In Via Giuseppe Giusti, a short distance to the north of Piazza Santissima Annunziata, stands a small house which sports a rather bizarre facade.. It was built by the Mannerist artist Federico Zuccari (1542-1609), who, in 1576, was called to Florence to complete the frescoes in the cupola of the Duomo, which had been begun by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74).
In the design of the facade Zuccari made reference to both his profession and his name. The three reliefs (above the door and windows) depict the tools of his trade, while the wrought-iron pan di zucchero (a sugar cone used in confectionery), which forms part of the window-gratings, is a play on his name.
When Bartolomeo Ammannati's statue of Neptune was first unveiled in the Piazza della Signoria, the good people of Florence were less than impressed by what they saw, if the following ditty is anything to go by, "Ammannato, Ammannato, che bel marmo hai rovinato!"(Ammannato, Ammannato, what beautiful marble you have ruined!).
The year was 1565 and the statue, which was soon nicknamed Il Biancone (the white giant), stood on a high pedestal in the centre of the Fontana del Nettuno, the first major public fountain to be erected in Florence.
To add insult to injury, the public promptly used the fountain as a washbasin for its dirty laundry! In 1720 a plaque was attached to the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio forbidding such use. The plaque is still there.
In her book The Stones of Florence, Mary McCarthy recounts the tale that Neptune, who was the god of the river Arno, had been turned into a statue because, like Michelangelo, he had spurned the love of women.
The Venetian noblewoman Bianca Cappello (1548-87) was one of the most colourful characters in 16th century Florence and her palazzo sports one of the best examples of a type of decoration known as sgraffito (scratchwork).
Sgraffito is a form of ornamentation, which is produced by scratching the surface of a plastered facade to reveal the coloured plaster beneath.
The wall to be plastered was first given a rendering coat (rinzaffo) to cover and fill the holes and joints in the rough masonry. For sgraffito the wall was then coated with a layer of dark-coloured plaster (arricciato). A coat of white lime wash was applied to the arricciato before the latter was dry.
The surface was now ready for the sgraffito to be applied. A sketch was made on the white layer to scratch the outlines of the design. Using a stylus, the top white layer was scratched away to reveal the darker layer below. The contrasting colours of the light outer surface and the dark lower layer enabled figures or patterns to appear.
As a technique for decorating the exterior of a building, sgraffito has two advantages over the traditional fresco:. it requires less skill and it is more weather-resistant.
Florence abounds with examples of sgraffito, but one of the finest belongs to the Palazzo di Bianca Cappello, which is situated on Via Maggio. The facade was painted between 1574 and 1579 by Bernadino Poccetti (1548-1612)), who was also known as Bernardino delle Facciate (Bernardino of the Facades)
Poccetti created a complex and detailed tapestry of allegories and allusions. For instance, the four white swans and the Latin motto NON MINUS CANDORE QUAM CANTU ET VATICINIO SACER (no less white than sacred song and prophecy) refer to the virtues of the mistress of the house, whose first name means white in Italian.
Bianca Cappello was the mistress, and later the wife, of Francesco de' Medici (b. 1541/ r. 1574-87), Grand Duke of Tuscany, hence the presence of the Medici coat of arms.
On January 6th, 1537, following the assassination of Alessandro de' Medici (b. 1510), Duke of Florence, Cosimo de' Medici (1519-74) became the city's second duke. Cosimo was the first member of the cadet branch of the Medici family to rule Florence.
Renaissance dukes liked to have maxims and the young Cosimo (he was only seventeen years old when he came to power) was no different. He chose festina lente (hasten slowly), which had been one of the favourite maxims of ancient Rome's first emperor, Augustus. In Cosimo's case, the maxim was given visual form - a tortoise bearing on its shell a wind-filled sail.
The Palazzo Vecchio, where the young duke and his family once lived (when it was known as the Palazzo Ducale), is full of images of sailing tortoises. However, there are many other examples to be seen elsewhere in the city.
