Italian Journeys

In many respects, Venice and Florence could have been conceived of as diametrical opposites. The former is a maritime city whose delicate and colourful architecture spans a panoply of styles. Its politics were best described as democratic oligarchy, a structure that produced a remarkable degree of stability and continuity. Its art tended towards the impressionistic, utilising broad brush strokes. By contrast, Florentine architecture tends towards the squat and militaristic, with terracotta brown as its dominant colour. The landlocked city lacked Venice’s political stability as much as it lacked its architectural profligacy, with a series of revolts, occupations and authoritarian rule for much of its history. By contrast, its art tended towards colourful pastels and was characterised by its precision and realism.

Looking round Piazza Signoria makes much of this contrast obvious; the space is relatively small when compared to the Piazza San Marco, with the crenellated bulk of the Palazzo Vecchio seeming to intrude into square like an unwelcome guest. The equestrian statue of Cosimo stands firmly at the centre of the square. The other sculptures are equally testaments to violence; Donatello’s Judith with the head of Holofernes, Cellini’s Perseus with the head of Medusa, Giambologna’s rape of the Sabine women, Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus and, of course, Michaelangelo’s David. Ammannati’s statue of Neptune emerges as something of an exception. Equally though, it’s even more plausible to read the Cellini and Michaelangelo sculptures as frank celebrations of gay sexuality, with no attempt at modesty in either case. Certainly, Ammannati later came to regard his nude statues as sinful celebrations of the flesh.

The Palazzo Vecchio itself proves rather more graceful on the interior than its martial exterior might suggest, beginning with Michaelozzo’s frescoed courtyard. Much of the interior walls were frescoed by Vasari and Ghirlandaio, sometimes depicting pergolas with birds perching within them on the ceiling, sometimes depicting grotesques similar in style to Nero’s golden house and sometimes showing mythological like Penelope and Esther. The most elegant room is clearly Eleonora’s chapel, its walls and ceiling covered in Bronzino’s frescos, whose colour almost seems luminescent in the dark. An interesting comparison is afforded by the earlier Palazzo Medici, whose showpiece is the Gozzoli Chapel, whose walls are frescoed with an entire landscape showing the journey of the Magi. The effect is rather like that of walking into a Brueghel painting. The baroque Giordano frescos in the nearby gallery form a rather unfavourable comparison to it. I also visit the much smaller Palazzo Davanzati, a more typical example of how the Florentine nobility lived, with thick shutters to block out the cold and bright frescos of red and green patterns on the walls.

The next thing I want to see are the two major churches in Florence; Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce. The exterior of Santa Maria, with its white and green marble arches, looks as if it should be in Cordoba. The interior is quite different with frescos by Filippo Lippi, Masaccio, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio appearing behind a cross by Giotto. Its cloisters contain a rather faded Ucello fresco and a considerably better preserved Buonaiuto fresco in the chapter house. Santa Croce rather reminds me of Venice’s Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in that it forms a pantheon of Florentine society; the walls are lined with monuments for Michaelangelo, Rossini, Galileo and Dante. The cloisters similar contain an underground corridor lined with funerary monuments and gravestones. A Cimabue crucifix and Giotto frescoes compete the picture of a gothic church that reached its apex during the renaissance but the most interesting part of the church may be the Pazzi Chapel, a dome built by Bruneschelli. The interior is austere, its symmetry uninterrupted by functional requirements (like Michaelangelo’s Medici chapel) with fake doors and windows inserted where necessary. The only decoration or colour comes from a set of Della Robbia ceramics. All of which leads us on to Bruneschelli’s own churches.

