5 Must See Things At The Bargello In Florence

The Bargello, Florence

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.

RELATED POST: THE MEDICI PALACES 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!

Bargello courtyard

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 well in the courtyard of the Bargello

 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.

Donatello’s Bronze David

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

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.

Donatello’s St George was youthful and handsome

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.

The relief below St George

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.)

Michelangelo’s Bacchus

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.

Michelangelo Bacchus

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.

The Pitti Tondo

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.

Mary in the Pitti Tondo

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.

RELATED POST: 10 DAY TRIPS FROM FLORENCE BY TRAIN

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 Bronze Door Panels
image via ellejaeitalia

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.

Are you planning a trip to Florence? Get my free Secret Florence pdf to learn about my favorite restaurants, bars and shops in the Renaissance city. Click HERE

13 Fascinating Facts You Need To Know About The Medici

Even though we can’t travel at the moment that doesn’t mean we can’t be researching and planning for future trips. Sometimes just escaping for a few minutes with a blog post or a travel TV show can be the soul food that gets us through a stressful or worrying day. I hope the blogs I post over the next few weeks will give you some inspiration and add some extra dimension and points of interest to your future travels. Hang in there friend, we will get through all of this and one day find ourselves back in the beautiful piazzas of Italy

FLORENCE

Florence across the rooftops
Florence across the rooftops

Florence is a beautiful Renaissance city that most travelers to Italy seem to add to their itinerary. Today I want to give you 13 interesting things you may not have known about its most important, most influential family.

THE MEDICI

The Medici family ruled Florence for 300 years. Their family crest is everywhere in the city, and everywhere you turn you see their influence on art and architecture.

Inner courtyard Medici Riccardi palace Florence
The Medici-Riccardi Palace in Florence

Understanding the Medici and their impact on Florence can add a whole new dimension to your trip. They came from somewhat humble beginnings, started a bank and went on to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in all of Europe.

While in Florence you should visit the three Medici palaces (read about them here)

The Medici, Masters of Florence
Watch on Netflix

I recommend my Glam Italia Tour travelers watch the Netflix series The Medici, Masters of Florence. What it lacks in historical accuracy it more than makes up for in attaching you to the fascinating characters in the family, and introducing you to their amazing story, a story that for 600 years has held people all over the world completely spellbound.

13 Fascinating Facts About The Medici

You may already know some of the Medici family lore, but chances are you don’t know all 13 of the following facts:

1. They Invented Double Entry Accounting

In 1397 Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici opened a bank in Florence, the banking capital of Italy. (He already had one in Rome) During the 1400’s the gold coin of Florence, the florin, became the standard European currency. Leading Florentine banking families had gone bankrupt over the recent years but Giovanni thought up genius new ways to make his bank thrive. He made each branch of the Medici Bank a separate business so if one failed it wouldn’t bring down the others. He also invented a new way of keeping the ledgers and keeping track of the money, called double entry accounting. The practice we still use today!

 His son Cosimo grew the bank to become the richest and most powerful bank in all of Europe. From there Cosimo used his wealth to influence politics, and launched the Medici dynasty.

2. They Owned Much Of Florence

In the 1400’s the Medici family owned most of Florence. As their wealth and power grew they bought up much of Florence and surrounding Tuscany, and then awarded themselves more. They were the center of Florentine society as well as the behind the scenes power brokers.

3. There Were Four Medici Popes

The Medici Bank got the Papal account in 1410 after financing the campaign of a pirate from Naples named Baldassare Cossa, who became Pope John XXIII.

Giovanni de Medici, Poe Leo X, by Raphael

In 1513 Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, became the first Medici Pope, Pope Leo X. In 1523 his cousin and best friend Giuliano de’ Medici became the second pope in the family, Pope Clement VII. Two more family members became Pope over the years, Pope Pius IV in 1559  and  in 1605  Alessandro Ottaviano de’ Medici became Pope Leo XI (for one month).

