Timeless genius

Arnolfo acknowledged at last

Adriana Varela
April 6, 2006

All over the city from banners, to billboards, to the back of your bus ticket you see the bas-relief sculpture of a graceful Gabriel who delivers his urgent message to the Virgin Mary and simultaneously announces a remarkable exhibition of Florence’s nearly-forgotten Renaissance master: Arnolfo di Cambio.  For the first time ever, over 100 of his works have been gathered from the world over, and reunited at the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. The exhibition explores his contributions to architecture, sculpture and to the city of Florence alongside some of his contemporaries and masters. It is divided into four sections in order to understand his origins, influences and progress.


The first section introduces us to Arnolfo, born in Colle Val d’Elsa circa 1240, and credited with being the architect and sculptor who contributed to the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance. On display are numerous sculptured busts and drawings honoring his artistic influence through the centuries. There are texts in which Vasari, the first Renaissance art historian, praises Arnolfo’s works 300 years after the sculptor’s death. These iconographical representations pay tribute to his work on Florence’s Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore.  Arnolfo is honored alongside such important names such as Giotto and Michelangelo. Many of these works were dedicated to him during the Ottocento when the façade of the Cathedral was being reconstructed and there was a revival of interest in his accomplishments, especially in the city of Florence.


In the following section we are shown how Arnolfo was influenced by his master, Nicola Pisano, before settling in Florence.  Pisano taught him to look back at classical ancient sculptures for his forms and, to this end, Arnolfo worked in Rome during this period.  He also developed his personal style and an affinity with French gothic architecture. This is best illustrated in his imposing funeral monument for Pope Boniface VIII, where there is a Classical naturalness in the enthroned figure of the Pope, while a sense of the Gothic is present in his robes and in the architecture surrounding him.  The most remarkable aspect of the second section is how the remaining pieces of the monument have been arranged for display. Rather than exhibiting the pieces separately, they have been incorporated into a wooden reconstruction of the monument, in order to give visitors an authentic feeling of what it would have been like in its original state.


The third section of the exhibition focuses on Arnolfo’s work on the façade and sidewalls of Santa Maria del Fiore which he began in 1296.  There is documentation regarding his plans for the entrance portals of the cathedral, mouldings, columns and statue groups, which followed a Marian program, as the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.   His hard work was destroyed in 1587 by Ferdinando I de’ Medici who wanted to change the style of the façade to match contemporary artistic tastes.  However, the exhibition includes several surviving testimonies that describe the original façade.  Among them are some fascinating drawings and paintings showing that Arnolfo’s conception was significantly different from what we see today.  Some remnants of his sculptures destroyed during 1587 were discovered in 1970 under the floor of the Duomo. The sculptural style on the façade demonstrates that Arnolfo had perfected his technique of using optical illusions, principally perspective, to render his figures more natural and three dimensional, just as Giotto did with painting.


The last section of the exhibition illuminates this comparison between Arnolfo and Giotto. Some of Giotto’s oil paintings depicting the Madonna and Child and various saints are displayed, highlighting the similarities of style and technique that connect these two artists, despite the fact they worked in different media.  Both used Gothic architecture to frame their figures;  the figures themselves posses a quiet grace and fluidity, and there is a marked attempt to create a sense of depth and dimension with the use of perspective. Alongside their works are some interesting examples of intricate gold work (chalices, etc) created in the same period for the use inside the Cathedral.


Anyone who has an interest in medieval and Renaissance art, architecture and history will enjoy this exhibition which aims to unify Arnolfo’s works and invites reflection on the entire period.  It also offers some fascinating insights into the history of Santa Maria del Fiore and how the Cathedral has changed into the most recognizable monument in the city.  

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