Monday, 5 September 2016

Postcard from Florence 4: Encounters with Art

If you have the slightest interest in art history you can't really go to Florence and not visit the Uffizi. Well, you can, obviously  – I have visited Paris a number of times, but so far failed to visit the Louvre – but the Uffizi is different from most famous European art collections: the Uffizi is Renaissance Florence. The vast, rich collection belongs there, even if it was in the main assembled and commissioned by a megalomaniac family of banker-gangsters. It's not some imperial treasure-house of random looting like, say, the National Gallery in London.

As I said in a previous postcard, getting in during high season takes some effort, in the form of pre-booking and queueing. Getting around the gallery takes effort, too, in the form of leg-work, neck-work, and at times elbow-work. It's a big, busy, palaceful of art, and there's an awful lot to see spread over several floors, with quite a few hotspots which are always crowded and bristling with cameras, phones, and selfie-sticks. I wonder if there is ever a moment – perhaps 10 seconds long, perhaps early on a rainy day deep in midwinter – when you can actually see the whole of Botticelli's Primavera? Quite possibly not. It's all a bit too reminiscent of the January sales, an exhausting succession of people jostling in front of paintings, people surrounding statues, people aimlessly milling about in front of more paintings, people gazing over each others' shoulders into cabinets, people queueing for the toilets* and the coffee bar, and I have rarely felt so comprehensively arted-out as when, finally, hours later, we stumbled out into the fresh air, only to be assaulted by the gigantic statuary arrayed about the Piazza della Signoria, bustling with yet more crowds of people with their cameras, phones, and selfie sticks. Noooo....

Frankly, I'm not wild about Renaissance art. All those Biblical scenes and martyrdoms, all those classical myths and legends, all that drapery and idealised anatomy... You need to have a much firmer grip on your Ovid and your Christian symbology than I do to make sense of it. So which Mary is that, anyway? The blue one or the one with the hair? Or is it some Greek goddess? Or maybe it's that nymph Wotsername who was turned into a whale by Zeus for refusing to have sex with him? No, you're thinking of Douglas Adams! What, Douglas Adams refused to have sex with Zeus? (OK, fine, suit yourself, insert your own humorous-facetious Renaissance art sketch... Not as easy as you think; why, even the cartoons are unfunny – ting!).

The most surprising thing I learned, by listening in on a tour guide's spiel, was that the woman surfing on a half-shell in Botticelli's Birth of Venus – over on the other side of the crowded room from his Primavera – is rumoured to have been modelled by Simonetta Vespucci, wife of explorer Amerigo Vespucci, after whom Vespucciland is named. Although, according to my fact-checkers, she was actually only very tenuously related to Amerigo by marriage to the son of a distant cousin, which just goes to show you shouldn't believe tour guides.

Trapped in a Palace of Art, they gazed
longingly upon the Real World

A couple of pictures did stop me in my tracks, though. In particular, a Crucifixion with Mary Magdalen by Luca Signorelli (1460-1523). The official description says, "The figures of Christ and the Magdalen stand out starkly against the sky" but, unless Signorelli had access to aerial transport of some kind (admittedly, something Florentine tinkerer Leonardo da Vinci had been working on) what we are looking at is not just the sky, nor is it a cloudscape seen from above – something no-one other than angels had ever yet seen (though angels were much more common in those days, if the paintings are any evidence) – but is, surely, a snow scene? At least, that's how it looked to me – white hedges casting long winter shadows across a field of unbroken snow – and the imaginative juxtaposition of the Middle East and a snow-covered field somewhere in northern Europe literally gave me the chills.

Most of all, though, I enjoyed the corridors, with their veiled views of the city outside, punctuated with Roman statuary and Renaissance busts and portraits, underneath a ceiling decorated with the most extraordinary and inventive 16th century "grotesque" mannerist frescos by Alessandro Allori. If you're ever in the Uffizi, don't forget to look up: otherwise you'll miss some of the best painting in the entire palace.

