News from Florence: The Uffizi

At the time of writing this article, Italy was experiencing its second wave of Covid-19 and we were all being invited to stay at home as much as possible to avoid another lockdown. Museums and galleries were still open, even though theatres and concert halls were closed. Since then, however, museums too have had to close their doors and—with the dramatic drop in visitor numbers that this necessarily means—directors are thinking hard about how to plan for the future. 

Until the latest closure, there was much to report about the activity of the Gallerie degli Uffizi. The director, Eike Schmidt (who, Florentines were concerned to hear, has himself fallen victim to Covid-19 and is isolating at home), has opened or reopened many more rooms: in 2019 masterpieces by Bronzino, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese were all rehung. The worksite, known for decades as the ‘nuovi Uffizi’ or ‘grandi Uffizi’ has finally been given an end date: 2024. 

Meanwhile the Corridoio Vasariano is set to reopen in 2022 and for the first time in its history it will be decorated with ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and inscriptions. Now that Palazzo Pitti and the Galleria degli Uffizi are united under a single directorship, the corridor will become the natural link between the two, with an exit to Palazzo Pitti. The walkway (nearly a kilometre long), which passes over the Arno by Ponte Vecchio, is especially wonderful for the unique views it gives of the city through its little round windows. Over the past 60 years, many directors attempted to reopen it fully but none succeeded and latterly it had become an expensive ‘extra tour’ offered by travel agencies, accessible only by booking months ahead and given a rather exaggerated ‘off the beaten track’ appeal. Now, thankfully, it is to become part of the visit to the Uffizi and work should begin in 2021.

Another piece of good news is that the Uffizi’s official website, with its easy booking system, is now up and running after the director successfully saw off a number of organisations with websites posing as ‘official Uffizi ticket vendors’. The website also has a catalogue of all the works on display and you can make a virtual tour of part of the gallery. 

Government funds have also been made available to proceed with the loggia designed by Arata Isosaki. In 1998, Isozaki won an international competition to design a new entrance to the Uffizi. Protests immediately ensued—understandably, since the new design would encroach on the integrity of the the remarkable urban space created by Vasari. Isozaki’s winning entry will now be used as a new exit, on the other side of the building (although its detractors still consider that the proposed gigantic loggia will represent an unforgivable intrusion into the heart of Florence, just metres away from Palazzo Vecchio). The present director argues that it should be seen as a contemporary interpretation of a classical Renaissance loggia. If, as he has suggested, it is up and functioning by Christmas 2024, we will find out whether others share his view. The area designated for its construction has for years been a building site, abandoned behind hoardings, so there will be some relief that at least the present unsightly exit will no longer exist. Nevertheless, it is tempting to wonder if the size of the loggia couldn’t be modified, to help it settle more comfortably into the Florence townscape.

The cityscape of Florence, with Palazzo Vecchio prominent in the centre. The Uffizi stretches behind it and the long façade of Palazzo Pitti is on the far right. How will this view be altered by Arata Isozaki’s new Uffizi Loggia? (Photo: © James Howells)

The dramatic drop in visitors because of Covid-19 remains a cause for concern. An experimental remedy by the Uffizi has been to take out advertisements in the national press, encouraging people to visit. This is an unprecedented move, aimed at Italians rather than tourists. This year Eike Schmidt even joined Chiara Ferragni, a famous influencer, who was at the Uffizi modelling for Vogue Hong Kong (an event which in itself must have brought a princely sum into the gallery’s coffers). The director made use of her visit for a much publicised ‘photo opportunity’—an Instagram selfie with Chiara in front of Botticelli’s Primavera—something which left many of Florence’s more traditional academics gasping. Schmidt was quick to point out that his photo-op had led to a considerable increase in young visitors to the gallery and had been an excellent marketing ploy, helping the Uffizi and its treasures to reach Chiara Ferragni’s 20 million followers. Critics from the ancien régime felt Schmidt had lowered himself to the role of ‘rock star’.

There has also been research into the attics and deposits of both the Pitti and the Uffizi, and three more ‘famous people’ have been found belonging to the series of portraits painted by Cristofano dell’Altissimo which forms an incredibly long frieze beneath the ceilings of the three corridors on the Uffizi’s second floor. They were commissioned by the Medici in 1552–89, copies of portraits collected by the historian Paolo Giovio, who died in 1552. One of the three is of the young Henry VIII of England, who will be able to take his place among this exalted company after restoration. We are told that another, better-known series of ‘famous men’, frescoed by Andrea del Castagno for a room in a villa in a suburb of Florence and which has been in the Uffizi (but rarely visible) since the mid-19thcentury, is finally to be given its own room in the gallery. 

In the last few months Schmidt has also suggested that some paintings could be returned to the churches from which they were removed. This might include Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna, painted for a chapel in Santa Maria Novella. It was moved from there to the Uffizi in 1948. However, Schmidt has also publicly recognised the complications involved. Such a move would naturally open up a whole debate. The reasoning behind the idea is to draw visitors to other places in Florence and ‘decentralise’ the Uffizi, creating a network of museums along the lines of a museo diffuso (a concept much in vogue in Italy at present, where visitor overcrowding at certain key sights has been a growing problem—at least before Covid-19). One of the buildings suitable for use in such a project could be the Medici Villa at Careggi, which has been inaccessible for decades. 

And finally, the Uffizi has recently welcomed the loan of Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), from the National Gallery in London, which is the centrepiece of an exhibition exploring the relationships between art and science (for an English video, see here).

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

An update on Dante

Domenicho di Michelino’s famous likeness of Dante in the Duomo of Florence.

Work is underway to plan next year’s celebrations for the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (see previous article posted here on 22 March this year “Dante Day”). In fact Sergio Mattarella, the Italian President, went to Ravenna on 6th September to open the events (albeit behind a mask) at the recently restored tomb of the great poet, who died in Ravenna in 1321.