RELATED POST: 10 Day Trips From Florence By Train

4. There Were Two Medici Queens

At age 14, Florentine Catherine de’ Medici was married off to Henry de Valois, son of King Francis I of France. Henry became king in 1547 and Catherine reigned as Queen of France until his death in 1559. She was mother to 3 French kings. Their son Francis was king for a year until he died in 1560. Then Catherine became regent to her 10 year old son Charles. Catherine was considered the most powerful woman in Europe in the 16th century.

Catherine de’ Medici played by Megan Follows in Reign

Catherine de Medici is a completely fascinating character. You can read more about her here and here in these two critically acclaimed and frankly, quite brilliant books.

In 1600 Marie de’ Medici became Queen of France when her husband was crowned King Henry IV. He died in 1610 and she became regent to their son Louis XIII, who took power in 1617 and promptly exiled her.

5. They Were The Godfathers of the Renaissance

After coming into power in 1434 Cosimo de’ Medici began the family legacy of becoming the world’s greatest patrons of the arts. He built the first public library in Florence, commissioned Michelozzo as his architect, changed the face of architecture in Florence, and commissioned art and sculpture all over the city.

His grandson Lorenzo (the Magnificent) is considered the world’s greatest and most influential patron of the arts. Not only did he commission works at an unprecedented level, Lorenzo also negotiated a balance of power that brought about peace in Italy for 50 years, allowing the Renaissance to flourish. The Renaissance began as a direct result of the Medici’s interest in the arts.

Michelangelo’s David

6. They Discovered Michelangelo

One way Lorenzo the Magnificent supported the arts was his creation of a sculpture garden and artist school in San Marco. He put some of his incredible collection of Greek and Roman sculptures in the garden for apprentice artists to study and learn from.

At age 13 Michelangelo was able to secure one of these apprenticeships when Lorenzo offered Ghirlandaio space for 2 of his students. Lorenzo observed Michelangelo’s skill quickly and moved him into the Medici palace, raising him as a son along with his own children and his orphaned nephew Giulio. Giulio and Lorenzo’s son Giovanni would go on to become the first 2 Medici popes.

Lorenzo understood artists were wired differently, temperamental and couldn’t thrive under regular rules, so he created the perfect environment for Michelangelo, gave him the best education, surrounded him with the greatest minds – artists, writers, philosophers, poets and gave him the freedom and the patronage to hone his craft.

7. One Of Their Biggest Enemies Was A Friar

In the 15th century a religious zealot by the name of Girolamo Savonarola came to Florence and became a friar at the Medici funded convent of San Marco. Savonarola was into deprivation and saw Florence’s love affair with the arts and the humanities as an affront to God.

Girolamo Savonarola

Two years after Lorenzo’s death his son Piero was overthrown and in 1494 Savonarola became Florence’s reformist leader. In 1497 he had his supporters collect priceless books, art, musical instruments, furniture and other items he called “vanities” and had himself a bonfire – The Bonfire of The Vanities.

In 1498 Savonarola was excommunicated and shortly thereafter hung til near death then burned at the stake in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. A marble plaque in the ground marks the spot he was burned. (Just in front of the Fountain of Neptune.)

8. They Got Exiled Quite Often

Starting with Cosimo’s exile to Venice in 1433, the family was exiled several times. His great grandson Piero was exiled in 1494. Five years later the family was exiled again, returned to power in 1512 but then were exiled yet again in 1527.

RELATED POST: Where To Watch The Sunset In Florence

9. Western Europe’s 1st Black Leader

While Giulio di Giuliano de Medici (who would become Pope Clement VII) was living in Rome at the home of his cousin Lorenzo II, he got a black slave working in the home pregnant. The child was named Alessandro and was known as Il Moro, the Moor, due to his dark skin.

Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence

In 1532 his father, Pope Clement VII made Alessandro the first Duke of Florence, not only creating the hereditary succession that lasted until 1737, but by doing so making Alessandro the first black leader in the western world.

