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.
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.
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.
The Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel) is the most famous painting by the Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), who is buried in Florence.
Böcklin moved to Florence in 1876. Four years later, in 1880, he painted the Isle of the Dead, the first of what would prove to be five versions of the same theme. The painting was partly inspired by the so-called 'English' Cemetery, which lay close to Böcklin's studio.
In 1883 he painted a third version, adding, for the first time, his own initials to one of the burial chambers in the rocks on the right. In 1933, the painting was acquired by a noted Böcklin admirer and fellow artist, Adolf Hitler.
Böcklin left Florence in 1885, but returned in 1892 when he bought the Villa Bellagio in San Domenico. He died there on January 16th 1901.
The artist could not be accorded burial in the cemetery that had inspired his most famous painting, as it was no longer open. He was therefore interred in the Cimitero degli Allori (Cemetery of the Laurels), which lies on Via Senese. The cemetery had opened in 1860 for the burial of non-Catholics.
For centuries in Florence, March 25th, not January Ist, was the start of the new year. The city didn't adopt the practise of starting the year on January 1st until 1750.
There is a large plaque in the Loggia dei Lanzi, which records the change. It had been decreed in November 1749 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco Stefano (r. 1737-65).
March 25th is the Feast of the Annunciation, the celebration of the announcement by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the Son of God.
Florence abounds with images of the Annunciation, but the most famous one of all takes the form of a fresco and can be found in the church of Santissima Annunziata. (which is dedicated to the Madonna of the Annunciation).
According to legend, the fresco was painted in the 14th century by Frate Bartolomeo. It would, perhaps, be more accurate to say that the fresco was mostly painted by the good monk, for the face of the Madonna is said to have been completed by an angel while he was asleep. Divine intervention gave the image of the Annunciation miraculous powers and Santissima Annunziata soon became an important place of pilgrimage.
The ancient pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella, one of the oldest in the world, has been pedalling pills, potions and powders for centuries.
The pharmacy is now part of the famous Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, which occupies buildings once belonging to the Dominican convent of the same name. The main sales room was once the medieval Cappella di San Niccolo. Nothing remains of the chapel's original decoration, but its small sacristy boasts a well-preserved set of 14th century frescoes.
The frescoes illustrate scenes from the Passion of Christ and were commissioned by the wealthy Acciaiuoli family. They were painted by Mariotto di Nardo (c.1365-1424) between 1385 and 1405.
A member of the family, Angelo Acciaiuoli, who was the bishop of Florence, appears in the scene of the Crucifixion, together with a rather grim-faced lion, a symbol of the family's coat of arms.
Titian's 'Venus of Urbino' is held, by many, to be the sexiest picture in the Uffizi. It was painted in 1538 for Guidobaldo della Rovere, Duke of Urbino and came to Florence in 1634 when Ferdinand II de' Medici (r. 1621-70) married Vittoria della Rovere.
When the painting entered the Uffizi in 1736 it was hung in the Tribuna where it was covered by a sliding panel depicting Sacred (ie. clothed) Love. The 'modesty' panel was removed at the end of the 18th century.
Titian's masterpiece no longer hangs in the Tribuna; it can now be found in a much less prestigious part of the gallery.
A stone's throw from the Baptistery stands the Loggia del Bigallo, home to the Museo del Bigallo, the smallest museum in Florence.
One of its exhibits is a fresco of the Madonna della Misericordia (1342), which contains the earliest view of Florence. The city (with its incomplete bell tower), as well as its citizens, are depicted enjoying the protection of the Virgin Mary.
Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which was known in England as Childermass. It was once, but is no longer, one of the most celebrated feasts in the Christian calendar.
The feast marks the biblical account of infanticide by King Herod the Great. According to the Gospel of St Matthew (the only source of the slaughter), Herod ordered the execution of all young children in Bethlehem and beyond, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn 'King of the Jews', whose birth had been announced to him by the wise men.
'...Herod...was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under.' (Matthew 2:16).
The children who were slaughtered came to be known as the Holy Innocents and were later venerated as the first martyrs of the Christian church.
When, on October 23rd 1485, Domenico Ghirlandaio was commissioned to paint the Adoration of the Magi for the High Altar of the church of Santa Maria degli Innocenti, which was part of the foundling hospital of the same name, he included a small scene of the Massacre of the Innocents.
The foundlings were, after all, known as innocenti. Two of the Holy Innocents can be seen in the foreground of the painting. Ghirlandaio also included a portrait of himself and one of the man who had commissioned the painting, Francesco Talenti the prior of the Ospedale degli Innocenti. The painter looks out at the spectator, while the prior (dressed in black) stands to his right.
The painting now hangs in the Museo degli Innocenti.
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