There is talk of a reconciliation between Florence, Dante’s birthplace, and the town of Ravenna in Romagna across the Apennines where he died in sorrowful exile. Although the Tuscan city has numerous memorials to Dante—inside and outside the church of Santa Croce, on street plaques throughout the city, a copy of his death mask in Palazzo Vecchio—there has always been a feeling that the poet’s rightful resting place should also be in Florence (the Medici pope Leo X almost succeeded in having his remains moved there). Ravenna, however, points out that it was thanks to Franciscan friars in their city that the poet’s bones were preserved at all. His tomb, right beside their convent, is a disappointment at first glance: a gloomy mausoleum erected at the end of the 18th century with further ‘embellishments’ added in the first decades of the 20th century (during celebrations for the sixth centenary of his death), but it does preserve a relief of 1483 by the great Venetian sculptor Pietro Lombardo, which shows the poet in profile surrounded by his books. Florence in fact failed to commemorate her famous son until the 19thcentury, when a cumbersome statue was set up in the centre of Piazza Santa Croce (moved to a less conspicuous position a few years later) and a rhetorical monument was erected inside the basilica. The museum known as the Casa di Dante has no original works. It is perhaps the Baptistery of Florence which stands as the most moving testimony to Dante’s presence in the city he loved and where he once acted as a Prior. He was baptised here and recalls his ‘bel San Giovanni’ in the Commedia. In 1302 he was sentenced to death in his native city, and in order to save his life he never returned there, seeking refuge instead in other places in Italy, ending up in Ravenna where he was given a home and so was able to finish the Divina Commedia.

As part of the celebrations in Florence (even today seen by some as an opportunity to ‘reconcile’ Dante with his native city) there are plans to give the Dante Museum a much-needed face-lift, and also to put on permanent display the wonderful series of frescoes of famous men (which includes Dante by Andrea del Castagno) which for many years has been hidden away in an area of the Uffizi not normally open to the public. The delightful painting in the Duomo, of Dante ‘protecting’ Florence, has been chosen as the logo of the 2021 events. There will also be all sorts of theatrical events, readings and concerts.

Dantedì (‘Dante Day’), on 25th March, is to become an annual event. One of the most interesting events scheduled for next year is the inauguration of the Museo della Lingua Italiana, a museum of the Italian language, in part of the convent of Santa Maria Novella. There will be exhibitions at the Uffizi and at the Bargello, which will include editions of his works and the most famous of the commentaries. The Accademia della Crusca in the Medici villa of Castello will publish a Dante dictionary in recognition of the fact that it was Dante who established Tuscan as the literary vernacular of Italy. In Ravenna there will also be many important exhibitions, concerts and performances. Projects are going ahead despite fears about Covid-19—of course ‘virtual’ exhibitions and events are also a possibility. One of these has already begun here, where a a panel of a hundred artists, literary figures, journalists and people from all different walks of life, have each been asked to provide a commentary on one Canto of Dante’s opus

So the ‘bel paese’ (Dante, Inferno, canto XXXIII) is at least planning better days ahead, even linking concepts such as ‘unity’ and ‘Europe’ to its greatest poet.

by Alta Macadam

Artemisia Gentileschi

This month, a new exhibition devoted to the art of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was to have opened at the National Gallery in London. Blue Guides was to have visited the exhibition and posted a review of it. That will now have to wait.

Artemisia Gentileschi features in many Blue Guides, notably the volumes covering Rome, Florence and Southern Italy. She was particularly fond of biblical and religious scenes with a tough female protagonist (Samson and Delilah, Salome with the Head of the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes). London’s National Gallery recently acquired a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of St Catherine of Alexandria, the saint who was broken on the ‘Catherine wheel’. The entry on Gentileschi in Blue Guide Florence says the following:

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652). Talented and independent, Gentileschi trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, an artist who owed much to Caravaggio. She worked in Rome but moved to Florence to carry out commissions for Cosimo II de’ Medici. Dramatic Caraveggesque chiaroscuro certainly suited Artemisia’s choice of subject matter. She had a particular affinity for the story of Judith and Holofernes (her most famous treatment of the subject is in the Uffizi). Legend relates this to the fact that Artemisia was raped as a young woman and that her assailant was never brought to justice.


“Judith and Holofernes”. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

According to the National Gallery, this story was no legend. Artemisia was indeed raped and her assailant, though found guilty, was never fully punished. Her attacker, Agostino Tassi, enjoyed a career in Rome producing painted decorations for a number of palazzi and as assistant to Claude Lorrain. Blue Guide Rome, in its Glossary of Artists, merely mentions him as a “painter known for his landscapes. In Rome he worked alongside a number of other artists.” Perhaps, after this London exhibition, we might feel tempted to say more.

Apart from the Judith and Holofernes in the Uffizi, there is another version of the same scene, in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. It is that version that is pictured above. And you can read more about the National Gallery’s planned exhibition on Gentileschi here.

Letter from Italy

Virtual museum tours: some of the best

For professional guides in Italy this is, of course, a period in which they suddenly find themselves without work. However many museums, while closed to the public, have made it possible not only to consult their catalogues or browse the collections online but have also opened virtual exhibitions. The Uffizi in Florence is one such example.

Easter is usually the busiest time of year in Florence, with hundreds of thousands of visitors. The traditional Scoppio del Carro is held in Piazza del Duomo on Easter morning. This year, however, there will be no visitors and no events—even church services must be attended remotely. Spring is definitely on the way, however, and the plants and birds at least are enjoying the sun and clean air as never before. The Uffizi’s ‘The Easter Story’, an exhibition on the theme of the Resurrection, will help us to look forward to better times ahead.

And the Uffizi is not alone in its response. Lisa Corsi, a professional guide who lives in Florence, has investigated some of the most interesting websites available in English at this period of universal lockdown and shared her findings with Blue Guides.

