For anyone looking to understand the Renaissance in full, a visit to the Bargello Museum is a must, home to a vast and outstanding collection of some of history’s most-renowned sculptures, where you can find early artworks by Michelangelo, bronze pieces by Donatello, glazed terracottas by the Della Robbia family and marble works by Bartolomeo Ammannati, among many others. The Bargello also conserves collections that reach far beyond the boundaries of the Renaissance, making it unique in its holdings.
A bit of history
Our tour begins in the central courtyard, one of the oldest parts of the building. Construction on the Bargello began in the late 13th-century under the direction of Lapo di Cambio (the monumental staircase in the courtyard, however, was built several decades later, between 1345 and 1367 by Neri di Fioravante). The courtyard is more than just a space to welcome visitors: several impressive pieces can be found tucked underneath the loggias, like Ammannati’s large-scale Fountain for the Sala Grande, commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1555. Interestingly, the pieces comprising the sculpture arrived in the museum’s collection at different times throughout the 20th century, and it was only in 2011 that the pieces were reassembled, along with copies of some of its elements that are lost to us today, like the marble arch.
Fountain for the Sala Grande by Bartolomeo Ammannati. Ph. Samantha Vaughn
Perhaps the most stunning part of the courtyard is the many coats of arms that once belonged to the various podestà who oversaw justice in the city in the Middle Ages. The Bargello was built to house the Capitano del Popolo, an administrative figure that was intended to balance the power held by the aristocracy, but in 1260, the building fell into the hands of these very people, known as the podestà. Since the position was held only temporarily, many authority figures passed through these doors, adding a new coat of arms each time, transforming the facades of the courtyard into a tapestry of time and a testament to the many historic events the space has played host to.
The building underwent a major change in 1574, when the Capitano di Piazza, known as the Bargello and tasked with overseeing public order, was transferred to the building. As a result, walls were erected in the open rooms to create cells and the loggia was bricked up, while the frescoes were ruined or covered. The building remained a fearsome place until 1786, when Grand Duke Peter Leopold famously abolished the death penalty and the prison’s torture instruments were burned in the courtyard. Finally, in 1857, the prisons were moved to Le Murate and the building was restored to its original appearance, where possible. The museum was officially inaugurated eight years later, in 1865, when two exhibitions about Dante and the history of applied arts from the Middle Ages onward brought in a vast number of works that went on to form the central part of the original collection.
Michelangelo and 16th-Century Sculpture Room
Bacchus by Michelangelo. Ph. www.bargellomusei.beniculturali.it
From here, we move to the Michelangelo and 16th-Century Sculpture Room, just off the courtyard. You wouldn’t think it, but this room holds a secret: its Gothic appearance only dates to the mid-1800s, when the building was being prepared to open as a museum. The space was decorated by Gaetano Bianchi in the popular Neo-Gothic style. The current artworks were moved here after the 1966 flood and mostly feature pieces that once belonged to the Medici’s extensive collection, including a host of sculptures by Michelangelo, Giambologna and Cellini.
This room is the ideal place for understanding the development of Renaissance sculpture. It is here that you can find a wide range of works that trace the immense importance great masters like Michelangelo had on the generations of artists to come. This is evidenced, for example, by the small-scale terracotta models of Buonarroti’s Dusk, Dawn and Day in the New Sacristy in the Medici Chapels, made by Niccolò Tribolo, whose own works were often misattributed to the master.
One of the first works you may notice is Michelangelo’s Bacchus, a marble sculpture depicting the Greek god of wine and made when the artist was just 21 years old. In his right hand, Bacchus holds a glass of wine, his drunkenness evident in his slack stance and glazed eyes, while his head is crowned with a wreath of leaves and bunches of grapes. Behind him, a satyr takes advantage of his drunken state to sneak the grapes hanging from his left hand. Commissioned by cardinal Raffaele Riario, the work was rejected upon receipt for reasons unknown and was instead purchased by Jacopo Galli, Riario’s banker, who kept it in his own garden before it was bought by the Medici in 1572.
Another interesting work in this room is Benvenuto Cellini’s base for the statue Perseus, begun in 1545 and originally on display in piazza della Signoria, where a copy now stands beneath the original statue. Both elements of the work were commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. The base is emblematic of Cellini’s skill in working with both marble and bronze. The marble portion features heraldic motifs, like Capricorn heads, the duke’s emblem, mythological figures and grotesques, while the bronze sculptures depict figures from the myth of Perseus: Jupiter, Mercury, Minerva and Danae, who holds the hand of a young Perseus. As was the case with many of the sculptures lining piazza della Signoria, the story of the Greek god was used to symbolize the power of the Medici; here, the feats of Perseus are meant to mirror Cosimo I’s success in conquering the Duchy.
