The Exquisite Art of Florence
Take one leisurely lap around Florence noticing its details, the architecture, the stone coats of arms on buildings that were once family palazzos (palaces), even the street and piazza names, and there’s no denying that this is a city with a rich and fascinating history.
Italy did not unify until the mid 19th century, and before this time was a territory made up of warring city-states, vulnerable to larger foreign invaders. Prior to unification, people here identified with their region rather than considering themselves “Italian.” Perhaps this contributes to the civic pride that I sense around me in Florence. There have been times in its history when Florence was one of the richest cities in Europe due in large part to its fabric trade, and times when its citizens suffered in poverty, surrounded by daily violence. During the Renaissance, the roller coaster ups and downs came at a dizzying rate.
Much of Florence’s history is dominated by the Medici family, who began in the 15th century as wealthy bankers participating along with other influential families in the Florentine Republic. The beautiful Palazzo Vecchio was the center of the government, where representatives would move in for their 2-month term. The citizens of Florence would gather right outside in the Piazza della Signoria to hear the latest news announced by these men (the Signoria) from an outdoor stage now adorned with tourists and beautiful symbolic statues. When Florence was in danger, men would gather here to fight for their Republic when beckoned by the deep drone of the city’s bell known as La Vacca (“the cow”).
The Medici family’s palazzo a few blocks away was where real power was brokered, but for many years appearances were kept up and the Signoria were in place.
Around this time, art began to change as religious beliefs changed. People used to believe that Earth, a temporary stop on the way to heaven, was unimportant. This was reflected in Medieval art and architecture. Then came the rebirth (“renaissance”), or a return to the values of classical times, where human and earthly beauty were cherished and celebrated in art. Florence was a key center of this rebirth, due in no small part to the Medici family.
The most famous Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent, in addition to being a master at throwing city-wide parties, was a huge art patron of his time. We have him to thank for the rise of Michelangelo, who as a young boy lived and studied in the Medici palace with other artists.
It’s fun to look at paintings from this time, many of which are located in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Wealthy patrons such as the Medici family members make appearances as background figures in famous paintings by Lippi, Botticelli and others. The artists themselves are sometimes depicted in group scenes. You can tell which one he is- He will be the only person looking out at the viewer.
The single most famous work of art in the city, which symbolizes Florence itself, is the massive accomplishment known as the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or simply, Il Duomo. Since its construction, it has been the main cathedral in Florence and remains the location of the Florentine Archdiocese. The set of buildings that make up the cathedral complex includes the Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile, as well as the enormous church. It is truly a masterpiece that took centuries and numerous artists and architects to complete, and must be seen to be believed.
The dome itself, designed by Brunelleschi, took 20 years to finish and remains the largest brick dome in the world. It has seen its share of historical action. During Lorenzo the Magnificent’s time in power, a famously bold attempt on his life, resulting in the death of his brother, took place in the church. Years later, during the dark time following Lorenzo’s death, the power vacuum was filled by a crazed monk obsessed with self-deprivation named Savonarola, who preached the rejection of worldly pleasures from this church’s pulpit. Savonarola was responsible for the Bonfire of the Vanities, when citizens were compelled to turn over their finery and watch it burn in a huge town spectacle. Not long after, Savonarola himself was rejected by Florentine society and met with his own public fiery end. Renaissance Florence, with its diabolical torture devices used at the Bargello prison (now a museum), was no place for the squeamish.
Among the many famous artists that had something to do with Il Duomo is none other than a young Leonardo da Vinci, who as a student may have designed (or was at least involved with) the gigantic bronze ball atop the dome. Leonardo came from the outskirts of Florence and graced its streets off and on during his long artistic and scientific career. He also spent much time in Milan and, later in life, France. He was successful, but like all artists of the time, he had to follow the commissions. The tale goes that one wealthy but obscure Florentine merchant, who was closely aligned with the Medici family, in the early 1500s paid for a portrait to be painted of his wife, Madame (“Mona”) Lisa del Giocondo. Leonardo clearly got much of the painting done while in her presence. But he kept it to himself until his death in 1519, presumably touching it up over time. He was known to be a perfectionist and often left works unfinished. After his death, the painting ended up in the appreciative hands of the last group to serve as patron to the artist- French royalty. For centuries since, the French have cherished and properly cared for their adopted Florentine daughter. These sorts of details humanize art for me. I love knowing the story. I learned a great deal from a book I recently finished reading, “Mona Lisa, A Life Discovered” by Dianne Hales. It’s written with the authority of a biography, and at times qualifies as such. But when the author grapples with the many theories, legends and unknowns of the story of Leonardo and his elusive model, she makes it clear that she is giving her best educated guess. It’s a fascinating look at this time in Florence’s history.
A couple of decades younger than Leonardo, but in Florence at the same time, was Michelangelo Buonarroti. The two men were very different people. In contrast to Leonardo’s physical beauty and love of life, Michelangelo always lived like a poor man (even when he was far from poor), rarely washed and was usually miserable. Though they focused on different media (Michelangelo hated painting, Sistine Chapel notwithstanding, and Leonardo found sculpture to be too dirty and tiring), apparently they were threatened by and did not like each other. If that pushed them to create more beautiful things, then I’m fine with that. I struggle to think of a work of art in Florence more breathtaking than Michelangelo’s David.