Italy

1. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence offers various online exhibits at this link: www.uffizi.it/en/online-exhibitions Here is a list of the current online exhibits, all with high-definition pictures of Uffizi works of art.
– “Non per foco ma per divin’arte. Dantean echoes from the Uffizi Galleries”. An excursus on the figure of Dante and on his legacy in the works and in the minds of the artists.
– “On being present; recovering blackness at the Uffizi Gallery”. The idea is to understand and resignificate with a historic approach, the presence of black people in the Uffizi paintings.
– “In the light of the Angels; a journey through 12 masterpieces of the Uffizi Galleries, between human and divine”. This exhibit is all about Angels; from Giotto to Giovanni da San Giovanni, with very good pictures.
– “Today a Saviour has been born to you: the Uffizi Galleries’ paintings on the Nativity and Epiphany”. A thematic exhibition.
– “Following in Trajan’s Footsteps; a virtual exhibition on items from the reign of Trajan present in the Uffizi collections”.
– “The Room of Saturn in the Pitti Palace; a history of the arrangements in the Room of Saturn, from the 16th century to the present day”. I found this interesting, and it also includes the latest changes from 2018 in the room that features the largest group of paintings by Raphael.
– “#BotticelliSpringMarathon A virtual exhibition on the construction of the contemporary Botticelli myth through social media”. An excursus on the fame and fortune of Botticelli from the 19th century to social media.
– “The Easter Story: Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ among the artworks of the Uffizi Galleries”.
– “Views from around the World; an ‘intercultural vision’ of some masterpieces of the Uffizi Galleries”.
– “The Scenic Virtuality of a Painting: “Perseus Freeing Andromeda” by Piero di Cosimo. A masterpiece of the Florentine Renaissance depicting the myth recounted by Ovid in Book IV of the Metamorphoses”. An in-depth approach to one of the Uffizi’s most unusual paintings.
– “Between Human and Divine: Cimabue and the Santa Trinita Maestà”. Observing the details of one of the most important medieval paintings in the Uffizi collection.
– “New languages to communicate tradition: Vanished Florence. Images of the city in the 18th and 19th centuries, before it became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy” This is fun, though mostly aimed at people who know Florence quite well.
– “Painting and Drawing ‘like a Great Master’: the talent of Elisabetta Sirani (Bologna, 1638–55)”. An exhibit on one of the rare women painters of the past.
– “Federico Barocci, master draughtsman. The creation of images; extraordinary examples from the rich collection of the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Uffizi”.
– “Amico revisited. Drawings by Amico Aspertini and other Bolognese artists; discovering marvels from the collection of prints and drawings of the Uffizi”.
– “Traces 2018. Letting fashion drive you in the Museum of Costume and Fashion”.
– “Traces. Dialoguing with art in the Museum of Costume and Fashion”.
– “The World of Yesterday: rare book collection of the Library on view”. These 39 books tell us the fascinating story of Pasquale Nerino Ferri (1851–1917), the first director of the Uffizi’s Prints and Drawings Department, through analysis of his handwritten notes and the dates and dedications written by his correspondents from all over Europe.

2. The Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan has a good site. The online collection features 669 records, all with high-resolution images and information on the various works. At this link pinacotecabrera.org/en/collezioni/the-collection-online you can browse the collection searching by author, material, date, etc. There is also a section dedicated to the masterpieces which features (with great pictures) the 11 most famous paintings in the collection (by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Hayez, Boccioni, Pellizza da Volpedo and Modigliani).

3. Also in Milan, the Museo Poldi Pezzoli offers an online catalogue of many of its artworks. It is very well done. The museum was once the house of the art lover and collector Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli (1822–79). Here’s the link to its site: museopoldipezzoli.it/en/artworks.

4. Virtually visit the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome and its grounds. It is the residence of the Italian head of state, the President of the Italian Republic, currently Sergio Mattarella: palazzo.quirinale.it/visitevirtuali/visitevirtuali_en.html.

5. Also in Rome the Galleria Borghese offers good pictures and a little explanation of some of its artworks: galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it/en/il-museo/autori-e-opere.

Rest of the world

6. The Archeological Museum in Athens has a good site, very easy to navigate. Here’s the link: www.namuseum.gr/en/collections.

7. The Prado Museum in Madrid has a great site with lots of artworks featured by artist, by century, by theme. Here’s the link: www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-works. And here are the Prado masterpieces: museodelprado.es/en/the-collection.

8. The British Museum in London has a very good site that allows you to browse the collections and also to virtually visit its rooms. Very well done. Here’s the link: britishmuseum.org/collection.

9. The Metropolitan Museum in New York (metmuseum.org) has an online collection: metmuseum.org/toah/works.
It also offers an interesting “Timeline of Art History”: metmuseum.org/toah/chronology/#!?time=all&geo=all. There are also many essays that can be read online at its link: metmuseum.org/toah/essays
And some videos: metmuseum.org/art/online-features/met-360-project.

10. The site of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is very impressive and offers different possibilities, including a virtual tour of the rooms.
There is also the “Explore the Hermitage” section, where you can choose to learn more on a single work of art, or learn more on the buildings, visit the online collection and more. Here’s the link.
The only downside is that this is a very “heavy” site to navigate and it requires a fast internet connection and a good computer.


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Dante Day

Italy is still in the front line of the battle against Coronavirus, with more deaths in a day (475 on 18th March) than in any other country including China. The population is taking lockdown seriously and inevitably the use of the web from home-users has increased enormously. I was interested to see reports in the newspapers of the forthcoming ‘Dantedì’, instituted by the Minister of Cultural Affairs. The idea is to make 25th March into an annual celebration in honour of Italy’s greatest poet, Dante Alighieri. The date has been chosen as it was on that day in 1300, under a full moon, that Dante and Virgil begin their week-long journey from Hell through Purgatory into Paradise in The Divine Comedy. March 25th is also the feast-day of the Annunciation, which began the new year in the Florentine calendar up until the 18th century.

The day is intended to celebrate Dante and the Italian language. This year’s celebration was planned as an ‘antipasto’ to the great events scheduled for next year, 2021 which marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. With the country in lockdown, no public events can be held in the piazze this year, but there will be numerous events online and on television.

Dante (1265-1321) was born in Florence and the city later provided the great human melting-pot from which the poet took inspiration for some of the most memorable characters of the Divina Commedia. Dante also served a two-month term as one of the six priors in the Florentine government in 1300. During his absence in Rome, as part of an official delegation to Pope Boniface VIII, he was accused of fraud and corruption by a faction of the Guelf party and when he failed to return in 1302 to defend himself he was sentenced to death. He chose to go into exile and was never to return to his beloved city.

The Divina Commedia was written during his exile and in it he re-elaborated, with amazing imagination and poetic skill, the classical myth of the descent into Hades. It provides an astonishing ‘summa’ of medieval culture, but this epic poem is also written in a language (partly created by the poet himself) which is as close to modern Italian as Shakespeare’s language is to English today. What perhaps impresses us most in the poem is that Dante, while providing a vibrant fresco of the political and religious controversies of his time, is also able to tell us about himself, about his friends and enemies, about his teachers, his passions and his religious belief. The Commedia is about a man called Dante Alighieri, who finds salvation thanks to the love of the angelic Beatrice. But author and ‘hero’ are one and the same: Dante’s fede (faith), which he defines as ‘the substance of our hopes’, permits him to assert that the story that he tells actually took place. And when we read the Commedia, it is very difficult not to believe him.

The poet died (and was buried) in Ravenna. Naturally he features in our description of that city in Blue Guide Emilia Romagna, but he is also frequently recorded in other Blue Guides, because so many buildings and monuments in Italy are mentioned in his poem. But it is in Florence where his presence is felt most: in the medieval area where he lived, in the places he describes (now marked by marble plaques), in the monuments inside and outside Santa Croce, and in the frescoed portraits of him which still survive in the city.

