A Florentine Feast

As we have gone down memory lane to revisit our beary adventures in Florence, we noticed that the detailed recollection of the artistic adventures was a bit hazy. We must have been suffering from a version of Stendhal Syndrome 🙂

Meanwhile, the recollection of the shopping adventures is as vivid as if they happened yesterday 🙂

Like the visit to Amando Poggi where we discovered a delightful amethyst and pearl necklace from the Zoccai dome collection. We had to have!

Zoccai necklace
Amando Poggi, Via Calzaiuoli 103R, Florence

We also had to have a pair of pearl earrings for the necklace acquired in Seville. We found them at U. Gherardi on Ponte Vecchio.

Ruby, pearl and diamond necklace from Joyeria Tous, Seville
Earrings from U. Gherardi
Gioielleria Gherardi, Ponte Vecchio 36/R

I still remember the conversation with Ugo Gherardi who told me he usually made the earrings with white gold. I agreed that white gold was suited better to the pearls and I usually preferred white gold but this time the idea was to match the earrings to the necklace which had yellow gold, as he could see for himself. I got the earrings made with yellow gold 🙂

Ugo Gherardi in his jewellery store, remembering the 1966 flood

Ugo Gherardi, 14 at the time, recalls the flood of 1966 in an interview with The Florentine.

Exterior of Gherardi jeweller’s store after the 1966 Florence flood

I had just bought an Alviero Martini handbag in Rome, and Miss Honey wanted one too! So off we went to Alviero Martini in Piazza del Duomo where we found the perfect little handbag 🙂

Miss Honey – sized 🙂 handbag from Alviero Martini
Alviero Martini, Piazza del Duomo, 14/A-B, Florence
Alviero Martini

I still remember being amazed by the leather goods at the Scuola del Cuoio at Santa Croce. Shopping there again is at the top of the list for when we go back to Florence. I’m sure one of those jewel-bags will have my initials on it! And with any luck some cherries too… Hmm… Next flight to Florence leaves in… 🙂

Leather wallet and leather bracelet from Santa Croce School of Leather

Little Puffles and Honey found two hats with their names on them in Florence. Funny that! 🙂

It was the period before they had acquired the dazzling wardrobe they now own!

We found alabaster cherries at Solo A Firenze. Quite possibly we might have bought the lot of them!

Solo A Firenze
Borgo Santissimi Apostoli 37/r, Florence
Solo A Firenze
Cherry bounty in Florence
Alabaster cherries from Solo A Firenze

We are grateful that the Chapel of the Princes didn’t assimilate all the pietre dure in Italy and there were enough left over for our two mosaics.

Final Cherry Design and completed mosaic – special order from Pitti Mosaici
Pitti Mosaici Showroom
Sdrucciolo de’ Pitti, 5R, Florence

Also on the list for our next visit is Caffé Gilli, the oldest café in Florence. Established over 270 years ago by a Swiss family in Medici-era Florence, it started as a pastry shop steps away from the Duomo.

Yummy sweets from Caffé Gilli, Via Roma 1/R

Today’s feast is not from Caffé Gilli, but from a Swiss patisserie in Perth, Chez Jean-Claude.

And no one will tell little bears how to enjoy their feast! One of the funniest moments in Florence was lunch at Trattoria Antica Fattore. The waiter recommended lasagne and it was delicious. But he was totally indignant at my request for a glass of sweet wine. He asked with total incredulity: “With lasagne?” After which he gave me a most categorical “NO!” I had to wait for the sweet wine until I got tiramisu. And it wasn’t sweet wine at all, it was a glass of sherry. No wonder he was indignant 🙂

Trattoria Antica Fattore, Via Lambertesca 1/3R

Happy bears plotting their next shopping adventures 🙂

And the next cherry acquisitions!

The Temple of the Italian Glories

The Basilica of San Lorenzo is the resting place of generations of Medici, but for the resting place of the artistic great and good in Florence, you have to visit the Basilica of Santa Croce. Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli and Galileo are all buried in Santa Croce. There is also a memorial to Dante, but his sarcophagus is empty (he is actually buried in Ravenna as he was exiled from Florence).

The Basilica of Santa Croce is much more than just a church. Santa Croce is one of the oldest and largest Franciscan basilicas in the world and by far the most magnificent. Obviously, it’s in Florence! 🙂 Some of history’s most influential artists have made their mark on the church, from frescoes by Giotto and Agnolo Gaddi, to architecture by Brunelleschi and Donatello. While many basilicas in Italy contain the works of great artists, Santa Croce is unlike any other in the fact that it contains more than just their art; it contains their remains as well. Dubbed “The Temple of the Italian Glories”, Santa Croce contains more skeletons of Renaissance masters than any other church in Italy.

Santa Croce was built in 1294/95 (over the original structure from 1212) of a design by the great architect Arnolfo di Cambio. Its most notable features are its 16 chapels, many of them decorated with frescoes by Giotto and his pupils, and its tombs and cenotaphs designed by artists of the Renaissance. The church has lived through more than seven centuries of history and has an artistic and cultural heritage so profound that it has become one of the best-loved and most visited sites in Florence.

Santa Croce was established as a Franciscan church and was decorated as such. A fundamental feature of early Franciscan churches was the frescoed narration of the stories of Christ and saints. The interior is very bright thanks to the daylight that comes through the many stained glass windows.

Interior of Santa Croce

Several of the great Florentine families, including the Bardi, the Peruzzi, the Alberti, the Baroncelli and the Rinuccini, acquired the patronage of chapels in Santa Croce, thereby assuming the honour of decorating and furnishing them. These chapels were also a convenient way for these families to appease the church or seek forgiveness for sins they were unwilling or unable to stop committing!

The Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, decorated by Giotto with scenes from the life of St. Francis, and the lives of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, in the 14th century

Giotto’s closest followers, Taddeo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi and Maso di Banco, painted frescoes in the chapels patronized by the Baroncelli, Pulci, Berardi and Bardi di Vernio. In the mid 14th century, the walls of the aisles and the Sacristy were frescoed by Andrea Orcagna, Giovanni da Milano, Niccolò di Pietro Gerini and Agnolo Gaddi. The 14th century decoration was crowned by Agnolo Gaddi’s frescoes for the chapel of the high altar, commissioned by the Alberti and illustrating the Story of the True Cross.

Cappella Maggiore, decorated with frescoes of the legend of the Holy Cross by Agnolo Gaddi
Capella Maggiore, decorated with frescoes of the legend of the Holy Cross by Agnolo Gaddi

In the 15th century, Santa Croce received important architectural additions. In 1429, Andrea de’ Pazzi undertook the construction of the Chapter House (known as the Pazzi Chapel), which was designed and begun by Filippo Brunelleschi but not completed until long after his death. It is one of the most harmonious buildings of the Florentine Renaissance and is decorated not by frescoes but by glazed terracotta roundels created by Luca della Robbia and his followers. In the late 15th century, sculptural works, tombs, altars and pulpits were created by some of the greatest Florentine masters, including Donatello, Antonio and Bernardo Rossellino, Desiderio da Settignano and Benedetto da Maiano.

Pazzi Chapel
Pazzi Chapel
Interior of Pazzi Chapel
The central dome in the apse outside the chapel is decorated with round sculptures and the coat of arms of Pazzi Family (two paired dolphins) made of glazed terracotta, works by Luca della Robbia

Santa Croce underwent an architectural transformation in the late 16th century which involved the erection of large altars embellished with paintings by the greatest Tuscan artists of the time. However, it was with the construction of the tomb of Michelangelo that the basilica became a favourite resting place of Italian greats and would earn its title as “The Temple of the Italian Glories”.

