Art in Florence: Top Twenty Artworks to See Before You Leave

ART_IN_FLORENCEAs adamant fans of the art in Florence, it often breaks our hearts to hear that travelers to this fair city miss out on some of Florence’s renowned works. Of course there are many reasons to visit this multi-faceted town, but one of the main motivations has always been to see Florence’s breathtaking painting, sculpture, and architecture. According to UNESCO (although it may be a somewhat Western centric view), 60% of the world’s most important works of art are located in Italy and approximately half of these are in Florence.
 
Art_of_florenceEveryday we see tourists herded into the Uffizi and Accademia as if they are the only two museums in Florence and countless more make the mistake of thinking that because there is no line outside the many other museums and churches, that there is nothing to see inside. On the contrary, there are many places in Florence that are full of masterpieces and (relatively speaking) empty of tourists. In response to this trend, we’ve made this list of the art in Florence that (we believe) everyone should see before they leave (in truth, the list is WAY longer than this. We had to narrow it down. And then narrow again); some works will be familiar, while others, I guarantee, will be completely new.

For the following list, you will find the Artwork, Artist, Date, Location, Opening Hours*, Website, and, if, possible Address and Entrance Fees. All works from the “Art in Florence” list below are located within the city center of Florence, at most a 20-minute walk from the Piazza del Duomo.
 
*For opening hours listed please keep in mind that these change constantly and should be taken more as a ballpark estimate than as scientific fact.
 
Shall we begin?
Is it cliché to start with Michelangelo? Hold on! It’s not the David.

1. The Florentine Pieta, Michelangelo (1547-1553), Opera del Duomo

1. The Florentine Pieta, Michelangelo (1547-1553), Opera del Duomo

1. The Florentine Pieta (also known as The Deposition, The Bandini Pietà, or The Lamentation over the Dead Christ), Michelangelo (1547 – 1553) – in the Museo del Opera del Duomo
Website
Address: Piazza del Duomo 9, Florence, Italy (the entrance is located at the back of the Duomo.)
Phone: +39 055 230 2885
Hours: Monday – Saturday 9:00am – 7:30pm; Sunday 9:00am – 1:40pm
Entrance Fee: €6
 
Why it’s a Must-See: The most famous sculptor in the world designed this work for his own tomb, and then destroyed it. Looking at it is like reading the lost diary of one of the most complex men in the history of western art.
 
Along with the Rondanini Pieta in Milan, this work, commonly called the Florentine Pieta, was one of Michelangelo’s last sculptures. He began carving it when he was 72 years old. After finding a vein in the marble, he lost his temper and smashed the work to pieces. It was sold and later reconstructed by another artist. (Note: Christ’s left leg, which was subsequently reattached, has since gone missing.) Along with Mary, Christ, and the female figure usually identified to as Mary Magdalene, there is a fourth figure, Nicodemus. Nicodemus, described in Apocrypha as a sculptor, was commonly included in the scenes following Christ’s Crucifixion as one of the two men who helped removed him from the cross. It is believed that the face of Nicodemus closely resembles that of Michelangelo. While we have no proof, this would have indeed been a poignant place for the artist to insert his own image, made even more moving by the fact that this Pieta may have been intended for his own tomb.
 
2.The Laurentian Library, Michelangelo (Commissioned in 1523), San Lorenzo

2.The Laurentian Library, Michelangelo (Commissioned in 1523), San Lorenzo

2. The Laurentian Library, Michelangelo (Commissioned 1523, begun 1525, finished (under Il Tribolo and Bartolomeo Ammannati) in 1571) – in the Cloister of San Lorenzo Church
Website
Address: Piazza di San Lorenzo 9, Florence, Italy (go the left of the main church entrance, towards the cloister. You will find a second ticket office that sells tickets specifically for the library.)
Hours: Sunday – Friday 9:00am – 1:00pm
Entrance Fee: €3
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Taking the vocabulary of classical architecture, Michelangelo creates a space that was IMPOSSIBLE to imagine before. Playing with your spatial senses and expectations, the vestibule feels like something out of Alice-and-Wonderland. Once again, Michelangelo literally changes all the rules.
 
