More than just the David

Although Michelangelo’s David is today considered the most important single art object to be seen in Florence (or possibly one of three, along with Botticelli’s Spring and Birth of Venus in the Uffizi), it was largely ignored by visitors up until around 1860, soon after which it was brought inside from Piazza della Signoria to be protected in a specially-built ‘tribune’ in the Galleria dell’Accademia. By 1868 Baedeker had decided it merited a star, and in the 1903 edition of the guide it had become ‘celebrated’.

Today one has the impression that very few tourists are prepared for the many treasures to be seen at the Galleria dell’Accademia, which are of quite another character from Michelangelo’s (now ‘famous’) David. These range from 350 plaster models from the studio of the 19th-century sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini; the collection of musical instruments made by the last Medici and the Lorraine grand dukes, considered one of the most important in Italy (where you can also listen to recordings); Florentine paintings from the time of Giotto up to the 16th century; a large group of paintings by Michelangelo’s close contemporaries; and exquisite individual works such as Giovanni da Milano’s Man of Sorrows (1365). The new director, Cecilie Hollberg, seems to have every intention to steer visitors to all the different parts of the gallery, not just the hall with Michelangelo’s Slaves and St Matthew, and the tribune with his David.

One could almost wish the arrangement of the galleries could be reversed, since at present visitors can be disorientated by the itinerary imposed: you start in the large room of 15th- and early 16th-century paintings with the plaster model made by Giambologna for his Rape of the Sabines in the Loggia della Signoria. Off this is the museum of musical instruments, after which you pass through the gallery with Michelangelo’s great works. From the tribune with the David there are conspicuous signs to the exit which is routed through the gift shop. But you also pass three rooms of the earliest paintings and this is also the way to the stairs (and inconspicuous lift) to the top floor, where there are paintings dating from 1370 to 1430.

Some of the most interesting works it would be a great pity to miss on the race to the David and then out, are described below:

Close together on the entrance wall of the first room are two paintings dated around 1460: the so-called Cassone Adimari (which may have been a bed-head or a wainscot) with brightly coloured, elegant scenes of a wedding pageant by Masaccio’s younger brother, Lo Scheggia; and, in great contrast, a very dark painting of The Thebaids thought to be by Paolo Uccello. Other curious scenes exist of these desert fathers, who lived around Thebes in Egypt, including one in the Uffizi which is attributed in situ to Fra’ Angelico (even though some art historians have suggested it could have been painted in the 18th century). Also hung on this wall are two beautiful Madonnas by Botticelli dating from the following decade.

Among the well-labelled paintings by Michelangelo’s Florentine contemporaries, one of the most curious (it hangs on the end wall to the right of the David) is the crowded Allegory of the Immaculate Conception, the best work of the eccentric painter Carlo Portelli (signed and dated 1566 on the stool on the left). The iconography is unique, with the graceful, naked Eve portrayed prominently below the Madonna (the new ‘Eve’), while Adam is shown still asleep. At the time the nudity of Eve caused a scandal and she was given a fur coat to restore her modesty. This was finally removed in a restoration in 2013.

The Salone is filled with the 19th-century sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini’s models for his works in marble. This huge, well-lit hall was formerly the ward of the hospital of San Matteo (a little painting by Pontormo shows the room at that time). The extraordinary collection of models (often more interesting than the final marble versions) is arranged more or less as it was left in Bartolini’s studio. The works include serried ranks of some 250 busts: a group of them (on the right and left of the entrance) record the English visitors to Florence who asked Bartolini if they could sit for their portraits (many of these are unique, as the whereabouts of the marble versions, which ended up in private collections in Britain are often no longer known). This is not the case with his well-known portraits of Byron and his mistress Teresa Gamba Guiccioli (there are marble versions both in the National Portrait Gallery in London and in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palazzo Pitti). The son of a Tuscan blacksmith, Bartolini spent time in Paris where he worked in the atelier of David and met Ingres, who later painted two portraits of the sculptor. By the time of his death in 1850, he had become the best-known sculptor in Italy. There is an excellent website with a database still in progress.

