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.

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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

10 Things You Need To Know Before Traveling To Italy

We don’t yet know for sure when we will be able to travel to Italy again, hopefully it will be later this summer. Regardless of when we can go, whether it will be your first time or a return trip, the following 10 things are really important to keep in mind. In fact you can file them under things you wish you knew before you went to Italy!

10 Things You’ll Wish You Knew Before You Traveled To Italy

Milleluci, Colle Val d’Elsa, Tuscany

Pack Light

It took me a while to get on board with this but you really do need to pack light. I advise my travelers to pack half of what they think they need.

Most travelers will have to get their suitcases on and off trains, lift them onto train or ferry luggage racks, carry them across cobblestoned streets (notorious for breaking suitcase wheels) and sometimes up multiple flights of stairs. Your hotel or accommodation may have an elevator, but that doesn’t mean it will be working. Many train stations don’t have escalators or elevators so you can find yourself carrying heavy suitcases down one flight of stairs and up another if you are changing trains. Trust me, it’s a nightmare.

Cars are smaller over there so taxis and rental cars may not fit excess or large luggage.

Also shopping in Italy is fantastic. You will want space in your suitcase to bring things home. (Checking a second suitcase should you need to buy one while there will cost you an additional 100 euros)

image via cntraveler.com

Plan Your Outfits

Don’t pack any just-in-case items. Plan your outfits ahead of time. Separates give you the most options, with the ideal 4 tops for one skirt or pair of pants. Pack easy to wear, easily packable items. Sundresses and travel dresses are ideal, with a light jacket or sweater in case it gets cold.

I normally get my travelers to plan an outfit for each day. This makes the process so much easier and really helps to condense your packing.

At the moment post-pandemic there is talk of the airlines not supplying blankets and pillows inflight. I always travel with a large pashmina/shawl that can double up as a blanket. My best travel tip for flying is to wear a long sleeve merino base layer. See here and here and here This lightweight fabric is super warm but regulates temperature to keep you comfortable from sub-zero temperatures to around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It also wicks away moisture, so you won’t get sweaty or smelly.

Bring Good Walking Shoes

Italy is all walking, much of it up and down hills, most of it on uneven or cobbled streets. My average day in Italy involves walking between 8 and 10 miles, and I’ve had plenty of days when we’ve walked double that.

Really good, supportive walking shoes are essential.

RELATED POST: THE BEST SHOES TO WEAR IN EUROPE

The Sofft Mirabelle has been my go to sandal for Italy for several years.

I recommend one stylish pair of athletic shoes (well, as stylish as possible – try to avoid the big, clunky, ugly ones) and one pair of sandals. I typically wear the Mirabelle by Sofft see here as they don’t need any breaking in time and can take a beating. My last pair did over 300 miles of walking in Italy and are still going strong, although I have since replaced them with a new pair.

Always break in and sneakers/athletic shoes before coming, and I suggest putting insoles in as well see here.

Ideally only bring only 2 pairs of shoes, and plan your outfits around them. Leave high heels, wedges and platforms at home – the chances of you braking or spraining an ankle in them are huge.

Bring Currency

Any time you are traveling to a country with a different currency you should bring some of that currency with you. Airports normally have ATM machines but they may be out of cash and definitely will have the worst exchange rate.

Order a small amount of foreign currency from your bank prior to leaving for Italy. I recommend bringing 100 euros cash, in small denominations. Many vendors will not have change for a larger bill and may not want to risk accepting a counterfeit bill. Your best bet is to bring an assortment of cash in 20 euro notes and smaller.

Arriving in Naples, June 2019

Use The Trains

The train system in Italy is fantastic. It is really efficient and very affordable. I advise taking the train across country rather than flying. On the rare occasions that I fly internally there are invariably flight delays and it would have taken just as long by train!

RELATED POST: HOW TO USE THE TRAINS IN ITALY

I recommend buying tickets for the high speed train online ahead of time. Tickets typically go on sale around 3-4 months prior to departure with the prices going up as you get closer to the date.

