Tag Archive: Florence


When you consider the fierce fighting throughout Italy during WWII between the allied forces and the retreating German army, it’s a minor miracle that so much of Italy survives intact to this day. Mortar rounds and aerial bombs could have leveled everything and so much would have been lost forever. If you haven’t done so, try to see the documentary film “The Rape of Europa” on the nazis and European art. It’s an amazing film that tells the true story of art theft in WWII by the Nazis, and the allied attempt to rescue and restore the greatest works of art.

Amazingly, the retreating german army didn’t put up a fight in Rome, and the city was spared war destruction. They retreated to Florence and Pisa in the north and prepared for battle. The allies knew that those cities were delicate time capsules of art and architecture, and they faced a difficult problem. They knew that many soldiers would lose their lives in street to street combat with the enemy hidden in the maze of medieval buildings. They also knew that they couldn’t just wipe the town away with bombs. In Florence, they made the decision to take out the train station, which was a newer structure and a critical supply line for the Nazis. This was long before laser guided precision bombs. There was no guarantee that the bombs would land where they were supposed to, but amazingly, they did. In one of the most successful bombing raids of the war, the train station was gone, and the nazis had no way to receive critical supplies.

After a year of occupation, the nazis left Florence. Before they did, they set about destroying all of the cities historic bridges over the Arno river in an attempt to slow the Allied advance. They destroyed a famous tri-arched bridge designed by Michelangelo. One bridge, called the Ponte Vecchio, survived destruction, supposedly because it was so beautiful. Today, it’s one of the most famous bridges in the world.

The Ponte Vecchio has been rebuilt many times over its history, and has been in its present state since the 1300s. It too is a tri-arched bridge, lined with shops on either side of a central corridor. In medieval times it was a center for butcher shops, and the open space of the river on either side allowed for air to control the smell. Today, the shops are all jewelry stores. Supposedly, the term “bankrupt” was originated here, based on the words “banco rotto.” When someone couldn’t pay their debts, they would physically break (rotto) his table at the Ponte Vecchio.

Thankfully, the nazis decided not to blow up the Ponte Vecchio. Instead, they leveled the historic medieval buildings on either side of it, creating a mountain of rubble blocking the bridge. While it certainly was tragic to lose large parts of the neighborhood, they have since been rebuilt and modernized. Florence certainly suffered great destruction during the war, but amazingly the greatest of buildings and historic structures made it through.

The nazis also put up a fight in nearby Pisa, which was not so lucky. Known primarily for its famous leaning tower, Pisa was a wonderfully preserved medieval city until the war, when much of it was destroyed by bombing and fire. The leaning tower and famous cathedral in the center of town survived, but not all historic structures were so lucky.

Right next to the famous leaning tower and the cathedral is a cemetery called the Camposanto. In the 12th century, knights of the fourth crusade brought back loads of soil from Golgotha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion in Jerusalem, and created a sacred burial space in Pisa. Over the centuries, the Camposanto became the cultural center of Pisa and the region. Many were buried there, and priceless Roman sarcophagi and statues, along with biblical relics, were housed there. The walls were completely decorated in immaculate frescos, and were beautiful beyond description. In short, the Camposanto was the one of the most important and priceless historical structures in all of Italy. The painting seen here shows how it looked.

On July 27, 1944, a wayward Allied bombs started a fire nearby that quickly spread to the Camposanto. The wooden rafters burst into flame and melted the lead on the roof, which dripped down and completely destroyed everything inside. It was a great loss to the entire world. Along the front lines of the allied troops, cultural/art historians rushed in to assess the damage. They were devastated to find the Camposanto ruined, and set about preserving what they could. The frescos had been melted off the walls, but in some areas a faint trace of the fresco remained. Today, work still continues at the Camposanto. Though it will never be as it was, burnt fragments of the paintings have been pieced back together and can be seen on display.

Here’s  a video on the Camposanto as it can be seen today- Enjoy

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Filippo Brunelleschi is probably not among the names most people associate with the Renaissance, but he should be. He was a true genius and one of the greatest minds around Florence in a time when there were many geniuses. Without his contributions, the Renaissance would have been very different. Brunelleschi (pronounced Bru-nel-less-ski) lived from 1387-1446. He was trained as a goldsmith and entered the famous competition with Lorenzo Ghiberti to create the doors on the Florence baptistry (read that story here). Ghiberti won the commission, possibly because Brunelleschi refused to share the commission. Either way, Brunelleschi went on to change the course of the artistic renaissance in Florence in not one but two enormous ways. Later, he would successfully design and oversee the completion of the enormous red dome on the Florence Cathedral, a structural achievement that was way ahead of it’s time and changed the course of architecture. It could be argued that his greatest achievement was his discovery, or re-discovery, of linear perspective.