Now that you’ve seen Michelangelo the sculptor, feast on Michelangelo the architect. Commissioned by the Medici Pope, Clement VII, to house the enormous Medici library, this structure was meant to emphasize the family’s intellectual prowess and wealth. The library is made up of two sections: the vestibule, or entryway, and the main reading room. The vestibule, which transitions you from the cloister to the raised reading room (for better light!), is a masterpiece of mannerist architecture. The roman cannon, as set fourth by Vitruvius, has been flipped on its head. Decorative features that should be reserved for a façade line the interior of this unusually, and even unnervingly, shaped room. Perhaps most off-putting of all is the dramatic staircase that flows out like water, pushing the visitors to the outskirts of the space. In the upstairs reading room, no detail was left unattended. Michelangelo even designed the desks on which scholars would later read some of the most famous manuscripts from the Renaissance.
 
3. Trinity, Masaccio (1425-1427), Santa Maria Novella

3. Trinity, Masaccio (1425-1427), Santa Maria Novella

3. Trinity, Masaccio (1425 – 1427) – in Santa Maria Novella Church
Website
Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Novella 18, Florence, Italy (the entrance is to the right of the main façade)
Phone: +39 055 219257
Hours: Monday – Thursday 9:00am – 5:30pm (ticket offices closes at 4:45); Friday 11:00am – 5:30pm; Saturday 9:00am – 5:00pm (ticket office closes at 4:15); Sunday 12:00pm – 5:00pm
Entrance Fee: €3.50
 
Why it’s a Must-See: This painting is where one-point perspective began, and thus where the modern sense of spatial illusion was born.
 
On the left hand side of the nave of Santa Maria Novella is one of the most important images created in early quattrocentro Florence, The Holy Trinity. Its artist, a man named Masaccio, was, like Giotto and Michelangelo, exceptionally skilled from an early age. He was 24 when he painted this fresco and he died one year after he finished it. Beneath the painted barrel-vaulted ceiling of a small chapel, we see Christ on the cross, being supported by God the father and the Holy Ghost. Below, John the evangelist prays and Mary turns towards the viewer. Outside the chapel we see two more figures, the donors, who appear outside the “sacred” space of the painted chapel. The most incredible feature of this fresco is Masaccio’s use one-point linear perspective to create an illusionistic space beyond the wall of the church. As the name one-point linear perspective implies, there is one point at which the extraordinary mathematics of this invented chapel align and give the tromp l’oeil effect of real space. It is so realistic that scholars have been able to actually measure the imaginary three-dimensional room.
 
4. The Slaves, Michelangelo (1525-1530), Accademia

4. The Slaves, Michelangelo (1525-1530), Accademia

4. The Slaves, Michelangelo (1525 – 1530) – in the Accademia
Website
Address: Via Bettino Ricasoli 58-60, Florence, Italy (if you’re waiting in the line for the David, don’t miss these while you’re there!)
Phone: +39 055 294883
Hours: Daily 8:15am – 6:50pm; Closed Monday
Entrance Fee: €6 (€4 in addition for the reservation, which is recommended)
Online Booking
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Michelangelo creates psychologically and physically complex figures that, in their unfinished state, provide us with a window into the Artist’s unique sculpting methods.
 
Though visitors are often too busy to notice these gorgeous sculptures that line the room that leads to the David, Michelangelo’s Slaves, as they are called, stand to reckon with the young biblical upstart at the end of the hall. These are just four of a group of six sculptures that Michelangelo began for Pope Julius II’s elaborate tomb structure, originally intended to have 40 such figures. It was to be Michelangelo’s most ambitious project before various road bumps and obstacles forced the artist to severely downscale his design. Michelangelo had to abandon the tomb project only three years after it began to work on nothing less than the Sistine Ceiling, which Julius asked him to paint in 1508. After finally returning to it in 1512, Julius’ death in 1513 forced the pope’s family to reconsider such an ambitious (aka expensive) project. After two separate rewrites to the original contract, the Slaves were begun and almost as immediately discarded when the final amendment to the contract asked for a much simpler (aka less expensive) wall tomb, roughly a sixth of the size of the original concept. However tumultuous their history, these stunning works seem more beautiful in their various states of incompletion than they ever could have been finished.
 
5. Dome of the Duomo of Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi (1420-1436)

5. Dome of the Duomo of Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi (1420-1436)

5. The Dome of the Duomo of Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi (1420 – 1436, Lantern completed by Michelozzo in 1461, original crowning copper ball by Andrea del Verrocchio in 1469) – in the Piazza del Duomo
Website
Entrance Fee: Free and available for viewing 24/7
For climbing the cupola (463 steps)
Address: Entrance is on the north side of the Duomo at the Porta della Mandorla
Hours: Monday – Friday 8:30am – 7:00pm (last ticket sold at 6:20pm); Saturday 8:30am – 5:40pm (last ticket sold at 5:00pm)
Entrance Fee: €8, Cupola + Museum €11 (usually €14)
 
Why it’s a Must-See: The dome has stood as a testament to the superiority of Florentine ingenuity since the 15th century, literally casting a shadow over everything made in the Renaissance.
 