The exquisitely beautiful bas-relief (1414-21), which gives the Porta della Mandorla its name, is the work of the Florentine sculptor Giovanni di Antonio di Banco (c.1380/90-1421), better known as Nanni di Banco.
The door is located on the north side of the Duomo and the almond-shaped motif, in the centre of the relief, depicts the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Her ascension to Heaven). Mandorla is the Italian word for almond.
The Madonna hands down her girdle to Saint Thomas (the apostle who doubted Christ's resurrection), as proof of her Assumption into Heaven. The actual girdle, which was first made of silk and then of copper, has long since disappeared.
According to extra-biblical tradition, Thomas arrived too late to see the Assumption. The Virgin, therefore, offered her girdle to the incredulous apostle as tangible proof of her departure.
This scene is common in Tuscan art, because what is believed to be the actual relic of the Holy Girdle, known as the Sacra Cintola, is kept in Prato Cathedral.
In addition to Saint Thomas, there is, in the lower-right corner, a curious image of a bear shaking an oak tree. This strange image has always perplexed scholars. One explanation is that in the medieval belief system bear cubs were thought to be born shapeless, their form was given to them by the licking of their mother. This act became a symbol of Christianity, which, it was held, reforms and regenerates non-Christians.
However, this theory doesn't explain the presence of the oak tree!
The Medici family in Florence gave the Catholic church a grand total of three popes; two are very famous, Leo X (r. 1513-21) and Clement VII (r. 1523-34), but the third is much less well-known. The reason why so few people have heard of Pope Leo XI is that he died within a month of being elected.
Cardinal Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici (1535-1605), the great-nephew of Pope Leo X, became Pope Leo XI on April 1st 1605, only to die twenty-six days later on April 27th. His pontificate is one of the shortest in history. (The record is held by Pope Urban VII, who reigned in 1590 from September 15th until September 27th, a mere thirteen days).
During his long tenure as the archbishop of Florence, Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici was responsible for the rebuilding of the Palazzo Arcivescovile (Archbishop's Palace), which is situated opposite the baptistery in Piazza di San Giovanni. The papal coat-of-arms, complete with the Medici family's balls, graces the north-east corner of the palace.
The three roses and the inscription SIC FLORUI (thus I flourished), which one sees at the base of the coat of arms, refer to the brevity of the pope's reign. Pope Leo XI, like the rose, only bloomed for a short time.
Leo XI was later known as Papa Lampo (the Lightning Pope).
In most images of the Annunciation the three main protagonists are the Archangel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit (taking the form of a dove). Very, very occasionally, the dove will be accompanied, or even replaced, by a tiny figure (who often carries a Cross).
We can see such a figure in a beautiful medieval painting of the Lignum Vitae (Tree of Life), which hangs in the Galleria dell' Accademia. It was painted, circa 1310-15, by Pacino di Bonaguida for the Convent of Monticelli in Florence.
The large wooden panel depicts a tree-shaped cross, which symbolises the Tree of Life. The scenes in the roundels hanging from its branches represents episodes from Christ's life. One of the roundels contains an image of the Annunciation, in which it is possible to discern a tiny figure heading towards the Virgin Mary.
More than two centuries later, the Council of Trent (1545-63) would discourage such representations, as they could lead people to think that Christ was fully-formed before entering Mary's womb, thus making the Mother of God a mere passive receptacle, rather than an active participant, in the Incarnation.
The poet who penned one of the most popular love sonnets in the English language died in Florence on June 29th 1861. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried in the city's 'English' Cemetery, which, in the month of April, is awash with irises.
Her tomb was designed by the English artist Lord Leighton and created by the Italian sculptor Francesco Giovannozzi.
In 1846 Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett (1806-61), then forty-years old, eloped with Robert Browning, a fellow poet, who was six years her junior. The couple honeymooned in Paris before settling (after a brief sojourn in Pisa) in Florence, where they lived until her death in 1861
Robert Browning left the city a month later. Although he lived for another twenty-eight years, dying in Venice in 1889, he never returned to Florence.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb doesn't bear her name, only her initials. There is no inscription, there are no lines from her verse, and the rather beautiful relief of the woman's head, with its coronal of laurel leaves, represents not the poet, but an idealised image of Poetry.