The heart of the collection
The visit continues to the first floor. At the top of Fioravante’s monumental staircase, gorgeous painted vaults stretch over the open loggia and you can find several bronze works by Mannerist sculptors Giambologna and Bartolomeo Ammannati. Continuing on, the rest of this floor houses a variety of objects spanning nearly 1,500 years of history. The vast array of items conserved here attest not only to the breadth of the Medici’s collecting habits (majolica pieces from Valenica, ivories from Constantinople, objects stretching back to the 5th century), but also the eclecticism of 19th-century collecting, specifically the 3,300-strong collection bequeathed by Louis Carrand, which includes things like jewellery, enamels, scientific instruments and “wunderkammer rarities” reminiscent of the Medici era. But unlike a traditional cabinet of curiosities, when items were organized indiscriminately, the objects at the Bargello are divided into sections in true museum fashion. As you progress through first floor, you will come across individual rooms dedicated 13th-century sculpture and painting, majolica, ivories and the Carrand collection, before reaching the magnificent Sala di Donatello.
The Mary Magdalene Chapel
Midway along the floor is the Mary Magdalene Chapel, built in the late 13th century and used to house prisoners awaiting execution. The 14th-century frescoes were plastered over when the building was transformed into a prison in 1574, one of which was said to be a famous portrait of Dante Alighieri by Giotto, the oldest in existence. The mystery of its presence inspired the Lorraine family to sponsor a survey of the space in order to find it, and on July 20, 1840, Dante’s face was discovered on the far wall in a fresco of Paradise. The find led to other frescoes being uncovered that depicted Hell, Stories of St. Mary of Egypt, Stories of Mary Magdalene and Stories of St. John the Baptist, all of which are attributed to Giotto’s workshop. Two additional paintings dating to the late 1400s portray The Madonna and Child and a Penitent St. Jerome, both by Bastiano Mainardi.
It is important to note that the objects found in this chapel are not original to the space. To evoke the appearance of a medieval sacred setting, the objects on display were placed here intentionally during the 19th-century modifications, though their provenances were religious in nature.
Sala di Donatello
The final room on the first floor is the Sala di Donatello, the largest room in the building and which originally housed the General Council. Interestingly, it’s current use was inspired by a single event in 1887: though 16th-century sculptures were already on display in this room, celebrations for the 500th anniversary of Donatello’s birth included an exhibition of the artist’s works conserved in the hall and casts of ones that weren’t. The show’s success inspired the administration to place Donatello’s artworks on permanent display alongside other 15th-century sculptures. Some of these artists include Luca della Robbia, Michelozzo, Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, the latter two of whom won the 1401 competition to cast the bronze doors of the city’s baptistery – considered by many to be the “launch” of the Renaissance. Brunelleschi famously refused to work alongside Ghiberti and left for Rome, leaving the entire project in his rival’s hands. The two panels that the artists submitted to the competition are on display here.
David by Donatello. Ph. Samantha Vaughn
Any visit to the Bargello should include time spent admiring Donatello’s sculptures. Some of the artist’s most famous pieces in this room include both his marble and bronze David, St. George – sculpted to represent the guild of armourers and swordsmiths on the exterior of Orsanmichele – and the Marzocco, the heraldic symbol of Florence. Considered one of the masters of 15th-century Italian art, Donatello’s artworks at the Bargello trace the evolution of sculpture in the early Renaissance. This is particularly evident when comparing his marble David, sculpted in 1416, with his bronze version dated more than 20 years later, made between 1439 and 1443. The earlier David depicts the prophet in a rather static pose, his face blank and oblivious to the immense feat he has just accomplished, while his clothing and the angling of the bust are reminiscent of the Gothic style. In the latter version, the first free-standing sculpture in the round since antiquity, David is completely nude save for a hat placed delicately atop his head. His hair falls onto his shoulders unkempt and an enigmatic smile plays on his lips, while his evocative pose and the feather running up the back of his leg attest to the added sentiment that went into Renaissance sculpture compared to the previous era.
Verrocchio and Della Robbia
Woman with a Bouquet by Verrocchio. Ph. www.bargellomusei.beniculturali.it
The second floor of the museum is smaller in size, but the climb is worth it. Here, you can find a splendid collection of terracotta pieces by members of the Della Robbia dynasty, an intriguing assortment of nearly 3,000 civic, ecclesiastic and private seals dating back to the Middle Ages and several works by Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci’s master, including the terracotta Resurrection of Christ from 1470, a wooden crucifix and his famous marble bust Woman with a Bouquet, dated to 1475-1480 and whose subject and provenance remain shrouded in mystery.