Day 28: Firenze second day of school at Museo dell’Opere del Duomo

This day was an onsite lesson. My insegnate Elisa has a PhD in classical Greek and Latin studies and a grandmother the same age as my mother, which means I’m probably her mother’s age. Not that those facts are relevant to much.

Elisa speaks nice and slowly enough that I think I’m understanding almost everything she says, although sometimes I need to think a bit to figure it out. I feel I’m better at understanding what I’m hearing generally than when I was in Rome in 2019. Since I’ve been taking evening continuing education courses fairly steadily since 2017, it’s gratifying to think I’m actually improving in my Italian comprehension.

I get reduced price entry tickets because my language course qualifies me as a student. Elisa had a bit of a battle making the entry staff look up her registration as a guide. Nothing like listening to Italians argue.

The Museo dell’Opere del Duomo houses the originals of many of the works that were on or in the Duomo and Baptistery. Arguably, Michelangelo’s David should be here as it was intended to be installed on the Duomo but before that ever happened, it was placed in front of Palazzo Vecchio, where there is now a replica and the original David has his own home at the Accademia (which I’m not planning to visit this trip).

The Madonna of the Glass Eyes (her eyes are made of glass), the copy is way above the main door, for example, is in the museum:

The Museo is very modern looking, which is not to every Florentine’s liking. But I think that statues like Madonna which are put into settings more or less reproducing how it was displayed makes it informative both for knowing its context and also for being able to better see it.

We focussed on a few works which I got to pick. Elisa picked the theme for today’s lesson “stone made living”, the evolution of sculpture to give humanity and animation to marble or stone or in one case, wood. The Madonna has glass eyes to make her look more realistic. The work by Arnolfo di Cambio is considered International Gothic which was trying to be a bit more realistic and less symbolic. However, Renaissance Donatello only a few years later did an even better job without resorting to glass eyes.

Donatello’s range was amazing. He worked in every medium of sculpture. His diverse style, innovation and creativity is apparent in this museum alone. We already saw his bronzes in Padua (or tried to see the equestrian statue). The Museo has many of his marble and stone statues and a wooden statue. His Crucifixion in Santa Croce is also wood but painted.

The St John the Evangelist was on the facade of the Cathedral carved when he was only 23. This sculpture clearly influenced Michelangelo’s Moses which is in Rome. Big Mike never acknowledged his debt to Donatello, who was dead before Michelangelo was born, but the resemblance is unmistakeable and given that this statue was on the facade of the main church of the city where Big Mike was born and raised, he could not have avoided being familiar with it.

It’s also noteworthy that Donatello took into account that the viewer would see it from below, thus, shifted the legs into a contrapposto or twisted position to avoid proportions looking off.

The above, Habakkuk, was on the campanile, bell tower, carved in the 1420s, the early Renaissance. There are others including the one under the heading of this post. Despite not having the benefit of anatomical dissection, like Leonardo and Michelangelo did, Donatello understood human form. The facial expression is so realistic the story goes that Donatello looked at it and told it to speak.

The above is a cantoria from where possibly choirs would sing and certainly some music was performed from them. There is another on the opposite wall by Lucca Della Robbia. They used to hang where currently there is a pipe organ. Given that this was inside Florence’s Cathedral, Donatello’s canteria, surprisingly, lacks Christian imagery but has semi-naked children or cherubini running wild and recalling classical sculpture. The work includes enamelled tesserae or mosaic tiles giving colour and sparkle to the work. The work would have stood out in the poorly lit interior of the Cathedral. It also shows that Donatello understood that classical sculpture was polychrome.

The Penitent Magdalene was in the Baptistery. Its stark realism makes it look like a modern work, not one carved in the mid-15th century. In Medieval legend, after Jesus died, Mary Magdalene, who is almost always described as a prostitute although there is nothing in the Bible making such a reference, ended up in France living in the desert, praying, fasting and eating only insects and honey. When her clothes deteriorated, she clothed herself only in her hair. There was a now lost twin of St. John the Baptist, who similarly lived in the wild only on insects and honey. Expressionism does not seem like an inaccurate label despite being completely anachronistic.

The Museo also has one of Michelangelo’s Pietàs. It has nothing to do with the Duomo or Baptistery but was donated to the Cathedral. Michelangelo started this when he was 70 and is the second of the three he carved. The figure of Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea standing at the back is believed to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo and was intended as his own funerary sculpture.

The story goes that Michelangelo was dissatisfied with this sculpture and took a hammer to it breaking off Christ’s arm. According to Vasari, Michelangelo gave it to a servant and told him to get rid of it but he didn’t and after Michelangelo died, another sculptor attempted to finish it (badly) and was responsible for the far left figure (Mary Magdalene). You might also notice that Christ is missing his left leg and Mary’s face is unfinished.

Some people comment that Florence has the ugliest of the three Pietà.

After my lesson I went to see Pontormo’s Capponi Chapel altarpiece, considered one of the masterpieces of Mannerism.

Santa Trinità

This is probably a good point to explain what I understand about Mannerism.

Today we talk about Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism and so on to describe styles or movements in art and architecture. The first “ism”, Mannerism, or Manierismo, was introduced by Giorgio Vasari to describe the style of art that arose in the late High Renaissance which Vasari described as “certa manniera” or a “certain manner” referring to a self-conscious style that was odd, wacky, unusual compared to the “perfection” of Leonardo and Raphael’s depiction of the world in a naturalistic manner.

Mannerist artists knew how to produce the technical accomplishments of the Renaissance such as linear perspective and the effects of light so rather than produce works that would look just like copies to compete against Leonardo and Raphael, Mannerists sought to produce subjective works which respected many of the same ideals as the Renaissance but employed elements that reacted against them. Some suggest this was also good marketing to create something that catches the eye because it was different.

Michelangelo is often seen as the progenitor of Mannerism in his subjective view of beauty that focussed on the male nude, use of unusual, unrealistic colours and twisted or contorted body positions, for example in his Doni Tondo and indeed, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Last Judgment. His architectural work in the Church of San Lorenzo, the New Sacristy and Laurentian Library, are considered Mannerist architecture with the upending of elements or breaking up lines or added elements to make the entire work less simple.

Mannerist works typically take classical subjects and elements but puts a twist on them. Another characteristic in painting is a subject matter that is obscure or difficult to understand. They may include images which do not seem to follow common sense, or the main subject is pushed to the back, or include elements with no purpose other than, perhaps, aesthetics. In sculpture, they are meant to be seen from more than one side, contain elongated twisted forms and exaggerated effects of perspective or scale. The works often look elegant but artificial.

Mannerist artists and architects included Giulio Romano, Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Parmigianino, and Bronzino, whose works can be found in Rome and Florence and other cities in Northern Italy. El Greco, who is considered a mannerist painter, worked mainly in Spain.


Jacopo Carucci (1494-1557), usually known as Jacopo da Pontormo or simply Pontormo as he was born in Pontormo, was a student of Andrea del Sarto and the teacher of Bronzino. This work displays the Mannerist stylistic shift from the calm perspectival regularity that characterized the art of the Florentine Renaissance. The characters cannot all be identified; it does not fit a typical iconographic program; the colours are bright, pretty but unnatural. The movement is diagonal and figures crowd into an unidentifiable setting.

I have been long winded as I have to pick a sculpture, painting and monument to discuss at school tomorrow. I’ve picked the Pontormo altarpiece for a painting, but now I need to figure out Italian terminology.

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