young patient and future explorer Amerigo Vespucci — found in an inebriated state and after being punched in the head, and not even suspecting what great discoveries he is yet to make — is very touching.
In its history, which spans many centuries, the Spedale degli Innocenti, and the school that currently operates where the nunnery used to be, served as a refuge for thousands of orphans. In addition to its extremely distinguished collection of art, the Istituto degli Innocenti has a unique archive that was recently reorganised and digitalised: now visitors may learn about what happened to children who were brought up here in the 13th century and during Mussolini’s time, see their personal belongings, and learn about their hopes, sorrows, and concerns.
The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo offers visitors the chance to look around in peace and alone, and, most importantly, to see the details of the façade of the Florence Cathedral and the Florence Baptistery close up. The curator of the collection, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, is the best guide in the city today; you may take a private tour in which he can tell you how and why Florence was not built in a day.
For lovers of the melancholy, it is essential to visit the English Cemetery, which inspired the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, a cult novel for anyone who considers themselves decadent. The great poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote Aurora Leigh, is buried here, as is Theodore Parker, whose statement, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, which is wrongly attributed to Martin Luther King, decorated the carpet in the Oval Office under President Barack Obama; Donald Trump got rid of the carpet on his first day in office.
For those who are, on the contrary, inclined towards the future and far from any kind of passéism, Florence has recently offered visitors the opportunity to partake of the most fashionable and up-to-the-minute modern art in the Palazzo Strozzi. Every year, its curators hold exhibitions of the work of masters like Ai Weiwei and Bill Viola; the Renaissance context needs troublemakers and agent provocateurs to combine topical issues with eternal values.
If you are tired of the historical centre, the Fiesole hills will restore your internal equilibrium and peace. Historically, Fiesole was always an aristocratic district, where luxurious villas were built, sunk into gardens with the obligatory cascade of fountains and maze, as well as the dizzying view of Florence, spread out in the haze below.
There are two particularly noteworthy addresses in Florence. The Villa Le Balze, the current summer residence of Georgetown University, which every year takes a group of gifted students with the aim of stimulating the creative and scientific process with the help of natural beauty and art. The Stibbert Villa is a private museum owned by philanthropist and megalomaniac Frederick Stibbert, who managed to amass the world’s biggest collection of European and Asian arms and ammunition from the Middle Ages. This huge, gloomy palace is where Orson Welles wanted to shoot Citizen Kane.
Finally, for your evening programme, when in Florence, one must and should listen to Bel Canto at the New Florence Opera House. The musical map of Italy may be dominated by Milan’s La Scala and Venice’s La Fenice, but the Florence Opera is no less impressive. The modern building designed by architect Paolo Desideri, an example of the inventive urbanism of the 2000s, boasts wonderful acoustics, and thanks to the construction of the opera house, the unsavoury area of Cascine has been completely regenerated. Since 2016, the new artistic director of the theatre, Zubin Mehta, has presented a fascinating selection of Baroque works by Monteverdi, Scarlatti, and Vivaldi.
Text: Zinaida Pronchenko
Published on: June 24, 2018