Among the cultures of the ancient world, only the Greeks and the Romans had spacial depth in art figured out. That is to say, they understood how to create an image with convincing depth and a painted or sculpted illusion of 3 dimensional space. We know this because we can see it today in works like the Column of Trajan, or the painted villas of Pompeii. During the middle ages, these artistic sensibilities were lost. More accurately, the entire world point of view changed in the middle ages to reflect the church. No longer were artists interested in pursuing perfect depictions of the human body or of the world around them. After 1000 years, artists in Florence were aware that they didn’t know how to create convincing depth in a painting, and they were working hard to develop a system of perspective. You can clearly see this in the work of late medieval and early Renaissance painters. Their pictures have a flat look to them. Just look at this image of Christ being led to his crucifixion. The city in the background appears very small because the figures far off in the distance are the same size as those in the foreground. Also, the parallel lines of the walls do not recede into the distance. It’s an image and a perfect example of the problem facing painters around 1400. How do you make a picture realistic? It seems so simple to us now, but it was a huge problem that took centuries to solve until Filippo Brunelleschi figured it out.

Brunelleschi observed that with a fixed single point of view, parallel lines appear to converge at a single point in the distance. Brunelleschi applied a single vanishing point to a canvas, and discovered a method for calculating depth. In a famous noted experiment, Brunelleschi used mirrors to sketch the Florence baptistry in perfect perspective. He was able to mathematically calculate the scale of objects within a painting in order to make them appear realistic. It was a monumental discovery, and soon artists were using Brunelleschi’s method of perspective to astonishing affects in their paintings. Brunelleschi’s original perspective studies are long gone, but he directly influenced many others. The first known painting to show true linear perspective is Masaccio’sThe Holy Trinity”. In the fresco, a false room has been created on the flat wall of the church using perspective to simulate the architecture.

Here’s one of the best video clips on perspective from James Burke. It’s a little outdated, but the content and explanation of Brunelleschi’s discovery is great. Enjoy-

CIMABUE and GIOTTO

When did the Renaissance begin, and who began it? Historians have debated this for a long time and still do. Most seem to agree though, that in art Florence was the place. The Renaissance didn’t happen over night. It took a few centuries to arrive at Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli and Raphael, and it took the work of many others to influence those figures. Before the Medici took control of Florence and became the financial force behind the high Renaissance, other factors were gradually changing the trends of medieval Europe. In the 1200s, there was a renewed interest in ancient texts that were kept at monasteries. Slowly, the ideas of humanism were being rediscovered.

Two significant Florentine artists stand at the crossroads. Most historians view Cimabue (pronounced Chee-ma-boo-ee) as the last of the medieval masters, and his pupil Giotto (Gee-otto) as the first great Renaissance master. It’s maybe a little too convenient to say that these 2 artists alone are the bridge between a huge cultural shift, but their work does show significant clues to the changes in artistic thinking. Let’s start with Cimabue.

Cimabue lived from 1251-1302 and was a great painter of christian art. Not much is known about his life at all, but a few of his paintings remain. There was a very specific look to art in the 1200s. Paintings were flat with little or no depth and figures had a highly stylized look. Many medieval painters instituted a stylized black line to outline figures, and had a limited understanding of accurate body proportion. By Cimabue’s time, artists were paying more attention to the look of the real world, and there’s a change in the look of figures. Cimabue’s paintings show subtle changes that represent the start of something new. Here’s his famous Crucifix. We can see that his Christ is elongated but somewhat less stylized. There are shadows on the edge of his torso and limbs that demonstrate Cimabue’s attempt to show that the body is 3-dimensional. Jesus even has a slight green hue to his skin. You can feel the coldness of death in the painting.

Cimabue’s pupil was Giotto, who lived from 1266-1337. Giotto broke significantly with the traditions of medieval art, painting bodies and drapery with intense shadows and a feeling of depth. He also infused his figures with a newfound emotional depth. His most famous works are found in Padua in the Scrovegni Chapel from 1305, where Giotto decorated the walls and with vividly colored frescos. One of them is this panel, called the “Lamentation”. In it, the dead Christ has been removed from the cross and is mourned. As you can see, there’s some significant changes in the shadows of the figures. In particular, Giotto paints drapery and clothing with precision- you can easily sense the shape of the bodies undernieth. Most impressive are the weeping faces, which are incredibly expressive and enhance the feeling of sorrow and despair. Even Heaven itself is crying in anguish, seen in the weeping angels circling the sky. Giotto was to become a very influential painter, leading later artists to push artistic innovation further.