Florence was also the birthplace of Boccaccio (1313–75), a great admirer of Dante. He experienced the great plague of 1348, which in his Decameron becomes an allegory for the moral decay of his time. It is for this reason that Boccaccio’s stories, written in beautiful and articulate prose, should not be regarded simply as examples of literary originality and of a Renaissance sense of humour. The tales recounted in the Decameron are told by three young men and seven young women who, in order to escape a city devastated by plague (and also by greed and avarice) find refuge in a villa near Fiesole, where they create a world in which the mercantile mentality is refined through a rediscovery of the values of classical humanitas and courtesy. With a lightness of touch and true wit, Boccaccio reminds us that the first step towards creating a more humane society is to recover the precious art of story-telling.

In these dire times we have much to learn from these two great medieval literary figures.

Alta Macadam. Florence, 22nd March 2020

I gratefully acknowledge the help of my son Giovanni Ivison Colacicchi in interpreting the poetic significance of both Dante and Boccaccio. Giovanni and his companion Elisa are at present in lockdown in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, one of the regions of Italy worst hit by Coronavirus, but they are lucky enough to be able to carry on their teaching activity from home, and their 3-year-old son Francesco is greatly enjoying their presence, 24 hours a day.


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Pope Francis takes a walk

With Italy in lockdown because of Coronavirus, we were treated to the extraordinary sight of Pope Francis walking along the deserted Corso in Rome from Piazza Venezia to the church of San Marcello. He decided to make this gesture of solidarity and hope to the faithful since the church contains a Crucifix said to be miraculous. He went in and knelt before it, a lone figure, to pray for the end of this current ‘plague’. On the same day he also went to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to offer up a prayer before the greatly venerated image of the Madonna which for centuries has been known as the ‘Salus Populi’ or ‘Saviour of the People’. These simple gestures, typical of the present Pope and made totally regardless of security, were seen by many Italians as an encouragement to all at a time when, for the first time in history, churches all over the country are forbidden to hold services.

We have just brought out the 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome and in fact had expanded our text on the San Marcello Crucifix, which now reads as follows: “Today the church has become a site of modern pilgrimage, with a banner on the façade proudly advertising its ‘Crocifisso Miracoloso’ or wonder-working Crucifix […] a 14 th -century Cross which was greatly revered by Pope John Paul II, who in the year 2000 had it moved to St Peter’s during Lent”. For the future 13th edition will remember to note this historic visit by Papa Francesco.

Many will be sceptical about the miraculous element in this story but no one can deny that it was a spontaneous act of faith and encouragement from a pope greatly admired for his closeness to the people. The fact that he left the Vatican to pray before this precious ancient work has encouraged a feeling of involvement in a country and a city where a great many devout Catholics are now isolated one from the other. We are told that the Pope is now in confinement at Santa Marta, just as we are in confinement in our own homes.

Alta Macadam, 15th March 2020


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Letter from Italy

With the closure today of the museums and monuments in all of Italy, those of us who visit them also for work are left wondering how such a thing could have happened in our lifetime. We suddenly find ourselves facing a drastic shortage of culture: no libraries, no theatre, no cinema. However, the very direct explanation by Prime Minister Conte late last night made it all too clear how necessary such measures have become in a country where the dreaded Coronavirus is suddenly holding us all hostage. There is no doubt that Italy has trusted leaders in Conte and President Mattarella, and the country’s medical profession are displaying all their dedication and efficiency. There is an evident preparedness in those in places of responsibility and a feeling of teamwork and pulling together in times of emergency. Millions of other Italians have merely been asked to stay at home for the time being. A measure which seems eminently sensible and which should not be a great sacrifice. Who knows how this forced restriction might even foster closer family relationships and make the homes themselves more comfortable. My garden will certainly enjoy greater attention. And with all the benefits of the internet, no one need feel cut off. There is even hope that the closure of museums and monuments will give those great institutions a chance for practicalities impossible when they are open all the time—even if only some radical cleaning, but also perhaps some reorganisation—an almost welcome pause to ‘stand back’ and contemplate themselves and their ‘mission’. I look of course on the rosy side of things, the side for those fortunate enough to have families and homes, but there is a very ugly side of this ‘shut down’, such as the situation in the overcrowded prisons, or that of people cut off from their families who are in hospitals or nursing homes, and the extremely dire economic consequences. This situation is making us all wonder about how we should live our lives in the future, about how long we can expect to enjoy ‘normal’ life in our global world.

For my involvement in the Blue Guides to Italy (Blue Guide Rome has just been published) it means I cannot set off for Venice and the Veneto for work on a volume coming up for revision: a restriction which has been imposed on me for the very first time by circumstances beyond my control (the only other time this happened to me was when I had to cut short a trip for Blue Guide Northern Italy when I was staying in Trieste the day of the terrible earthquake which hit the Friuli in 1976).

We can but hope the virus will soon be dominated with the help of everyone round the world and that we will soon return to a life as we know it, if greatly sobered by what has happened to us all.

Alta Macadam. Florence, 10th March 2020

Florence: Forged in Fire

There are just a few days left to catch this exhibition in Palazzo Pitti (Forged in Fire. Bronze sculpture in Florence under the last Medici; on until 12th January 2020), which illustrates the bronze sculpture made for the Medici court in the 17th and 18th centuries, some of the most important work in this medium in Europe at the time. For long this period in Florence (beginning with the reign of Cosimo II) was equated with decadence and it has only been since the 1960s that scholars have begun to re-evaluate the role of the Medici grand-dukes in promoting excellence in art and their activity as collectors, and the exhibition has been an occasion to study in depth the sculptors at work in this Baroque period. Accompanied by a superb scholarly catalogue, complete with full biographies of each artist, it underlines the standing of artists such as Giovanni Battista Foggini, Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi and Giuseppe Piamontini, all three of whom produced large, sometimes life-size bronzes as well as the much more familiar small bronzes (masters of which including Antonio and Giovanni Francesco Susini and Pietro Tacca are well represented in the exhibition). The curators have even been able to retrieve eleven of the twelve celebrated bronze groups of religious subjects made between 1722 and 1725, by many of the artists present in the exhibition, for Anna Maria Luisa, the Electress Palatine, and which she kept in her rooms in Palazzo Pitti (these later found their way to museums as far afield as Madrid, Detroit, Berlin, Birmingham and St Petersburg). Soldani-Benzi’s patron was the Prince of Liechtenstein and works from the ‘Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna’ are also present in the exhibition—seen in Florence for the first time. The sculptures on show are mostly in patinated bronze, which sometimes takes on a greenish shiny tone, or reddish tint, rather than the more familiar ink black of Renaissance bronzes.