Few modern day visitors will understand just how important this architectural feat was for the Republic of Florence. When the Cathedral was first designed at the end of the 13th century, the massive octagonal dome was planned, but no one yet knew how an architectural structure of such enormous breadth and height would be built. It had never been done. Filippo Brunelleschi came up with the plan 150 years later, keeping it a secret from his fierce competitors.
 
To achieve this feat, Brunelleschi incorporated several key elements into his building plan. First, he created a double shell dome like that on the Baptistery so as to limit the width and weight of the structure. Second, he used bricks as his primary building material to further reduce the weight. Third, he incorporated four iron and stone chains running horizontally along the inner shell (like the ribs of a hoop skirt) to keep the dome from buckling out from under its own weight. And fourth, he laid the bricks in a herringbone pattern on the 8 sides of the octagonal dome to allow them to hold themselves in place while the mortar dried. In the end over 4 million bricks and 37 thousand tons of material were hoisted over 170 feet into the cathedral ceiling. When it was finally finished, Brunelleschi’s friend and fellow architect, Leon Battista Alberti, wrote: “It is vast enough to cover the entire Tuscan population with its shadow.”
 
6. The Annunciation, Fra Angelico (1442), San Marco

6. The Annunciation, Fra Angelico (1442), San Marco

6. The Annunciation, Fra Angelico (1442) – in the Convent of San Marco
Website
Address: Piazza San Marco 3, Florence, Italy (entrance is to the right of the church)
Phone: +39 055 294883
Hours: Monday – Friday 8:15am – 1:50pm (ticket office closes at 1:20pm); Saturday – Sunday 8:15pm – 4:50pm (ticket office closes at 4:20pm); closed on the 1st, 3rd and 5th Sunday and the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month
Entrance Fee: €4
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Fra Angelico’s fresco is one of the most elegant paintings in all of Florence, surpassing some of the more well known artists in its simple and devout beauty.
 
This is one of the most stunning examples of the enigmatic Christian scene of the Annunciation. Painted by artist and friar, Fra Angelico, for his brothers at the convent of San Marco, this painting greeted every friar at the top of the stairs to the dormitories. The stunning loggia, in which Mary and the Angel Gabriel appear, is inspired by recent renovations to the convent by the architect Michelozzo. The angel bows, bringing its stunning peacock feather wings into full view. Mary, in relatively modest and simple dress, returns the gesture. Beyond the loggia is a fence, indicating that these figures are within an enclosed garden, a symbol of Mary’s virginity. To the left of the Virgin’s head, a small window is lit by sunlight that drenches the windowsill. To the friars, it would have been obvious that this light (a seemingly unimportant detail) represented the actual miracle taking place: Immaculate Conception. During this time, the process by which Mary became pregnant without losing her virginity was often compared to the act of light piercing glass without breaking it. To the left of the fresco is an actual window whose real light determined the fictive lighting of the fresco and plays off the flecks of iridescent mica mixed into the fresco’s plaster.
 
7. Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425-1452), Opera del Duomo

7. Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425-1452), Opera del Duomo

7. Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425 – 1452) – in the Museo del Opera del Duomo
Website
Address: Piazza del Duomo 9, Florence, Italy (the entrance is located at the back of the Duomo.)
Phone: +39 055 230 2885
Hours: Monday – Saturday 9:00am – 7:30pm; Sunday 9:00am – 1:40pm
Entrance Fee: €6
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Ghiberti’s bronze doors changed how artists incorporated naturalism and one-point perspective into bronze reliefs, creating a narrative sequence of 10 scenes which unfold individually and as a whole.
 