It comes as a surprise when walking into Florence’s cathedral to see Arnolfo’s original Gothic construction, which is belied by the presence of a dome and not hinted at from the white, green and pink marble on the exterior. The result comes over as something resembling the Gibbs design of St Martin in the Fields. Where the exterior is unusually colourful for Florence, the interior is decidedly plain, with a pair of trompe l’oeil monuments by Ucello and Castegna and Ucello’s clock as the main items of note inside a rather empty interior. The dome is the exception with its Vasari frescos and stained glass roundels by Ucello and Donatello. The Baptistery is something quite different again; entering through Pisano and Ghiberti’s doors leads to the glimmering and gleam of the ceiling’s gold mosaics, the only ones I encounter in Florence. The church of San Lorenzo shares Bruneschelli’s preference for domes with Santa Maria del Fiore, but is purely classical, its smaller scale seeming to work rather better with the austerity of its interior. By contrast, the interior of the Chapel of Princes is heavily frescoed, its walls lined with layers of different marbles and with statues of the deceased Medici. Michaelangelo’s New Sacristy is more in keeping with Bruneschelli’s spartan design, but gains the claustrophobic air of a room with no doors, as each wall is lined with fake windows and doors, each wall facing a set of symbolic opposites as if they were facing a mirror; action and introspection, night and day, dawn and dusk, life and death. The Spedale degli Innocenti is another Bruneschelli designed building, with sets of labyrinthine cloisters that lead to a well hidden museum with a collection of Della Robbia ceramics, some especially grisly relics and a Ghirlandaio painting. The nearby church of Santissima Annunziata rather impresses me for for the slightest of reasons; an anteroom to the main building, lined with fake windows out of which painted faces peer. The last church of note in central Florence is Orsanmichele, a guild church with sculptures by the likes of Donatello on its blank exterior and whose dark exterior requires electric lighting to illuminate the ceiling frescos.

The following day I brave crossing the Ponte Vecchio and its legions of expensive jewellery and leather shops over to Oltrarno, which plays the part of Richmond to Florence’s London. Bruneschelli’s church of Santo Spirito is one of the simpler buildings on the outside, with its yellow plaster facade and tiled dome, but the interior is the equal of San Lorenzo, with a trompe l’oeil ceiling and paintings by Allori and Filippino Lippi in the side chapels. Some of the wooden predella designs are as striking as the paintings. I don;’t get to see that much of the interior of Santa Maria Del Carmine but the Masolino frescos inside the Brancacci chapel are probably the best preserved that I see in the course of my visit to Italy. The nearby church of San Felicita is comparatively nondescript save for a jarringly coloured Pontormo painting; mannerism as a form of renaissance postmodernism. I walk up to the Pitti palace, with its unprepossessing, if not openly brutalist, exterior. The central courtyard is relieved somewhat by the inclusion of a grotto and a range of grotesques that offset the repeated statues of Hercules (surely the Medici equivalent of Stalinist sculpture or the works of Arno Breker). The Boboli garden continues this theme, with its combination of classical statues along long ornamental avenues and grotesque gargoyles or bizarre images of naked dwarves riding turtles. The presence of modern sculptures by the likes of Mitoraj rather tends to tip the scales in favour of the bizarre and arcane. The absence of flowers in favour of a set of green shades serves to throw the sculptures into greater relief, remaking the garden into a form of theatre. The garden seems rather popular with cats, to judge by the number who decide to take a mid afternoon siesta in its shade. I walk back up the hill where the church of San Miniato perches at its summit. Its marbled facade looks out over the city, while the light filters into the dark gothic interior to illuminate the Gaddi frescos. Beneath it, the Piazza Michaelangelo offers even better views of the city, albeit with a verdigris coated replica of David surrounded by legions of souvenir stalls at its centre.

The silverworks gallery at the Pitti Palace compares rather favourably to similar wunderkammers I’ve seen in Germany and Denmark, with its customary display of amber, coral, rock crystal and ivory carved into impossible and surreal forms, something enhanced by a set of jade Aztec artefacts. As one might well expect the main strength of the Palatine gallery here is portraiture, with good examples from Raphael, Veronese, Titian, Botticelli, Tintoretto and Perugino. Beyond that some of Salvator Rosa’s landscapes, Gentilleschi’s Judith, Reni’s Cleopatra, Rachel Ruysch’s still lives, and various Madonna and Child interpretations by Raphael and Botticelli. If the Palatine Gallery seems somewhat like a storage area for the Uffizi with the addition of a more ecclectic list of artists like Van Dyck, Rubens and Murillo, the Modern Art Gallery seems more like an exercise in representing the precise artworks that led to Marinetti’s furious denunciation of nineteenth century and the advent of futurism, which also happens to be the point the Modern Art gallery stops just short of. Much of the earlier works inevitably tend towards the historicist, offering some interest from showing artists like Fattori representing Italian history rather than having it interpreted for them by Northern European artists; conversely there’s also a section for works by those artists like Lensbach as well as paintings by Elizabeth Chaplin. The most successful works tend to be those concentrating on contemporary depictions of the Risorgimento, although some of Galileo Chini’s proto-futurist paintings of Thailand tend to leap out.