Today, you can see Cimabue’s crucifix and a painting by Giotto at the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, which also houses the tombs of Galileo, Machiavelli  and Michelangelo among others. The best place to see their work is at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where Cimabue and Giotto both have large wooden alter piece paintings of the Madonna and Child. They serve as a great way to compare and contrast the differences of these 2 painters at a time of significant change in the world of art. Here’s a great video that compares those 2 pieces in detail. Enjoy-

The Baptistry in Florence, more officially called the Baptistery of St. John, stands in the plaza directly in front of the Florence Duomo and is much older. Workers began building it around the year 1050, and until the late 1800s every Catholic in Florence was baptized here. For Florentines in the Renaissance it had been around so long and was such an important structure that many believed it to be a converted temple originally built by ancient Romans. It’s a special building because it holds so much history and was the site of a major commission in the early Renaissance. The result of this commission forever changed the art world.

The years in between 1329 and 1400 were rough. A little thing called the Black Death swept across Europe. The bubonic plague is estimated to have killed 30-60% of Europe’s population, as many as 75 million people. Florence went from 120,000 inhabitants in 1338 to 50,000 in 1351. It left Europe in political and economic chaos and took a century to recover from. By 1400, the city was finally ready for a new commission, and the call went out for entries. The doors on the south end of the baptistery had been completed by Andrea Pisano in 1329 (before the plague), and are still seen today. The powers that be wanted to install a new set of impressive gilded bronze doors on the north end of the baptistery. Artists had to submit a bronze panel of “Abraham Sacrificing Isaac” to win the cities biggest prize. 2 artists submitted panels that clearly stood out among all the rest. Both sculptors were in their early 20s at the time: Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi.

Here’s Brunelleschi’s panel, and here’s an explaination  of it:

“Brunelleschi’s work is by far the more dramatic and disturbing, all angles and movement and raw emotion., like nothing that had ever been created before. His Abraham is a tall, powerful figure, grasping a frail Isaac along the jawline with his left hand, the father’s thumb under the boy’s chin to better expose the neck, or perhaps to cut off the flow of oxygen so that his son won’t feel the fatal blow. In his right hand, Abraham holds the knife, driving the blade forward with such forceful commitment that the angel sweeping down from the sky must grab his wrist to stop the sacrifice. The story literally bursts out from the panel, breaking the boundaries of the Gothic quatrefoil within which it is supposed to be contained, just as Brunelleschi burst through the boundaries of the Gothic art with his creation.”  -(Robert Paul Walker from his book “The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance”)

Here’s Ghiberti’s panel:

“Ghiberti’s panel is more elegant and more beautiful. His Isaac is a perfectly modeled classical nude while his Abraham is a smaller, more graceful man, his left arm wrapped around the boy’s shoulders while his right hand holds the knife hovering in the air, as if he has not yet made the decision to strike. The angel floats above them, open palm over Abraham’s well-coifed, curly hair, no need to grab the father’s arm but able instead to stop him with a word. The whole scene plays out against an exquisitely cascading mountainside, all neatly contained within its quatrefoil boundary. Whereas Brunelleschi’s piece demonstrates an artist aching to forge a new and more powerful image of reality, Ghiberti’s demonstrates masterful perfection of the art,a s remarkable in its own way for the time and place and age of the artist as is the work of his rival.” -Paul Robert Walker

Both artists had turned in extraordinary panels, and the committee couldn’t decide which was best. The story is that they called both artists together and asked if they might be willing to work in tandem on the doors. Brunelleschi was the one to refuse, saying that he would gladly concede the project to Ghiberti rather than work with anything less than full creative control. The project went to Lorenzo Ghiberti. It was a huge victory for him and a humiliating defeat for Brunelleschi, who was left with nothing after so much work and anticipation. It was the aftermath of this competition that got the creative snowball rolling in Florence. Ghiberti would spend decades completing not just the north doors (seen here to the left), but a second set of east baptistry doors, a work so impressive that Michelangelo studied them and dubbed them, “the gates of paradise”. It was Brunelleschi however, who would make the bigger leap forward, inventing a system for perspective and revolutionizing painting while completing one of the most daunting and difficult architectural projects in the world: the building of the giant red dome on top of the Duomo across from the baptistry.  I will have more on these two amazing artists in later posts. For now, here’s a great side by side comparison study on the “Sacrifice of Isaac” panels. Enjoy.

