In Piazza Santissima Annunziata stands a grand bronze equestrian statue of Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (b. 1549/ r. 1587-1609). It is the work of Giambologna (1529-1608) and his star pupil, Pietro Tacca (1577-1640).
The grand duke sits astride his horse, baton in one hand reins in the other. His horse stares straight ahead, but Ferdinand turns to the right and looks across at the 16th century Palazzo Grifoni Budini Gattai. Why?
In his poem 'The Statue and the Bust' Robert Browning (1812-89) relates the legend of how Ferdinand, while riding through the piazza, caught the eye of a young woman as she was staring out of a window of the palazzo.
The two fell in love at first sight, but there was a snag; both were married. And so nothing happened. However, many years later the unrequited lovers decided to mark that special moment by the creation of two statues, he on horseback in the piazza, while she had a bust of herself placed in the room in which she had been standing when she espied the grand duke.
The first stanza of the poem reads:
There's a palace in Florence, the world knows well,
And a statue watches it from the square,
And this story of both do our townsmen tell.
Robert Browning lived in Florence with his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning from 1846 until her death in 1861.
In 1568, more than 130 years after it had been built, Cosimo I de' Medici (b. 1519/ r. 1537-74), Duke of Florence, decided to address the decoration of the cupola of the Duomo. While it had always been the intention to decorate the cupola with mosaics, an immense undertaking given its size, Cosimo opted in the end for frescoes. And he called in his trusted court painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) to undertake the work. The subject was to be The Last Judgement.
Vasari, with the assistance of four fellow painters, started work on June 11th, 1572. However, on June 27th, 1574 he died, having completed only about a third of the work. His patron had died two months earlier on April 21st.
In 1576 the baton passed to Federico Zuccari (1542-1609), an artist who hailed from Sant'Angelo in Vado, a small town in the Marches. Zuccari began work on August 30th with the help of at least three other painters, only one of which had worked with Vasari. Zuccari and his team completed the frescoes, less than two years later, in May 1578.
Zuccari signed and dated his work, but no mention was made of his illustrious predecessor. The omission of Vasari's name was no doubt an oversight on the part of the younger artist. However, he did paint include Vasari's portrait (and a number of other portraits), albeit placed behind his own more imposing self-portrait (complete with flamboyant head-wear).
The frescoes, which cover 3,600 square metres and depict more than 700 figures, were finally unveiled to the public on August 19th, 1579.
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 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).
After a long and costly restoration the so-called Cosimo Panel (Pannello di Cosimo) is back on display in the Palazzo Pitti.
The panel is a lime-wood relief by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), who is widely regarded to be the finest wood carver ever to have wielded a chisel in England.
The panel, which measures some five feet by three and a half feet (1.5 metres by 1 metre), was commissioned by King Charles II and sent as a gift to Cosimo III de' Medici. It left London on August 3rd 1682 and was presented to the grand duke on December 16th of the same year.
The intricately-carved relief is a tribute to the friendship between the courts of England and Tuscany (note the two crowns), which is sealed by the two billing doves at the top of the panel.
In the central part of the panel war is worsted by peace and prosperity: a time in which music, painting and architecture flourish.
In the place of honour, dangling from the trumpet of fame, is a medallion-portrait of Pietro Berrettini (1596-1669), architect-painter-decorator-designer. Better known as Pietro da Cortona, he was responsible for many of the ceiling frescoes in the grand-ducal apartments in Palazzo Pitti.
Gibbons signed the panel, throwing in, for good measure, his goose-quill!
The Cosimo panel is on display in the Sala di Grotticina, a small room in the Museo degli Argenti.
The Loggia del Grano has recently been restored and the wonderful bust of the mustachioed Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici (1590-21) can now be seen again.
The Loggia del Grano, which functioned as a market for grain and cereals, was commissioned by Cosimo II and built in 1619. The loggia was designed by Giulio Parigi, while the bust was carved by Chiarissimo Fancelli.
The bust sits in the middle of a splendid stemma (coat of arms). The Latin inscription proclaims Cosimo II as EGENORUM PATRI (Father of those in need).
Cosimo II (r. 1609-21), who was only nineteen years old when he succeeded to power, did not enjoy the best of health and for much of his eleven-year reign, he delegated the administration of Tuscany to his ministers.
However, the grand duke's poor health did not stop him from fathering eight children during his marriage to Maria Maddalena of Austria (1589-1631). Cosimo II was only thirty years old when he died of tuberculosis in 1621.
Cosimo II was both the pupil and patron of the great scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). In 1610 Galileo published his Siderius Nuncio (The Starry Messenger), which he dedicated to his esrtwhile pupil. And he named the four moons, which he had observed in orbit around the planet Jupiter, the Sidera Medicea (Medicean stars) in honour of the grand duke and his three brothers.
There are fountains aplenty in the Boboli Garden, but surely one of the most curious is the so-called Fontana del Bacchino (Fountain of Bacchus).