A close look at David reveals a time of turmoil in Florence’s history. The statue, which now stands majestically in the Galleria dell’Accademia museum, once graced center stage in the outdoor Piazza della Signoria, where there is now a full-sized copy. David stood as a symbol of the small but proud Florentine Republic, David who slays Goliath.
When standing in the presence of David, which was carved from one 17-foot tall piece of solid marble and was so beautifully done, with his lifelike expression of focused concern (starting down Goliath) and his skin that seems like it would be soft to the touch, it is difficult to imagine that the Florentines ever wanted to keep him in the unprotected outdoors. In 1527, when the Republic was threatened by the Medici family’s ambition to rule as monarchs, a violent battle took place in and around the Palazzo Vecchio. A large part of David’s arm broke off when furniture was thrown out a palace window. The pieces were saved and eventually reattached, but a fissure is visible.
This period in Florence’s history saw the return of the Medici as conquerors and rulers of Florence, following years of uncertainty. In 1537 Cosimo I de’Medici declared himself Grand Duke of Tuscany and moved into the Palazzo Vecchio, which was once the headquarters of the Republic.
Cosimo demanded the building of a grand office next door (his offices, or “Uffizi”, now the famous museum), as well as an elevated corridor that leads all the way from the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio, right through houses and other buildings, to the palace that he eventually acquired on the south side of the Arno River- the staggeringly huge Palazzo Pitti.
This half mile-long corridor was the ultimate symbol of power, a way to remain “above” the common people. The meat market that stretched along the Ponte Vecchio bridge was forced to vacate in favor of the less offensive-smelling goldsmiths that still occupy the bridge. The Medici dukes and duchesses even had a hole dug through the corridor’s wall into the balcony of a church, so that they could attend services without stepping outdoors.
The corridor, filled with an art collection that grew with time and patronage by the Medicis, was closed to the public for centuries. Only visiting dignitaries had the pleasure of seeing Florence from its unique vantage point. In fact, rumor has it that some of the windows above the bridge were made larger by Mussolini’s government to enhance the view for a visit by Hitler. Nowadays, the corridor remains exclusive only through the charging of staggeringly high entrance fees. When my husband Bob was visiting us in late September, we pulled the girls out of school for a day, took out a second mortgage on the house and bought the tickets. (Kidding about the mortgage, but the fees are high- over 300 euros for our group of 4 to enter, on top of the Uffizi entrance fee and guide fee, all completely worth it).
One of my favorite days on this trip was the day we spent touring the corridor. Upon the recommendation of a friend, we sought the guide services of Freya’s Florence. Freya herself, an energetic and highly-knowledgeable Aussie-born art historian, took us through. She was able to keep the tour interesting and fun for all of us, including my 10 and 8 year-olds who were given license to imagine that they were Florentine duchesses waltzing through secret passageways.
The corridor displays on its simple walls a huge 1,200-piece collection of self portraits by artists from Medici times through today. It is fascinating to see the way these masters wanted to be remembered, some very serious, some comical like one relatively obscure artist who painted himself breaking through the back of his canvas, to the whimsical or fantastical works by some contemporary artists.
As the 16th century wore on, the Medici family retained their titles as Dukes of Florence and Dukes of Tuscany, allying with and marrying into families of other European monarchs. They produced four popes and two regent queens of France. As they enjoyed their power, they poured money into their family church, the San Lorenzo Church, located in the center of town near their palazzo. The crypt and chapels that they built there, as burial place and tribute to their deceased family members, remains one of Florence’s most interesting and beautiful places to visit.
I recently entered the main chapel for the first time and was impressed by the display of marble and precious stone on every surface of the room. I’ve never seen such colors, including the bright blue of lapis lazuli, which is 20 times more expensive than gold. Another chapel dedicated to a handful of family members including Lorenzo the Magnificent was designed by Michelangelo and features several of his marble sculpture masterpieces.
If it seems like I’ve been mainly speaking of men- artists, rulers, etc., that’s because the Renaissance was unfortunately not a very enlightened time for women. Historical records reveal that girls were loved and cherished by their families. But they were also treated somewhat like property. Wealthy families began saving for a daughter’s dowry upon her birth, and hoped and prayed that they would have enough to lure a husband of their equal social stature. It was not uncommon for girls to marry as young as 14 or 15, to men twice their age or more. If a family could not afford an astronomical dowry, often the daughter would be sent to a convent for the rest of her life. Better to check out of society than to marry below one’s station. The fact that many of these newly cloistered sisters were 11 and 12 years old tells us how much say these Florentine girls had in their futures.
I learned a great deal about life as a Renaissance woman from the Mona Lisa book I mentioned above, as well as one of my favorite books of all time, Sarah Dunant’s “The Birth of Venus.” This work of historical fiction is about a Florentine girl born in the late 1400s with the unfortunate burdens of heightened intelligence and artistic ability. This book, which I can’t recommend highly enough, provides a glimpse at the savage but glamorous world of the Italian Renaissance.
In the Medici family’s very final act, we learn that perhaps girls do matter. Eventually, in 1743, the last member of the direct family line died. Her name, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, should be remembered more than it is. Before she died she executed some savvy estate planning, forbidding some of Florence’s most precious art, including the contents of the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti, from leaving its borders.
Thank you, Anna Maria Luisa.