The Medici were the greatest patrons of the arts and the godfathers of Florence. Their patronage had helped to bring about a great revival of culture in Italy, called the Renaissance. Perhaps there’s no greater sign of just how powerful the Medici were than the life of Giovanni da Medici. In the middle of great turmoil in Florence after the departure of Savonarola and the exile of the family, Giovanni, who was prepared from childhood to take a place in the Catholic church, was elected Pope. He changed his name to Pope Leo X, and made fateful decisions that had huge consequences for the church and the entire western world. The Medici had basically bribed other cardinals to vote Giovanni to the Papacy, and Leo swiftly placed family members in high places to benefit the family, including his brother who became a cardinal.


Pope Leo and his higher ups promptly partied as if there was no cost involved. He is often quoted for saying to his brother Guiliano,  “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” He had elaborate feasts every night, and hosted large celebrations in Rome, including a parade where he rode on the back of a white elephant. Being a Medici, he was fascinated with the ideas of humanism so popular in Renaissance Florence, and he brought this perspective to the Vatican. He had few limits when it came to dishing out money, and soon enough, he had more or less bankrupted the church. To compensate, he authorized the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a piece of paper, priced affordably to anyone who wanted one, that granted forgiveness of sins and entrance to Heaven. They could also be bought on behalf of dead family members, to assure their escape from punishment.

For Martin Luther, a German monk, that was the final straw.He was furious and posted his 95 theses, disagreements with the church, on the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. It was the start of the protestant reformation, and touched off a firestorm of controversy. Luther contended that grace came through God alone and not through the Pope. Similar reformers had been burned at the stake for questioning the church in the past, but Luther persisted, gaining momentum and starting a movement that swept over Europe. It’s an extremely complex history whose consequences are still felt and argued over today. Leo’s response was to fight back with all the threats he could as Pope, but the damage was done. He died rather suddenly in 1521 of illness. His successor Pope Adrian VI, did his best to respond to the protestant reformation, but also died, after less than 2 years as pope.

Leo’s cousin, Guilio de Medici, was destined to become another Medici pope. He chose the name Clement VII, and inherited a nearly impossible situation. His papacy was defined by monumental struggle that was tearing the church and Europe apart. Eventually, fanatical enemy troops, fueled by religious hatred of the church, arrived in Rome. Clement fled to the Castel St. Angelo, where he held out for 6 months. Eventually, he bribed his way out and fled. Called the sack of Rome, it was a truly terrible event. The enemy armies pillaged the city, killed and raped, and Rome would never be the same. The resistance spread to other cities too, including Florence, where Michelangelo had to go into hiding. After some time, Clement returned to Rome and the long process of rebuilding began. The sack of Rome marks the end of the Renaissance and the a turning point for the popes. Their place as supreme power and authority has never been the same. One of his last acts was to commission Michelangelo, then in his 50s, to return to the Sistine Chapel and paint a massive scene on the front wall of “The Last Judgement”. It’s one of the most amazing works of art in the world, and I’ll talk about it extensively in a few other posts.

It was the greed and corruption of the Medici popes that finally crossed the line and broke the church. Still, Leo X, Clement VII and many other corrupt popes throughout the ages are an indicator of just how strong and engrained the Christian religion is. That it would survive to its present state, in spite of so many disastrous detours and power hungry people with other motives, is truly a miracle. As for art and culture, a movement called the counter reformation or catholic revival came in the years after Clement, and altered the attitudes of the church and created what we have today.

I highly recommend that you watch the PBS series on the Medici. Part 1 and Part 2 are linked here. Part 3 is below, and does a great job at telling the crazy story of Leo X, the Medici Pope.

Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John on Fiesole) was a Dominican monk and painter who was probably born in 1395 and died in 1455. He is one of the great Renaissance artists, a significant painter who made great contributions to art. His work is an essential link between the gothic look of the middle ages and the Renaissance. What sets him apart is his exceptional skill with a brush and his deep devotion to his Lord. All of his paintings are of Christian subjects. Florence in the Renaissance was a place bursting with humanistic ideas. Artists were increasingly fascinated with mythological themes from antiquity at a time when the churches control over culture remained strong from the Middle Ages. Consider Donatello’s “David” from the 1440s- also made in Florence, the first free-standing nude sculpture since ancient times, yet also a biblical subject.

Contrast that with Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, who maintained the high church or gothic subjects of the middle ages while infusing them with quiet grace and emotion. To him, painting these scenes was an act of devotion to God, so much so that according to Vasari in his “Lives of the Artists” from 1550 he could never handle a brush without fervent prayer and could not paint a crucifixion without tears streaming down his cheeks. Says Vasari- “It is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.” For this reason, he is called Fra Angelico, “the Angelic Friar”. He was beautified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 as the patron saint of Catholic Artists.

