Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum

Archive view of the Arno looking west. Museo Bellini is further downstream on the left bank.

Almost the first house you come to on the peaceful Lungarno Soderini (which skirts the Arno as it flows downstream away from the centre of Florence) is the Museo Bellini, in a charming small building designed at the turn of the last century by the eccentric architect Gino Coppedè for Luigi Bellini, the most famous collector and antiquarian in a family still dedicated to this activity (and who still live here). A wisteria in the garden climbs all the way along the front across the little balcony. It was built specifically to house the Bellini collection, put together by generations of the family since the mid-18th century (and is connected to their residence by a spiral stair). The interior is filled with many precious works of art: paintings and sculptures; genuine, unrestored 15th- and 16th-century furniture; majolica and works by the Della Robbia, and small bronzes. The present Luigi Bellini tells of travels in Italy with his father when just a young child: while waiting outside a house while a transaction was underway he would open his bag and play with the small bronzes he found there.

The property is much larger than it appears from the river front: it stretches all the way back to Borgo San Frediano, and the rooms get older as the property recedes. The oldest part, Palazzo Soderini, dates from the 15th century or even earlier.

The atmosphere is unforgettable and it seems almost superfluous to name some of the treasures, or to be too fussy over the attributions (perhaps sometimes over-ambitious) and dates. But to give an idea of the diversity, there are paintings by Bronzino, Suttermans, Luca Carnevalis (a view of Venice), Guidoriccio Cozzarelli (two gold-ground panels with saints), and even a little private altar of the Madonna with the standing Child attributed to Fra’ Angelico (the doors of the tabernacle are opened for you). But it is perhaps the Cupid and Psyche, thought to be by Rubens, which is the most striking painting of all. The painted wood sculpture includes two beautiful pieces by Francesco da Valdambrino, and there is a splendid collection of small Renaissance bronzes (some of them charmingly displayed in a 16th-century sacristy cupboard). There is also a painted papier-mâché bust of a female saint showing affinities with Donatello and a female bust in wood (which still has its real lace bonnet intact) probably by Neroccio di Bartolomeo Landi (this, together with other pieces, was purchased in an early 20th-century sale at Palazzo Davanzati).  A very fine polychrome stucco bas-relief of the Deposition is given to the hand of Bandinelli. The majolica comes from the best known manufactories in Italy and there is very rare early Hispano-Moresque lustreware.

The rooms are dimly lit, some of the walls lined with velvet, others with lovely tapestries, and there are worn carpets underfoot. The atmosphere is that of a treasure-trove of other days when collecting was an art performed by connoisseurs who, one feels, surely purchased objects for their intrinsic beauty rather than their monetary value.

NB: Visits to the museum are by previous appointment. T: 055 214031

or contact through www.bellinmuseum.org.

After the visit it is worth continuing along the Lungarno as far as the piazza in front of the church of San Frediano in Cestello (open 9.30–11.30 & 5-6.30): after rain the sound of the waters of the Arno as they flow over a dyke in the river are reflected off the bare façade. The interior is interesting for its late 17th- and early 18th-century painted decorations and a lovely polychrome wood statue of the Madonna (all described in Blue Guide Florence). From here there is a charming view of the humble houses and terraces of the district of San Frediano in the Oltrarno.

by Alta Macadam. Alta is the author of many Blue Guides to Italy. She is currently working on a new edition of Blue Guide Rome.

Cutting-edge mosque design in Albania

Albania, largely a Muslim country during the long Ottoman occupation, albeit with Christian and Jewish minorities, became an officially atheist state in 1967. The practice of any form of any religion was banned, cultic buildings were either destroyed or simply abandoned and allowed to crumble. In the early 1990s, during the turmoil that shook the Balkans and, further east, the Soviet Union, Albania came out of its seclusion, rekindling contacts with the West. Many people left the country in search of a better life abroad. The ban on religion was lifted but with no dramatic results. Twenty odd years of enforced atheism seemed to have smothered any feelings in that direction. Albanian society today can be described as largely secular. Sparsely dotted here and there, one can see old buildings with new crosses, replacements of those taken down; old mosques that have been restored; and a few new structures. The dearth of synagogues may be due to the flight of the Jewish community to Israel. On the whole, religious practice is very muted. Church bells, with their distinctive dry and sharp sound are rarely heard, muezzins seem to call the faithful only twice a day and even then their call is low key, almost apologetic and only lasts a couple of sentences. Not all villages have a mosque or a church: they are altogether pretty thin on the ground.