In the three rooms of the earliest paintings is Giovanni da Milano’s moving Man of Sorrows (beneath the window in the room on the left) and works by other followers of Giotto (and even a fresco fragment with a shepherd and goats attributed to the master himself).

The very peaceful upper floor is a place to savour, away from the crowds. There are even comfortable places to sit down (totally absent on the ground floor). The display is excellent and the extraordinary colourful altarpieces, especially those by Lorenzo Monaco and (on the end wall of the main room) a Coronation of the Virgin by the less well-known Rossello di Jacopo Franchi present a magnificent sight. Here too is an extraordinarily beautiful embroidered altar-frontal from Santa Maria Novella, signed and dated 1336 by a certain Jacopo di Cambio, with scenes from the life of the Virgin decorated with numerous birds. There is a small study room on this floor where you can consult catalogues, also online.

The Gallery has space for small exhibitions, always worth seeing, and usually connected to the permanent collection (in 2015 there was an exhibition of all the paintings known by Carlo Portelli).

So far this year there has been no queue to enter the gallery, but when the crowds begin in March you should book online. NB: All other booking websites charge more and should be avoided. You can also book by telephone, T: 055 294883. When in Florence you can also buy your ticket and book a visit directly opposite the entrance to the gallery at the bookshop and café called myaccademia.com for the same price as at the gallery ticket office itself (the other ticket offices in this street charge more).

It is worthwhile remembering that throughout the year the gallery is almost always much less crowded in the late afternoon (and in the height of the season it can sometimes have extended opening hours).

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

A Treasure in Cagli

The “Noli me Tangere” of 1518 by Timoteo Viti (1469–1523) in The Oratory of the Confraternity of Sant’Angelo, Via Gaetano Lupis, Cagli, in the Marche.

We were passing through Cagli and stopped there, drawn by the Blue Guide report of the La Gioconda which served us a wonderful lunch. It well deserves Ellen Grady’s accolade as ‘a fantastic little restaurant that will make you want to stay in Cagli forever’. Walking off our choices from the porcini menu, we discovered a treasure: halfway between the central square of Cagli, Piazza Matteotti, and the church of San Francesco, in the street named after the local 18nth century artist Gaetano Lupis, is a pretty 16th-century portico. There is a small oratory behind it. A fresh APERTO sign on the door  entices you in, but in the first second as you enter, the oratory seems unlit. Then suddenly the altarpiece lights up, and there is this lovely painting by Timoteo Viti.

Viti was a native of Urbino, just a few years older than Raphael and a friend of both him and his father, although part of his training was in Bologna. He travelled widely in the Marche but collaborated with Raphael in Rome (in the church of Santa Maria della Pace) and this painting may reflect that influence. It appears freshly restored and shows Mary Magdalene reaching out towards the risen Christ. Between the two figures is the precious ointment mentioned in the gospels that was poured on Jesus by a woman, to the indignation of some of the onlookers. The woman is traditionally believed to be Mary Magdalene. Behind them is Jerusalem interpreted as if it were an Italian city of the day. The picture is enhanced by a richly-clothed Archangel Michael, the patron of the oratory, trampling on Lucifer and about to strike him with his sword. Opposite is the (4th-century) hermit St Anthony Abbot, with the pig that is a symbol of the medieval order of Hospitallers of which he was patron (the Hospitallers were allowed to support their work by raising pigs.)

It was a wonderful surprise to come across this painting and it should be included in the itinerary of all who visit this medieval town. As the oratory seems permanently open, one can visit it before or after lunch at La Gioconda!

by Charles Freeman, history consultant to the Blue Guides.