These doors, which once graced the eastern entrance of the Baptistery of Florence, were replaced with copies after the devastating flood of 1966. After 27 years in restoration, the same amount of time it took to make them originally, these stunning creations are once again on display (in a much safer setting, thankfully). Michelangelo described them as the “Gates of Paradise” and the name stuck. Ten panels tell the story of the Old Testament from Adam and Eve at the top left to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba on the bottom right. No longer confined to the restrictive quatrefoil frames used on the earlier baptistery doors, each scene takes full advantage of the compositional space, one-point linear perspective, and a new style of low relief known as schiacciato, or squashed relief. These recent innovations, in addition to Ghiberti’s technical skill, result in ten expansive panoramas, often set in dramatic three-dimensional architecture that, in its incredible depth, combines several narratives scenes in the space that would usually be required for one. Along the gorgeous and verdant doorframes are portraits of apostles, sibyls, saints, and the artist himself. In the forty-eight years Ghiberti spent sculpting and casting both the North doors and the Gates of Paradise, he became famous and trained some of the most important sculptors and artists of the next generation.
 
8. Deposition from the Cross, Pontormo (1525-1528), Capponi Chapel

8. Deposition from the Cross, Pontormo (1525-1528), Capponi Chapel

8. The Deposition from the Cross, Pontormo (1525 – 1528) – in the Capponi Chapel in Santa Felicita Church
Address: Piazza Santa Felicita, Florence, Italy
Hours: Open to tourists on weekdays from 9:30am – 12:00pm & 3:30pm – 5:30pm.
Entrance Fee: Admission to the church is free (though you need euro for the light box)
 
Why it’s a Must-See: You haven’t experienced the mannerist movement until you’ve seen Pontormo’s chapel in Santa Felicita.
 
Walking up to this small unassuming church, one would never guess that inside hangs one of the single most beautiful works of Florentine Mannerism. Painted by Jacopo Carucci, known as Pontormo, The Deposition from the Cross is considered to be his masterpiece. Curiously, there is no depiction of a cross in this painting and, furthermore, it is difficult to identify any of the figures portrayed, other than Christ and Mary. In fact, it is not certain that the scene is a Deposition at all. It appears to capture a moment in between two more traditional scenes from Christ’s death: between the Deposition and the Lamentation, or after the Pieta and prior to the Entombment. Before we jump to conclusions, however, we must recognize that this painting is just one part of the artist’s larger concept, which includes a fresco of the Annunciation on the wall, a stained glass window depicting the Entombment (by the French glassmaker, Guillaume de Marcillat), and what would originally have been a frescoed dome with an image of God the Father. Hence, all the works in the chapel interact as they tell the story of Christ’s birth and death. Nonetheless, it is the so-called Deposition that truly captivates us with its jarring colors and indescribable sadness. It is neither fully narrative nor fully abstract, but lives in the space in between. Pontormo’s visual language was so new that, after concealing the chapel from view for the entirely of its decoration, it stunned all that saw it when it was finally unveiled.
 
9. Mosaics in the Baptistery, Various (1240-1300)

9. Mosaics in the Baptistery, Various (1240-1300)

9. Mosaics in the Baptistery, Various (1240 – 1300) – in the Baptistery in Piazza Duomo
Website
Address: For tickets, Piazza San Giovanni, 7 (across the piazza from the main entrance on the north side of the building)
Hours: Daily 11:15am – 7:00pm; Sunday 8:30am – 2:00pm; 1st Saturday of the Month 8:30am – 2:00pm
Entrance Fee: €5 or Battistero + S.Reparata + Campanile + Museo: €15; on June 24, Saint John’s day, entrance is free
 
Why it’s a Must-See: One of the oldest structures in Florence and one of the few decorated with mosaics, this small space puts the comparatively enormous interior of the Duomo to shame.
 
Across from the massive Cathedral sits a small octagonal building known as the Battistero di San Giovanni or Saint John’s Baptistery. This building was constructed between 1059 and 1128 on the foundations of previous octagonal baptisteries dating from as early as the 5th century. One hundred years after the current building was completed, an ambitious mosaic ceiling was planned. While local Florentine artists likely provided the designs and cartoons, it is believed that Venetian craftsmen carried out the work itself, as it was in Venice that this impressive media was perfected.
Above the altar is a depiction of the Last Judgment, where a 25-foot tall Christ welcomes the good on his right and damns the evil on his left. The image of hell, into which these damned are thrust (attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo) is gruesome. Every Florentine between the mid 13th and 19th century would have seen this graphic detail, for it was in this period that every catholic in Florence was baptized in the baptistery. This list famously includes none other than Dante, whose own description of hell must have been influenced by this image. On the back wall, four horizontal bands tell the stories of (starting at the bottom) Saint John the Baptist, Mary and Christ, and, in the two upper tiers, the Old Testament Patriarchs, from Adam and Eve to Moses. According to art historian, Timothy Verdon, the “program of 13th century mosaics is the visually most impressive component of the entire [cathedral] complex…” footnote
 
10. Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513-1514), Palatine Gallery

10. Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513-1514), Palatine Gallery

10. Madonna della Seggiola (or Madonna della sedia), Raphael (1513 – 1514) – in the Palazzo Pitti, Palatine Picture Gallery
Website
Address: Piazza Pitti 1, Florence, Italy (ticket office is to the right of the main entrance.)
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 8:15am – 6:50pm (ticket offices close at 6:05pm); Closed Mondays
Entrance Fee: €8.50 (booking charge: €3)
Advance Booking: +39 055 294883
 
Why it’s a Must-See: As a slightly younger painter than Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael took full advantage, absorbing the best of their talents and creating a flexible style that often surpasses both of these masters. In this particular piece, however, we see Raphael’s unique tenderness shine through, creating a work that overflows with the sincere love of a mother for her child.
 
Completed during his Roman period, shortly before his death, Raphael paints what is ostensibly a typical devotional image of the Madonna, Christ child, and a young Saint John the Baptist. The circular format was standard for domestic images, those intended for a household rather than a church. Breaking from some of his earlier Florentine works, which were more geometric and constrained, Raphael softens his lines and his colors. Additionally, he takes the viewer directly into the personal space of mother and child, creating an intimacy not only between those figured, but also between the viewer and the holy company. The every-day appearance of the figures further enhances the accessibility of the picture, producing an image that the viewer can truly relate to. Even today, we are struck by how photographic this moment feels, as the Madonna looks out at us, clutching her precious infant who, like a typical child, is looking off into the distance, oblivious of everything other than his mother’s arms.
 
11. Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, Giotto (Bardi 1325; Peruzzi 1318-1322), Santa Croce

11. Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, Giotto (Bardi 1325; Peruzzi 1318-1322), Santa Croce

11. Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, Giotto (Bardi 1325; Peruzzi 1318 – 1322) – in the Basilica of Santa Croce
Website
Address: Piazza Santa Croce 16, Florence, Italy (the entrance is to the left of the façade)
Hours: Monday – Saturday 9:30am – 5:30pm (last admission is at 5:00 pm); Sundays and Holy Days 2:00pm – 5:30pm (last admission is at 5:00 pm)
Entrance Fee: €6
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Two chapels, back to back, give you a glimpse into why, almost 200 years later, artists like Michelangelo were still studying Giotto’s work.
 
Inside the enormous Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce are two chapels painted by the Giotto, the most important artist at the beginning of the 14th century. Directly to the right of the high chapel is the Bardi chapel, dedicated to Saint Francis and immediately to the right, the Peruzzi chapel, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. These chapels, which according to early sources were two of a group of four originally frescoed by the artist, constitute the most important corpus of Giotto’s work after his capolavoro, the Arena Chapel in Padua. Reflecting his fame at this time, he was commission by some of the richest banking families in Florence. While both fresco cycles have suffered terribly, first from a whitewash that covered both chapels, then later by the installation of wall tombs, and finally poor 19th century restoration practices, Giotto’s genius shines through. In their day, both cycles were renowned, in particular the Peruzzi Chapel, which has suffered more than the earlier Bardi chapel, due to the fact that it was painted a secco, or “dry,” a less permanent painting technique than true fresco. At their height, however, artists like Masaccio and Michelangelo came to study Giotto’s unique and realistic gestures, poses, and facial expressions that helped create believable, psychologically penetrating scenes that had not been seen since antiquity.
 
12. Medici Palace, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1445-1460)

12. Medici Palace, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1445-1460)

12. The Medici Palace, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1445 – 1460) – on Via Cavour, near the Church of San Lorenzo
Website
Address: Via Camillo Cavour 3, Florence, Italy
Phone: +39 055 276 0340
Hours: Weekdays and holidays, 9:00am – 7:00pm (last admission at 6:30pm); closed Wednesday
Entrance Fee: €7
 
Why it’s a Must-See: How better to witness the classical concepts of Renaissance art in Florence than in the majesty of the first family, the Medici.
 