Apart from the numerous sculptures, a collection of drawings by Soldani-Benzi (only acquired by the Uffizi in 2017) is exhibited opposite a pair of very fine green porphyry vases with gilt bronze decoration by the same artist (and preserved in Palazzo Pitti).

The works by the lesser-known Piamontini include very impressive large-scale bronzes (lent from a Ministry in Rome) closely inspired by ancient marbles, some of which could be described as reproductions of Classical works in a different medium.

In 1687 Foggini, after a spell in Rome, was appointed court sculptor to the grand-dukes and was also responsible for producing furniture and other fine objects, some in pietre dure. His versatility as a sculptor is well illustrated in this exhibition and he emerges as the central artist of his time in Florence. For more details of the exhibition, see here.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

News from Florence

Bernardo Daddi’s ‘Maestà’ in Orsanmichele, of which one of the paintings newly acquired by the Accademia is a copy.

For anyone taking advantage of the relevant calm in Florence this month (when the queue outside the Accademia, the city’s most famous gallery, is usually minimal—though it is still always worth booking your visit online) there is a fascinating little exhibition now running (until 5 May)..

What brings these eight paintings and single piece of sculpture together is the fact that they have all been added to the Gallery’s holdings during the tenure of the new director, Cecilie Hollberg, in other words, over the last three years.

The early paintings are all gold-ground and each has a story to tell about its provenance and connection to other works in the Gallery’s collection. Some were in storage elsewhere in Florence, others were exported illegally and have been recovered by the police, others have been purchased. They are beautifully exhibited in a little room and there is something almost touching about them, given that they have been retrieved from oblivion, carefully dusted off and restored, and put in their historical context. None of them is of the first importance but all of them add something to the glorious history of art in Florence.

The obscurity of some pieces is underlined by the attribution of two of the works, one to the ‘Master of 1416’ and the other to the ‘Master of 1419’. The former is a copy of Bernardo Daddi’s famous Maestà in Orsanmichele, painted some 60 years earlier, showing that the Florentines of the early 15th century still considered it one of the most beautiful works in the city. The latter unidentified ‘Master’ is named after a work now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Cleveland, Ohio. The painting by him here, The Most Holy Trinity (La Santissima Trinità), shows God the Father enthroned holding an image of Christ on the Cross, with the dove of the Holy Spirit flying down towards it. The Gallery possesses another (more important) painting of the same subject, the central panel of a triptych by Nardo di Cione. The composition is very similar, but in Nardo’s work God the Father is sitting on a beautiful red-black-and-gold cloth and the Dove perches in the centre of Christ’s halo.

The Madonna of Heavenly Humility (she is seated on clouds rather than on the ground, hence the neat title) is attributed to a Master named after the Bracciolini Chapel in the church of San Francesco in Pistoia. The Child is rather oversize, but this work was considered important enough to be confiscated by the state (after it was illegally exported from Italy to Switzerland in 2003) in order to preserve it in its Tuscan context.

There are also two doors of a tabernacle known once to have been in the Corsini Palace (which still contains the most important private collection in Florence, albeit closed to the public). They are by the prolific painter Mariotto di Nardo (son of Nardo di Cione) and are of exceptional interest for their decoration in gilded pastiglia, which forms leafy frames all around a scene of the Annunciation and figures of four saints. In another work by Mariotto in the exhibition, the Coronation of the Virgin with Angels, the painter has characteristically included lots more angels in the background depicted in gold.

The newly acquired piece of sculpture is a portrait bust of Giovanni Battista Niccolini, signed in 1827 by Lorenzo Bartolini, the most important sculptor of his time. The sitter, Niccolini, was a playwright, born in Pisa in 1782 and who died in Florence in 1862. The bust will be displayed beside the original plaster cast Bartolini made for it, which together with numerous other works from his studio was already owned by the Gallery. The bust was purchased by the newly-established Friends of the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, who are giving welcome support to its activities.

After the magnificent exhibition on the 14th-century fabric industry, held here early in 2018 (reviewed here), it seems that the museum’s policy (since it certainly has no need to increase its visitor numbers), at least for the time being, will be to hold small, choice exhibitions such as this one, which do not demand huge expenditure (the cost of the entrance ticket will not be increased during these shows).

I was interested to note that in the gallery with Michelangelo’s Slaves and his St Matthew (which leads up to the tribune with the colossal David), the label on the Pietà from Palestrina has at last been changed and its attribution to Michelangelo given as ‘very doubtful’ and still an ‘open subject’ (in fact the latest edition of the Blue Guide Florence chose to ignore it). At the same time, though, a fascinating suggestion has been made on the notice: that this could be a tribute to Michelangelo by the great Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. One of the tasks of the Blue Guides is to ensure the information provided is up-to-date.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Leonardo’s Leicester Codex

The celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) have already begun, with the Uffizi’s exhibition of the Leicester Codex. Purchased in 1717 by Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, the Codex was preserved in the UK by the family until it was sold to Armand Hammer in 1980. In 1994 it was acquired by Bill Gates, who has lent it to Florence for this show (which runs until 20th Jan). The curator is Paolo Galluzzi, director of Florence’s Galileo Museum.

The Codex was compiled while Leonardo was living in Florence at Palazzo Martelli, and it concentrates on the theme of water. At the entrance, the visitor is invited to ‘walk across’ the waters of the Arno to see a reproduction of the famous Pianta della Catena, a bird’s eye view of Florence made at the end of the 15th century, which highlights the places frequented by Leonardo when he was at work on the Codex. Apart from working on the ill-fated fresco of the Battle of Anghiari (described in Blue Guide Florence), he also studied anatomy by dissecting corpses at Santa Maria Nuova (still functioning as a hospital today) and measured the Rubiconte bridge (now replaced by Ponte alle Grazie), observing the force of the Arno sweeping past its pylons in the river bed.

While writing the Codex, Leonardo also consulted the works of earlier natural scientists in the library of San Marco, seven volumes of which have been lent to the exhibition (their authors include Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy and Strabo). Two others of particular interest are a tract by John of Holywood (known in Florence as Giovanni Sacrobosco, lit. ‘holy wood’), born in Halifax, Yorkshire at the end of the 12th century, which was still a celebrated work in Leonardo’s time; and the treatise on architecture by Francesco di Giorgio, which has margin notes in Leonardo’s hand.