Artwork of the Month: January. Medieval stained glass

Medieval stained glass is relatively rare in English country churches because so much was destroyed by zealots during the Reformation in the 16th century and under Cromwell in the 17th. Fragments of old glass exist and have been pieced together in many windows across the country, but entire windows are scarcer. The two shown here are from c. 1350. They are the north and south chancel windows of the church of St Andrew in Chinnor, Oxfordshire, just at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. Light was poor in the church when I was there and these are the best images I could get: photographs taken with my telephone. The window on the left (the north window) shows two bishops, with crosier and processional cross. Above them, in the quatrefoil, is a depiction of one of the Seven Acts of Mercy: Feeding the Hungry. The window on the right (the south window) shows St Lawrence and St Alban and another of the Seven Acts, Clothing the Naked: a man in yellow (St Martin) is seen giving a green garment to a naked man. (The other Acts of Mercy are Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Sheltering the Homeless, Nursing the Sick, Visiting those in Prison and Burying the Dead. Caravaggio manages to depict all seven of them in a single canvas in a famous painting in Naples. Perhaps at one time all seven were shown in the windows of this little church, too.

Artwork of the Month: November. Reason, Unreason and the Turin Shroud

“Throw reason to the dogs! It stinks of corruption.” While browsing the Guardian website the other day, I came upon this injunction in an article by Jason Burke, who had seen it scrawled on a wall in Kabul in the 1990s. It was only a matter of minutes after reading it that I checked my inbox and found an email from the historian Charles Freeman, alerting me to his article about the Turin Shroud in this month’s History Today.

© Danielos Georgoudis

Reason. The goddess who arrived with the Enlightenment, with the Reformation. We in the West, self-appointed guardians of the world’s morality, like to believe that we are governed by Reason. But do we fool ourselves? Scientists who question climate change are liable to a similar reception as that with which the Inquisition favoured Galileo. We have our shibboleths and we don’t want to rock them any more than those early 17th-century ecclesiarchs did. Humankind is still guilty at times of being interested not in ideas but in ideology.

Charles Freeman is not one of those. He is firmly on the side of Reason. His fascinating article argues, persuasively, that the Turin Shroud is not the original winding-sheet of Christ but a medieval epitaphios. That is not to make it a forgery. It’s a genuine article, a cloth woven in the 14th century for use in the kind of mystery plays that took place around the Easter Sepulchre. Trawling English country churches as an earnest teenager, Pevsner in hand, I often found myself alerted to the presence of “a fine Easter Sepulchre”. When I found it, I always saw the same thing: a sort of arcosolium, an arched recess with a ledge in it, high enough to sit on. Sometimes the arch was traceried, sometimes plain. But that was all. I always wondered what the Easter Sepulchre’s purpose was. In Freeman’s article we find out. He describes the tradition of the Quem quaeritis (“Whom do you seek?”) Easter mystery plays that re-enacted the events around the Empty Tomb. For these a cloth was required, the winding sheet left behind by Christ on his Resurrection. The Shroud of Turin was one such.

Its claim to be a much older, expressly sacred, relic came in the mid-15th century, says Freeman, when the Dukes of Savoy sought ways to bolster their legitimacy and influence. This seems quite possible. “Relics” were often miraculously discovered by priests or statesmen seeking to revive a flagging popularity or power. The Holy Blood at Mantua is one example. The Chains of St Peter in Rome another. And any number of Holy Thorns in reliquaries scattered across Christendom.

Yet people still stubbornly persist in venerating the Turin Shroud. Why? Are they so impervious to reason and logical argument? I think not. I think it is more a case of people not needing to be troubled by the sordid and disappointing truth. Reason is, after all, by its very nature a source of disillusion. It robs everything of suggestion and fantasy. Much as a small child really doesn’t need to be told by a cocky older sibling that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. In his heart of hearts he knows that. He just doesn’t want to go there.

Freeman’s article has made it much more likely that I will make the journey to Turin in 2015, when the Shroud is once again put on public display. Interestingly—and Freeman is at pains to point this out—the Church itself takes an ambivalent stance. It does not claim that the Shroud is the genuine cloth of Christ. In fact it was the Church that commissioned the carbon dating in 1988, which placed the Shroud somewhere in the 14th century. Yet even if it did originate in a medieval prop-box, centuries of veneration have conferred sanctity upon it. It is valuable as an artefact that reminds us, against all the promptings of reason, that we mortals might—just might—be destined to rise from the grave.