Near the church of San Lorenzo is the Palace Medici Riccardi. Today it appears almost as long as an entire city block due to later 17th century additions, but in its original design it was roughly a cube (still enormous by Renaissance standards). Halfway between a villa and a country fortress, Michelozzo crafted a new genre of building, the Renaissance urban palazzo. The exterior is divided into three stories that decrease in height and whose pietra forte surface treatment becomes lighter and softer as we move up, going from enormous rusticated masonry to smooth stonework at the top. The building is then capped by an enormous cornice that projects out over the street below. The effect is a surprising exaggeration of the height and size of the structure without actually creating something that might “arouse envy among the citizens,” as Cosimo de’ Medici warned. The large archways along the first floor, now walled in, were originally open, providing access to clients of the Medici bank and allowing passersby visual access to the Medici inner court and several of its most precious artworks, including Donatello’s David. The loggia was closed in the 16th century and now holds windows designed by Michelangelo, famously dubbed “kneeling windows,” due to the addition of the scrolling consoles that appear to support the windows from below.
 
13. The David, Michelangelo (1501-1504), Accademia

13. The David, Michelangelo (1501-1504), Accademia

13. The David, Michelangelo (1501 – 1504) – in the Accademia
Website
Address: Via Bettino Ricasoli 58-60, Florence, Italy
Phone: +39 055 294883
Hours: Daily 8:15am – 6:50pm; closed Monday
Entrance Fee: €6 (€4 in addition for the reservation, which is recommended)
Online Booking
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Michelangelo changes all the rules, creating the most well known sculpture in the history of art after having been given some one else’s leftovers.
 
Originally commissioned to be part of a series of sculptures that would decorate the exterior of the Duomo, Michelangelo was given a used piece of marble and a seemingly impossible task: to create a roughly 17-foot statue of the biblical figure of David. This was the fourth figure of David that had been commissioned during the Florentine Republic and had already become a symbol of the (relatively) small city’s underdog successes (thanks to God’s help). When the work was finally unveiled, the plan to place it so high up off the ground was abandoned and a committee, including none other than Leonardo da Vinci, was gathered to discuss where the sculpture should be placed instead. This is how the work came to live at the front entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio. As we have often said (specifically in this post dedicated to The David), the big guy is actually worth the hassle.
 
14. Saint George, Donatello (1411-1413), Bargello

14. Saint George, Donatello (1411-1413), Bargello

14. Saint George, Donatello (1411 – 1413) – in the Bargello (marble copy in situ on the exterior of Orsanmichele)
Website
Address: Via del Proconsolo 4, Florence, Italy
Phone: +39 055 238 8606
Hours: Daily: 8:15am – 1:50pm (ticket office closes at 1:15pm); closed on 2nd and 4th Monday of each month
Entrance Fee: €4 (€6 if there is an exhibition)
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Donatello creates a psychologically complex work before Michelangelo is a glimmer in his father’s eye. The face of Saint George appears both steadfast and fearful, suggesting the plight of the knight devoted to God.
 
Sculpted for the cuirass-makers (amour makers) guild, Saint George is one of fourteen sculptures commissioned by the Florentine guilds that once decorated the exterior of the church—formerly a grain market—of Orsanmichele. Saint George was the second sculpture commissioned from Donatello after his Saint Mark for the Arte dei Linaiuoli e Rigattieri (linen weavers). Both of these earlier works were in marble, a less expensive material as compared to the gilded bronze he would use on his third and final commission for Orsanmichele. However, Donatello, in a brilliant Renaissance PR stunt, added additional metal objects to the Saint George, namely a bronze sword and helmet (now lost). These items drew attention to the guild that the saint was representing, but also displayed their wares for all to see. In addition, the jutting sword would have pierced the space outside the niche, bringing George into the viewer’s space. While this particular niche was not on the main drag, Saint George was able to draw attention from afar with his shining metal accessories. Once he drew you in, it was his penetrating expression that kept your attention. In addition to the sculpture itself, Donatello designed the niche, with God the Father depicted above and below, the scene of Saint George slaying the dragon using schiacciatto relief and one of the earliest applications of one-point linear perspective in sculpture.
 
15. Procession of the Magi, Benozzo Gozzoli (1459-1461), Medici Palace

15. Procession of the Magi, Benozzo Gozzoli (1459-1461), Medici Palace

15. Procession of the Magi, Benozzo Gozzoli (1459 – 1461) – in the Medici Palace
Website
Address: Via Camillo Cavour 3, Florence, Italy
Phone: +39 055 276 0340
Hours: Weekdays and holidays: 9:00am – 7:00pm (last admission at 6:30pm); closed Wednesday
Entrance Fee: €7
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Gozzoli’s painted cycle covers an entire room, remaining one of the few Renaissance decorative spaces to fully encompass the viewer. The event feels like a Renaissance movie, the figures traveling around the devotional space in a never-ending procession.
 