For all the great advances of the Renaissance, Fra Angelico remained a humble and devout friar and turned down opportunities to move up within the order. Instead, he devoted himself to a life of prayer, service, and painting. It’s pretty clear to see from his work that he viewed the 3 as 1 and the same. The work above is one of many Fra Angelico scenes of the “Annunciation”, the moment that the angel Gabriel reveals to the virgin Mary  that she will give birth to the savior. Check out this link to see another Fra Angelico “Annunciation”. He paints his subjects supremely delicate in a typical Italian structure, which makes use of perspective to show depth to the vaulted porch (Perspective was still a very recent innovation at the time, developed in Florence by Brunelleschi and put to use by Masaccio). The faces and the drapery still appear very gothic in nature, but the entire work conveys a sense of quiet holiness common to all Fra Angelico paintings. He is not interested, as many other Florentine artists were, in challenging the rules and pushing the boundaries of art. Rather, he is continuing the tradition of medieval Christian art with tremendous talent and excellence. His works are built around an uncommon and profound simplicity that enhances the biblical narrative of his paintings.

One of Florence’s great artistic treasures is the Convent of San Marco, a few blocks north of the Duomo. It’s far less crowded than other museums, and is filled with Fra Angelico’s frescos. It was newly built in 1436 and Fra Angelico was among the friars who moved in. As a talented painter, moving to Florence meant that he was surrounded by the greatest patrons of the arts. The story is that Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence and godfather of the Renaissance, kept a cell for himself at San Marco in order to have a quiet place to retreat to. It was there that he encountered Fra Angelico, and urged him to decorate the place. There are 45 frescos in all, decorating each of the individual rooms and areas of the hallway.

Each fresco is designed to enhance the act of devotion and worship. They take the rounded shape of the vaulted ceilings in each room and contain minimal backgrounds in the paintings. giving the illusion of the painting as a window into another room. Many of the scenes, such as the crucifixion and the annunciation, are repeated. Here we see “The Transfiguration” from cell 6, which shows the glowing Christ on the mountain flanked by the hovering heads of Moses and Elijah on his right and left. At his feat, the disciples shield their eyes and bow in reverence.

Like Michelangelo 60 years later, Fra Angelico was summoned from Florence to Rome by the Pope in order to decorate the walls and ceilings of the Vatican. The room is a small chapel named after Pope Nicholas V, and is on the Vatican tour today. It was not long after completing this that Fra Angelico fell ill and died while in Rome. Today, San Marco is a tremendous place to visit to see the best of Fra Angelico’s work. The cells have been restored in the last decade and are bright as they originally where. One of the cells was home to Savonarola decades after Fra Angelico, and his personal items are still there. There is also a great museum in the basement which includes many small wooden altarpieces by the artist. Fra Angelico has been in the news as recently at 2007, when a woman in Great Britain revealed 2 small paintings on wooden panel from her attic, purchased by her father for 100 pounds each in the 60s. As it turns out, they are both missing pieces to a larger Fra Angelico altarpiece and they sold for millions. Today, they are at San Marco too. Here’s a great youtube clip that shows many of Fra Angelico’s paintings in  great color and detail.

The story of the Medici is truly fascinating. The family of bankers became the rulers of Florence, and through their patronage brought about the Renaissance and  changed the western world forever. It was Cosimo de’Medici who first took control of Florence, commissioning the completion of the great red dome of the Florence Duomo by Brunelleschi. Part 1 of the Medici film concerning Cosimo is found here.

When he suddenly died, his son Lorenzo took charge. He would become known as “Lorenzo the Magnificent”, as he brought about some of the greatest works of art ever through his patronage. It is staggering how many great artists and thinkers came out of Florence at this time, and considering how small Florence is they must have been elbow to elbow with each other. One of the most important Renaissance painters that came about under Lorenzo deMedici was Sandro Botticelli. It was Botticelli who created the first overtly pagan images at a time when the church of the middle ages was still large and in charge, an act that would never have happened had Lorenzo not relaxed the attitude of the city toward ancient “non-church” ideas. This sort of attitude resulted in enormously free creativity in art, as well as in writing and in the sciences. All of it was happening in Florence.

The greatest painting in Florence today is in the Uffizi gallery, once the offices of the Medici palace (the word uffizi means Offices). It’s this painting here by Botticelli from 1486, called “The Birth of Venus”.

