Friday, May 6, 2011

Italy Day 2: Florence Teaches Art History

Monday, May 2

We had to get an early start today because of our reservations to visit two of the best art galleries in Italy.  We "checked out" of hotel with no reception by leaving the key on the desk.  Not trusting the place at all, we left our bags at a locker in the train station. 

We were some of the first to enter the "Accademia,"  the art gallery housing the iconic David statue from Michelangelo.  We were surprised how short our visit was.  There was not much beyond David and a few more Michelangelo sculptures.  "David" had formally been outside the Palazzo Vecchio (the Medici government building) until 1873, after 350 years of outdoor exposure.  Approaching the statue standing its its own chapel, I overheard a woman say, "It's absolutely perfect."  I was surprised to be in total agreement.  Given the high expectations, I had been expecting to say, "What's the fuss?"  Instead, I was blown away.  Not only does Michelangelo perfect the human form, but he also tells a story and projects an attitude with "David."  The latest David controversy deals with one question:  "Has he slain Goliath yet or not?"  Conventional wisdom says we see David after the kill, but recent academics think the opposite: that David is cool, calm, and collected ahead of the kill.  The most extraordinary thing is that Michelangelo never made a model before beginning; all of this works are "free hand."  I cannot imagine. 

 Michelangelo - David (1504)
(taken from

With extra time before our next appointment, we decided to visit the Bargello, the main sculpture museum.  It houses Donatello's version of David, so it was interesting to compare.  Donatello made his David 70 years before Michelangelo; and it is nothing like it.  David here is a feminine-looking young boy with a bulging stomach and a hand on his hip.  In the other hand is a sword instead of a stone and slingshot. Other artists did their own version of David.  We saw more Donatello and Michelangelo here as well.  I have a new appreciation for sculpture now that I have seen the best. 

 Donatello - David (1440)
(taken from

We stopped by another hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop where I enjoyed a Tuscan roast veal toasted baguette with spinach and mushrooms.  Tuscany's known for its cows, although I would have liked to have had more.

The rain was coming, but we had a whole afternoon of art to look forward to.  We arrived at the Uffizi Gallery, formerly the Medici offices, to get a serious lesson in art history.  The museum covers art's evolution from the 13th century through the Renaissance and demonstrates how the Renaissance returned to classical art.  I was surprised by how elementary the art was from the 13th century and how sophisticated the ancients had been in comparison.  Thank goodness for the Renaissance for ending the digression.  As we discovered, the 13th century paintings were purely functional: to teach Catholicism.  Gradually, the human forms came alive and the worlds surrounding them became more real, thanks to perspective.  Virtually every painting from the 1200's to the 1500's depicted one of several things: (1) Madonna and her child, (2) The three kings giving gifts to baby Jesus, or (3) the Annunciation (Gabriel telling Mary she will give birth to Jesus). 

Then, all of the sudden, Botecelli paints something different: the goddess, Venus.  What a breakthrough, a triumph felt in the museum too, after rooms and rooms of the same religious themes.  The Birth of Venus marks a break with the past.  The Renaissance starts to combine classical mythology, mindset, and mathematics in religious context.  Subsequent rooms featured Leonardo De Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo as well.  All brought biblical figures down to Earth, giving them faces that tell their story alone, no symbols needed.  It would be a preview of what we would see at the Vatican as well. 

 Sandro Botticelli - The Birth of Venus (1486) - The Renaissance Breakthrough
(taken from

Simone Martini - Annunciation (c. 1300) - The 2-D World of the Medieval Art
(taken from
Leonardo de Vinci - Annunciation (1472) - The 3-D World of the Renaissance
(taken from

It was pouring outside, so instead of rushing through the museum, we took our time.  We stopped for gelato at the cafe.  We took breaks to avoid museum fatigue.  After 4 hours or so, we finished.  We found a stop for a small dinner and headed to the train station for Rome. 

To see photos (not many) of this day, see "Italy Day 2 - Florence (5-2)" at

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