Façade of Santa Croce
Façade of Santa Croce with Dante Aleghieri statue

The most scenic part of the Basilica is with no doubt the façade that remained in pietraforte sandstones for more than three centuries. Only in the ‘800s, when Santa Croce became a pantheon, it was brought to completion by the Italian architect Niccolò Matas. He chose a neo Gothic style and used different kind of marble coming from different parts of Tuscany and from Egypt. He probably was Jewish and this should be one of the reasons of the existence of a Star of David in the middle of the façade and of the decision to be buried outside of the temple under the churchyard.

Michelangelo Tomb

Upon entering Santa Croce, the first tomb visitors encounter is that of Michelangelo. Legend has it that the Renaissance master chose this spot so that the first thing he would see on Judgment Day, when the graves of the dead fly open, would be Brunelleschi’s dome through Santa Croce’s open doors. Michelangelo died in 1564 in Rome, miles away from his beloved Florence. However, the people of Florence were so determined to return Michelangelo’s remains to his home that a group broke into Rome’s church of Santissimi Apostoli, stole the great artist’s body and smuggled it back to Florence. Michelangelo is buried beneath a monument with allegorical figures of sculpture, architecture and painting designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1570. The structure was so beautiful that it served as a model for all other tombs that would be built in the church.

Galileo Galilei Tomb

Directly across from Michelangelo is the tomb of Galileo who died in 1642. The great astronomer was born in Pisa, yet spent the later part of his life in Florence under the patronage of the Medici after the Roman Inquisition had intimidated him into recanting his belief that the earth revolves around the sun. His monument was not constructed until 1737 when his remains were finally allowed a Christian burial. The structure was designed by Giovanni Battista Foggini.

Tribute to Dante Alighieri

Nearby the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo is a 19th century tribute to Dante Alighieri. The remains of Italy’s greatest poet are buried in Ravenna, as he was exiled from Florence for his political activities in 1302 and was not allowed to return. Dante died in Ravenna in 1321 and the city had refused to allow Florence to reclaim his body.

Niccolò Machiavelli Tomb

Nearly halfway down the nave of Santa Croce stands the tomb of Niccolò Machiavelli, the political theoretician whose brutally pragmatic philosophy so influenced the Medici. Though he died in 1527, his tomb was not built until 1787. Despite his reputation as a contemptuous political theorist, Machiavelli was an honest servant of the Florentine state. The great Italian statesman could have easily taken bribes from competing parties, yet he never did. Machiavelli’s monument is a marble structure created by Spinazzi that bears the inscription, “Tanto nomini nullum par eulogium”, or “No elegy is equal to such a name”.

Lorenzo Ghiberti Tomb

The tomb of Lorenzo Ghiberti, creator of the bronze doors of the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral which Michelangelo called the “Gates of Paradise”, is far simpler than that of his contemporaries. Ghiberti’s remains are marked by the emblem of an eagle on the floor of the basilica.

Annunciation, by Donatello
Leonardo Bruni Tomb

Further into the church adjacent to the magnificent Annunciation sculpture by Donatello is the tomb of Leonardo Bruni. A renowned orator and Florentine diplomat, Bruni was an eminent scholar known for his translations of Plato and Aristotle and his writings on the history of Florence. When Bruni died in 1444, his last wishes were for his remains to be housed in an antique-style funerary monument. The structure, executed by Bernardo Rossellino, features ancient Roman art rather than religious imagery, thus complying with Bruni’s final request.

Gioachino Rossini Tomb

At the very end of Santa Croce’s nave is the tomb of opera composer Gioachino Rossini, who died in 1868. Rossini penned 39 operas, including the famous Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola. Until his retirement in 1829, Rossini had been the most popular opera composer in history. His monument was created in 1900 by Giuseppe Cassioli.

Statue of Liberty, memorial to the 19th century playwright Giovanni Battista Niccolini

Pio Fedi started to design the Florentine statue, known as Liberty of Poetry, in 1870. It was the same year in which Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, designer of the New York Statue of Liberty, was in Italy, fighting alongside General Garibaldi during the Franco-Prussian War. Did he see Fedi’s sketches and use them as inspiration? We may never know, but Florentines would certainly like to think so!

There are also commemorative plaques, including to Leonardo da Vinci (buried in Château d’Amboise, France), Guglielmo Marconi (inventor and electrical engineer, credited with the invention of the radio; buried in his birthplace at Sasso Marconi, near Bologna), Enrico Fermi (nuclear physicist, awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on induced radioactivity; buried in Chicago, Illinois)

In the late 19th century, Santa Croce became not only a resting place for the greatest Italians, but for ordinary individuals as well. Private tombs inspired by a romantic mourning for lost affections also found their place in the Basilica.

If you continue through the church, you’ll eventually enter a long hallway with desk-like work stations set up along one side. You have, without realizing it, walked into the Scuola del Cuoio – Santa Croce’s Leather School.

Established after World War II, the Scuola del Cuoio was begun as a partnership between the Franciscan monks of Santa Croce and two of Florence’s most respected leather-working families. The goal was to give war orphans an opportunity to learn a trade that would sustain them – a trade that already had a long history in Florence. The school was set up in the former monastery dormitory, with leather work benches set up in the aforementioned hallway – work stations where leather artisans learn and work to this day.

By the 1970s the apprentices came from underprivileged Florentines, and later the School expanded to offering classes in the city jail. Scuola del Cuoio also continues to support the Friars of Santa Croce. And it is the same family that continues to run Scuola del Cuoio. The legacy of Marcello Gori is carried on by his daughters and his grandson.

Le Borse-Gioielli, or Jewel-Bags, from the School of Leather – each bag is hand cut, assembled and stitched, then decorated with unique jewels and beads – but not a cherry in sight!

Walking around the showroom of Scuola del Cuoio is an incredible experience. Visitors can easily look into the workspaces of the artisans and see the care and technique which is placed into every piece, be it a purse, pillow, jacket, or wallet. Mirrors are placed above stands such as this one so people can easily see the artist work.

It is also possible to have an item which you have purchased be stamped in gold with your initials — the perfect way to personalize any item. One of the most fascinating things in the school is watching the craftsmen work with the gold leaf. It is an extremely delicate process which requires much skill and extremely steady hands. The leaf is hammered out to be thinner than paper, then carefully placed upon a stencil before being affixed to the leather.

The School also offers one-day workshops for visitors who want to try their hand at a new skill while traveling. Next time we are in Florence!

On the Art Gallery Trail in Florence – San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels

The unfinished façade of Basilica di San Lorenzo

Don’t let the lack of façade of the Basilica di San Lorenzo fool you; there are riches within!

Actually, this faceless entrance brings up a fun point.

One of the ironies of art-bedazzled Florence is that, since they always wanted the most spectacular façades for their churches, the endless series of contests pitting great artists and architects against one another to submit designs (then, oftentimes, none was picked) and a chronic lack of funds to pull off the façade they truly wanted, left most of the major churches of Florence faceless for centuries.

Both Santa Croce and the Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore) itself only got their façades in the 19th century. Even the famously felicitous façade of Santa Maria Novella was a two-parter: the bottom half-finished in the Gothic style of the 1300s; the top half not added until the early Renaissance (it is a testament to that second architect Alberti’s mastery that you can barely tell the top half came more than 100 years after the fact). But the façades of Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo have to this day not been covered by a pretty assemblage of marbles.

Everything changes once you step inside, and a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture is revealed – a vast, luminous and melodious expanse.

The light, harmonious interior that Filippo Brunelleschi created here is almost a textbook of his ideal of Renaissance architecture – beautiful marble pavement, an orderly interplay of columns with Corinthian capitals and arches in pale plaster outlined by dark pietra serena stone — the trademark look of its designer, intricate coffered ceiling with delicate rosettes, the perfect proportions of the nave and the aisles with their side chapels.

Interior of San Lorenzo
Interior of San Lorenzo

Neither the neo-classical additions of Paoletti (the main altar) nor the academic, neo-renaissance ones by Giuseppe Baccani have been able to obscure the majesty of Brunelleschi’s spatial concept.