One of the first decorative programs undertaken in the Palazzo Medici when it was finished was the fresco cycle in the family’s private chapel. The program, an extensive three-wall fresco of the Precession or Journey of the Magi, was painted by Benozzo Gozzoli. Gozzoli had painted the same scene (with less luxurious materials) in Cosimo de’ Meici’s private dormitory in the convent of San Marco while training under Fra Angelico. The procession provided the Medici with an excellent opportunity to honor a recent event in which they had played an integral part and for which many important dignitaries from all over Christendom came to Florence. Amongst the three Magi and their extensive retinues are scattered famous figures from in and outside Florence, including many famous Medici.
 
16. Room of the Maps, Stefano Buonsignori and Ignazio Danti (1563-1584), Palazzo Vecchio

16. Room of the Maps, Stefano Buonsignori and Ignazio Danti (1563-1584), Palazzo Vecchio

16. Room of the Maps, Stefano Buonsignori and Ignazio Danti (1563 – 1584) – in the Palazzo Vecchio
Website
Address: Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy
Phone: +39 055 2768325
Hours: April-September, every day except for Thursdays 9:00am – Midnight; Thursday 9:00 – 2:00pm
October-December, every day except for Thursday 9:00am – 7:00pm; Thursday 9:00am – 2:00pm
See website for more details on seasonal opening hours
Entrance Fee: €6.50
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Though Google Maps may have fooled you, dependable directions did not always exist. Along with other classical inventions, the Renaissance saw a rebirth of reliable ways to map the world.
 
Begun by the Dominican friar, Ignazio Danti, in 1563, the Room of the Maps contains 53 individual painted panels depicting the known world. As a young boy from Perugia, Danti was educated in mathematics and astronomy before coming to Florence to work for the Medici Dukes. Cosimo I de’ Medici hired Danti as his court mathematician and gave him the job of designing the maps in the Map Room. Using the predominant vision of the world at the time, as laid out by Ptolemy, men like Danti used the position of stars in the sky to grid fixed points on the earth. Depicting landmasses such as India, America, and Italy, the maps also acted as doors to walnut cabinets, each of which originally held objects from the respective geographic spaces shown. In the Renaissance, knowledge of geography was intimately related to projections of power; to know the world and to paint the world, allowed you to control the world. When Danti left to work in Rome after Cosimo’s death in 1574, Buonsignori took over to finish the job, adding colorful depictions of monstrous races and wild beasts to the topographical information.
 
17. The Life of Saint Francis, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1483-1486), Santa Trinita

17. The Life of Saint Francis, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1483-1486), Santa Trinita

17. The Life of Saint Francis, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1483 – 1486) – in the Church of Santa Trinita
Address: Piazza Santa Trinita 1, Florence, Italy
Hours: Open to tourists on weekdays from 7:00am – 12:00pm & 4:00pm – 7:00pm
Entrance Fee: Admission to the church is free
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Though Mark Zuckerberg claims to have invented tagging friends in your images, Ghirlandaio helped Francesco Sassetti network well before Facebook. This chapel stands as a premier example of how Renaissance Florence was all about who you knew.
 
Tucked away in the far back corner of this dark (and often empty) church is the Sassetti Chapel and its famous fresco cycle by the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. The cycle depicts the story of Saint Francis, from his childhood to his conversion and from his death to some of his postmortem miracles. Unlike other versions of the Saint’s life, Ghirlandio sets many of these 13th century events in the contemporary 15th century city of Florence and fills the scenes with contemporary members of Florence’s elite citizenship. While they do not participate, they look on at the events taking pace as well as out at the viewer. In the upper most register of the back wall is one of the most famous scenes, known as The Confirmation of the Rule. In it, Saint Francis is received by the Pope and given the Rule that legitimizes his Order. However, instead of setting the scene in Rome, where it actually took place, the event takes place in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. Around St. Francis and his fellow friars, the Pope, and various cardinals, are members of the Sassetti and Medici family, including Lorenzo de’ Medici and his sons mystically witnessing the holy moment.
 
