There are some things you feel obliged to see in Florence, as in any world famous city. And being that it’s Florence, which has an absurdly high density of museums per square meter, there are a lot of things you feel you are obliged to see. We made time in our schedule for just a handful, and some of them were very highly rated, while some were slightly more lower rated on the list. Let’s start with the stars:
Galleria delgi Uffizi is one of the most famous museums in the world, and it took us nearly five full hours to complete from beginning to end. In the last few rooms, we were just asleep on our feet! The museum mostly has artwork and icons (anytime between the 1200s to the 1800s) and sculptures, mostly copies from the Renaissance period, of original Greek and Roman sculptures. It won major points for having very lovely paintings like the ones that have made Botticelli famous: Birth of Venus and Spring. Those live up to the reputation, being very large and fairly vibrant in person. There was also an astonishing amount of Caravaggio paintings. We saw the Bacchus which Steve enjoyed as well as the Medusa shield that is so often depicted in textbooks.
There were countless religious paintings, giving Steve ample time to let me know about each variety of religious painting. One of the most popular scenes is the Annunciation, where the archangel Michael appears to the Virgin to announce that she is to bear the Son of God, and there’s usually a depiction of the Holy Spirit flying to her in the shape of a white dove (sometimes carried on gold beams); there was actually one novel one where a pair of hands (the hands of God the Father) descends from Heaven to release the dove. Another popular scene is the Deposition, where Jesus is taken down from the cross after his crucifixion. He is usually surrounded by the Virgin Mary and Saint Mary Magdalene, the latter of whom can be recognized by her very long hair as well as a reliquary which she is holding where they collected the blood of Christ as he was wounded on the cross. There was just also an endless number of Madonnas with an Infant Jesus, done in the tonde style which is a round canvas and frame. Those were very common because many middle-class folks would want those for their houses or places of business, so we have a lot that have been passed down, many of them by famous artists.
One of the things that woke me up near the end was seeing Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. I saw it when we rounded the corner to one of the last rooms, and far from being horrified by all the arterial blood spurting out of Holofernes’s head, I exclaimed, “Fantastic!” which caused Steve to burst into laughter. But really, it’s an exceptional painting that is very large, very vivid, and fierce. Judith’s face resembles that of Gentileschi herself, and Holofernes’s face resembles that of Agostino Tazzi, a former mentor who was convicted of raping her. While many have depicted the scene, most artists draw the Biblical heroine with the head in a basket and a clean sword, but this one is drawn in a very naturalist style and captures her mid-action.
We saw the Galleria dell’Accademia on our second day in Florence. It’s a much smaller gallery than the Uffizi, and only took us about two and a half hours to make it through. It’s remarkable for several huge statues. The first is the one and only Michelangelo’s David. It has its own space at the junction of a T-shaped exhibition hall, lit by a circular skylight above. It is a remarkable statue that is larger than you would think. As Steve quipped, “If that’s how tall David is, you gotta wonder about Goliath.” The statue is well over 5 meters tall, and the nonchalant pose with the curly, tousled hair that David affects is very much at odds with his gaze. If you position yourself to look directly into his eyes, you see a direct, even fierce resolve. All the muscles, the veins in his arms and fingers, are so well-articulated and delicate that it is possible to imagine he’s going to breathe or move. When you’ve seen images of the David as much as most people have, you think that all sculpture is going to be like that, but it’s an utterly original, detailed, and striking sculpture of immense size. Michelangelo well-deserves his reputation.
The hall leading up to the David is a wonderful contrast. It houses five other statues by Michelangelo, collectively called the Prisoners. They were meant for a papal tomb, but were not finished before Michelangelo passed away. So not only do they depict bearded and shackled prisoners, but they are roughly-rendered marble statues only partially liberated from the block of stone from which they are carved. Also remarkable was the Rape of the Sabines, which is by Giambologna, a Flemish sculptor (yeah, there’s a lot of classical art out there that uses the theme of sexual assault). It’s a group sculpture of three people carved from a single piece of marble. An older man cowers below a younger one who grasps a young woman in his arms, she herself reaching out for help. It’s a very striking scene that rewards close observation from all angles, so you can look at the detail slowly while walking around the statue, and the various limbs and the position of the bodies invite your gaze to trace an upward spiral.