On either side at the end of the nave is a pair of bronze pulpits by Donatello, the artist’s final masterpiece, completed about 1460 by his students and vividly depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the saints. He is also thought to have designed the marble balcony over the door to the cloister in the left aisle.

The northern pulpit is known as the Resurrection Pulpit due to its iconography – including reliefs of Christ in Limbo, the Resurrection, the Ascension of Christ, the Women at the Tomb, the Miracle of Pentecost and the Martyrdom of St Lawrence. The southern pulpit, known as Passion Pulpit, contains depictions of the Flagellation, St John the Evangelist, Christ in Gethsemane, Christ before Caiaphas and Pilate, as well as the Crucifixion, Deposition of Christ and Burial of Christ.

There are clear differences between the two pulpits – the size of the panels is different, the number of reliefs varies and the individual parts of the framework have little in common. There is no historical document concerning the original purpose or intended location of the two pulpits, and they were not erected on their colourful marble columns until quite late, presumably during the 16th century.

The Resurrection Pulpit
The Passion Pulpit
Balcony

Opposite Donatello’s bronze pulpit is another of the church’s art treasures, Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, a fresco by Agnolo Bronzino, one of his last works. On the left of the fresco, beneath the statue of Mercury, Bronzino painted a self-portrait together with two portraits of his master, Pontormo, and his pupil, Alessandro Allori.

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence – Agnolo Bronzino, 1569

The Annunciation that Lippi painted for the Martelli Chapel in Basilica di San Lorenzo is among his most gratifying paintings. And as luck would have it, the altarpiece with its fine predella is still in the same place for which it was painted, a majestic space designed by Brunelleschi. Lippi here participates in a strong perspectival exercise, especially in the buildings that recede into the background. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the painting, aside from the placement of both Gabriel and Mary on the right half the picture space, is the trompe l’oeil, transparent vase at the bottom, ready to receive the lilies held by the angel. Here Lippi seems to rival the Flemish masters who were experts at rendering nature objectively.

Annunciation – Filippo Lippi, 1440

The left arm of the transept leads into the Sagrestia Vecchia (old sacristy), originally planned as a burial chapel as well as a sacristy. This was Brunelleschi’s first complete architectural work (1420-1428), and it was to have a profound influence on European architecture. As elsewhere in San Lorenzo, this sacristy is a whole piece, the impact of its architecture heightened by works of art. And the artists matched Brunelleschi’s genius – the medallions and stucco reliefs of the Evangelists are by Donatello, as are the bronze doors. The magnificent tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’Medici (1472) is by Andrea Verrocchio. A door from the left aisle leads to the cloister, built in the style of Brunelleschi in 1475.

Portrait of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici by Cristofano dell’ Altissimo

The Old Sacristy was commissioned by Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360-1429), one of the most prominent and influential family members of the growing Medici bank in Florence. Giovanni, who became gonfaloniere of Florence in 1421, was successful in making the Medici the wealthiest family in Italy, and one of the wealthiest in Europe. Upon Giovanni’s death, patronage of the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo was passed down to his sons Cosimo (the Elder) and Lorenzo (the Elder).

Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo

The sacristy is exactly what the literature of art says it is: a perspective box, a geometric poem, the architectural manifesto of the Renaissance, the conscious recovery of ancient rhythms and measures.

The lower wall has corner pilasters, the semicircular areas above the entablature have interpolated pendentives, and the dome has clearly defined ribs ascending to a full semi-circle. The semi-circular arches climb above the four wall areas and above these sits the hemispherical dome, its shape echoed by the tondi below, the ring of oculi running around its base, and, at the top, the circle of the lantern. It all makes for a proportioned composition of basic geometric forms which support and complement each other and create an impression of both stability and, at the same time, movement.

Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo – cross-section and view of the interior

The articulation in the Old Sacristy was achieved by Brunelleschi’s use of pietra serena, a gray stone. It is used to outline, in effect, the arches, pendentives, friezes, and sections of the dome on the interior of the Old Sacristy. The use of the slightly off-white color on the walls was Brunelleschi’s way of incorporating his idea of classicism into the architecture.

The dome of the Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo

The tomb in the centre of the room underneath the dome is the sarcophagus of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici. It is possible that Giovanni did not want such an elaborate tomb, but possibly just a modest stone on the floor of the sacristy marking his place of burial. Such a tomb would have been a more appropriate fit within the overall sense of space and with the limited architectural ornamentation that Brunelleschi envisioned, but the elaborate tomb was commissioned by Giovanni’s sons.

Tomb of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Piccarda Bueri

The Old Sacristy was, in its original design by Brunelleschi, to have very little in terms of ornamentation, be it sculpture or fresco. Brunelleschi felt that features such as the pendentives, dome and arches had such a classical beauty they could stand alone without the interruption of additional elements of ornament or frescos. Cosimo de’ Medici had different ideas. He commissioned Donatello to create the ornamental elements.

Donatello was responsible for the two sets of bronze doors on each side of the altar and the terracotta ornaments located above them, the alternating series of seraphim and cherubim in the frieze, the four Evangelists in the lunette tondi, and the four scenes from the life of St John in the pendentive tondi, which were originally meant to be blank roundels similar to those Brunelleschi used in previous structures.

Door of the Martyrs by Donatello
Door of the Apostles by Donatello
St Stephen and St Lawrence by Donatello (name saint of San Lorenzo and his frequent companion in Christian iconography)
St Cosmas and St Damian by Donatello (patron saints of the Medici family)
Putti of the trabeation by Donatello

The lunette tondi, located just below the arches in the main sacristy, feature portraits of the four Evangelists while the pendentive tondi, which rest just above the Medici coats of arms in the four corner pendentives, feature four scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist.

These stucco reliefs were painted in blues, reds, and in golden, almost sepia tones, leaving the prominent figures and some ornamental decoration in white, making them stand out in sharp relief. The arrangement and choice of imagery are indicative of what the patrons wanted the sacristy to convey. The Medici included the images of the Evangelists as well as other saints associated with their family. The tondi that feature St. John the Evangelist, patron saint of Giovanni di Bicci and his grandson Giovanni di Cosimo, were meant to create a direct association with the patron and his descendants.

Evangelist Luke – one of the four Evangelist created by Donatello in polychrome stucco
Ascension of St John – one of the four episodes from the life of St John created by Donatello in polychrome stucco

Adjacent to the main space of the sacristy is the altar area which is topped with a smaller frescoed dome. This area appears to be a smaller proportioned version of the main area of the sacristy in that Brunelleschi incorporated similar arches, pendentives — which include shells in the same position as the tondi in the main sacristy — and a dome over the central altar area.

Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo

This smaller, painted dome, has received much attention. Scholars have debated when it was painted, the meaning of the imagery, and the identity of the artist. It is attributed to Giuliano d’Arrigo, known as Pesello.

Dome over the altar area in the Old Sacristy

One of the days suggested is July 4 or 5, 1442. The date of July 4, 1442 holds an important connection with Florentine history. This is
when René d’Anjou arrived in the city. René was the king of Naples who influenced Cosimo de’ Medici’s decision to open the first public library in Europe and have the University teach Greek. This in turn opened the minds of Florentines to ancient Greek concepts of life and likely contributed to the classical elements later added to the Old Sacristy by Cosimo as well as throughout the church of San Lorenzo.

On the right side of San Lorenzo is the Medici Chapel designed by Michelangelo and built some 100 years after the Old Sacristy.