The next day is, inevitably, taken up with the Uffizi and the Accademia. The Uffizi is perhaps unusual amongst Europe’s galleries in that its building has almost as much pride of place as the paintings. To enter the gallery, you walk past rows of niches filled with the likes of Giotto to Leonardo and then into long corridors filled with Roman busts and sculptures at floor level, Vasari frescos on the ceiling and paintings of the European nobility immediately beneath them. I’m slightly taken aback to see Henry the Eighth or Elizabeth the First here, and even more so by the Ottoman sultans or the Ethiopian king. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the galleries are initially ordered in the same chronological order as Vasari’s lives of the artists, beginning with Giotto and Cimabue. With works like Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi, this iconographic style begins to give way to something more like individual portraiture in a setting that recognisably anticipates landscape painting. It’s a progression that’s continued in Filippo Lippi’s work but while works like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Pallas and the Centaur and Primavera may be the stuff of cliche now at the time as sensuous and profane a painting as that must have seemed every bit as revolutionary as Picasso. From that point onwards even religious paintings like Leonardo’s Annunciation were cast in the vein Botticelli had established, while portraiture by the likes of Mantegna, Perugino, Bellini, Della Francesca, Raphael and Bottecelli himself begins to emerge with the stress on the depiction of individuals rather than idealisations. The two most noteworthy Italian artists after Botticelli are Venetian, with Titian and Tintoretto, where the same sensuality as seen in Botticelli is supplemented by a sense of texture and surface lacking in Florentine art, followed by Caravaggio where the gallery houses his extraordinary Medusa, placed alongside works influenced by Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro technique, such as Gentileschi. The Uffizi does diverge from Vasari’s grand narrative in the galleries given up to Northern European art he would have seen as barbarous, with series of works by Memling, Weyden, Durer, Cranach and Holbein. I still feel that Northern European art was the superior of the two, with Memling and Weyden bringing the same sense of individuality to religious paintings as Cranach and Holbein did to portraiture. By contrast, Del Sarto’s paintings gain from small incidental details, as in Madonna of the Harpies rather than in the depiction of the personae themselves.

After the Uffizi, it’s perhaps inevitable that the Accademia is something of a disappointment. It does have excellent paintings by Ghirlandaio, Lippi, Bartholemo and Perugino, but it is ultimately of note for only one thing: Michaelangelo’s David. It is quite an odd experience seeing the original having seen replicas and images of it so many times, particularly given that the scale of the original does seem to diminish many of the sculpture’s flaws, like the lack of proportion to the hands and face. The Accademia is also running an exhibition of Bartolini’s works, ranging from a copper bust of Napoleon to a plaster bust of Liszt. The collection of his plaster casts, many of them for works I’d seen at Pisa, is also rather striking, albeit rather perversely for presenting the imperfect in a city more renowned for the opposite. In contrast to the Accademia, the Bargello’s collection is rather less reliant on a single piece, with its central courtyard being filled with pieces by Ammannati before one passes into a gallery dominated by Michaleangelo’s Bacchus and Cellini’s coquettish Ganymede. Again, the rather blatant gay sexuality is rather surprising. Inevitably, the highlight is David once again, this time in Donatello’s rendition. Where Michaelangelo emphasises the masculine, Donatello’s interpretation with its feathered hat is more androgynous, something that must have seemed rather more apparent with the original gilding. Other things that leap out include Giambologna’s bird sculptures, Ghiberti’s Baptistery panels and Limoges reliquaries.