The Codex itself, with its closely filled pages (recto and verso), written from right to left and crowded with sketches, is displayed in 18 showcases. Leonardo’s famous ‘mirror writing’ is explained by the fact that he was left-handed, making it easier and faster for him to write like this. In the centre of the hall are some five touch screens where the Codex can be ‘read’ in its entirety (also in English), with aids to its understanding. These are installed low enough for children to use (but it would have been nice to have benches in front of them in order to sit down).

Animated diagrams and reconstructions show how closely Leonardo studied the structure of water, from a dew drop to ocean waves, from springs to the dynamics of water flow and the erosion of river banks, from moisture in the air to the steam created by heating water, from the prevention of floods to the invention of locks along canals. He even describes how the eye perceives sunlight reflected by water. He suggests that water can be harnessed for the good of man if it is coaxed (rather than coerced) into different directions, and his plans for the drainage of the Arno basin, and for a canal to link Florence to the sea, are illustrated. The words invented by him to describe water, in all its various aspects and infinite movements, are pointed out.

Parts of the Codex are also dedicated to the moon, which Leonardo recognised as having the same physical nature as the Earth. He describes the Earth as containing a ‘vegetative soul’ and suggests that the flesh, bones and blood of living creatures are related to the Earth’s soil, rocks and water. His geological studies led him to understand the origin of fossils found on high ground formerly covered by the sea.

Some other treatises, written by Leonardo at the same time as the Leicester Codex, have been lent to the exhibition: one on the flightpaths of birds and experiments in mechanical wings (lent by the Biblioteca Reale in Turin); two (smaller) double sheets from the Arundel Codex about the canalisation of the Arno (lent by the British Museum); and four sheets of the Codex Atlanticus (lent by the Ambrosiana in Milan).

This is an exhibition dense with information that attempts to explain Leonardo’s complicated mind and to compass his interests, which darted from one observation to another. It succeeds in producing a picture not only of his deep scientific knowledge but also of his humanity, so many centuries ahead of his time and based on precise observations of the world about him.

The excellent catalogue is available also in English and the exhibition has a website.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence and co-author of the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy (details to follow shortly on this website).

Islamic Art in Florence

Egyptian jug (14th century). Brass with silver and gold inlay. © Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

The world of Islamic art has been explored in Florence this summer in a major exhibition (Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th century, open until 23rd September), divided between the Uffizi Gallery (the Aula Magliabecchiana exhibition space on the ground floor, so accessible directly from the ticket office) and the Bargello Museum. As is well known, the religion of Islam prohibited cult images and generally speaking all representations of the human form (the only religious element being inscriptions) and so Islamic art consists largely of metalwork, textiles, ceramics, carvings, carpets, all of which we tend to group under the title of ‘decorative arts’, which in terms of 20th-century Western Art History lost ground to the study of painting and sculpture. For those of us ill-versed in the history of Islamic art, perhaps one of the most striking things about this exhibition is the wide date span of objects which have great similarities and stylistic unity, and the occasional difficulty scholars have in identifying not just the region of origin, but even the country. This is also because the works were often made by itinerant craftsmen who were called on to satisfy the trade in luxury items throughout the Islamic world and beyond. Perhaps we have become all too used to looking closely at the dates and birthplaces of the artists when standing in front of a painting or sculpture in Italy.

This is therefore an exhibition to be enjoyed above all for its great variety of beautiful objects, all of them of the highest quality, from the huge geographical area of the Middle East under Islamic rule: Syria and Egypt and the North African coast, as well as Persia, Turkey and Muslim Spain. A feeling of exotic luxury exudes from the wonderful carpets, textiles, velvets, brass-work incised in silver and gold, ivory carvings, tiles, glazed earthenware pottery, glass mosque lamps, etc.

The great majority of works displayed come from Florence itself: from the two major donations made at the turn of the 20th century to the Bargello Museum by Carrand and Franchetti; from the 19th-century collections in the Museo Stefano Bardini and Museo Stibbert; and from the Medici collections now divided into a number of museums in the city. Much of this art is not normally on display, so this has been an occasion to bring these wonderful pieces into the open and delve into the deposits. In particular, part of the Franchetti collection of textiles in the Bargello can at last be seen, and objects from the Museo e Galleria di Palazzo Mozzi Bardini are also on display.

The stuffed giraffe which greets visitors to the Uffizi part of the exhibition has been rescued from the Natural History Museum in Florence: taxidermists were ordered to preserve this extraordinary gift, presented to the Florentine Grand-Duke in 1835 by Ali Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt. It was the successor to another giraffe, sent to Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1487 by the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, and which was once to be seen grazing in the Boboli Gardens. It is known that Lorenzo used to exchange gifts with his contemporaries in Constantinople (Mehmet II) and Cairo (Qa’it Bay). He might even have worn the parade jacket (on show from the Bargello) which bears the name of a Mamluk emir.

The extraordinary flare the Medici family had for collecting beautiful things is once again demonstrated in this show, as well as their ability to ‘enrich’ some precious objects from the East with decorations (it is thought that the handle of Lorenzo’s sardonyx vase from Persia, on display from the Tesoro dei Granduchi in Palazzo Pitti, was designed by Verrocchio). A rock-crystal bottle made in Egypt in the 10th century was given a Renaissance mount and ended up in the treasury of the Medici family church of San Lorenzo. Interestingly enough, there is some brasswork in the exhibition which has not been definitively identified: it could be either Islamic or Florentine. But we know that the precious little coffer with silver and gold damascening, clearly inspired by Islamic art (on loan from the Louvre), was produced in Florence in 1570.

Among the ceramics are five albarello vases decorated with the Florentine heraldic lily, made in Syria in the early 15th century and here re-united from Paris, Toronto and Doha. A large lustreware pitcher made in Valencia (and now preserved in Berlin) bears the Medici arms.

Two large brass basins for ablutions, made in Syria in the late 13th or early 14th century, are displayed together: one is now in Kuwait City but the other, even more beautiful, ended up in Palermo. The exquisite ‘Barberini Vase’ (lent by the Louvre) was once owned by Pope Urban VIII: it was made in the mid-13th century with silver inlay and delicately incised ornament. The pope was evidently unworried about possessing an Islamic artefact.

The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence also preserves Islamic documents and manuscripts (and they are holding their own exhibition, Images from the Orient, in conjunction with this one). The Medici even started their own printing press for Oriental scripts. On show at the Uffizi is the Library’s most precious holding of Islamic manuscripts: the earliest known example of ‘The Book of Kings’, the Persian epic poem dating from 1217.

