I was fortunate enough to experience Florence's museums and historical sights through walking lectures from an Italian Art History professor. Each week we would study the major works in a Florentine museum and at week's end, we would visit the museum to see the art for ourselves. This helped me develop a deep appreciation for the history of Florence and the beauty it's Renaissance artists created. Since that probably isn't how you planned to see the sights of Florence, I'll guide you to the most interesting paintings, sculptures, and architecture the city has to offer. No, there will not be a quiz at the end.
The Real David at the Galleria dell'Accademia
Please, please, please don't be that tourist who walked into the Piazza della Signoria and points to the statue and says, "Oh, wow! That's the David!" It's not the David. Though that was the original placement, the real David was moved to the Galleria dell'Accademia in the 1870's to protect it from damage. What you are looking at in the piazza is just a replica.
Take the short 5 minute walk to the Accademia for the original David. The first thing you'll notice about Michelangelo's David is his enormous size. (The whole thing, get your head out of the gutter!) This was not an oversight on the part of the sculptor, the piece was originally commissioned to be placed on the rooftop of the Duomo. After it's completion, the people of Florence were so impressed by the work they decided to place it in the piazza instead.
When you are at the Accademia, take a moment from ogling the David to appreciate the sculptures in the main hall. At first glance they seem unfinished and therefore not worth your time –– WRONG! These are some of my favorite works of art in all of Florence. Michelangelo deliberately left these sculptures incomplete to represent the struggle to free the bonds of slavery represented by the rough marble left uncarved. They give you the feeling that the slaves are alive and slowly emerging from the earth.
The Uffizi Gallery is Florence's crown jewel of art museums. It is located next to the Palazzo Vecchio and is a work of art in an of itself. The building was constructed by Giorgio Vasari in the mid 16th century. He may not be the most famous renaissance man but trust me when I tell you that Vasari was a homie. He invented encyclopedias and basically coined the term renaissance. More on him later...
For all the beauty on it's outside, the gallery itself is a bit of a mess. So don't feel bad about being overwhelmed, everyone is! There is very little curation that happens at the Uffizi so as to display as many works of art are are humanly possible. There are wall to wall paintings, with tapestries behind them, and busts and sculptures in between. So, conserve your time and only stop at a few paintings that really catch your eye.
Birth of Venus and Primavera
If you see nothing else in the Uffizi, you must take your time in the Botticelli room. There you will find Botticelli's The Birth of Venus and Primavera. Unlike the Mona Lisa (sorry Leo, not your best work), these two famous paintings live up to the hype. I would sit here for what seemed like hours after class just staring at the beautiful movement and symbolism in both these paintings.
Venus: It was pretty radical for this point in the Renaissance for Botticelli to portray anyone other than Eve in such nudity. He also pushed the classical contrapposto pose even further in this portrayal of Venus. She was born of the sea and was pushed to shore by Zephyrs, winter winds. Once she gets to shore she will be greeted by the warm embrace of spring.
Primavera: This painting also features the goddess Venus in the center. The blue deity on the right is Zephyrus, god of the west wind, impregnating the nymph, Chloris, with his breath. Zephryus then turns Chloris into a goddess, Flora, goddess of spring, depicted just to the left. My favorite part of this work are the three graces on center left. The fluidity of their movements and the translucency of their gowns are mind-boggling to me. Bravo Signor Botticelli!
DaVinci's Secret Mural at Palazzo Vecchio
Next door to the Uffizi you'll find the Palazzo Vecchio and the easily accessible Hall of the 500. Here you'll awe at the enormity of Vasari's murals which line the hall. (Remember I told you I'd get back to Vasari?) If you needed further proof of what an awesome dude he was, listen to this. There is a commonly agreed upon theory in the art history community that Vasari was tasked with painting over an unfinished work by Leonardo Da Vinci. Rather than destroy the work, he constructed a false wall over the Da Vinci to paint his mural. Look carefully for one of the banner men in the mural waving a flag that reads, "Cerca Trova" latin for he who seeks, finds. It took centuries for us to discover this hint and for technology to advance enough to prove this theory. Paint samples taken from behind the Vasari mural match that of the unique paint used in Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The painting is believed to be The Battle of the Anghiari.
The Vasari Corridor
If that wasn't mind-bending enough, Vasari was also responsible for one of the coolest and most looked over works in Florence. Millions of tourists each year pass under the Vasari Corridor on Florence's most famous bridge: Ponte Vecchio. This passageway, was commissioned by the Medici, a prominent banking family in Florence during the Renaissance (think Florentine royalty). It was to stretch from the Pitti Palace, the Medici residence, to the Palazzo Vecchio, the political center of Florence. The tunnel is also connected to the Uffizi, and runs through Santa Felicita, providing a completely private worshiping space for the Medici elite. The corridor is mostly closed to visitors but be sure to look for it above the Ponte Vecchio when you are there.
Impress your friends or family with these tidbits about Florentine art and history!
Let me know if you have any questions before you book.
Go confidently travelers!