Florence’s smaller museums and galleries offer more idiosyncratic views onto its history, like the San Marco monastery with its series of Fra Angelico frescos in each monk’s cell (very frequently of the same scene, with the crucifixion being the most common; a form of renaissance mass production). The church of the same name is striking for its Byzantine mosaic, one of the few in evidence in Florence. The Archaeological Museum proves to have an exceptional collection of Etruscan and Roman artefacts, from sarcophaguses that retain their original paint, the wonderfully fantastic Chimera of Arezzo to the Idolino of Pesaro. The Egyptian section is housed in Victorian galleries painted in an Egyptianate style from lotus columns to stars on the ceiling. The Egyptian collection is also rather impressive, from a relief of the Goddess Mut to a large collection of sarcophagi.

The Botanical garden in Florence is rather small but it does afford some welcome relief on an oppressively hot and humid day. Water lilies bloom in the pond near the Lotus reeds, while a Wollemi pine and a Medlar tree grow nearby. Walking round periodically leads indignant cats to emerge from beneath the undergrowth with their sleep interrupted; a set of kennels at the back of the garden suggests they are on the staff. Nearby is the Scalzi cloister, with its monochrome Del Sarto frescos and skull motifs on the columns. The Synagogue is one of the striking buildings on the Florentine skyline, with its copper dome and pink marble facade and proves to be having an open day that afternoon. The interior presents a trompe l’oeil set of Moorish designs.

Pisa forms as much of a contrast to Florence as Venice does. The enormous plain of the field of Miracles is unlike anything in Florence’s cramped streets. Two colours, the white of the stone and the green of the grass starkly dominate the entire scene, while the architecture itself forms a synthesis of the Romanesque and Moorish, with the occasional element of early Gothic decoration. The first building I visit is the Baptistery whose cavernous interior forms something of a contrast to the cathedral, where Cimabue’s apse mosaics compete with Pisano’s pulpit sculptures, Del Sarto’s paintings and Galileo’s lamp hanging down from the panelled ceiling. I find myself agreeing with Ruskin that the cemetery is the outstanding building; a Gothic cloister containing sarcophagi from the Roman, Etruscan and Medieval periods through to the Renaissance and the nineteenth century, so that tombs by Ammannati and Pisano appear next to work by Bartolini, Dupre and Thorvaldsen in front of frescos depicting hell, Genesis, the last judgement and the triumph of death. The cemetery is in many respects a self contained history of how the universe has been mythologised, from Mithras slaying the demon bull, through to medieval memento mori through to weeping angels. Inevitably, once I’ve finished with the cemetery, this leaves the tower, which is perhaps the least interesting building on the Field of Miracles, although I do find myself somewhat surprised by the extent of its lean. Last but not last, the museum contains a number of items like the original Hispano-Islamic griffin that sat atop the cathedral roof and sinopie drawings of the Campo Santo frescos. I then walk back past the ruins of the old fortress and across the Arno to one of Pisa’s smaller but underrated buildings; the church of Santa Maria del Spina, a tiny gothic chapel by the side of the river. I then walk past the old cathedral of St Paul on the Arno (closed for renovation) and the somewhat dilapidated Chapel of St Agatha, which has weeds growing out of its roof.

In Siena, the hill winds its way to the central Campo and from thence to the elaborate gothic cathedral. The interior is rather more elaborate than either Florence or Pisa, with a star pattern on the ceiling, marbled striping on the pillars, sculpture by Pisano, Della Quercia and Becafumi and an allegorical mosaic pavement on the floor. Side chapels act as hosts to Bernini and Donatello sculptures, but the most striking parts of the building are the Piccolomini library with its Pinturicchio frescos and the Baptistery with its Pietro frescos and Donatello sculptures. The hospital of Santa Maria della Scala opposite the cathedral proves rather labyrinthine on the inside, with a set of frescos above ground giving way to an apparently endless series of corridors and rooms that form the city’s archaeological museum, comprising a series of reliquaries, Etruscan funerary monuments and a cart formerly used in religious processions. Outside again, the city’s campo by virtue of amphitheatre shape invites comparison with a stage in the way it frames the Palazzo Pubblico, the only interruption being a Della Quercia fountain. The interior of the Palazzo certainly does bear comparison to Doge’s Palace in Venice with Simone Martini’s allegories of justice, good government and the Virgin as the city’s patron in its central chamber, frescos by Beccafumi through to Sala del Risorgimento, with its nineteenth century continuation of the palace’s historical themes. The palace museum holds a gold rose tree crown, a gift to the city from the Papacy.