 

The painting is a true masterpiece of Renaissance art. In it, the mythical goddess Venus is blown into the shore on a shell and received into the world on land. The story from mythology is far more detailed (and downright gross but you’ll have to research that yourself). The image is a true celebration of beauty, an exercise in pure pleasure on the part of the artist. Botticelli elongates the figures, adding to their grace and movement. Just look at Venus’ neck… super long, yet he makes it work. Until this time, feminine nudes just weren’t very common, except in images of Adam and Eve from the garden. Here’s a great short video that picks the painting apart:

We must remember that the church in the 14 and 1500’s still held enormous sway even in free-thinking places like Florence, and the reception towards such images as “the Birth of Venus” and Donatello’s “David” was still highly controversial. This painting was a private commission from Lorenzo deMedici, as were many other revolutionary works. Public attitude was another matter. Enter the radical Dominican Monk, Girolamo Savonarola.

In 1490, Savonarola came to Florence. He took residence at San Marco (where his monastic cell is still seen today) and began preaching firey sermons about the last days. To a zealous preacher like Savonarola, Florence was filled with evidence of the devil’s work. Free-thinking was everywhere, as were symbols of vast Medici wealth. He saw they entire city going straight to hell, and made sure that everyone heard the message. He claimed to have the gift of prophecy, and foretold that Lorenzo would die soon (as it turns out, he was right). Savonarola must have been a very persuasive preacher, because he soon held the city in his hand. Even Botticelli, the painter or beautiful “pagan” paintings, fell under his spell. The Medici had no choice but to flee the city and Savonarola took charge of Florence in 1494. He set about cleansing the city and returning it to God.

He held an enormous public burning in the Piazza della Signoria that came to be called “the Bonfire of the Vanities”. Florentines came to cast all kinds of evils into the flames, including books and manuscripts, symbols of wealth, jewelry, ancient relics and statues, cosmetics, fine clothing, mirrors, musical instruments and many priceless works of early Renaissance art. Botticelli cast his own paintings into the flames. No one knows how many works were destroyed by the artist himself, but it must have been truly gut-wrenching for him. His work was his life, yet he feared- as many Florentines did- for his eternal soul and had no other choice. Over the next few years,  public opinion turned on Savonarola. The city was used to Medici wealth and all the benefits it brought, something Savonarola wanted no part of. Eventually, things got so bad that the city revolted, and Savonarola himself was burned at the stake in the same spot as the bonfire. The entire episode was a black eye on the city and took years to recover from. The Medici returned, but under very different circumstances.

Please take the time to watch part 2 of the Medici film, called “The Magnificent Medici”. It is a great movie on all that was discussed here, and really brings to life this crazy time in Florence. Enjoy-

 

 

The Italian Renaissance didn’t come about by accident, and it’s also no coincidence that Florence was at the center. Today, the city of Florence remains a monument to the Renaissance and all the great artists and thinkers that city produced. If you look closely, you can see the crest of the Medici Family sculpted into the sides of buildings all over Florence, it’s telltale mark a shield with circles on it. The story goes that it represents the military might and resolve of the family with a dented shield, but really it shows coins. The Medici were a family of wealthy bankers who became politicians and ruled Florence from the late 1300’s to the 1730’s, with more than a few hiccups in there. It’s a complicated piece of history that proves essential in understanding all the great things that came out of Florence.

Back then there was no unified Italy as there is today, only a series of city states. The Medici became the ruling family of Tuscany with Florence as the capitol, and set out to make their kingdom great. The cultural grasp of the middle ages was still very much intact. It was the Medici who relaxed the strict rules of the church and turned Florence into a place where humanistic and artistic ideas could flourish. They were great patrons of the arts, so it’s not surprising that Florence became a place where art and culture exploded after a thousand year hiatus. Over their reign, they changed the face of Europe, produced the greatest artist and thinkers, and became so rich and powerful that there were 4 Medici popes. Their story is a complex tale of power, greed, wars and conflicts.

I highly recommend that you watch this series on the Medici. It’s from 2004 and is by far the best film on the Medici, plus it does a fantastic job incorporating the work of significant artists, architects and thinkers. It’s long (4 parts at 1 hour each) but it should be considered essential viewing before going to Florence. This first segment follows the rise of Cosimo De’Medici and the beginning of the Renaissance, including the building of the giant red dome on the Church of Santa Maria Del Fiore by Brunelleschi, the biggest Dome since the Pantheon in ancient Rome . (We’ll get to climb it, so learning about it’s construction is key.) The film also discusses the sculptor Donatello and his shocking sculpture of “David”, which we’ll talk about in a later post.

Please take the time to watch it- Enjoy.