The fountain, which takes the form of a naked man sitting astride a tortoise, is also known as the Fontanella di Nano Morgante, for the chubby chap is not the god of wine, but Morgante, the most celebrated and popular dwarf (nano) at the court of Cosimo I de' Medici (r. 1537-74).
The dwarf's real name was Braccio di Bartolo, but he was nicknamed, somewhat ironically, after the eponymous giant in Morgante (1483), an epic poem by Luigi Pulci (1432-84).
The fountain (1560) is the work of Valerio Cioli (1529-99).
In a small garden, at the back of the church of San Lorenzo, sits a statue of a woman to whom the city of Florence (and in particular all of its residents who work in the tourist industry) owes a huge debt of gratitude.
Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici (1667-1743) was the sister of Gian Gastone de' Medici (r. 1723-37), the seventh and final Medicean Grand Duke of Tuscany, who died childless. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany passed to the House of Lorraine and the Medici family's fabulous collection of paintings, sculptures, precious books, jewels etc, may have gone the same way, had it not been for the famous 'Patto di Famiglia' (Family Pact).
On October 31st 1737, Anna Maria Luisa, made a will which ensured that all of her family's art and treasures, which had been collected over nearly three centuries, remained in Florence 'per ornamento dello Stato, per utilità del Pubblico e per attirare la curiosità dei Forestieri' (for the ornament of the State, the use of the public and to attract the curiosity of foreigners).
The last scion of the House of Medici died on February 18th, 1743.
It is one of the most famous Etruscan statues ever unearthed and one of the highlights of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze.
The bronze statue was discovered in Arezzo in 1553 and was quickly claimed for the collection of Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, who had it brought to Florence. The creature was at first taken to be a lion, but was soon identified as the mythical chimera from Greek mythology.
According to the ancient Greeks, the chimera was a monstrous fire-breathing hybrid, a lion which had the head of a goat springing from its back, and a tail that often took the form of a snake.
There is an inscription on the right foreleg, which, most scholars agree, reads TINSCVIL. The statue was therefore a votive object dedicated to the supreme Etruscan god of day, Tin or Tinia. The statue is thought to have been created around 400 BCE. The tail is an 18th-century addition.
One of the most exquisite objects in a city full of exquisite objects is an onyx cameo of Duke Cosimo I de' Medici and his family.
The cameo, which is some six by seven inches, was carved by Giovanni Antonio de' Rossi (1517-after 1575) and depicts Cosimo, his wife Eleonora da Toledo, and five of their sons (Francesco, Giovanni, Garzia, Ferdinando and Pietro). Towering above the group is a personification of Fame, winged and blowing his trumpet.
The tondo was once filled by a medallion (now lost), containing an allegorical image of Florence or Tuscany.
The cameo was commissioned by Cosimo I in 1557 and expresses the duke's triple pride as ruler, husband and father.
The cameo, which can be found in the Museo degli Argenti in the Palazzo Pitti, seems incomplete, since the bottom edge is clearly broken.
There is a palazzo on the Via Maggio which stands out from its neighbours, on account of its beautifully decorated façade. The palace was once the residence of Bianca Cappello, a Venetian noblewoman, who had eloped to Florence with a penniless son of the city.
Bianca Cappello was born in Venice in 1548, the daughter of Bartolomeo Cappello and Pellegrina Morosini. At the tender age of fifteen this scion of a rich and noble Venetian family fell in love with a young Florentine clerk, by the name of Pietro Bonaventuri, who worked in a bank near the palace where Bianca lived.
On the night of November 28th, 1563, the couple ran off together and all hell broke out in La Serenissima. Pietro was banished from the city, on pain of death if he ever returned, while Bianca was simply banished.
Bonaventuri whisked the teenager off to his native city, where they were married. However, true love doesn't seem to have lasted very long and the couple were soon unfaithful to each other, Pietro with a member of the Ricci family, while Bianca became the mistress of Francesco de' Medici, the son of Cosimo I.
Pietro's infidelity cost him his life, Bianca's ended in marriage.
On April 21st 1574, Francesco became the ruler of Florence following the death of his father. Four years later Francesco's wife, Joanna of Austria, died in childbirth leaving the way open for him to marry his mistress, thereby making the thirty-year old Venetian the Grand Duchess of Tuscany.
At this point the authorities in Venice made a spectacular volte-face, proclaiming Bianca Cappello as a 'true and special daughter of the Republic'. Hypocrites!
Some of the people of Florence were less impressed by the marriage, if the following ditty is anything to go by: "Il granduca di Toscana,
Ha sposato una puttana, Gentildonna Venetiana" (The grand duke of Tuscany has married a whore, a Venetian lady).
The Grand Duke and his Grand Duchess died within twenty-four hours of each other in October 1587, while they were staying at the Villa Medicea in Poggio a Caiano.
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