At the north end of the loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents), stands a poignant reminder of what was once an all too common practise in Florence.
This is the spot where, for more than 200 years, babies were abandoned by their parents to the care of the hospital. The fresco above the grated window depicts two foundlings and a telling quotation from the Book of Psalms, "Our father and mother have abandoned us, but the Lord has taken us in." (Psalm XXVI).
When it was opened, in the middle of the 15th century, the Ospedale degli Innocenti was the world's first purpose-built hospital for abandoned babies, the so-called innocenti or nocentini.
The hospital, which was dedicated to Santa Maria degli Innocenti, took in its first baby (a girl) on February 5th, 1445. As February 5th is the feast day of Saint Agatha, the baby was given the name Aghata. She was also given a second name, Smeralda (emerald), for good luck.
Abandoned babies were passed (often anonymously) through a grated window and placed on a cushion. It is thought that the cushion may have been flanked by statues of Mary and Joseph so that the abandoned baby would have resembled Jesus in the crib at the nativity. A bell would then have been rung to attract the attention of the duty-officer.
A message or a token of some kind was often left with the baby, which would enable someone to prove that he or she had left the child, should they ever wish to reclaim it. This information was always carefully noted down in the hospital's records. The archives contain thousands of messages and small items such as coins, rings, hair clips, crucifixes, rosary beads, buttons, pieces of fabric, etc.
In 1465 the yearly intake of foundlings stood at 200, but twenty years later it had reached 1,000.
In 1660 the grated window, which was originally positioned elsewhere in the loggia, was moved to the north end, where it remained in use until June 30th 1875, by which time the yearly intake was in excess of 2,000 babies.
The last two innocenti (a boy and a girl) to pass through the window were given the names Ultimo Lasciati and Laudata Chiusuri. Both babies had been left with half a medal and a note to say they had been christened.
The Ospedale degli Innocenti houses a fascinating museum, which provides a graphic insight into the workings of an institution which, for centuries, played such an important role in the city of Florence.
While it is common knowledge that the lion is one of the symbols of Florence, what is much less well known is that, for centuries, real lions were kept in a cage in the centre of the city. .
The cage was originally located where the Loggia dei Lanzi now stands, but was later moved to the back of the Palazzo Vecchio, where the street is still called Via dei Leoni.
When Cosimo l de' Medici (r. 1537-74) and his family moved into the palazzo he soon found that the smell of the lions offended his ducal nose and so the beasts were once again relocated.
Piazza della Signoria, the civic heart of the city, is full of stone lions. The most famous is, perhaps, the Marzocco, but lions are also to be found above the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio and at the very top of its 95-metre-high tower, the so-called Torre del Arnolfo.
The entrance to the Loggia dei Lanzi is also flanked by two marble lions and there are countless other lions carved out of the actual fabric of the building.
Florence is full of beautiful images of the Annunciation and one of the finest is the work of the artist-cum-Carmelite friar Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69), one of the city's own sons.
The painting (undated and undocumented) can be found in the Martelli Chapel (Cappella Martelli) in the church of San Lorenzo.
Lippi's depiction of the theme is somewhat unusual in that the painting is divided into two distinct parts, with Mary and Gabriel in one half, while the other half is occupied by two angels. One of the angels turns and faces the spectator, while gesturing to the adjacent scene. It is difficult to explain the presence of the two additional angels, as accounts of the Annunciation refer only to the Archangel Gabriel.
The altarpiece is actually made up of two separate panels, which do not quite line up. This fact has led some scholars to conclude that the painting was originally a pair of movable organ shutters, which were later reconfigured as a pala d'altare (altarpiece).
The painting is full of symbols. The glass carafe in the foreground, for instance, represents Mary's purity in its transparency and her role as the vessel of the Incarnation of Christ. And just as light can pass through glass without damaging the material, so a child was implanted in Mary without damaging her virginity.
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