Feeling more like Frances Mayes in ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ than Lucy Honeychurch in ‘A Room with a View’, I was struck by the realisation that although I have been visiting Florence for almost 20 years, this time it felt more vital and more relevant than ever before. At present there is much discussion in the media regarding the economic relevance of History of Art and I have been viewing the History of Art trip to Florence in light of this debate.
Italy welcomed us (the LVI Form girls who are studying History of Art, with accompanying teachers) with warm sunshine and blue sky – a marked contrast to the terrible conditions that we had left behind. On arrival we orientated ourselves and headed for our very first pizza (from a wood burning oven of course!) via the Ponte Vecchio. The distinctive bridge still houses the medieval workshops that produced the gold jewellery and coins that gave rise to Florence as the centre of European banking during the Early Renaissance. As we walked past the former Guilds’ church of Orsanmichele and were simultaneously confronted with huge billboards advertising the most exclusive of Italian fashions we were reminded at every juncture of the economic reality of the convergent historical and contemporary setting. We finished off our first evening in the Piazza della Repubblica – an important backdrop to Italy’s Risorgimento struggles of the 19th century and site of important historical cafés such as Il Giubbe Rosse, where Futurist artists and poets met and wrote their incendiary manifestos.
On Saturday morning the real work began and our first visit took us to the Bargello, now home to Italy’s foremost collection of sculpture. The Bargello was, until fairly recently, a prison, and we speculated on the original function of the ominous iron rings suspended from the high vaulted ceiling. The focus for study was a detailed examination of Donatello’s David and St George which although different in medium and style, expressed the same desire on the part of the patron to convey economic and social status through the use of the new visual language of the Early Renaissance. The importance of grasping atmosphere and scale in a way that is impossible through reproductions was confirmed by our next visit to the Pazzi Chapel. Brunelleschi’s perfect example of proportional planning was commissioned by the rivals of the Medici family for private worship. However, the Classical vocabulary became a vehicle for the articulation of values not only associated with learning but also with power, control and economic strength.
In the afternoon it became the turn of painting to command our attention and we moved on to explore Masaccio and Masolino’s contributions to the Brancacci Chapel. Through the theme of the life of St Peter, the frescos negotiated temporal and spiritual concerns through a new visual language based on the antique. Masaccio’s Tribute Money demonstrates that the issue of taxation was as pertinent in 1425 as it is now and we used our ‘microscopic eyes’ to spot the coin secreted in the mouth of the fish discovered by Peter, which is the clue to the painting’s central meaning.
The next stop on the itinerary was the Medieval town of Pisa. Due to its position by the sea, Pisa was even more powerful than Florence in the Middle Ages and occupied a role in Italy’s foreign ventures equal to that of the more famous maritime republics of Amalfi, Venice and Genoa. It was the wealth generated by trading and crusading enterprises that facilitated the construction of the Cathedral and Baptistery complex, including the bell tower that began leaning at the time of construction due to a design fault.
On Sunday morning we made an early start and arrived at the Medici Palace ready to be awed by its large overhanging cornice, rusticated exterior and medieval bifora windows. This foreboding exterior only made the serenity and antique grace of the classical interior even more enticing. Hidden deep in the interior of the palazzo, the chapel, decorated with jewel-like frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli celebrated both the Adoration of the Magi as well as the Medici family who participated in the procession via their personification as members of the crowd. Intended to surpass Gentile da Fabriano’s Strozzi Altarpiece commissioned by yet another rival of the Medici – Palla Strozzi, both paintings represent a taste for conspicuous consumption that characterised the Early Renaissance as much as esoteric symbolism and sophisticated use of Geometry and Maths.
In the afternoon we were fortunate enough to spend four hours in the Uffizi, undertaking both a broad chronological survey of Italian painting as well as detailed observation of specific examples through note taking. The girls worked very hard in the Botticelli room and were finally able to encounter Primavera which had been the topic of lessons prior to leaving school. Not only were we shocked by its large scale but also enthralled by the mysterious combination of Neo-Platonic symbolism and ethereal beauty that continues to beguile and makes the umbrellas, place mats and fridge magnets on sale in the shop seem even more incongruous.
In the evening we returned to our favourite ‘Pizzeria Dante’ for our final meal which was followed by an architectural tour of the lesser known sites of Florence and culminated in a discussion of Alberti’s Santa Maria Novella. Accompanied by the painful lament of street music, we recalled Giovanna Tornabuouni who has featured strongly in our studies and is buried in one of the distinctive walled tombs located in the exterior.
On Monday morning our last few hours were spent in the Cathedral Museum examining Ghiberti’s magnificent bronze doors which he completed for the East entrance to the Baptistery. Entirely gilded, these doors complemented his first set which are still in situ on the North façade and once more demonstrate the close relationship between Guild patronage, financial and artistic success.
We enjoyed one last cappuccino and ice cream and made our way to the airport ready to tackle the mock examinations with vigour, secure in the knowledge that the examples needed for the examination will be safely lodged in our memories. On the other hand, some of us have essays to write on Ezra Pound and will surely empathise with his deep understanding of the importance of Italian art to our relationship with both the past and the future.
Dr Penelope Wickson
Head of History of Art