Firenze 3: Early Renaissance

This day we looked at some of the important early Renaissance art and architecture. It was raining but the exterior photos are from my Monday walk.

Piazza della Signoria

Michelangelo’s David (copy) Originally commissioned to be part of a series of sculptures that would decorate the exterior of the Duomo as David was 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 Leonardo da Vinci, decided the work should be at the front entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio.

The work on the other side of the entryway is Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus,  1533. Hercules is about to club and strangle Cacus.

Originally to be done by Michelangelo as a companion to David, the statue was to commemorate the republican council’s victory over the Medici, but when the Medici returned from exile, the statue was to symbolize the renewal of their power.

The demi-god Hercules is seen killing the fire-belching monster Cacus for stealing cattle. This was the tenth of Hercules’ labours.

Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air sculpture gallery, designed by Orcagna in 1376

Perseo or Perseus holding Medusa’s head, by Benvenuto Cellini (1554) 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.

Giambologna’s Rape of or Abduction of a SabineJean du Boulogne was born in Flanders and became known as Giambologna. He arrived in Florence around 1552, and within a few short years was court sculptor to the Medici known for producing small to mid-size works. Having seen works such as Michelangelo’s David, Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus and Bartolommeo Ammanati’s Neptune Fountain in the Piazza della Signoria, he, too, wanted to display a monumental sculpture, so from a single block of marble, produced a complex multi-figural group. At first, no one knew what the subject was, but it soon came to be interpreted as an ancient Roman event, which Giambologna encouraged by producing a bronze relief for the base of the sculpture. According to Livy and Plutarch, after the city of Rome was founded in 750 BCE, the male population needed women to ensure the success of the city and the propagation of Roman lineage. After failed negotiations with the neighboring town of Sabine for their women, the Roman men devised a scheme to abduct the Sabine women during a summer festival.

It can also be interpreted as a young Medici saving the woman from the old enemy.

Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican church, first great basilica in Florence, partly designed by Alberti (1456-70)

Filippo Strozzi Chapel: 

frescoes, 1502, St. John (on the other wall) and St. Philip (designed by Filippino Lippi)

Masaccio’s Trinità, ca 1425-27

Important for it’s pioneering ideas about perspective and mathematical proportionsMasaccio was 24 when he painted this fresco and he died one year after he finished it. The most incredible feature of this fresco is Masaccio’s use one-point linear perspective or vanishing point 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.


Orsanmichele, originally built 1337, chapel for trades and guilds, now copies of Renaissance statuary.

St. George, Donatello, Arte dei Corazzai (armourers) 1416–Saint George was the second sculpture commissioned from Donatello after his Saint Mark for the Arte deiLinaiuoli e Rigattieri (linen weavers). 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.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore; completed 1436 with dome by Brunelleschi–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. The dome is 143 feet in diameter.

Filippo Brunelleschi came up with the plan 150 years later. To achieve this feat, Brunelleschi incorporated several key elements into his building plan. First, he created a double shell dome 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. For 28 years, over 4 million bricks and 37 thousand tons of material were hoisted over 170 feet into the cathedral ceiling using ingenious hoists and cranes. 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.”

Ross King’s book, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, tells the story of how Brunelleschi began the construction of the dome denounced as a madman and ended celebrated as a genius. Il Duomo stands as a testament to the superiority of Florentine 15th century ingenuity.


Baptistry of San Giovanni (St John) (1059-1128) interior floors and ceiling of Byzantine mosaics One of the oldest structures in Florence and one of the few decorated with mosaics, the 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. It is believed that Venetian craftsmen carried out the work. 

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.

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…

The doors of the baptistery are replicas. The real north (1401-1422) and east doors (1425-52) by Ghiberti are in the Museo del Duomo. Ghiberti’s bronze doors changed how artists incorporated naturalism and one-point perspective into bronze reliefs; the first set of doors consist of twenty-eight panels, with twenty panels depicting the life of Christ from the New Testament and the eight lower panels showing the four evangelists and the Church Fathers Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory and Saint Augustine.

The second set narrate a sequence of 10 scenes which unfold individually and as a whole. 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.

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 10 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 doorframes are portraits of apostles, sibyls, saints, and the artist himself. In the 48 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.

  Museo del Opera del Duomo cathedral museum includes sculptures of Arnolfo, removed from the façade; 14th century sculptures from the bell tower, sculptures by Andrea Pisano (1290-1349), the so-called “Porta della Mandorla” located on the left side of the cathedral, sculptures of Nanni di Banco (1380/90-1421) and of Donatello (1386-1466), originally made for the bell tower and the church, the two large “Cantorie” by Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) and Donatello.

TheMagdalene“, a wooden sculpture by Donatello, originally placed in the Baptistery

The “Pietà” by Michelangelo – called the Florentine Pietà, 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 (not sculpted by Michelangelo), 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.

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