The Italian Artistic Renaissance was a monumental movement that forever changed the western world. The ideas of the Renaissance demonstrate a significant cultural change from that of the middle ages, and it’s important to remember that of course it didn’t happen overnight. It began slowly and grew gradually in Florence from the late 12 hundreds with artists like Cimabue (pronounced Chi-ma-boy) and his pupil Giotto (widely considered the first great Renaissance master), and lasted until the mid 1550s with Michelangelo and Raphael as the greatest masters. That’s a period of 250+ years- longer than America has been a country. It seems everywhere you go in Italy (particularly in Florence and Rome) you are likely to find little churches that still contain the work of artists from this period. There are many artists who are not the household names today, but still were important artists that made advances in artistic thinking and passed those discoveries onto the next generation of artists. When you look at works of art and analyze their context and content, you can often spot similarities.

One of the most important painters of the Renaissance is Masaccio. He died at 26 years old and only 4 works of his survive, but in that time made huge advances in art that greatly impacted later artists. He is the first painter to use true linear perspective in a painting. For a century, artists had been trying to create a system for perspective without success. Masaccio established the use of a horizon line and vanishing point to create the illusion of 3-dimensional depth on a wall in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The work, made in 1427 and called “The Holy Trinity”, depicts God the Father and Christ directly above a skeleton, symbolic of Adam and the death of man being conquered by the Trinity. Setting the subject aside, the figures reside in a false room painted to match the vaults in the rest of the church. The bottom of the work is 6 feet off the ground- so standing below, the illusion of a real room is created. It was seen as a huge triumph.

 

Just across town is the Brancacci Chapel, just a block from the monastery we’ll be staying at. Inside are large frescos by Masaccio. They were recently cleaned in the last few decades, and are as bright and impressive as ever. One of the scenes in these paintings is Masaccio’s “Expulsion from the Garden”, a highly influential work that other artists no doubt knew about and learned from. In the work, Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and realized their nakedness. As a result, sin has entered the world and they are being escorted out of the garden of Eden by an angel wielding a large sword. Adam and Eve are naked and ashamed. Eve is trying to cover herself and crying and anguish, while Adam can only hide his face a weep. These figures are not the stiff and emotionless figures of paintings from the middle ages. Their pain is evident. In the painting, Masaccio has used some stunning lighting effects. The bodies of Adam and Eve are much more lifelike than those of previous painters.

 

How influential was Masaccio? We can tell by looking at other depictions of the “Expulsion” from other artists. It’s not at all unusual to see an artist pay homage to a previous one by borrowing the visual language of that artists interpretation. It’s not an act of copying, but rather a subtle gesture of gratitude. The first example is from Fra Angelico (which means “Angelic Friar”), a devout dominican monk who was also an astounding painter who lived in Florence the around same time as Masaccio but survived a while longer. We’ll learn lots more about him later and we’ll see many of his works at San Marco in Florence. Here’s his painting from 1430-32 called the “Annunciation”.

In the work, Mary receives word from the angel Gabriel that she will be giving birth to the Christ child. She also receives the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove). Through her son, God will redeem humanity from the sin of Adam and Eve. Fra Angelico strangely places Adam and Eve in the background to make the theological significance of the moment complete. His Adam and Eve are clothed, but also ashamed and bewildered as they are escorted by an angel in an orange robe with a sword.

The most fitting tribute to Masaccio and his far-reaching influence is on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. There, between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo chose to borrow directly from the painting that was among his favorites in Florence. Have a look at his amazing “Expulsion” scene, one of 9 panels from the old testament on the ceiling:


Adam and Eve are shown in a before and after scene, reaching for the forbidden fruit and banished as a result. Michelangelo’s figures are large and exceedingly muscular, painted as a true sculptor might paint them. In the banishment, Michelangelo also portrays a humiliated and naked Adam and Eve, and an angel in orange with a sword, only this sword it at Adam’s throat, which really drives home the serious consequence of Adam’s action.

Part of what makes studying art so complicated is the vast reach of artistic influences and the way they manifest themselves in different work. It’s also what makes art history so insanely interesting if we’re willing to dig deeper and look for similarities like these… much more to come on Florentine painters and the Sistine Ceiling.

There is a very interesting episode that happened in Florence in 1503. By then, the Renaissance was in full swing and Florence was the place to be. Leonardo Da Vinci was there, a highly respected master then in his 50s. Michelangelo was also there, much younger and gaining fame after recently completing his “David” and “Pieta”. What we must understand is that most of these Florentine artists didn’t care for each other- they were all in competition for the best commissions and  sole title of “greatest artist”. This was a huge benefit to the world of art, because the competition only made the masters push themselves harder. There’s a great article HERE that explores an interesting theory: that Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” and Michelangelo’s “David”, arguably the 2 greatest works of art in the world (made the same year in Florence), were made in response to such competition and awareness of other artists. It’s an interesting thought- both are total opposites in every way when you think about it.