Michelangelo, Medici Chapel, general view, with Medici tombs, church of S. Lorenzo

When Pope Leo X Medici and his cousin Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici hired Michelangelo to design a funerary chapel for members of their family, they were thinking more of a monument to the family’s endangered dynastic ambitions than a place of worship. What the artist delivered was neither. The Medici Chapel, attached to the right side of the church of S. Lorenzo and at times inaccurately called the New Sacristy, was planned as an architectural pendant to Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy on the left side, but it was never intended to function as a second sacristy. The building is hardly a chapel in the conventional sense, either, and although it contains two never-completed Medici tombs with sculptures by Michelangelo, nothing about the sculptural ensembles makes any obvious gesture of glorifying the family for which the artist created them. The chapel as it stands today is a monument to Michelangelo. Unfinished though it is, it remains the closest the great artist ever came to realizing his dream of an integrated ensemble of his own architecture and sculpture.

Although Michelangelo began work on the project in 1520, the commission was the culmination of an earlier series of events that involved the changing fortunes of the Medici family.

Ever since 1494, when the Medici were expelled from Florence because of the incompetence of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s son and successor, Piero, other family members had been scheming to return themselves to a position of power they had come to consider theirs by right. They finally succeeded in 1512, thanks to the efforts of the ablest of Il Magnifico’s sons, Cardinal Giovanni, along with help from the warrior pope Julius II and the Spanish troops under his command. The Florentine republic fell, and the Medici again ruled Florence, this time in the person of Giuliano de’ Medici, the youngest son of Lorenzo il Magnifico. Giuliano was a mild-mannered, somewhat melancholy man who once wrote a poem about suicide and who preferred a life of ease to the exercise of power. When pushed into a position of authority, he believed in ruling from behind the scenes and having some contact with ordinary citizens, as his father had done. A contemporary described him as “kindly, humane, affable, courteous, witty, mild, amiable, of a weak constitution, compassionate and most liberal.” In 1515 he married Filiberta, a princess of the House of Savoy, and in that same year King Francis I of France invested him with a largely honorary French title: Duke of Nemours. He died in 1516, at age thirty-seven, having fathered an out-of-wedlock son named Ippolito but without legitimate heirs.

The election of Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici as Pope Leo X in 1513 brought a dramatic change in the family’s fortunes. With real power now in his hands, Leo replaced his brother Giuliano as the ruler of Florence with his nephew Lorenzo (son of the pope’s deceased brother Piero), a man with a much sterner and more autocratic view of how Florence should be governed. In sharp contrast to his uncle Giuliano, Lorenzo wanted nothing to do with ordinary Florentines. He appeared in public only with an armed guard and he required people to remove their hats when addressing him.

In 1516 Leo X had his papal army attack the duchy of Urbino, driving out the rightful duke. The pope then made Lorenzo the duke of Urbino. Finally — a Medici with a noble title that had Italian territory behind it, something no member of earlier generations of the family had ever attained. For three years Lorenzo enjoyed his position of power, behaving as if he were duke of Florence, to the dissatisfaction of most citizens — although one, Niccolò Machiavelli, had high hopes for his success. Machiavelli participated in that great collective fantasy of Italian Renaissance intellectuals: the hope for the appearance of a brilliant leader who could unite the peninsula. The statesman-philosopher dedicated his masterpiece, The Prince, to Lorenzo — who ignored it.

Then Lorenzo also died, in 1519, only twenty-seven years old and leaving just one child — his infant daughter, Caterina, who would one day become Queen Catherine de’ Medici, the wife of King Henry II of France. But this was far in the future and in another country. With Lorenzo’s death, the legitimate male line descending directly from Cosimo de’ Medici Pater Patriae had become extinct. “Henceforth we belong no more to the House of Medici, but to the house of God!” mourned Leo X when he heard of Duke Lorenzo’s death, a cry with as much panic as sorrow in it. He knew that the lack of male heirs could spell the end of the Medici family dynasty and thus the end of Medici rule in Florence.

For the next four years, power in Florence was in the hands of Pope Leo’s cousin Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, who continued to uphold the empty shell of the Florentine republic. After the death of Leo X in 1521 and the brief pontificate of the feeble Dutchman Adrian VI, Giulio de’ Medici was elected pope in 1523, taking the name Clement VII, and Florence again came under the rule of the Medici, this time exercised through the pope’s nephew Ippolito. Once among the proudest and most independent of Italian republics, the city had sunk to being little more than a captive province of the papacy and the Medici.

While all this was going on, Michelangelo had returned from Rome to Florence in 1516, with a commission from Pope Leo X to design a façade for the church of San Lorenzo, the Medici church in Florence, and already the burial place of four generations of the family: Cosimo’s parents, Cosimo himself, his two sons, Giovanni and Piero, as well as Piero’s two sons, Giuliano and Lorenzo il Magnifico. Michelangelo produced drawings and a wooden model for the church façade, but the project was never executed. To the artist’s indignation the contract was annulled in 1520.

Michelangelo model for the San Lorenzo façade

In 2009, studioDIM associati, an architectural Florentine firm, carried out a study on the design of the façade for San Lorenzo by Michelangelo.

Visualization of the façade by Michelangelo – studioDIM

There’s a simple reason for the abandonment of the façade: the money was needed for a more important project. Pope Leo and his cardinal cousin had decided that a tomb chapel should be built to hold the bodies of the two recently deceased Medici dukes, as well as the pair of brothers of the preceding generation who were also the fathers of the two clerical Medici — Giuliano, Cardinal Giulio’s father, murdered in the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478; and Pope Leo’s father, Lorenzo il Magnifico, who had died in 1492. Il Magnifico was also the father of Duke Giuliano and the grandfather, through his son Piero, of Duke Lorenzo. The tombs in the chapel thus would represent a tight web of family connections. The two patrons wanted Michelangelo, whom they both admired, to be in charge of such an important commission. With Medici dynastic ambitions in doubt because of the lack of legitimate heirs, an impressive monument to three generations of the family would serve to remind everyone of the Medici’s continuing significant presence in the city.

Scholars disagree over whether the Medici Chapel had already been begun by a previous architect, but even if this is true, the building as it exists now, begun in 1520, is Michelangelo’s. The chapel is a story higher than Brunelleschi’s sacristy, and although Michelangelo paid tribute to the earlier master in his use of white walls articulated by strong outlines in brown pietra serena, the local stone used in a similar fashion by Brunelleschi, Michelangelo’s architectural forms are much grander, more powerful and less conventional than those of his predecessor.

Work progressed irregularly, interrupted by political and military upheavals in both Florence and Rome, with the result that the ensemble of architecture and sculpture was never completed. Michelangelo had been making good progress until May 1527, when the diplomatic ineptitude of Pope Clement VII brought about the Sack of Rome by imperial troops, a disaster that killed thousands and forced the pope to flee. It was five months before he dared creep back into the burnt-out and depopulated remains of the Eternal City.

A disaster for Rome and the Medici pope meant an opportunity for Florence once again to expel the Medici and reestablish the republic. But the republican triumph was short-lived. In 1530 a combination of papal and imperial forces captured Florence. The perfidious Pope Clement had reached an agreement with the emperor Charles V — the same man whose armies had nearly destroyed Rome three years earlier — to restore the Medici to power in Florence. The republic was now definitively dead, and the new pro-Medici government ordered Michelangelo put to death as a traitor. An ardent supporter of the republic, he had designed fortifications against the invading armies. The terrified artist hid in — of all unlikely places — an underground room at the church of San Lorenzo. But for Clement, the artist’s politics were irrelevant, and his genius irreplaceable. The pope had the charges dropped, and Michelangelo went back to work on the Medici Chapel.