There were a lot of religious icons, and walking from room to room, you can see the change that came to differentiate medieval art from the Renaissance. Whereas medieval religious art tended to depict some divine scenes, more were of simply an array of saints who were easily identifiable (St. Peter with his keys, St. John the Baptist with his robe of hair, St. Catherine with her wheel), mostly for use in churches or on altars. When it did depict the Christ, they usually used size to show importance, making the face and figure of Christ larger than those of his apostles, who were in turn larger than mortals or lesser saints. Later on, with the advent of the Renaissance, we started seeing use of perspective, for example, at the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven where saints and angels are recognizable but arranged in semi-circles as though in an amphitheater, with all the same sized faces. Others still gave them more naturalistic faces with recognizable wrinkles, flowing hair, and other features.
One of the last things I wanted to mention was that the Accademia had a music space, which featured several gorgeous violins and violas by Stradivarius. We even saw some now-extinct musical instruments which were very popular in its time, like the hurdy-gurdy (a pianoforte variation) and the serpent (something that looks like a very curvy bassoon). They even had several examples that gave us a good idea of how we progressed from having plucked string instruments to the invention of the piano, where hammers were used to strike the strings and then diminished. Though our visit to the Accademia was shorter, I liked being able to see everything and leave by 12 pm so that we had the afternoon to ourselves!
Also well-known are the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, but as there’s literally historical, centuries-old art everywhere you look in Florence, and you don’t have time to see this, it’s totally fine. Both are complexes of the Medici family, which ruled Tuscany and thus Florence as Dukes for centuries. The Pitti Palace is very interesting because it features apartments of those dukes and duchesses and their family, and feels very much like walking through Versailles or something similar. There are so many incredible paintings on all the walls, many paintings in a single room grouped together on a mythological theme (i.e. “Room of Ulysses”, “Room of Hercules”), that it doesn’t look like art to be admired on its own, but just art grouped together to impress by its sheer scale. What surfaces are not covered in gold leaf are instead upholstered in deep red velvet or satin. While impressive to see and certainly awe-striking, we were pretty bored quickly because there isn’t the same amount of detail paid to the individual paintings, and also, there’s not enough time to look at everything. We also saw the Boboli Gardens beforehand. As for the gardens, though there are many lovely statues that had been arranged there for the pleasure of the Medici family, it was a very hot summer afternoon in Florence. Our favorite part of the afternoon was probably sitting on a shady hill and enjoying a nap.
Lastly, it was slightly disappointing to see Santa Maria del Fiore, which is the Florence Duomo or Cathedral. It is gorgeous on the outside, all creamy white marble, decorated with pale green marble and pink marble and other colors. It has an immense front façade with statues of pretty much all the main people in Florentine history. However, the line that we had to stand in sapped our patience and overhyped the interior. While you can buy 18 euro tickets that allow you entrance to the cathedral, the famous Dome of Brunelleschi, the crypt, the bell tower, and the baptistery, we were a bit cathedraled-out by Siena. (Not to mention that we’ll have to go see St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican next week!) So we simply stood in line for about an hour to get in for free. Being that we were able to hang out with Steve’s cousin Morgan and her husband Cameron while doing so, it wasn’t as trying as it could have been. When we finally went inside, it was a little bit off-putting to find that it was practically empty. That was thanks to the influence of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar from the late 1400s who went around Florence preaching against the decadence of the church. He succeeded in swaying many influential painters and artists of the time to paint more austerely, to depict scenes of sorrow, repentance, and remorse. He also succeeded in getting people to basically empty out their churches of “overly decadent” artwork, resulting in the largely bare church we saw in Florence. However, he did not succeed in erasing the frescoes and paintings around the cathedral, which included one painting of Dante and depicts his Divine Comedy, which is a painting I’ve definitely seen in textbooks before. The cathedral does also have a lovely dome, which is made of brick masonry, and is considered the largest masonry dome in the world. Steve and I briefly debated this, and we think that though there’s now the technology to build larger domes of masonry or of different material, the sheer world of possibilities for architecture has moved us away from things like domes which are pretty predictable even though they seemed ground-breaking for their time.
There are most definitely other worthy and commonly-known sights in Florence, but we’re happy to have seen this. Next time, I’ll introduce the lesser-known but even more entertaining sights that we were able to find!