In the south, in the hinterland on a secondary road to Delvina from Saranda, in a small village that has no name since the practice of road signing is still in its infancy (adding an extra challenge to driving), is the mosque in the picture. It sits by the road and cannot be missed. It is not yet finished and the interior is still full of bags of cement while the surroundings need landscaping and a fountain for ritual ablutions. The style is interesting, though: it is new for Albania and for mosques in general. Other buildings of this sort tend to be rectangular and rather squat, with a dome covered in shiny material and a pencil minaret. They conform to a type that one can see in Turkey, for instance. Indeed, some of the new Albanian mosques are the bequests of the Turkish people. This one, with its stark outside, daring lines and imaginative architecture, is truly a departure from the standard model. It is small but better proportioned. The blue sky of the August sun (when the picture was taken) makes a wonderful background. The crooked minaret, asymmetric dome and new style windows are arresting. It will be interesting to see how the light plays inside. Albania has not been particularly noted for its architecture. Now, at long last, it is putting its name on the map.

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Crete and three Blue Guide e-chapters on Turkey. A fourth, covering Central Anatolia, is in production. For the special reprint edition of Blue Guide Albania & Kosovo, see here.

St Francis in Florence

For anyone in Florence, there are only a few more days left to catch this important exhibition at the Galleria dell’Accademia (closes 9th November) dedicated to art inspired by Italy’s most famous saint. Unfortunately it has limited space and the crowds of visitors who come to the Accademia just to see Michelangelo’s David produce an atmosphere anything but an inducement to a peaceful quiet study of the pieces on exhibition—but don’t be put off!

Trial by Fire before the Sultan, on loan from the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

The first exhibit is an ivory horn which almost certainly belonged to Francis himself. Tradition says that it was given to him by the learned Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, an extremely cultured man, whom Francis is known to have met on his visit to Egypt during the troubled times of the Fifth Crusade. Francis had sailed from Ancona in 1219 and was in Egypt that summer and managed to obtain an audience with the Sultan who received him kindly and with due respect in the presence of his most learned councillors. It was at this meeting that Francis walked across fire unscathed (trial by fire was recognized as a means of solving disputes), but the costly gifts the Sultan offered to Francis were all refused except this hunting horn, since Francis had seen its utility when in Egypt and decided he could use it when back in Italy to call his brothers to prayer. It became one of the most precious relics associated with him (today it is  preserved in Assisi). The silver mount was added some hundred years after the saint’s death.

A simple 13th-century bronze reliquary chest from Ognissanti in Florence, which once contained the habit Francis was wearing when he received the stigmata at La Verna, is displayed beside the horn (part of the habit, after many vicissitudes, is supposed to be that preserved at La Verna today). The V& A have lent a precious little 14th-century seal which depicts the vision of a Englishman, Aimone (Haymo) born in Faversham (Kent), who had a vision in 1222 of Francis lowering his knotted girdle to two fishermen in a boat (the scene is charmingly depicted on the seal). As a result Aimone became a Franciscan and his fame was such that he even succeeded Fra’ Elia as minister general of the Order in 1240 and remained in Italy, where he died four years later.

The main part of the exhibition is naturally devoted to images of St Francis and this is an opportunity to see the numerous different ways he was portrayed from the 13th to the 15th century. One of the earliest and most important paintings, dating from c. 1230, is from Pisa showing Francis surrounded by six scenes of his miracles by Giunta Pisano (properly called Giunta di Capitino), who worked for the Franciscans for some 30 years. Dating from around 20 years later, the painting of St Francis with eight stories from his life is a well-known work from Pistoia (where the Franciscans were established by 1232), and has many similarities with the earlier panel. A series of paintings all dating from the mid-13th century show Francis surrounded by little scenes from his life. Another familiar mid-13th century icon of the saint is that first produced by Margarito d’Arezzo and five of these are displayed together: Francis is depicted standing in his habit with a hooded cowl holding a book, and showing the signs of his stigmata. This became a prototype and many replicas were made (as well as fakes) of this image. But the most striking portrait of St Francis is that by the great painter Cimabue, dating from 1280 and still preserved in Assisi: it shows the poverello standing and bare-headed in a simple pose holding a book bound in red. This is generally considered to be one of the most authentic portraits to have survived from this time.