Charles Freeman, history consultant to the Blue Guides, is the author of Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe, reviewed here.

Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great War

The town of Gorizia stands on the Slovenian border in an expansion of the Isonzo valley, hemmed in by hills. It is a peaceful little town with public gardens and buildings in the Austrian style. After the fall of the independent counts of Gorizia in the 15th century, the city remained an Austrian possession almost continuously from 1509 to 1915 and its atmosphere is entirely Central European, despite the street names recalling heroes of the Risorgimento and Italy’s victories against Austria: Garibaldi, Mazzini, Diaz, Cadorna. In the First World War it was the objective of violent Italian attacks in the Isonzo valley and was eventually captured on 9th August 1916. Lost again in the autumn of 1917, it was finally taken in November 1918. The Treaty of Paris (1947) brought the Yugoslav frontier into the streets of the town, cutting off its eastern suburbs, but in 1952, and again in 1978–9, more reasonable readjustments were made, including a 16km-wide zone in which local inhabitants may move freely.

The attractive, wide Corso Italia, lined with trees and some Art Nouveau villas, leads up into the centre of the town. The Palazzo Comunale was built by Nicolò Pacassi, court architect to Maria Theresa, in 1740; it has a public garden. The cathedral is a restored 14th-century building which contains a high altarpiece by Giuseppe Tominz (born in Gorizia in 1790).

Approached on foot by steps up through the walls and past a garden is the peaceful Borgo Castello, built by the Venetians in 1509. Here you will find the Museo della Grande Guerra, one of the most important museums in Italy dedicated to the First World War. Excellently displayed in ten rooms, it has the reconstruction of a trench, and the material illustrates both the Italian and Austrian fronts in the Carso campaign: what makes the displays all the more poignant is the fact that this part of Europe, which today belongs to Italy, was in 1914–18 fighting bitterly for the doomed Austro-Hungarian empire of Franz Joseph, of which it formed a part. A poster of the whiskered emperor adorns the wall of a mocked-up conning tower, exhorting his troops to bravery in action. Enamel badges in the display cases proclaim defeat and humiliation to the English, the Serbs and the perfidious Italians. The watercolour which appears at the top of this piece was painted by Paolo Caccia Dominioni, a lieutenant in the Italian army, who saw action at Castagnevizza and whose brother Cino was killed in a later battle.

Austro-Hungarian soldier, somewhere on the present-day Italian-Slovenian border.

The above text includes an extract from the Blue Guide e-chapter to Friuli-Venezia Giulia. © Blue Guides. All rights reserved.

Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from Aquileia

Augustus, ‘the revered one’, was the honorific title of Gaius Octavius, great-nephew of Julius Caesar and one of the most remarkable figures in Roman history. He has given his name to the month of August.

Having no legitimate heir of his own, Julius Caesar formally adopted Octavius, and he exploited this position ruthlessly when the Republic collapsed after Caesar’s assassination. His uneasy co-operation with Mark Antony soon turned to open conflict. Mark Antony had taken command of the eastern portion of the empire, and when he allowed himself to become entangled with Cleopatra, Augustus seized his chance to brand them both as enemies of Rome. In 31 bc their navy was routed at the Battle of Actium and both committed suicide.

Back in Rome, with wealth and success to his name, Augustus could easily have become a dictator. However, that was not his way. Despite the ruthlessness of his youth, he now showed himself to be measured and balanced. His favourite god Apollo was, after all, the god of reason. Knowing that the senate was desperate for peace, he disbanded his army and the senate in turn acquiesced in his growing influence. The title Augustus was awarded him in 27 bc and he gradually absorbed other ancient republican titles too, as if the old political system were still intact. Behind this façade he was spending his booty fast. He claimed to have restored no fewer than 82 temples in Rome. He completed the Forum of Caesar and then embarked on a massive one of his own, centred on a temple to Mars Ultor: Mars as the avenger of his adoptive father’s murder.