In 1531, with the continued aid of Emperor Charles V, Clement installed his own illegitimate son Alessandro as the first hereditary duke of Florence, with the young man’s illegitimacy canceled by papal decree and his title purchased from that same emperor, whose illegitimate daughter Alessandro then married. To preserve at least a trace of propriety, Alessandro was passed off as the illegitimate son of the deceased Duke Lorenzo. Appalled by all the sordid political horse-trading going on around him, disgusted with the city’s government, and furious at the Medici for what he considered their betrayal of the republic, in 1534 Michelangelo departed Florence forever. News had reached the artist that Clement VII was dying, and this was the signal for Michelangelo to abandon a project that had probably long ago ceased to engage his loyalty. He left the Medici Chapel with its architecture finished but its tomb ensembles incomplete. Although the tombs intended for the two Medici dukes were nearly finished, he had never started those for the two Medici of the previous generation, Lorenzo il Magnifico and his brother Giuliano. Not even the assassination of Duke Alessandro in 1537 could persuade the embittered artist to return to his native city.

At the time Michelangelo began work on the Medici Chapel in 1520, it seems that neither Pope Leo nor Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici had any specific program in mind for the monument, and so they entrusted Michelangelo with both the design and the meaning of the tomb complex. “We will agree with whatever you think appropriate,” Cardinal Giulio wrote to Michelangelo, and even when he became pope he remained in awe of the formidable artist. Left with such a remarkable degree of artistic autonomy, Michelangelo could give free rein to his imagination, although exactly what he had in mind remains unclear, as does the extent of Pope Clement’s participation. From his letters it appears that Clement had spurts of intense interest in the project alternating with periods of indifference. The artist, for his part, neither wrote out nor sketched out a complete plan for the chapel, leaving only tantalizing hints and baffling fragments.

Once inside the Medici Chapel, the visitor sees two tombs facing one another on the east and west walls, with the altar on the north end, and statues of the Virgin and Child flanked by the Medici patron saints Cosmas and Damian completing the ensemble on the south wall. Beneath the statues of the two saints and the Madonna, an inscription marks the burial place of the elder Giuliano de’ Medici and Lorenzo il Magnifico, whose bodies were brought from the Old Sacristy and reburied here in 1559.

Madonna between St. Cosmas and St. Damian, by Michelangelo

Although the sculptures of Cosmas and Damian are the work of Michelangelo’s assistants, the Madonna and Child is Michelangelo’s last version of a theme he had worked on throughout his life, and it’s one of his most beautiful and moving. Nonetheless, in Michelangelo’s hands at this moment in his career even the nursing Madonna appears less than lyrical. Her head twists to one side; her body seems almost to lurch forward; her legs are crossed, and a muscular Christ Child astride her left thigh twists himself around strenuously to grab hold of her breast. Only in the infinite sadness of Mary’s face do we glimpse a traditional aspect of the Virgin: her foreknowledge of her Son’s fate.

The sculptural ensembles that have puzzled and intrigued generations of viewers are the elaborate wall tombs of Giuliano, duke of Nemours, and Lorenzo, duke of Urbino. We may wonder why Michelangelo began with the tombs of those two insignificant Medici, men who accomplished almost nothing in their brief lives, rather than with the tomb of Lorenzo il Magnifico. The earlier Lorenzo had been Michelangelo’s first patron, a man with whom the artist had enjoyed a close relationship and who had been a leader of outstanding, almost legendary achievements.

Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici, duke of Nemours
Tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, duke of Urbino

Although we can never be certain of what was in the artist’s mind, we know that the two Medici dukes were anything but insignificant in the mind of Pope Clement, who must have made it clear to Michelangelo that the tombs of the dukes took priority, and that he wanted their monuments to be the most splendid in the chapel. The two “Magnifici”, as the earlier Lorenzo and Giuliano were called, had been merely the first citizens of the 15th century Florentine state; Lorenzo il Magnifico had exercised leadership from behind the scenes, with the forms of the republic always scrupulously maintained. The two dukes, on the other hand, had been something like princes, the first Medici with aristocratic titles to rule Florence. But Clement knew that neither man had ever been a true duke in the legal sense. Duke of Nemours was an honorary title tossed to Giuliano de’ Medici by the king of France, and the younger Lorenzo had held the title Duke of Urbino only while Leo X was pope. After Leo’s death the legitimate duke, Guidobaldo della Rovere, promptly won it back. With such weak claims to authority, it was all the more important for Clement to establish a solid base for Medici succession. The grander the tombs Michelangelo created for the two would-be dukes, the better they would serve Clement’s dynastic aims.

The two tombs are identical in format: each consists of a sarcophagus on the lower level, the curving lid surmounted by nude male and female statues that, as we know from Michelangelo himself, represent the Times of Day, and in a niche above these, an over-life-size statue of the seated duke, dressed in ceremonial armor. When Michelangelo left Florence in 1534, he had completed and put in place the two statues of the dukes, but he had left the four statues of the Times of Day (Night and Day, Twilight and Dawn) scattered around on the floor of the chapel in various stages of completion. He had never begun the statues of Rivers that were to complete the ensembles on the ground level. Although Michelangelo’s assistants arranged the statues in their present positions in 1545, nobody dared to complete any of the statues that Michelangelo had left unfinished.

The Medici Chapel isn’t a place that offers the visitor spiritual comfort and peace. Its gigantic architectural forms, sometimes defined as Mannerist in their unconventional style, do not produce the effect of harmony and rationality so clearly sensed in Brunelleschi’s sacristy.

Although we may never know what overarching theme — if any — Michelangelo pondered while he was working on these monuments, what we know about the circumstances surrounding their creation suggests the artist’s intense anger, bitterness, and disillusion with the world in which he was living and working, and his profound disappointment with the Medici in particular. Although he obviously couldn’t use his art to make a mockery of his patrons and the individuals they’d assigned him to commemorate, he certainly did choose an odd and obscure way of glorifying them.

Outside view of Medici Chapel (left) and Cappella dei Principi (right)

The Chapel of the Princes is a grandiose structure, oversized even with respect to the vast dimensions of San Lorenzo. Looking at Florence from above, the dome of the Chapel of the Princes (designed by Ferdinando and Giuseppe Ruggieri in the early 18th century) is one of the most prominent architectural structures, second only to the cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore.

Aerial view of San Lorenzo

Once the Medici became grand dukes, they desired a building that would be the visible sign of true glory and longevity of their dynasty. The contour of the Chapel of Princes stands out in the city skyline as a symbol of their power, destined to outlast the death of each.

In 1602, a competition was held for the design of the Chapel. The preferred design was that of Matteo Nigetti, who was inspired by the design of Giovanni de Medici, a member of the family who practiced architecture in a semi-professional way. The work proceeded slowly throughout the 17th century, draining the ever dwindling financial resources of the Grand Duchy.

Anna Maria Luisa, sister of the last Medicean Grand Duke, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, Electress Palatine and last of the Medicis, by Jan van Douven.

It was Anna Maria Louisa de’ Medici, last heiress of a dynasty destined to disappear with her who imparted the decisive impetus to the work. She lived to see the arched dome completed, but the lantern and ribbing that would echo the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore were never carried out. The model, still preserved in the museum, is testimony to the project that, with the death of the last of the Medici line in 1743, was to be definitely abandoned.

Anna Maria de’ Medici demonstrated moving fidelity to the dynastic dream of her ancestors in the years that saw the extinction of her family as the State was handing over the power to the succeeding dynasty of the Lorraine. It was also Anna Maria de’ Medici who, with the famous family pact of 1737, bound the succeeding foreign dynasty to the perpetual conservation in Florence of the artistic patrimony of the crown and its accessibility to the public.

The Lorraines did not forget the Chapel of the Princes. Indeed, the work in the Chapel continued into the 20th century. The main altar panels were inlaid with semi-precious stone of various ages and origins during the years immediately preceding WWII, and the floor, entrusted to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure during the 1870s was concluded only in 1962.

The Chapel of the Princes

The grand dukes wanted a mausoleum that would allude to the majesty of the Pantheon, to the great dimensions of Roman monuments, but in order to communicate immortality – the immortality of the individual soul and the immortality of the dynasty – they used the most splendid and imperishable materials: marble and polychrome granite, porphyry, Barga red, Corsican green, jasper, alabaster, quartz, lapis lazuli, coral and mother of pearl.

Chapel of the Princes
Chapel of the Princes

The Opificio delle Pietre Dure, founded in Florence in 1588 by grand duke Ferdinando as a State workshop in the service of the court, is still active in Italy as an Institute specialised in the restoration of stone and art work. Over the centuries, it has dedicated a great part of its activities to the decoration of the Chapel of the Princes!

Cupola of the Chapel of the Princes, depicting stories from the Old and New Testament, by Pietro Benvenuti

On the Art Gallery Trail in Florence – Galleria Palatina

The massive Pitti Palace on Florence’s left bank, the Oltrarno, was built for the Florentine banker Luca Pitti and is supposedly based on a design by Filippo Brunelleschi. It took some 400 years to acquire its present appearance, various alterations and additions having been made to the original corpus, which was built on two storeys with seven windows overlooking the Museo degli Argenti and the Museum of Modern Art.

The long history of the Pitti as the palace of the ruling dynasties of Florence began with the acquisition by Cosimo I, later Grand Duke of Tuscany, in the middle of the 16th century. He commissioned Bartolomeo Ammanati to construct two wings at the back of the building, so forming the magnificent courtyard leading on to the slopes of Boboli. It was during this period that this land behind the palace was gradually transformed into the gardens bearing the same name. In the following decades further additions were made to the original block until, by the beginning of the 20th century, the facade measured some 200 meters.

For three hundred years, from the second half of the 16th century until 1859, when the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was annexed to the unified Kingdom of Italy, the palace and its courtyard were the focus of dazzling public and dynastic events and celebrations. There were the scenes of weddings, baptisms and the funerals of the Medici and Hapsburg-Lorraines, who succeeded as rulers of Tuscany in 1756.

It was in this palace that the Medici accumulated the collections which make the Palatine Gallery so distinctive: Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici enriching it mostly with Venetian paintings while the Grand Prince Ferdinand, the son of the Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, contributed his exceptional Renaissance and Baroque collection. With the extinction of the Medici, the duchy and the palace passed to the hands of the Lorraine house and during the 19th century Napoleon used it as a residence during his rule in Italy.

It was under the Hapsburg-Lorraines that the collections were arranged on the first floor of the palace, the Baroque “quadreria” or display preserved to the present day; they also added rooms and paintings in accordance with Neo-Classical taste.

In 1828, Leopoldo I of Lorraine opened to visitors the “Gallery of the Palace”, hence the name “Palatine Gallery”.

The palace became property of the House of Savoy in 1860 when Tuscany became one of the provinces of the Kingdom of Italy. King Vittorio Emanuele II used the Pitti Palace as a residence while Florence was the capital of Italy. Later in 1919, his grandson, Vittorio Emanuele III donated the Pitti Palace to the Italian state, and the palace was further expanded with the Volterrano wing, doubling the number of works on display.

The palace was the scene for a trio of entertainments for the Medici wedding of 1589: the chariot parade (sfila), foot joust (sbarra) and naval battle or naumachia.

A monumental stairway leads to the entrance of the Palatine Gallery. The Gallery occupies the most important rooms on the piano nobile (first floor): six rooms overlooking the piazza and those in the north wing at the rear of the building, previously the winter apartments of the Medici Grand Dukes. When the ruling family vacated these rooms for those on the floor above, they were used, from the end of the 18th century, for the permanent display of the finest paintings in the Pitti Palace, originally some 500 works, collected for the most part by the Medici.

Statue Gallery with antique sculpture from the Villa Medici in Rome

The Lorraines were largely responsible for supplying the rooms with the furniture produced by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the famous manufacture of Florentine mosaic work in precious and semi-precious stones, and with the precious objects which lend the rooms the particular opulence of both the Baroque and Neo-Classical periods.

Table of the Muses in the Castagnoli Room, produced by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in 1853, mounted on a bronze vase by Giovanni Dupre
Saturn Room, Palatine Gallery
Room in the Palatine Gallery

One of the gallery’s most distinctive features is the arrangement of the paintings. It is not to everyone’s liking, some complaining that the layout of the museum does not follow a chronological order, nor schools of paintings, like a modern museum does. Well, doh! The Gallery preserves the typical layout of a private collection, with a sumptuous combination of lavish fresco decorations and the original framed paintings and is meant to reveal the personal taste of the collectors who lived in the palace, specifically the Hapsburg-Lorraines. Florence might be full of grandiose paintings glorifying the Medici family, but we can’t blame them for the arrangement in the Galleria Palatina. The paintings cover the walls of the rooms in the style of traditional 17th century picture galleries (“quadrerie”) where the entire walls were covered with paintings. It can be a trying experience, but barely manageable if one shifts the focus from individual works of art to the ensemble. The opulence is staggering. And best if one doesn’t think whether any painting was ‘re-sized’ to make it fit in a particular location. It was something that was practiced!

Prometheus Room, Palatine Gallery
Mars Room, Palatine Gallery
On the ceiling an allegory of War and Peace surrounds a triumphal vision of the Medici coat of arms, painted by Pietro da Cortona between 1644 and 1646
Mars Room, Palatine Gallery

On the west side of the Pitti Palace are the Royal Apartments. In the second half of the 17th century, these were the rooms reserved for the Medici Grand Prince Ferdinando, the eldest son of Cosimo III who never ruled as he died before his father. He decorated his apartments with an impressive collection of some thousand paintings later forming the nucleus of works displayed in the Palatine Gallery and the Uffizi. The apartments were enlarged and completely redecorated and refurbished, most notably after the Restoration (1814) to suit the taste of the successors of the Medici, the Grand Dukes of the House of Lorraine.

In 1853, the walls of the first five rooms were given their present sumptuous silk wall covering and supplied with French carpets. With the accession of the Savoy, the Pitti became for a brief period the official residence of the ruling family of the newly united Kingdom of Italy and the alterations to the palace date largely from the reign of Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy. In the 1880s, furniture, paintings and other precious objects were brought from the Ducal Palace in Parma, including a group of portraits of the French royal family at the time of Louis XV.

The tour of the Royal Apartments starts from the Green Room, formerly the antechamber of Ferdinando de’ Medici
The Throne Room was the Medici’s “Audience Room” and the “Chamberlains’ Room” in the Lorraine period
Blue Room
Chapel
Room of the Parrots
The Queen’s Apartment
The Queen’s Apartment
The King’s Apartment
The King’s Apartment

Behind the Pitti Palace are the Boboli Gardens, an area of 45,000 square meters that become the largest green area of Florence with grottos, fountains, pergolas, a small lake and hundreds of marble statues.

Boboli Gardens
Boboli Gardens
Boboli Gardens

Begun in 1549 and designed by Niccolò Pericoli, known as Tribolo, for Duchess Eleonora of Toledo, the Boboli Gardens are one of the most important examples of an Italian garden. The gardens have been enlarged and transformed by the various owners of the palace.

On the Art Gallery Trail in Florence – Vasari Corridor

On the first floor of the Uffizi Gallery there is an unremarkable door that provides entry to the Vasari Corridor.

Entrance to Vasari Corridor in the Uffizi

The Vasari Corridor was reopened for viewing in 2010 and closed again at the end of November 2016, for renovations. It has a non-specific opening date of 2018. More than that, it seems the corridor is undergoing quite a bit of re-organization, completely changing the way it has looked for hundreds of years.

We were lucky to visit the corridor in 2012 and see it in its original state so to speak.

