Since my bestselling novel, Oil and Marble: a novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo, is art historical fiction set in Florence, a lot of people have asked me what they should see when traveling to the Renaissance mecca.
There’s so much art to see, you don’t know where to start. I hear you. Florence is an artistic wonderland; you could spend weeks in the city and still not see it all…
Here’s a list to help guide you.
(Oh and, sorry Michelangelo, I didn’t double dip on any artist! Everyone is stuck with just one masterpiece)
10. Venus of Urbino by Titian in the Uffizi Gallery. This is Titian’s masterpiece of domestic eroticism, depicting the goddess of Venus draped across a couch, staring directly out at the viewer. It also inspired another masterpiece 300 years later: Edouard Manet’s Olympia was the painting that kicked off the Impressionist movement.
9. Madonna della Seggiola by Raphael in the Pitti Palace. A holy man was once chased up an oak tree by wolves, but a fearless young woman chased away the hungry pack. To thank her for saving him, the holy man promised both lady and tree would become famous. Years later, when the young woman was a mother of two, a painter became entranced with her and decided to paint her. As his canvas, he used the base of one of her father’s round oak barrels (made from the holy man’s blessed tree). The artist was Raphael. The painting is this Madonna and Child. The holy man’s blessing came true: the lady and her tree will be eternally remembered through this painting.
8. Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes in the Palazzo Vecchio. This statue depicts the Biblical story of Judith — symbol of liberty and freedom — beheading the enemy general Holofernes to save her people. It was originally commissioned in in the 1450s by Cosimo de’Medici, but when the Medici family was expelled from Florence in the 1490s, the citizens re-appropriated Judith for their own purposes. For over a decade, this statue stood in the Piazza Vecchio as a symbol of Florentine’s liberation from Medici rule. And there it might have remained, except another sculpture eventually replaced it: A little marble statue by the name of David….
7. Judith and Holofernes by Artemsia Gentileschi in the Uffizi. Now head to the Uffizi to see another version of that same Biblical story — this time, from the perspective of a woman. At a time when female painters were a rare curiosity, Artemsia transcended her “proper place” to become the first woman to be accepted into Florence’s Accademia di Arti del Designo. The painting is dark and violent, perhaps harkening back to the painter’s history as a rape survivor; she was a rare woman who filed a law suit against her attacker, although she was the one chased out of town in scandal. Artemisa had the final word though: her art lives on through the ages.
6. Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus in the Loggia dei Lanzi. When this statue was erected in the Piazza Vecchio, Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes and Michelangelo’s David already stood in that same square. Cellini had a lot to live up to — and he did not disappoint. The most famous goldsmith and sculptor of his day, Cellini struggled to cast this bronze, but it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. In the tradition of triumphant symbols of Florence, this statue depicts the mythological hero of Perseus holding up the severed head of Madusa.
5. Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi. This unfinished masterpiece is a tribute to Leonardo’s curious mind — it includes a range of figures, landscapes, and architectural elements. If it had only been finished… But it wasn’t. A year after its commission, Leonardo fled Florence for Milan and did not return for another 20 years. Why did he flee? We don’t really know. The master had been accused of sodomy a few years before (the charges were dropped) and his relationship with his father was deteriorating (if not non-existent)… but perhaps Leonardo left Florence because he was, well, Leonardo. It was time to see, do and learn something new. This unfinished design stands as a tribute to his early development in Florence. In Milan, he would grow into a master…
4. Verrocchio’s David in the Bargello. Speaking of Leonardo… This bronze masterpiece (David, moments after slaying Goliath) was sculpted by Leonardo’s teacher, Andrea del Vercocchio in the 1470s, when Leonardo was still working in the master’s studio. In fact, rumor has it, the face of this handsome young David is the face of Leonardo himself — when he was around 2o years old.
3. Birth of Venus — and while you’re there La Primavera — both by Botticelli in the Uffizi. Okay, I lied. Technically, I’m giving Botticelli two works – but only because they are in the same museum and I have no idea how to decide which of the two to highlight. They are both undeniable masterpieces. Above, the God of Wind blows Venus into birth on her half-shell while the Goddess of Seasons prepares to drape the goddess in a robe of flowers. Below, Botticelli’s allegorical representation of springtime.
2. East Doors of the Baptistery of St. John by Ghiberti. In 1401, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi faced off in a fierce competition to decide which of those two great artists would win the commission to cast these great doors. Ghiberti won — it took his shop 27 years to complete the ten bronze panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament, but the struggle was worth it. Michelangelo thought these doors were so beautiful they were fit to stand as the “Gates of Paradise.” But don’t feel too badly for the loser Brunelleschi. 15 years later, he returned to Florence and once again faced off against Ghiberti — but this time, he won, earning the right to build Florence’s famed Il Duomo.
1. David by Michelangelo in the Accademia (and while you’re at it, the slaves): Michelangelo carved this free-standing, colossal nude statue out of a single block of marble in less than three years. Over 17 feet tall, it depicts David glaring at his enemy Goliath just before battle. Once guarding city hall (and now protected from the elements inside the Accademia), the statue has stood as a symbol of the power and faith of Florentines for over 500 years. Lining the walls of the gallery leading up to the David are the sculptor’s unfinished slaves — by taking a moment to contemplate at these unfinished works, you will get a sense of the struggle the sculptor faced to dig David out of his block of marble and bring him to life.