Augustus was keenly aware of the power of his own image. Not only was his temple adorned with a great bronze of himself in a four-horse chariot, but other statues, playing on ancient traditions, were distributed throughout the empire. Augustus appears in one of a number of stock guises: as military commander, veiled and pious priest, or youthful hero, as in the example shown here, a bust from the northern Italian town of Aquileia, where Augustus received King Herod in 10 bc and reconciled him with his two sons. One estimate puts the total number of statues of Augustus scattered around the realm at between 30,000 and 50,000.

The empire prospered under Augustus’ steady control: there was no challenge to his growing influence and poets such as Virgil and Horace praised his rule. A less lucky writer was Ovid, exiled to the shores of the Black Sea, allegedly for lampooning Augustus’ programme of moral reforms. In 2 bc the great leader was granted the honorary title Pater Patriae, ‘Father of the Fatherland’, an honour which left him deeply moved. He died in ad 14, and it was observed at his cremation that his body had been seen ascending through the smoke towards heaven. The senate forthwith decreed that he should be ranked as a god. By now the Republic had been irrevocably transformed into an empire, and emperors ruled it for the rest of its history.

This text extracted and adapted from Blue Guide Rome and Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome. ©Blue Guides. All rights reserved. For more on the town of Aquileia and its fascinating Roman and early Christian remains, see our e-chapter: Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc

On 3rd July 1908, the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, working in the so-called ‘House 101’, northeast of the palace of Phaistos, found an object with symbols on both sides, next to a Linear A tablet. The object became known as the Phaistos Disc—and it remains as intriguing and mysterious now, over a hundred years later, as it was then. Physically it is round, hand-made, about 1.5cm thick and approx. 16.2cm in diameter, with an incised spiral decoration. The spiral is filled with little symbols, 241 or so of them (most of the motifs occurring more than once), stamped on the fresh clay. They represent the earliest evidence of the use of movable type. The clay is free from impurities and the object, unlike the tablets, was fired deliberately.

The excavator assumed it had fallen from the upper storey and that it was of Cretan manufacture. Not much progress has been made since then, though not for want of trying. Nothing else remotely similar has ever been found—and that is the main problem. Accusations of foul play were made as early as 1913. The villain of the piece was said to be Pernier who, jealous of his fellow archaeologist Halbherr’s success at Gortyn (also in Crete), where he found the famous Law Code, and of Evans’s discoveries at Knossos, deliberately planted a forged object with an invented script in order to raise the profile of his excavations. However, while it is true that Phaistos could not rival Knossos as to finds, at Aghia Triada nearby, also excavated by the Italians, the quality and quantity of material was truly amazing. Pernier and the Italian School had their hands full. He seems an unlikely accomplice in a forgery of this magnitude.

Interpretations of the object’s function and meaning are extremely diverse, ranging from an astronomical or astrological calendar to a hymn to victory, a nursery rhyme or a sacred text. Current thought assumes it is a piece of writing though the direction of it, from the centre to the periphery or the other way round, has yet to be established. The small number of characters, 45 in total, suggests it is a syllabic script and close to Linear A, which has not yet been deciphered. There has been no shortage of proposed translations, based on languages as diverse as Chinese, Dravidian, Georgian, Hittite, Luwian, Semitic, Slavic and Sumerian. Indeed it was this abundance that prompted the late John Chadwick, who decoded Linear B with Michael Ventris, to appeal to those producing their own solutions ‘not to send them to him’.

With appropriate testing, it would be possible to put this case to rest one way or another. Modern techniques such as thermoluminescence are not invasive and would ascertain the date of the firing, thereby deciding once and for all the question of authenticity, while the analysis of a minimal quantity of the clay could assist in determining provenance. So far the authorities involved have resisted all calls for such tests. But the case should not be allowed to linger.

Blue Guide Crete, which combs the island in loving detail, will be available in digital format later this month.