Florence is reputed the capital of the Italian Renaissance movement and it advertises this fact glaringly. There is no need for neon signs or giant billboards for this purpose because the very pavement stones of the city sprout works by the great Italian masters. Here is Brunelleschi’s mysterious dome, Giotto’s fabled tower, Fra Angelico’s ethereal frescoes, and Botticelli’s sublime Venus. Sculptures seem to have escaped the confines of palazzo courtyards and make their home in the open city center. Paintings defy the static walls of museums to glow and throb on cathedral altarpieces and staircase galleries. It is all too bewildering as I wander this town, whose streets still carry the darkened atmosphere of the Middle Ages.
Florence’s overabundance of fourteenth to sixteenth century art leaves me numb. I cannot grasp the real significance of the era or what Florence felt like to its artists. My favorite aspect of Renaissance art is its reverence for human emotions. The masters who excelled at elevating the mundane and simplifying the esoteric capture my interest. There are two such Renaissance creators whose works I want to focus on during my stay in the Tuscan capital. Both of them lived and worked in Florence and both successfully intertwined the sacred with the real, producing artwork that transcends its two-dimensional confinements and necessitates audience participation. I hope that by narrowing my vision to their masterpieces I can plunge into what they experienced of Florence and how it inspired their lives.
Gates of Paradise
Lorenzo Ghiberti’s greatest achievement lives in the entrance way of Florence’s St. John baptistery. He transformed its eastern door into gilded bronze stories of the Old Testament. A golden gleam emanates from this entrance, as if it really were the gateway to the heavens. The figures and landscape set into each of the ten panels look embalmed rather than carved. It is as if each story were a real moment in time that Ghiberti managed to freeze forever. Lorenzo must have had a love of animals, for his dioramas are filled with them: owls, deer, dogs, sheep, oxen all cavort along with the epic characters of old. They give this shining work of metal a playful and compassionate touch and remind me that life holds both moments of great consequence and incredible triviality. The presence of the animals in each of the door panels allows me to comprehend the struggles of Eve, Noah, and Abraham. Ghiberti’s work connects me through time to the shared human experience, and in doing so, elevates his creation.
While Michelangelo Buonarroti praised Ghiberti’s Baptistry doors as “gates of paradise,” it is Michelangelo’s own works that have changed the perspective of Western art. His classical sculpture of David is one of the most famous works in the world. Though David is a common figure in Western European art, Michelangelo is the first to depict the giant slayer without Goliath. This David is disturbingly physical, and he makes me wonder if stone can change magically into flesh at a moment’s notice. The giant slayer has an electric presence which makes me half afraid he will suddenly put his weight on his other foot and begin to use the sling he carries so lightly on his shoulder. I sense my own lips drawing in and my jaw clenching as I regard his face. In a single statue, Buonarroti has placed a whole world of emotion so that the statue is no longer an objet d’art, but rather a story in motion. I feel passionately connected to the work of marble I stare at and grasp the powerful message it was for Florentines of Michelangelo’s time.
The Sanctity of the Ordinary
Both Ghiberti and Buonarroti understood that there was a deep sanctity in the ordinary lives of humans. Perhaps they needed to look no further than their daily walks to and from their Florentine patrons. Today, as I circle the Piazza della Signoria and walk down the courtyard between the Uffizi, I imagine not much has changed on the streets of Florence. I am bombarded by heavy throngs of visitors, artisans, traders, and con men each excitedly grasping the moment in their own way. Hidden in one of the inescapable dark corners of the city, I turn from the artwork and watch the crowds as they haggle, argue, gawk, and scheme. I imagine these were the same type of scenes the Renaissance masters of Florence observed in their day, the same characters living their lives. The streets of Florence must have teemed with an abundance of raw material in human emotion, action, and ideas for Ghiberti, Michelangelo, and their fellow virtuosi. Perhaps this is the reason Da Vinci’s portraits carry with them their enigmatic smiles, as if to say to future generations, “If you only knew the things that I had seen….” Like the most rewarding of the Italian Renaissance masterpieces, Florence proclaims one thing loudly while hiding a deeper truth. On the surface it brazenly boasts of being a mummified portion of ancient history, while underneath it seethes and moves as an intensely alive city. In realizing this truth, I feel I have achieved my own rebirth in Florence.
Note: Ghiberti’s original bronze doors are housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo to protect them. The current doors of the Baptistry are a copy of his work. The original sculpture of David by Buonarroti can be found inside the Accademia di Belle Arti. A copy of his work stands where the original once stood outside the Palazzo Vecchio.
The city of Florence is a museum housing the works of great Italian Renaissance masters. Brunelleschi’s Duomo, Giotto’s frescoes at the Santa Croce, Raphael’s paintings at the Palazzo Pitti, and Fra Angelico’s works at the San Marco Convent are only a handful of the treasures to be experienced in Florence. The flowering of a new age in the arts can be witnessed daily in the streets, squares, and houses of Tuscany’s capital.
Enjoy Florence’s exceptional gourmet in Bespoke Traveler Journal: At The Table.