There was however, an infamous artistic duel that took place between the 2 greatest masters in 1503. Both were commissioned to paint murals of historic battles at the Florence palace, on walls directly across from each other. Today, all that exists are Michelangelo’s drawings of his proposed wall and a copy of Leonardo’s drawing later made by Rubens. Here they are:

Rubens copy of Leonardo Da Vinci's "Battle of Anghiari"

Michelangelo's drawing for the "Battle of Cascina"

The remaining text describing the competition is an article from HolidayCity’s Flash Travel website:

“In a closely-knit community as Florence, the two artists had crossed paths a number of times before, and had developed a strong dislike of each other that would rapidly become legend. There are many anecdotes describing their encounters, the cutting remarks said in each other’s presence, the snide comments tossed off at each other’s backs. They were two lions competing for space in the confines of the city, and all who knew them took note and waited for the outbursts. A few men did more than wait, eager to take advantage of the rivalry. Piero Soderini, the recently elected Gonfaloniere, was one of them.

The Commissioning of the Artists

In 1503, Soderini commissioned both artists to work, side by side, on the walls of the newly built Council Hall, with instructions to create two masterpieces depicting victories the Florentine Republic had achieved over its rivals. Leonardo was to paint the Battle of Anghiari (pictured above), immortalizing the war with Milan; Michelangelo was to paint the Battle of Cascina, commemorating an episode in the war against neighbouring Pisa.

Soderini has good reason for commissioning this work: the competition took place at a time when Florence was experiencing a rebirth of its identity as a Republic, and the spirit of civic pride was strong. Lest anyone think that the commissions were accidental, the contract the Gonfaloniere had drawn up specified the artists were to work ‘in competition with each other’, in order to push them both to produce their best works. The city fathers fully expected their leading artists to produce masterpieces of patriotic grandeur, as well as the entertainment of a public rivalry; unfortunately, they were destined to be disappointed.

Working on the walls

Leonardo progressed further than Michelangelo did; he at least managed to put up the cartoon, or the initial drawings, on the walls of the hall. Unfortunately, Leonardo’s own innovations did him in, as he attempted to use a new painting technique disastrously combining plaster and oils (based apparently on a recipe by roman writer Pliny the Elder). Michelangelo never got past the drawing stage (pictured right), though his tardiness might have been due to the fact that he was commissioned a year after Leonardo.

What the finished works would have been like will never be known, but from the cartoons and studies both artists prepared, the final forms can be guessed — and they would have been magnificent. There was little similarity between the works: the styles of the two masters were as different as night and day. Leonardo was known for the shadowy softness and ambiguity of his work; Michelangelo was rapidly becoming known for imbuing his work with a sense of vibrant energy and dynamism. These sketches were the first representations of war from either artist, and were arresting for the way they captured the emotions of the figures portrayed. Leonardo’s sketches captured the unbearable heat of the battle, in a horrific clash of desperate men and screaming horses; Michelangelo’s drawings showed the bizarre ordinariness and chaos swirling around the edges of the battle, as complacent soldiers were caught by the attacking enemy while bathing in a stream. Contemporary artists were astounded and proclaimed that both works would be masterpieces — when completed.

The Quiet End to the Competition

Unfortunately, despite their many differences, both artists had one devastating trait in common:neither were very good at finishing anything they started. This fact was well known about to da Vinci — he had left too many commissions hanging in the past to be able to escape the assessment. What would only later become evident was the Michelangelo, already a difficult, strong-willed and temperamental man, would also develop the same habit. The unkind might even suggest that he picked up the habit from Leonardo. It is more likely to be due to the unusually high number of commissions he accepted in this period of his life, which made it inevitable that he leave some uncompleted.

Ultimately, however, the halt in the competition was due to changes in political fortunes: In 1504, the Pope called Michelangelo to Rome to begin work on some previously commissioned pieces; Leonardo soon turned his attentions elsewhere; and most irrevocably, in 1512 Soderini was overthrown by a Papal army and the Republic fell. In those circumstances, continuing work on a painting dedicated to the glories of the Republic would have been somewhat imprudent. After 1530, Republicanism was a dead hope in Florence, and when Vasari deliberately painted over the remnants of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, he was removing all traces of the Republic, and its ideals.

So ends one of the greatest ‘What If — ’ episodes of art history. The only remaining traces of what might have been masterpieces from two celebrated artists of the Renaissance are painted-over walls and fragments of copied and uncompleted drawings. The legendary battle between Leonardo and Michelangelo never reached its culmination as the city fathers desired. Its failure is one of the greatest losses to the cultural history of the city; but its ghost still haunts the Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio, conjuring up undying visions of the glory that might have been.”