The huge collection of decorative arts which belonged to Louis Carrand (1821–99), an antiques dealer from Lyon, was begun by his father Jean-Baptiste, and since Louis spent much of his life in Florence, he left it to the Bargello (there are plans to open a new Islamic Hall there: Carrand’s collection is considered to be the best of its kind in Italy). On show for this exhibition are assorted objects of great interest from the collection: ivory plaquettes made in the 11th–12th centuries with musicians and dancing figures; an ivory elephant from a chess set thought to have been made in Iraq in the 10th century; brass objects including a large ewer from Egypt (since it is inscribed with the name of a Yemeni Sultan, it can be dated to 1363–77); tiles from Iran and Iznik tiles from Turkey; Ottoman textiles; a 14th-century glass mosque lamp; a bronze inkwell from Persia; a steel helmet in the form of a turban, and much more.

Part of the textile collection left to the Bargello by Giulio Franchetti in 1906 is displayed in the same room. The largest piece is an amazing strip of red velvet covered with gold discs from Tabriz, identified as one of the panni tartarici (loosely defined as ‘Tartar cloth’) documented in Italy as early as 1295, when it is mentioned in the inventory of Boniface VIII’s papal treasury.

On the ground floor of the Bargello there is a selection of the carpets (together with an Ottoman saddle-cloth) from the Museo Stefano Bardini. Bardini’s carpet collection is the largest in Italy, but also on show here are carpets and textiles which he sold and which have ended up outside Italy: the exquisite Mamluk textile fragment in silk lampas with birds and animals is today preserved in the Musée des Tissus in Lyon (purchased from Bardini in 1907). One of the most outstanding carpets is the one which Bardini brought from the Florentine Capponi family and which he sold on to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is an Isfahan carpet from central Persia, dating from the late 16th century, with a blue border with birds and a frieze of animals against a red ground around the central medallion, which has people enjoying a banquet (you have to look closely to make them out).

The huge Mamluk carpet (with wonderful scarlet and green colours) made in Cairo in the early 16th century, recognised as the largest in the world, comes from the deposits of the Pitti (understandably not on permanent display there because of its size). For this exhibition it is displayed in the Uffizi.

A small area on the ground floor of the Bargello has been dedicated to a fascinating selection of the Islamic pieces from the incredibly crowded rooms of the Stibbert Museum, including 19th-century art created by craftsmen at work in Stibbert’s own lifetime, which he may have picked up on his travels. The fascinating wood manuscript covers from Persia have figurative scenes: a dragon about to eat a king (although the figure of majesty mysteriously appears again in six more scenes on the same panel), and a procession with musicians, mules and a group of women wearing the burka (in black and white). There are also examples of arms and armour from Mughal India and an Indian Qur’an owned by Stibbert’s grandfather.

In the catalogue to this fascinating exhibition, the Uffizi director Eike Schmidt writes that he sees it as the role of museums not only to preserve the past but also to foster a dialogue with the present in order to encourage the flow of art and culture between worlds that are only apparently distant one from the other.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

The Wonders of Pontormo

Pontormo’s ‘Halberdier’ (photo: Wikicommons)

A tiny exhibition in Florence this summer, which is a joy to visit (Incontri miracolosi. Pontormo dal disegno alla pittura), is running at Palazzo Pitti. In just one room and with only ten works on show, it is curated by Bruce Edelstein (and is on view until 29th July).

Here you can ‘meet’ two masterpieces by Pontormo, arguably the best paintings he ever produced: the ‘Halbadier’ from the Getty and the Visitation from Carmignano just outside Florence. The ‘Halbadier’ is now almost universally accepted as being the portrait of Francesco Guardi, a young Florentine nobleman determined to defend Republican Florence in 1528, during the famous siege by the Imperial troops in alliance with the Pope against the Medici. We know from contemporary sources that there were many young men eager to volunteer in the defence of the city and that they dressed up for their role. Guardi is memorably depicted looking directly out of the painting, proudly flaunting his magnificent costume, in the red and white colours of Florence. A delicately painted gold chain hangs around his neck, and his hands are particularly memorable. The only known preparatory drawing for the work (from the Uffizi) in red chalk is displayed beside the painting.

The Visitation has been restored for this occasion and beside it is displayed the small squared drawing (preserved in the Uffizi) which Pontormo used in preparation for the larger work. The street scene in the background is now more visible where the tiny figures of Joseph and Zacharias await their spouses on the stone bench at the foot of a typical Florentine palace (the ass which has been discovered peering round the corner of the building is, however, almost impossible to see with the naked eye). But of course it is the four female figures who are the protagonists of the scene, in their magnificently coloured dresses. In the excellent catalogue the several mysteries attached to this work and much discussed by art historians over the decades seem to have been solved. The presence of two female figures who accompany Mary and Elizabeth at this touching moment (described in St Luke’s gospel) are convincingly explained by similar iconographic representations of this subject in both the mosaics in the Florence Baptistery and in Giotto’s frescoes in Padua, where two ‘handmaidens’ are present. The curator also reminds us that scenes of marriage or farewell were common in Roman times (with emphasis on the gestures of the protagonists), and artists in the 16th century would certainly have been familiar with Roman reliefs of this subject. The likely provenance of the work has also been revealed: a commission from the Pinadori for a family chapel in a church in Florence which might have been damaged during the siege and so was instead kept in the family’s residence. The work is only documented in the church at Carmignano from 1720 onwards. There is also a fascinating hypothesis that Bonaccorso Pinadori, who is known to have supplied pigments to Pontormo, could himself have ordered this work.

The third painting is the portrait of another young man in a red hat, identified here as Carlo Neroni, also evidently dressed for the siege (in grey and black silk) and in a similar pose as the ‘Halbadier’ and also with a dark green ground. It comes from a private collection in London and only appeared on the art market in 2008 (it was last mentioned in London in 1827). It is more harshly painted than the ‘Halbadier’ and many may dispute the attribution. But it is of great interest to see all these three works together, painted at the same period (1528–30), a time when Pontormo was the uncontested protagonist of Florentine painting (his master, Andrea del Sarto, died of the plague in 1530).

Pygmalion by Bronzino (from the Uffizi) is also present in the exhibition since it has convincingly been shown to have been the ‘cover’ of the ‘Halbadier’ (it would have been in a frame to fit the greater dimensions of Pontormo’s painting). In the catalogue it is explained that many paintings during this period were provided with protective covers, very few of which have survived (or been identified as such). The very unusual iconography of Bronzino’s work, showing Pygmalion kneeling before his statue which has come to life, while a bull is being sacrificed to Venus on the flaming altar behind, apparently alludes to Ovid’s tale.