Vasari Corridor

Entering the Vasari Corridor was like stepping onto another dimension – the atmosphere was quiet and silent, almost unreal and completely different from the rest of Uffizi Gallery. Unfortunately no photos were allowed and the group was escorted by Uffizi staff. So no photos of little bears running up and down the corridor 😦

Staircase behind the entrance door in the Uffizi
First room of the Vasari Corridor

The collection of artwork displayed along the Corridor’s consists mostly of works from the 16th and 17th centuries as well as a special and unique collection of artists’ self-portraits. More than 1,000 paintings from the 16th century to modern day grace the walls, from artists such as Diego Velázquez, Marc Chagall, Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn. The collection was added to by subsequent generations of Medici, and artists have been known to donate portraits as well. Many paintings and self-portraits that are a part of the collection are actually not on display for lack of space along the corridor’s walls.

Vasari Corridor

The collection of art in the Vasari corridor was unique in that it was organised chronologically, often in the same spot where various members of the Medici family had originally displayed it. Some self-portraits – such as one portrait where the artists is painting himself in a mirror – reveal an eccentric flair not typically seen in 16th and 17th century portraiture, while others make significant statements about gender and allow insights into artistic identity. For example, there were very few women painters at the time, and many of the self-portraits have more humour or cheekiness than was often displayed in works of the period.

There are three different collections in the Vasari Corridor, and the collection of portraits is one of the most famous and complete collections in all of Europe. The first collection begins at the doorway to the Uffizi Gallery and ends as the corridor turns toward the Ponte Vecchio. It contains paintings completed by Italian and European 17th and 18th century artists including Guido Reni, Gerrit van Honthorst, Empoli, and Guercino.

Portraits along the Vasari Corridor

The second collection is a famous collection of self-portraits arranged chronologically beginning at the Ponte Vecchio. Cardinal Leopoldo started this collection in the early 17th century with 80 portraits and some of the early pieces collected by the Medici family were later added to Leopoldo’s collection. Some of the portraits on display in this section of the Vasari Corridor include those of Giorgio Vasari, Titian, Correggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velasquez, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Antonio Canova, Delacroix, John Singer Sargent, and Carlo Levi.

The last group of paintings in the corridor is displayed where the Corridor turns toward the Boboli Gardens, and is part of a collection of Medici and Hapsburg/Lorraine family portraits.

The panoramic windows over Ponte Vecchio

Like most of Florence’s key attractions, the story of the Vasari Corridor is linked to the powerful Medici family, who rose to prominence in the 15th Century. Cosimo I de’ Medici, then the second duke of Florence, purchased the Palazzo Pitti in 1549, and up until the completion of Versailles in Paris in the early 18th Century, Palazzo Pitti was considered the most opulent palace in Europe.

There was just one problem for the Medici family: to travel from their new home to both the Uffizi administration offices where Cosimo worked and the Palazzo Vecchio, their previous home, the Medici had to cross Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s main pedestrian bridge above the Arno River. Today tourists encounter a gauntlet of flashy jewellery shops, but back then the bridge was occupied with butchers and tanners who needed to be close to the river for their businesses.

View from Vasari Corridor

Cosimo’s solution was bold. He would simply build an overground passageway above one side of the Ponte Vecchio, reaching from the Palazzo Pitti to the Uffizi offices.

Designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1564 and spanning a length of 1.2km, officially the passageway was created for the celebration of the wedding of Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christina of Lorraine.

A section of the corridor passes through the upper balcony of the church of Santa Felicita, which allowed the Medici family to attend mass without having to mingle with commoners or potential murderers.

View of the Church of Santa Felicita from the corridor
Entrance to Church of Santa Felicita

To build the corridor several medieval towers located along its way were quite literally crossed. All owners were forced to consent to give the space through their properties for the passageway… all consented except for the Mannelli family that firmly opposed having the corridor pass through his home. It seems that Cosimo appreciated the courage the family had to stand up to him and thus permitted them to withhold entrance into their home and the corridor was built around the tower.

Torre dei Mannelli at the end of Ponte Vecchio where it meets Via Bardi and Via de’ Guicciardini

The exit from the corridor (for the tour) is a discrete door near the grotto in the Pitti Palace’s opulent Boboli Gardens.

Cosimo had a clear vision for the use of architecture in his Dukedom: he wanted it to bring harmony to the urban fabric, but it was also intended as an unmistakable expression of his absolute political power. In the 1540’s he was already planning to unite all the various offices of government in one administrative centre, and in 1546, he opened up a street down from the Palazzo Ducale to the river, beginning the demolition of many houses and workshops in that densely-populated area, all with an eye to building the new government offices there. In the February of 1549/50 Eleonora got the opportunity to acquire the new home she had wanted: 9,000 gold Scudi from her dowry were used to purchase the Palazzo Pitti over the river in Oltrarno.

The 15th century property had never been fully completed, and a great deal of work would be necessary to bring it up to the standards required by the Duke and Duchess, who intended to expand it to be a suitable home for their growing family, and a fitting official residence for themselves and their retinue, set in beautiful terraced gardens reaching up onto the Boboli hill behind. Now Cosimo needed architects to serve him.

It was the death of Pope Julius III in 1555 which gave him the opportunity to bring his vision for the architecture of Florence into being. The Pope’s death freed two individuals from his service: Giorgio Vasari and Bartolommeo Ammannati. Cosimo sought Vasari as both artist and architect, and Vasari introduced Ammannati to the Duke for his skills as both sculptor and architect. Cosimo took them both into his service, and while Vasari began work on the Palazzo Ducale, Ammannati was engaged on the Palazzo Pitti. In Cosimo and Vasari we have one of those perfect meetings of minds between artist and patron, and Vasari is at pains in his writings to stress the rapport between his artistic ideas and the will of the Duke. The two developed a lifelong close relationship, and Vasari acted as Cosimo’s Superintendent of Works in the modern sense.

View of Vasari Corridor from the Uffizi

This was what Giorgio Vasari was later to describe as the “great corridor”, the ‘umbilical cord’ that was designed to link the official residences of father and son with the new seat of government, by passing right over the Ponte Vecchio. He gave his name to it: it is now known as the Vasari Corridor. The reason for this corridor takes us back to the Pazzi Conspiracy and the death of Allesandro de’ Medici in 1537. Cosimo himself survived several assassination attempts, dealing with the culprits brutally, and his own agents had caught up with Lorenzaccio in Venice in 1548, stabbing him to death in public. To an absolute ruler like Cosimo, this risk of assassination was ever-present, and when he went around in public he wore a mail shirt beneath his doublet and was surrounded by an armed bodyguard. How much simpler then, to have your own aerial walkway raised safely above street level, keeping you out of the mud of the streets and the inclement weather, and without the need to arrange an armed retinue to accompany you, horses to ride, or even a carriage?

Considering Cosimo’s great vision for the development of the Uffizi and his official residence over the river, the decision to physically link them must have pre-dated the betrothal of Francesco and Joanna, but the planned celebration of those nuptials in December of 1565 meant that the project had to be completed in record time. The newlyweds were to move into the Palazzo Ducale after the ceremony, which was to be linked to the Uffizi by a single arch on one side, while the main part of the corridor was to run down the lungarno, across the Ponte Vecchio, and through Oltrarno to the Pitti, a distance of nearly 400 metres.