18. Primavera, Sandro Botticelli (1482), Uffizi

18. Primavera, Sandro Botticelli (1482), Uffizi

18. Primavera, Sandro Botticelli (1482) – in the Uffizi Galleries
Website
Address: Piazzale degli Uffizi 6, Florence, Italy (just look for the line of people)
Phone: +39 055 238 8651
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 8:15am – 6:50pm; closed Monday
Entrance Fee: €6.50
Advance tickets: +39 055294883 or Online Booking
 
Why it’s a Must-See: You will never see another work of art in Florence with a more enigmatic spirit. As a depiction of spring, Botticelli’s painting is a microcosm of the cultural rebirth of the Renaissance, but like the riddle of the sphinx, the painting baffles the viewer with its subtle clues.
 
One of the favorite stops in the Uffizi is the Botticelli room, in which hang the two most iconic works in the collection: the Birth of Venus and the Primavera. While most critics agree about what is depicted in the Birth of Venus, the Primavera remains a controversial work. The title, Primavera or “spring,” should be read more as the “Allegory of Spring.” Starting from the left we have Mercury, the three Graces, Cupid, Venus, Flora (or Spring), Chloris, and Zephyr (or the March wind). Together, these figures convey the idea of spring. Along with the idea of spring come the expected associations of fertility and growth as emphasized in the fruit trees and flowers. We have no idea who commissioned it or for what purpose, though it has famously been associated with a wedding gift to a lesser-known Medici that (according to the scholarship) had it installed in a bed. Because of this, it has also famously been associated with marriage and love, and not just any love, but the particular kind of love they liked to talk about in the Renaissance, Neoplatonic love.
 
19. Celestial and Terrestrial Spheres, Antonio Santucci (1588-1593), Galileo Museum

19. Celestial and Terrestrial Spheres, Antonio Santucci (1588-1593), Galileo Museum

19. The Celestial and Terrestrial Spheres, Antonio Santucci (1588 – 1593) – in the Galileo Museum
Website
Address: Piazza dei Giudici 1, Florence, Italy
Hours: Daily 9:30am – 6:00pm; Tuesdays 9:30am – 1:00pm (tickets are sold until 30 minutes before closing time)
Entrance Fee: €9
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Santucci’s device reminds us of the intimate connection between art and science in the Renaissance. Aristotelian conceptions of the universe combined with precision engineering and skilled woodwork to produce a sculpture that explained the motions of the celestial and terrestrial spheres.
 
Begun in Florence under the patronage of Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici, the celestial sphere illustrates the beautiful, if flawed, conceptions of the universe shortly before the arrival of Galileo Galilei to Florence. With the earth at the sphere’s center and God the Father above, this vision of the universe remains an artifact of the classical worldviews of Ptolemaic and Aristotelian combined with Catholic religion. As the spheres rotated around the earth, the motionless of our immediate world with respect to the stars was demonstrated for the viewer. Astrological symbols mark one of the many beach wood bands, recalling the strange marriage between divination and religion in the Renaissance. For someone like Ferdinando I, astrology was not an evil, but a science that allowed the knowledgeable to predict the events of God’s world clock. To design the universe was essentially to perceive the world as a machine whose events astrology could predict. Covered in painted miniatures and gold leaf, the sphere is an object of art as much as one of science. Watch this video for more information and a demonstration of the apparatus.
 
20. Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini (1545-1554), Piazza Signoria

20. Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini (1545-1554), Piazza Signoria

20. The Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini (1545 – 1554) – in the Piazza Signoria
Address: Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy
Hours: 24/7
Entrance Fee: the Perseus is 100% free
 
Why it’s a Must-See: Taking the material of bronze to its pinnacle, Cellini sculpts a work of art in Florence that appears to breathe and bleed right in the middle of the city’s most famous piazza.
 
Though Piazza Signoria was most famous for Michelangelo’s biblical figure of David, the awe-inspiring sculpture of the mythical hero, Perseus, gave it a serious run for its money. This bronze beauty is still housed under the Loggia dei Lanzi, its original location. It’s author, Benvenuto Cellini, was a captivating rogue, apparent from his autobiography (as we have stated elsewhere), but his sculpture of the Perseus remains a testament to his skill as an artist. This sculpture is one of the first large scale bronze works to be successfully cast in one piece, a technique lost after the fall of the Roman Empire. Standing in contrapposto, the hero holds the head of Medusa in the air, defiantly displaying his trophy. As we look upon the head from below in the piazza, we turn to stone from the staggering beauty of the work made in metal.

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