Alessandro was the last member of the main Medici bloodline. He had 2 illegitimate children, but no legitimate offspring, so with him Cosimo’s lineage ended.

10. The World’s 1st Ballet

In 1581 the world’s first ballet was performed in France for the court of Catherine de’ Medici.

11. The World’s 1st Opera

Ferdinando de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany who sits astride his horse in Florence’s beautiful Piazza SS Annunciata had his own huge cultural achievement when he introduced opera to Europe. To celebrate the wedding of his niece Marie de’ Medici to King Henry IV of France in 1600 he put on a lavish performance of the opera Euridice.

12. Galileo Was A Medici Tutor

Galileo Galilei

Not only were the Medici patrons of the arts, they also supported scientists, including the physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei.In the early 1600s Galileo needed money to support his family and took a job tutoring Ferdinando’ son Cosimo. When Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter he named them after the Medici. He published a book  about the discoveries he had made with a telescope he invented, “The Starry Messenger”, and dedicated it to his former student, Cosimo. Cosimo hired him as mathematician and philosopher to the Grand Duke, a lucrative position.

13. A Debauched Duke Ended It All

The 7th and final member of the family to serve as Grand Duke of Tuscany was Gian Gastone de’ Medici. He came to power in 1723, led a wild life full of debauchery, and died without any heirs. The leading European powers decided he should be succeeded by Francis, Duke of Lorraine, who would in turn become Holy Roman Emperor and father of Marie Antoinette.

Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the end of a dynasty.

Gian Gastone’s only sibling, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici died in 1743 without any children. She willed the Medici family’s enormous art collection, libraries and other treasures to the Tuscan state with the condition they must always remain in Florence.

When In Florence…

When you do go to Florence take time to explore the lives of the Medici. Their Florentine life took place in the historic center of town, and you can see them everywhere, if you know where to look. Just knowing a little about Cosimo, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo I, and one of my favorites, Ferdinando I can completely change your experience in the Renaissance city and add depth and color to the tapestry of your trip.

I have a free downloadable pdf of my Secret Florence, telling you my favorite bars, restaurants, places to buy jewelry and souvenirs and much more. You can download your Secret Florence pdf here.

Do you belong to my Private Members Newsletter? Twice each month it tells you about special foods to try, festivals happening in Italy and under the radar places to visit, both within the big cities as well as villages around the country. You can get on the list and become a member (for free) here.

Recommended Reading

Want to know more about the Medici? The following is a list of really tremendous books that give you insight into the fascinating lives, stupendous rise and ultimate fall of the Medici Family. Each book has an Amazon affiliate link.

Game of Queens: The Women Who Made 16th Century Europe by Sarah Gristwood

The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Marguerite de Valois and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom by Nancy Goldstone

The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance by Paul Strathern. Strathern has several brilliant Medici books. Also look out for The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance.

The House of Medici, Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert.

Fascinating facts about the Medici

Why You Need To See Beautiful Orsanmichele In Florence

Today I want to tell you about a beautiful building in Florence that you will walk past multiple times, no doubt wondering what it is. Like pretty much everything in Florence it has a good story behind it too!

Orsanmichele, Florence

Orsanmichele

Diagonally opposite the Porcellino Market (Mercato Nuovo) and just up the street from Piazza della Repubblica, in between via Calimala and via Calzaiuoli you will see a square building with statues inside niches the entire way around it. It is beautiful and it is remarkable, but at first glance it is hard to tell exactly what it is.

This is the church of Orsanmichele.

RELATED POST: 10 DAY TRIPS FROM FLORENCE BY TRAIN

It Wasn’t Always A Church

In 895 A.D this was an oratory in the garden of the monastery of St Michele. The word for garden was orto, so over the years Orto-San-Michele became shortened to Or-San-Michele.