Intercity and regional train tickets can be purchased at the station the day of travel.

Plan Your Airport Transfers

Plan your transport from the airport ahead of time. Especially if this is your first trip to Italy you can be exhausted after the long flight and find the arrival overwhelming.

If flying into Venice you will need to pre-book passage from the airport to the city on the Alilaguna boat see here. If flying into any other major city either plan for a private driver transfer (recommended) or a taxi. Your accommodation will be able to advise you on car companies and taxi fares.

If flying into Florence or Pisa see this post, if flying into Rome see this post.

Never accept a ride from a driver soliciting business inside the airport. Taxis are required to come through the taxi stand outside the arrivals terminal. They all have the correct insignia for that particular city and will have fares posted. There is always a set fare from the airport into the city.

Eat Regionally

In Italy food is regional. Each region has its own specialties, and other than at tourist restaurants you won’t find American Italian items on the menu. Rather than trying to order pizza and lasagna everywhere you go, order the food from that area. My best seller Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy breaks down what foods to order in each region as well as which wines to order by region.

Fattoria la Tagliata, Positano

It also gives you expert advice on how to choose a restaurant, how to order coffee, what to do if you get sick, how to get your sales tax back – loads of essential information for travelers. It is available worldwide on Amazon.com

Learn A Little Italian

Over the years Aldo and his wife Lidia have become dear friends of mine.
Capri 2019

Before you travel learn some basic things to say in Italian. Things like hello and goodbye, please and thank you, and a few other easy bits and pieces. Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy also has a section on basic phrases and how to say them.

Slow Down!

Don’t pack your itinerary with too many things. Plan to see fewer things in fewer cities. Don’t waste time standing in line for hours to see the major attractions. Pick one or two per city and then spend the rest of your time seeing the places the tour buses don’t go.

Long lunches with a view.
Montalcino, Tuscany

St Peter’s in Rome is great, but there are no end of other churches just as fantastic with no line to get inside. The Duomo is Florence is ok inside but there are so many staggeringly fantastic churches in the historic center of town that you can walk right into. St Mark’s Basilica in Venice is incredible and is worth waiting in line for.

Every city in Italy has vastly more to offer than just the main attractions. Spend your time wandering and exploring these lesser known sites, stop for a coffee or a gelato, enjoy a long lunch somewhere with a lovely view.

Even in the busiest cities you can find places to chill out and just wander.
Rome 2019

My second book, Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome is also an international best seller. It gives you more than 101 incredible things to see and do in Rome, all within walking distance of the big attractions, and most with very few tourists. I have a new book coming out soon with 101 Fabulous Things To Do in another famous Italian city. To get a heads up on it and when it’s coming out join my Private Member Newsletter here. You can unsubscribe at any time.

10. Buy Artisanal

Sandal maker, Positano

Whether you are buying a gelato or whether you are buying souvenirs, or anything (and everything) in between, don’t buy from the high street shops, buy from the artisans. This post explains why you must only ever buy artisan gelato. Don’t worry, there are artisan shops everywhere and they cost the same.

Gelateria del Teatro, Rome

RELATED POST: WHY YOU SHOULD ONLY BUY ARTISANAL GELATO IN ITALY!

Buying from artisan boutiques, shops, workshops and markets helps keep the trades Italy is famous for alive for more generations. From shoe shops to leather bags to clothing, jewelry and crafts – everything you can think of, it’s all available in cheap Made in China imitations, or as the real deal. Don’t support the made-for-tourists merchandise, support the true Italian merchandise. It is all very easy to find and centrally located.

This artisan weaver makes exquisite scarves in Colle Val d’Elsa. She took time to show us how she sets the loom and makes her beautiful designs. We all bought gits here.

Check blogs, ask google and ask your landlord or hotel where you can buy artisanal products. They will be happy to guide you!

Did you find this post helpful? My Private Members Newsletter comes out twice each month and is full of great information for anyone planning a trip to Italy, now or in the future. You can join the group for free here.

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10 things you need to know before you travel to Italy

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.

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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

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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.

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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
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