The project began in March 1564/5: Tommaso de’ Medici, Florentine patrician and Knight of the Order of Jesus Christ drew up an agreement in the name of Duke Cosimo, with “Maestro Bernardo Esquire son of Antonio, alias son of Milady Mattea, builder.” Maestro Bernardo was in fact the Ducal Builder, who Vasari says worked on all his projects “with great excellence”. In the agreement he was committed to: “bring to perfection and to build by the end of September next [in the] future [year] 1565 a corridor that is able to pass from the principal Palazzo in the Square of His most Illustrious Excellency as far as the Palazzo de’ Pitti, in this form: that it needs to have two arches, one that crosses the street where the wall of the Customs Office meets that of the church of San Pier Scheraggio, and the other [passing] over the said church; and continuing with another arch from the house where Signor Traiano Boba lives, the Gentleman in Waiting of His Excellency, and following the Lungarno, with a corridor with arches and columns as far as the Ponte Vecchio, and then continuing over the botteghe and houses of the said bridge, on the flank of the bridge towards the Ponte a Rubaconte [ie the upstream side], passing over them on stone corbels, and [also for] the small turn around the tower of the house of the heir of Matteo Mannelli, upon which tower should be supported another arch over the Via de’ Bardi; and continuing it should rest upon the tower of the Parte Guelfa, which is in front of the said house of the Martelli, and continuing it should go in the direction of the alley which is behind the houses which are on the main street [Via de’ Guicciardini] arriving next above the steps of the church of Santa Felicita, above those steps it needs to have a loggia, to which should be attached another corridor on columns, which should stretch along the cloister of the priests of Santa Felicita, and descending there it should finish on the flat area where today there is the nursery of the garden of the Pitti. And the said corridor and work in its entirety should be covered by a roof, all tiled, with wicker for the ceiling of the roof, with rough and fine plastering, according to the order, design style and model which step by step will be given to you and communicated by the Magnificent and excellent Maestro Giorgio Vasari, painter and architect of the aforementioned His Most Illustrious Excellency: as declared by the said Maestro Tommaso, in his name, who will be held responsible in this project for alleviating all difficulties which might be caused to the said Maestro Bernardo, for the most part regarding the particulars of the owners of the edifices, over and beside which he will have to guide that project and fabric.”

The construction of the Corridor had a cost for others, and not just in the form of taxes. It has been estimated that around thirty houses were demolished in the course of building the corridor, and the owners and tenants of the botteghe and houses on the bridge had to put up with the construction of the corridor right over their properties, and the tops of those buildings must have been levelled to allow the corridor to pass. An anonymous diarist confirms that along the course followed by the corridor, there were “very great damages to the artisans who had houses and botteghe there; and further damages of many citizens who had beautiful houses there…” The diarist put the number of houses flattened at three hundred in total, but this would also have included the area where the Uffizi were built, so it’s quite believable. People were compensated: where the corridor trespassed into a small part of the house of the Ricci family on the corner of the Via de’ Bardi, they only received the amount of fifty gold Florins, but in the same street the “old house of the Paganelli” was purchased outright for the much larger sum of two hundred gold Scudi.

Ponte Vecchio was the bridge at the very narrowest part of the whole course of Arno river through Florence, and so the bridge where the pressure of the water was greatest. It was the first bridge built over the river and it was the only bridge over the river for over a thousand years.

The Ponte Vecchio of today is not the original bridge. The flood of 1177 destroyed one Ponte Vecchio, and the flood of 1333 destroyed another one.

In August 1220 the Ponte alla Carraia was completed with wooden decking, and the monks of the nearby monastery of Ognissanti were given the right to levy customs dues on the traffic crossing the bridge. Some 1,270 years after the first bridge was built across the Arno here, there was finally more than one bridge spanning the river. With the building of the ‘Ponte Nuovo’ (the ‘New Bridge’), the other one naturally became known as the ‘Ponte Vecchio’: the ‘Old Bridge’.

In very short order there was a third bridge. In 1237, Villani tells us that another bridge was constructed, this time upstream of Ponte Vecchio. Ponte Rubaconte (later called Ponte alle Grazie) was built entirely of stone, with nine arches, and being at the widest part of the river, it was about 215 metres long, which was about twice the length of Ponte Vecchio.

In 1252, and with considerable urging from the powerful Frescobaldi family, a fourth bridge was built between Ponte Vecchio and Ponte alla Carraia, connecting the Palazzo Spini on the north bank with the Palazzo Frescobaldi in Oltrarno. Because the church of Santa Trinita was close to the north end, the bridge was called Ponte a Santa Trinita.

In just 39 years the number of bridges in Medieval Florence had gone from one to four, demonstrating not only the need created by a massive increase in population to around 60,000, but also the great wealth of the city, largely generated by the wool trade. Not having the same strategic importance as Ponte Vecchio though, none of the new bridges were fortified.

In 1333 Ponte Vecchio was destroyed again by another flood. It was what the river was carrying that posed a mortal threat to the bridge at this point. Massive amounts of wooden debris had gone into the river: everything from spars from floating mills, to beams from collapsed buildings, to baulks of timber carried by barges that had been wrecked, to whole trees uprooted by the flood. All of this had smashed into the bridge and built up against it, and…

“and then the Ponte Vecchio was crushed by the great amount of wooden debris in the Arno, and because of the narrowness of the channel of the Arno [there], which rose up to and flowed over the arches of the bridge, and [right] through the houses and botteghe that were upon it, it was overwhelmed by the water, and completely torn down and destroyed, save for two piers in midstream.”

Twelve years after the flood of 1333 – in 1345 – the bridge itself was rebuilt, but the buildings upon it took longer to be rebuilt.

The 16th Century saw Ponte Vecchio survive further floods that destroyed or damaged other bridges, and its structure had coped with the addition of the Vasari Corridor. The houses had returned, and in the following centuries the properties grew into the charming confusion that we see today.

In an eerie repeat of the great flood of 1333, in 1966 another flood struck the city on the same day, November 4th. The similarity was reinforced by the way in which the flood arrived. The river level was already rising on the November 3rd, with cellars flooding in the lower-lying parts of the city. The two hydro-electric dams of the Levane/La Penna system in the upper Valdarno were discharging some 2,000 cubic metres of water per second downstream. At 4am on the following morning, engineers were so worried about the structural integrity of the dams that they took the decision to relieve the pressure on them by releasing a great quantity of water: that water arrived at Florence in a surge travelling at around 60kph.

As ever, the lowest-lying parts of the city were hit first: at 7am the Arno burst over the lungarno at the Corso dei Tintori on the north bank, sweeping on towards Piazza Santa Croce, and on the south bank the waters began to flood Oltrarno. By 8am the Arno rose over the balustrade beneath the arches of the Vasari Corridor along the lungarno, and by 9am all of the bridges in the historic centre were impassable: Florence was cut in two, and throughout the morning the torrential waters of the Arno were once again hurling all manner of debris at the Ponte Vecchio.

In museums, churches and archives across the city, workers struggled to get priceless artworks and manuscripts to safety. At 1pm the Sovrintendente of Fine Arts, Ugo Procacci, arrived at the Uffizi. He was concerned with just one thing: to rescue the important collection of self-portraits hanging along the walls inside the Vasari Corridor. The force of the water was now so great upon the arches along the lungarno, and upon the Ponte Vecchio itself, that the corridor could have collapsed at any moment. Along with Umberto Baldini, head of the restoration department of the Soprintendenza, Dott. Procacci entered the corridor from the Uffizi. In his diary he wrote:

“The rescue of the famous collection of self-portraits was dramatic. The floor of the long corridor which runs from the Uffizi to the Ponte Vecchio was shaking continually beneath our feet as though from a violent earthquake, because below the water was pounding and swirling against the arches of the Lungarno of the Archibugieri.”

This wasn’t the moment for the usual painstaking care that museum staff normally employ when moving valuable and delicate works of art. According to Umberto Baldini, the two men lifted the paintings in their heavy frames from the walls, and then ran them along the Corridor, sliding them along the smooth terracotta tiles on the floor. These two brave men got around 70 paintings to safety in the Uffizi. Fortunately, the corridor and the collection did survive.

Ponte Vecchio also survived the flood, but the premises upon it took a terrible pounding. On the morning on the 5th, cine footage shot by the film director Giampaolo Lomi shows a scene of devastation in the bright sunshine. The flood had smashed straight through shops on the upstream side of the bridge, one having been impaled by a whole tree. Shutters were ripped from the shop fronts, and the street on the bridge was choked with debris and furniture brought from the shops. Yet once again, Ponte Vecchio – and Florence – had endured.

Ponte Vecchio in the 1966 flood

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