As so often occurs on occasions of this sort, art historians depend heavily on Vasari’s famous work, the Lives of the Artists. It is fascinating that this great Florentine art historian, who was also an architect (he built the Uffizi) and painter, remains such a fundamental source for our knowledge of painting throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries. Much is made of the fact that Pontormo, who was Vasari’s contemporary, was omitted from the first edition of the Lives and only included in the second edition of 1568 (on display). Also it is a mystery why Vasari never mentions the Visitation, whereas he does document two portraits by Pontormo of young men during the siege (identified with the two portraits on show), and even mentions the fact that Bronzino had provided a cover depicting Pygmalian for Pontormo’s portrait of Guardi. The curator suggests this omissis may well have been because the Visitation was destined for a church just outside Florence’s city walls which might have been damaged (or threatened) during the siege meaning that at the last moment the painting was not installed, so Vasari would not have seeen it.

Another work by Bronzino, his Martyrdom of St Acacius of Ararat (an apocryphal story of a Roman in command of ten thousand soldiers who were martyred on Mt Arrat), is present in the exhibition not only because Bronzino was so close to Pontormo (and Pontormo apparently provided the cartoon for this work) but also because the background appears to have been ‘inspired’ by the destruction in the countryside around Florence to which Bronzino could have been an eye-witness (the painting dates from 1529–30 and is owned by the Uffizi). Pontormo also painted a work of the same subject (usually called the Eleven Thousand Martyrs) which hangs a few rooms away in the Pitti. Bronzino is also remembered for the design he provided to Jan Rost when he arrived from the Netherlands to establish the Medici tapestry manufactory for Cosimo I: the small and very well-preserved tapestry hung here representing Justice Liberating Innocence was made by Rost to demonstrate his skills in order to win his position. Although excluded from the catalogue, it gives us a taste of what lies hidden in the tapestry deposits of Palazzo Pitti, perhaps destined to be dusted off and given more importance in the future.

So this tiny exhibition, in the Sala delle Nicchie of the Palatina Gallery (which you can reach directly from the top of the stairs on the piano nobile) is a demonstration of the extremely high quality of the recent exhibitions, both large and small, in the Pitti and Uffizi. Exhibitions which involve serious academic research but which also provide the visitor with the chance to see great masterpieces from elsewhere (The ‘Halbadier’ was last in Florence 20 years ago; for anyone interested in this painter, this is an occasion not to be missed).

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

NB: Another magnificent exhibition, this one on a very large scale, has just opened at the Uffizi and the Bargello: Florence and Islam (running until 23rd September). It will be reviewed here soon.

Good news from Florence

Antique bronze head of a horse, once owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent.

It is well known that the famous Medici and Lorraine collections are housed in various museums in Florence, not just in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries (recently re-united under one director). The scientific collections are in the Museo Galileo, the musical instruments in the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Renaissance sculpture in the Bargello, the wax models in the Museo della Specola, etc., and the archeological material in the Museo Archeologico. But it is also a fact that all these ‘satellite’ museums are usually overlooked by visitors to the city, since it is the paintings that everyone seems to want to see (or at least that is what they are told by the tourist agencies).

It is therefore rare to encounter more than a handful of visitors in the Archaeological Museum (except when school parties are taken there). In fact throughout the many decades since the Arno Flood of 1966, when the entire ‘Museo Topografico’ of Etruscan finds from Tuscany was destroyed, it has had a rather neglected feel. But the exciting news is that with its new Director Mario Iozzo, under the umbrella of the ‘Polo Museale Toscana’, which since 2015 has been in the capable hands of Dr Stefano Casciu, the Museum has suddenly been spruced up and work is underway to open more exhibition space so that the works in the deposits can at last be seen.

Throughout the museum the display has begun to be renovated, with new stands for the pottery (and in some cases slowly moving circular bases so that you can stand still to see all the painted sides of certain vases). The garden, visible from many of the windows, is now beautifully kept with the fountain working again (but sadly still only open on Saturday mornings). The corridor with the Medici collection of precious antique gems and cameos is not yet regularly on view.

While work is going on, however (until March 2019), visitors can see a delightful exhibition, “The Art of Giving”, in the first hall. It documents recent donations including a huge collection of beautiful ceramics from burial sites and sanctuaries on the Ionian coast of southern Italy (the area known in antiquity as Magna Graecia). Many of the vases have scenes where the protagonists are exchanging gifts, making the title of the exhibition doubly meaningful. There is also a ceramic cup dating from the 6th century BC which has been recomposed using the missing piece which had found its way to the Akademisches Kunstmuseum in Bonn (in exchange, a fragment of another vase was given to the Bonn Museum so that it, too, could be reunited with the fragments they own). There are also some Roman marbles on view which have recently entered the collection (the sarcophagus with pairs of griffins between incense-burners is especially interesting).

In the permanent collection, the first room on the first floor is now used to exhibit the sensational Mater Matuta, an Etruscan masterpiece (c. 450 BC) showing a seated female god with a child on her lap. This is one of the treasures of the museum but has not been on show for decades. The famous bronze Chimera also has a room to itself, shared with a very beautiful bronze head of a youth found in Fiesole.

The Minerva, on the floor above, is now displayed without her right arm since it has been proved to have been an addition made by Francesco Carradori in 1784-5 in a mistaken restoration (the ‘modern’ arm is displayed close by, together with a cast of the statue as restored in the 18th century). The wonderful Arringatore is currently on exhibition in Karlsruhe but will be back here on 17th June. The bronze Horse’s Head (which belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and was restored in 2015) and the Roman portrait bronzes are all on show (in the past these were often in rooms kept locked). The famous François Vase, a huge Attic krater, has been given a room of its own with multi-media touch screens explaining all the details. The famous incident when a frustrated custodian seized his stool and smashed it is recorded by the presence of the stool itself (the vase was thankfully able to be restored, piece by piece). And for the first time, two more pieces of exquisite Attic pottery are displayed nearby, suggesting that they might have been part of the original hoard of artefacts found in the same tomb, placed there to accompany the deceased on his way to the underworld.

Further innovations are the scale model of the Chimaera at the entrance which can be felt by the visually impaired and stroked by young visitors, and a showcase before the ticket office displaying just three exquisite examples of the museum’s holdings to whet visitors’ appetites. One comes away with the feeling that at last the Museum is being well looked after and that there will be many exciting new developments there in the near future.

In this Florentine season of what has been termed ‘overtourism’, a visit to this Museum is highly recommended not only for the treasures it contains, but also for its peaceful atmosphere.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence