One of my favorite museums in all of Florence is the National Museum of the Bargello. Where the Uffizi is the mecca of Renaissance painting in Florence the Bargello is the home to sculpture. It is nowhere near as big, crowded or overwhelming as the Uffizi, and at least when I have been there, it doesn’t seem to get the legions of people checking another item off the bucket list. It gets fewer people and they seem to have a germane interest in the art inside.
Which makes it right up my alley!
Located between the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio, the Bargello is right in the middle of where you will be anyway, and really should be on your list of things to see and do in Florence.
Before we get into the art inside I want to draw your attention to the building itself, because frankly it is fantastic.
The Palazzo Bargello
The fortress-like Palazzo Bargello was built in 1255 to house the first Capitano del Popolo (Captain of the people), then in 1261 the Podesta, who was the highest magistrate in the Florentine city council. The palazzo was originally called the Palazzo del Podesta and is the oldest public building in Florence. When you look at its crenellations you can see a resemblance to the Palazzo Vecchio down the street, the design of which was modeled on the Bargello.
In 1574 the Medici eliminated the job of the Podesta and installed the police chief or bargello in the palazzo instead. The building became a prison and for 240 years (give or take) executions took place in the palazzo’s courtyard. It remained a prison until 1859 when it became a museum.
The building itself is magnificent and takes on new meaning when you consider it was a prison for 300 years!
It is designed around an open courtyard with a central well and an external staircase taking you up to the second floor. It is quite beautiful, with a loggia and porticos and the coats of arms of the various Podesta and judges covering the walls. If you look under the porticos you can see the insignia of the quarters/neighborhoods of the city. In the loggia you can see Giambologna’s bronze birds from the Medici Villa at Castello.
16th century statues by Giambologna, Danti, Bandinelli and Ammannati are against the wall. The courtyard takes my breath away every time I walk inside.
The museum has the largest Italian collection of Gothic and Renaissance sculpture. There is of course lots to see here and I recommend having a good look around, but I want to direct your attention to these 5 things:
Donatello’s Bronze David
I would come all the way to Florence just to look at this one piece, and it is my favorite here in the Bargello.
There are 2 David’s by Donatello in this room and one by Verrochio,but the one I want to draw your attention to is the bronze David. Unlike Michelangelo’s big brawny David (created around 60 years later) this one is quite effeminate and somewhat incongruous in the role. He is naked except for a hat and boots. Or you could look at it from the perspective that for some reason this naked guy is wearing a hat and boots. During restoration it was discovered that the hair, hat and boots were originally gilded, so they would have sparkled in the light.
At times this piece was incredibly controversial. Sculpted for Cosimo de’ Medici David was originally placed in the courtyard of the Medici palace. This was the first free standing bronze statue of the Renaissance. Look closely and you will see a laurel on his hat, symbolism of victory Donatello borrowed from ancient Roman culture.
The wing from the giant’s helmet lies against naked David’s inner thigh, which was thought to be quite sexual at the time. It’s also probably considered quite a sexual overture now.
There is some thought that Cosimo and Donatello may have been lovers, which adds an entirely different dimension to this statue. Whether true or not they were definitely close. Cosimo gave him multiple commissions and Donatello is buried mere feet away from Cosimo.
Donatello’s St George
Against the back wall of the Donatello room you will see a vertical marble niche holding a sculpture. This is the original niche and sculpture commissioned by the armory gild for the exterior of Orsanmichele. We see a youthful, somewhat lanky St George, holding his shield, ready to battle the dragon.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Orsanmichele, it was a granary in the middle of the historic center of Florence that after a miracle or two became a church. The exterior of the church is wrapped in niches like this one, each with its own statue, one for each of the major gilds of Florence. These were some of the first sculptures of the Renaissance. You can see pictures and read about it here.
While here look to the relief panel below the statue of St George. This may be the first example of a technique Donatello invented called rilievo schiacchiato, or flat relief. It tells the full story of St George, the perspective drawn out in just ½ a centimeter. It’s very cool and one of those details you can easily miss if not pointed out to you. (Which is how I learned about it.)
In 1496-97 the 21 year old Michelangelo created this piece, one of only two surviving sculptures from his first time in Rome. The following year in 1498 he created the magnificent Pieta in St Peters.
I love that rather than the big strong bodies we associate with Michelangelo’s sculptures Bacchus is fleshy, almost womanly, and is drunk. Bacchus, the god of wine, is propped up by a satyr while leaning against a tree. He looks about to trip and fall, a trick Michelangelo created by giving him a high center of gravity.
Ivy was sacred to Bacchus, so he wears an ivy wreath instead of the vines we associate with wine. Instead of looking God-like Michelangelo has made this Bacchus look like a vapid drunk human. It’s brilliant.
Michelangelo’s Pitti Tondo
This is another of my favorite Michelangelo works in Florence.
Tondos were typically made for private homes and were considered a more domestic type of art. This is one of two tondos that he made for families in Florence around 1503-05. It features the Madonna and Child.
Take note of how exquisitely beautiful Mary’s face is. I love the way her head comes out of the frame, and the intimacy between her and little Jesus is just palpable. It feels like we are getting a glimpse into a real and very relatable moment in their day. It’s just gorgeous.
The Bronze Door Panels
The bronze doors of the Baptistery San Giovanni in front of the Duomo are famous and fabulous, and like everything in Florence have incredible stories behind them. The most celebrated are Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, which were the third and final set of doors. This story is about the second set of doors commissioned for the Baptistery.
In 1401 a competition was held to find the artist to create the second set of bronze doors for the Baptistery. Competitors had to make a bronze quatrefoil panel telling the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac. The panels were small and had to include the father and son, an altar, a donkey, 2 servants, a tree and a hill. This was an enormous amount of detail to fit into a small square, and required phenomenal skill.
Once the winner was announced all the panels were melted down and reused except for that of the winner and the runner up. The competition was so close and the work of the runner up was so spectacular. Some say the runner up only lost because hi panel used a heavier bronze, so his doors would cost more to make. We will never know for sure.
The consequences of this competition changes the face of Florence forever. The winner, Lorenzo Ghiberti not only created these doors but also the Gates of Paradise doors. The runner up, Filippo Brunelleschi was so incensed at losing, he turned his back on the craft forever and focused instead on architecture. He designed the dome of the Duomo, many of the most beautiful chapels in Florence, and much of the architecture we still love today!
The two panels are here at the Bargello, side by side. They need to be on your must see list. Without looking at the signs see if you can figure out which was the winning panel!
Again, there is so much to see at the Bargello and these are just 5 of my favorite pieces. I always find art museums, palaces and churches are much more manageable when I have a handful of specific things to look for. Whenever possible I recommend doing google searches before visiting a museum and finding 5 or 10 pieces to look for. You can also search for a favorite artist’s work such as Michelanglo at the Bargello and get a list of items that you can read up on and then seek out while there. It’s awful when you get home and discover that a Caravaggio or a Donatello that you would have loved to have seen was there and you didn’t know to look for it.
I have always found that the docents working at the museums, palaces etc are more than happy to direct me to a given work, and sometimes will walk there with me. This is a fabulous bonus because they always know interesting facts that I haven’t read about, and love telling the stories behind the various pieces.