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.

Gellért 100

Poster advertising the new wave pool.

The title of this engaging small exhibition, on show at the Museum of Trade and Tourism (MKVM) in Budapest, celebrates the centenary of the famous Gellért hotel and baths. Housed in magnificently tiled and decorated late-Art Nouveau halls, the baths are one of the most popular destinations on every tourist’s itinerary. But they still cater to a local clientèle too: as you line up for your ticket, you will see a special queue for people with doctors’ notes, coming here not purely for recreation but to take the cure. In this, the Gellért remains true to its roots.

The curative thermal waters on this site have been known for a long time. In the Middle Ages, St Elizabeth of Hungary used them to bathe lepers. The Ottomans prized the waters too: there was an open-air mud bath here, which, after the Turks were expelled, became a place where horses were treated for distemper and, by the 19th century, a resort of ill-repute. A new spa building was built in 1832 (in fact it is still there, under Gellért Square, though seldom open to the public) but it was not until the construction of the Liberty Bridge (originally Franz Joseph Bridge) over the Danube in 1896 that the area really began to take off. The bridge attracted the developers and the area was cleared. On show in the exhibition is a charming photograph of an improvised summer dance floor, pressed into a secondary role as a cowshed. This, along with numerous cottages, taverns and summer villas, all fell to the wrecking ball.

A tender to design the new baths complex was won by two architects, Artúr Sebestyén and Ármin Hegedus. Their designs were completed in 1909, on a floor plan by a third architect, Izidor Sterk. Construction, delayed by WWI, was completed in 1918. Vintage posters on display make it clear that the business of marketing Budapest as a ‘Spa City’ has been in full swing since the early 1920s. In 1927 a wave machine was installed in the outdoor pool (the original mechanism is still in operation) and in 1933 the palm court and mini-golf course gave way to an indoor pool and whirlpool.

The baths were always intended to be used for recreation as well as therapy and their decoration was lavish and opulent. The huge vaulted halls were designed to recall the massive, overarching spaces of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Visiting the baths today, one is still reminded of an Alma-Tadema painting.

Romantic re-creation of the Baths of Caracalla by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). The Gellért Baths in their heyday were harking back to something similar.

Budapest suffered greatly in both world wars and the Gellért shared the same fate. In 1919, Romanian army chiefs took over the hotel during their occupation of the city. When Admiral Horthy rode into Budapest later that same year, he used the hotel as his headquarters. In WWII the hotel was used as the German military HQ, which made it a target for Allied raids. By the end of the war, the hotel was a burned-out shell and the ladies’ section of the baths was completely wrecked (though fully restored, it is much less ornate than the former men’s thermal section—and today the baths are fully unisex).

Plans to rebuild the hotel to modern, more Rationalist designs (drawings of these are on show) came to nothing and the exterior was restored more or less as it had been. It partly reopened in 1946. In 1948 came nationalisation, since when the hotel and baths ceased to operate as a single unit. Today the hotel is owned and run by the Danubius group while the Budapest municipality is in charge of the baths.

The hotel foyer when the hotel first opened. ©MKVM

In its heyday the hotel rooms had all had hot and cold running water and in the suites, the bathrooms offered three types of water: municipal mains water, thermal water and carbonated water. The mineral content was found to corrode the pipes, however, and the practice was discontinued. Between the wars the hotel restaurant was run by the celebrated Gundel. On show are ice buckets, guest books, monogrammed crockery and menu cards, including that for a gala luncheon in 1933 at which Mussolini was the guest of honour. He ate eggs in aspic, chicken with salad and roast potatoes, and a chestnut cream slice.

Also on show are posters, pamphlets, souvenir keyrings and other knick-knacks, a restored neo-Baroque bedroom and some marvellous archive photographs, showing the hotel both as it was in the glamorous years before the Second World War, and as it became after the 1956 Revolution, when all the old furniture and fittings were thrown on the scrap heap and the interiors were remodelled in a brave new minimalist spirit.

The gallery of the hotel foyer after its remodelling, in 1961. Photo: Fortepan

Everything is excellently captioned and the wall texts are perfectly brief and informative. If you are in Budapest this winter—and especially if you plan to visit the Gellért Baths and/or are staying in the hotel, come and see this show.

“Gellért 100” runs at the MKVM in Budapest until 3rd March. Review by Annabel Barber, author of Blue Guide Budapest (which contains full coverage of both the MKVM and the Gellért Baths).