Less than two weeks ago as I write this, I up and decided to go to Florence, Italy for a week. I’d never been, and of course it is a must-see for any artist. On Monday, Oct. 24 I bought a plane ticket and made a hotel reservation, and on Thursday, Oct. 27 I went. It doesn’t take much lead time for me to prepare for a big trip but that was short even for me! I got the 2011 Rick Steves Guide to Florence and Tuscany from our local library and pored over it in en route. I spent four full days in Florence and one in Siena.
The guide book suggested allowing two hours at the Uffizi Gallery, but it took twice that for me work my way through. It was wonderful to spend quality time with so much pre-Reniassance and Renaissance art that I’d only ever seen in books. Books are a must, but what you can’t ever get from them is the richness and depth of the colors, the delicacy of the details, the feeling of being there with the artist and understanding better why the piece was special in its day and still.
There were three artworks that stood out for me during my trip. The first was a marble Roman bust from a thousand years before the Renaissance, at the Uffizi. Most Roman sculpture doesn’t impress me much, because so many are copies of Greek originals. This one was different; it was a portrait of an average-looking 40-something man, complete with whisker stubble and irises and reflections carved in the eyes. I’d never seen it before; I so wanted to take a photo of it, but photography is not allowed in the Uffizi. As I stood directly in front of it, my nose six inches from “his”, I kept freaking myself out thinking he was going to blink or move or smile–it was that lifelike.
The second artwork that stood out for me was Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation”, painted on an interior wall of the Museum of San Marco, which was a monastery when he was there. I’ve always liked the angel’s wings, but what I never knew before was that they sparkle! Fra Angelico actually mixed gold “glitter” into the paint he used on the angel’s wings to heighten the sense of specialness of the angel and his message to Mary. I could’ve stood before this big fresco for hours.
The third artwork that stood out was one everyone knows: Michelangelo’s David, at the Accademia. I really didn’t expect much of it, because of its familiarity: “Yeah, okay, it’s David.” But it surprised me and I ended up spending 45 minutes with it. What you don’t get from books is how the subtle blue veins in the marble add to his realism, and the ability to walk all the way around it, up close, appreciating its perfection from so many angles. It’s a composition in 3D, and Michelangelo missed no details at all in the forms of human bone, muscle and skin. That he was only 26 when he made it, out of a block of marble that had been rejected by several other sculptors, only makes it more remarkable.
If you’ve never studied art history, or did but only because you had to, you might think of the Renaissance as simply “the time when artists finally figured out how to paint and sculpt.” What really prompted it was the Florentines’ growing objection to the political power of the Pope and Church. This in turn caused their collective attention to turn away from purely biblical/liturgical subject matter and seek to understand and interpret the real world with real human figures. The sciences were similarly affected. There was a lot of political friction as a result, and in fact Michelangelo was afraid for his life for awhile!
I could write so much more about my trip, but I’ll just leave off with the confirmation that yes, Florence really is all that! Absolutely brimming with stunning art and architecture, worth several days of exploration.
The Duomo and me
Closeup of an illuminated manuscript. The details seem infinite.