This first structure burned down in 1239 and was rebuilt as a wooden loggia. The loggia had a column with the Madonna on it, accredited with several miracles. Once again, this structure also burned down. In 1336 the Silk Guild decided to rebuild it as a grain market. This is why the church has the odd shape – it is square because it originally was a grain market with a grain storage space above it.

At the time it made sense to keep a granary inside the city walls. During times of siege and wars you couldn’t always safely go out to the countryside to get the grain needed for the city.

It was still an open loggia and the city flowed through it. Bernardo Daddi painted a replacement Madonna, the Madonna delle Grazie, to replace the one lost in the fire. Once again she had miracles attributed to her, especially during the plague of 1348. With miracles come pilgrims, and they showed up in such numbers to pray at her feet that it became impossible to keep the space functioning as a market. A new market was built across the street, the Mercato Nuovo (Porcellino Market), and this space was walled in and converted into a church.

RELATED POST: YOU NEED TO SEE THE MEDICI PALACES IN FLORENCE

The Tabernacles

St Peter by Donatello

Each of the city’s guilds (artisan unions) was given a tabernacle on the exterior of the building and had to provide a statue or sculpture to put in it. These are the niches you see around the outside of the building.

St John the Baptist by Lorenzo Ghiberti

The project wasn’t completed until the mid 15th century, so many of the guilds benefitted from the expertise of the greatest Renaissance sculptors, including Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Four Crowned Saints by Nanno di Banco

The grain storage space above the old grain market has since been converted into a museum and all of the original sculptures are safely kept there. The sculptures you see outside are replicas. (It is well worth a trip upstairs to the museum)

For a breakdown of the art in each tabernacle, who sculpted it and which guild it was built for check this link

St Matthew by Lorenzo Ghiberti

RELATED POST: 10 THINGS YOU MUST DO IN LUCCA

The Madonna

The Maddona delle Grazie by Bernardo Daddi

Inside the church the miracle giving Madonna delle Grazie by Bernardo Daddi is housed inside an incredible tabernacle created by the artist Orcagna in 1348-59. It is quite something!

Cool Things To Look For

There are some other really cool features to look for inside the church. If you sit back for a moment and watch you will see most of the travelers in here miss them. I say travelers rather than tourists because even though there are hordes of tourists swarming down the street outside, very few bother to come inside and have a look.

The grain chute inside one of the columns in Orsanmichele

Two of the columns on the left side of the church have open grain chutes. The grain stored above would be dispensed down these chutes into the market. It’s a quirky little detail but I love it.

Orsanmichele

Being that this is Florence of course the artwork inside this church is gorgeous. But as you look up at the paintings on the ceiling, look a little closer and you will see metal rings embedded in them.

Metal rings embedded into the ceiling

These are not part of some creepy inquisition torture devices but actually date back to the days when this was a granary. The metal rings were used to work the pullies, hoisting huge blocks of grain.

RELATED POST: 14 FOODS YOU MUST TRY IN FLORENCE

Unless you go upstairs to the museum (recommended) your entrance to the church is free. You won’t need an enormous amount of time here so it is a great place to whip into on your way to the Piazza della Signoria, the Porcellina Market or  Ponte Vecchio.

You may need to loop around it a couple of times to find the entrance – head up, it’s at the back. Be sure to walk around the building exterior at least once to see all the tabernacles and identify each of the guilds. The magnificence of buildings like Orsanmichele are part of what makes Florence so totally incredible.

Are you planning a trip to Florence? My free downloadable Secret Florence PDF gives you a list of my favorites in the Renaissance city. From my favorite restaurants and bars to my favorite secret jewelry shop these are places you will want to know about and add to your itinerary. Get your Secret Florence pdf  HERE

Do you belong to my Private Members Newsletter? Twice each month it tells you about special foods to try, festivals happening in Italy and under the radar places to visit, both within the big cities as well as villages around the country. You can get on the list and become a member (for free) here.

Things To Do In Florence why you should visit the church of Orsanmichele in the historic center
Pin this to your Florence Pinterest board!