After Francis received the stigmata from the Cross, painted Crosses naturally became very popular and were always in need to decorate Franciscan churches. Beautiful examples in the exhibition include one (c. 1236, now in Assisi) of the three still extant signed by Giunta di Capitino. Another one from Faenza is by a master named the ‘Maestro dei Crocifissi Francescani’ because he became so well known for Crosses like this one.

The rule of the Order sanctioned by Honorius III in 1223 specified that the friars should also be concerned with preaching to the Saracens and non-Christians. Some of the friars’ travels through Asia as far as China, and the history of their encounter with the Mongols, are documented in the excellent catalogue. The Franciscans also have a centuries’-old role as custodians of Christian sites in the Holy Land (by 1348 we know that 20 Friars Minor were living in Bethlehem). On display from their museum in Jerusalem are sculptural fragments, antiphonals, pilgrims’ lamps and ampullae for Holy Oil, and a crosier in gilded copper with enamel decoration. Inscriptions in Arabic have been lent by another Franciscan Museum on Mount Tabor in Galilee. But these pieces only underline how little we know in Europe about the Franciscans in the East.

Later works include an exquisite small Crucifixion painted by Ugolino di Nerio (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and a superb large Maestà (c. 1320) by a painter who is known as the ‘Maestro di Figline’ from this work and which is here because it shows St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Louis of Toulouse (who is trampling his crown underfoot), both of them Franciscan saints, suitably dressed in the Franciscan habit. This comes from the small Tuscan town of Figline and is one of the most beautiful paintings in all Italy of its date. Another lovely painting on display, but dating from the late 15th century, is St Francis receiving the Stigmata by Bartolomeo della Gatta (from the little town of Castiglion Fiorentino on the southern border of Tuscany), which shows the saint in the presence of the astonished Fra’ Leone, in a beautiful rocky landscape recalling La Verna with a barn owl looking on as the golden stigmata descend from the  Cross in the sky to end in bright stars (instead of the more usual macabre ‘holes’) on the saint’s hands and feet. La Verna (described in detail in Blue Guide Tuscany and Blue Guide Central Italy) in the Casentino near Florence was where Francis received the stigmata in 1224.

There is also a room devoted to works made for Florence’s great Franciscan church of Santa Croce. These include the little painted panels in gilded quatrefoil frames which were once part of a huge sacristy cupboard and which illustrate the life of Christ in parallel to that of St Francis. These are now preserved in the Galleria dell’Accademia itself, although four of them were lost to Munich and Berlin in the 19th centuryand only one has been lent for the exhibition (but it is the one which shows the Trial by Fire before the Sultan). Also here is the fascinating fresco which was detached from the first cloister of the church and is of particular interest because it includes one of the very first views of the Baptistery beside the old façade of the Duomo, but is here because it portrays the arrival of the Friars Minor in Florence in the winter of 1209 led by the first follower of St Francis, Fra’ Bernardo da Quintavalle: the group of Franciscans are shown refusing charity from officers in the cathedral who have failed to recognize them. For this occasion the fresco has been given a new attribution to the little-known Pietro Nelli.

Arguably the most beautiful of all paintings of St Francis (which includes 20 stories from his life) has also been brought here from Santa Croce (the Bardi Chapel). Dating from the 1240s, it provided the most complete illustration of episodes in the saint’s life before Giotto’s frescoes in the upper church in Assisi, and includes the scene of him preaching before the Sultan and a group of Muslims in their turbans, as next to the more familiar scene of him preaching to the birds. Its attribution to Coppo di Marcovaldo, the most important painter in Florence before Cimabue, is now generally accepted, and seems more than ever likely now the panel has been beautifully restored especially for this exhibition.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence and many other Blue Guides to Italy.