If you want a more intimate encounter with art which was, after all, intended to be a contemplative experience, and not a contact sport, there are better places. Many people recommend the Medici Riccardi Palace, which is certainly worth a visit, but we preferred the Museo di San Marco. This is an extraordinary place, originally a Dominican monastery which housed in its heyday, inter alia, a strong candidate for Best Painter Ever (Religious Category), Guido di Pietro a.k.a. Fra Giovanni da Fiesole a.k.a. Fra Angelico, not to mention the intriguing figure of Girolamo Savonarola. Having a painter of the quality of Fra Angelico arrive in-house was clearly an opportunity not to be passed up, and he seems to have been encouraged to decorate every flat surface available. In fact, I suspect surfaces may have been specially flattened just so he could decorate them; it's a bit like a highly-sophisticated indoors tagging job.

Remarkably, the individual monks' cells have survived intact; they're larger than I'd imagined, and certainly bigger than a typical student residence – Savonarola had a suite of two. And each cell has been given a personalised painted aid to contemplation, many by the Angelic Brother Giovanni himself.

Most amazing of all, there is so much painting and fresco about the place that you can stand, unsupervised, within touching distance of unprotected artworks and painted plaster dating to the 15th and 16th centuries. No queues, no crowds, no selfie-sticks. Just you and the angelic brushwork of various richly-talented brothers who, in another time, would have been strutting their stuff in quite different ways and places.

Inevitably, I suppose, it brought to mind Robert Browning's poem "Fra Lippo Lippi" which, though long, is well worth a read if you don't know it, and is as interesting a meditation on the nature of art and its uneasy relations with the monastic life and religion as you'll find anywhere.
... Six words there,
While I stood munching my first bread that month:
"So, boy, you're minded," quoth the good fat father
Wiping his own mouth, 'twas refection-time,—
"To quit this very miserable world?
Will you renounce" . . . The mouthful of bread? thought I;
By no means! Brief, they made a monk of me;
I did renounce the world, its pride and greed,
Palace, farm, villa, shop, and banking-house,
Trash, such as these poor devils of Medici
Have given their hearts to — all at eight years old.
Well, sir, I found in time, you may be sure,
'Twas not for nothing — the good bellyful,
The warm serge and the rope that goes all round,
And day-long blessed idleness beside!
from Fra Lippo Lippi
Drawing by Fra Filippo Lippi
on the reverse of a painting
(Medici Riccardi Palace)

* Worst. Gallery. Toilets. Ever. Srsly! Apart from being a lengthy walk down into the dungeons, I have never, ever encountered male toilets in a major tourist attraction before WITH NO URINALS!!


Zouk Delors said...

"even the cartoons are unfunny"

Course, you know, the sense of humour must have changed over the years. Furthermore, it's Italianate. (I refer you -- once again -- to At The Art Gallery at 7:05).

"Worst. Gallery. Toilets. Ever."

Bet the grafitti were terribly sophisticated, though.

Mike C. said...


As I'm sure you know, in Italian grafitti are called "scribblings".


amolitor said...

Vespucciland. Nice.

Mike C. said...


Stolen from an old Firesign Theatre sketch... ("God bless Vespucciland!")


Zouk Delors said...

'... in Italian grafitti are called "scribblings"'

Of course. As in:

C'era solo quattro gatti di scribblings
There wasn't much grafitti

Gavin said...

We visited Florence with the kids last October on a wet Wednesday and it was quiet, though our experience of the Uffizi was limited to the greatest hits. I had managed to avoid an encounter with Primavera in any form until we saw it at the Uffizi and it was quite a revelation. Our youngest was more taken with the roman sarcophagi though explaining some of the scenes was a bit tricky (Is that a middle class problem?)

The bit of Florence they liked the best though was the sign on the wall inside the cathedral climbing up to the top of the dome that said "Do not Write on the Wall" It was mounted on a wall covered in graffiti. They loved that -

Mike C. said...


That's interesting -- I'm told there's rarely a lull in Venice, so Florence's tourist plague may be a summer-only thing. Mind you, if I did go back, I doubt I'd do the Uffizi again! Too many other things to see... We didn't do the Duomo, for a start -- the queues were insane.


Gavin said...

It was a day with plenty of heavy showers which may have put people off (I have lots of photos of wet marble) and we didn't queue at all for Duomo or the Uffizi though the gallery was't empty. We stayed in Pisa and visited Lucca as well (all by train) and we didn't queue anywhere - not even for the leaning tower.

Mike C. said...


October it is, then! I'll take an umbrella...