Donatello. The Renaissance

The simplicity of the title of this marvellous exhibition (open until 31 July at Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello in Florence) prepares us for the presence of a series of masterpieces by the greatest Western sculptor of all time. On show in two Florence venues, there are loans from all over the world, especially from the V&A in London. Some of the works have just been restored while others are in the process of restoration. The decision was taken to exhibit some of the statues much higher than usual, following documentation about their original pedestals, or quite simply by looking at their stance.

Equestrian statue by Donatello of the Venetian mercenary general Gattamelata (1453). Mounted on an exceptionally high base, outside the Basilica of Sant’Antonio in Padua, it was the first large-scale monumental bronze to be cast since ancient times. Donatello perhaps studied the 4th-century BC bronze horse’s head pictured below when creating this masterpiece.

The exhibition gives us a unique opportunity to see up close some bronzes Donatello carried out for the baptistery font in Siena and for the high altar of the Basilica of Sant’Antonio (the ‘Santo’) in Padua. For the hexagonal font in Siena, six gilded bronze panels were commissioned from different Tuscan masters: two from Ghiberti, two from Turino di Sano and his son, and two from Jacopo della Quercia. But in 1423 Jacopo asked Donatello to take on one of his scenes, the Banquet of Herod. This has just been restored in Florence and is exhibited here before being returned to Siena. In the dramatic scene with the Baptist’s severed head presented at the table, it is fascinating to see all Donatello’s innovative details and his use of extraordinary architectural perspective (derived from Brunelleschi). It at once overshadowed the panels by all the other sculptors.

Three works in bronze have been removed from their setting, especially for this exhibition, from Donatello’s famous high altar of the Santo in Padua. When in situ in the dark sanctuary they are very difficult to see. The Miracle of the Mule (one of the miracles performed by St Anthony, to whom the Santo basilica is dedicated) shows a mule owned by a non-believer showing the way to Christ by kneeling in front of the Host. This charming scene is in quite a different spirit to the life-size Crucifix(the technical difficulties overcome by Donatello in creating this work in bronze, unique for its size in the 15th century, are described in the catalogue). Not content to show just the drama of Christ on the Cross, he gives a delicate flick to the loin cloth, as if caught in a gust of wind. The third work on show from the Padua altar is a relief of Christ as the Man of Sorrows.

Marble reliefs by Donatello using his famous ‘schiacciato’ technique are displayed throughout the exhibition, culminating in the last room at the Bargello, which celebrates the ‘Dudley’ Madonna (so named because it was acquired by the V&A from the Dudley family in 1927, although we know it was once in Cosimo I’s study in Florence). This tiny work, thought to date from c. 1440, was only recognized as being by Donatello’s hand around 1992. It had an extraordinary influence on generations of artists, including Leonardo (represented by a drawing from the British Museum) and Michelangelo (his famous relief, recently restored, from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence). It is not always easy to see a direct influence in all twelve works displayed here, but the very fine painting by Artemisia Gentileschi demonstrates an affinity with the marble panel at late as the 17th century.

Much attention has been given to works in terracotta, a medium frequently used in Antiquity but which only came back into favour with sculptors in the first years of the 15th century. The curators have exhibited a number of Madonna reliefs in terracotta, some of them painted, which they believe to be by Donatello’s own hand and which show his early interest in terracotta. They write amusingly that they are fully expecting scholars to contest these new attributions. The majestic Madonna with a playful Christ Child from the Museo Bardini in Florence, and always recognized as by the master, stands out above the others for its remarkable beauty.

Donatello clearly enjoyed experimenting with media other than bronze and terracotta: he even used pietro macigno in three of his works, one of which, his genial Marzocco lion with an almost human face, guards the ‘entrance’ to the exhibition in the Bargello. The name Marzocco, apparently used since the Middle Ages to denote the protector of the city, has mysterious origins. It was originally intended to sit on a column.

There is a room of Donatello’s bronze ‘spiritelli’, or what we now usually call putti. These winged nude children are also familiar from Antique sarcophagi. The most beautiful of these are the small-scale dancing figures – perhaps the one dancing on a scallop shell (from the Bargello) is the most memorable for its joyful grace. Some of these small bronzes used to be taken for Antique works.

Almost all Donatello’s most famous contemporaries are represented, even if only with one work: Luca della Robbia, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Brunelleschi, Fra’ Angelico, Andrea del Castagno. But there are also works by the far less famous, including Nanni di Bartolo, who is here recognised as the author of the statue of a prophetin the Florence Duomo (which up to now has usually been attributed to Donatello). Bertoldo di Giovanni, one of Donatello’s most devoted pupils, is also re-evaluated: the lovely bronze bust of a young philosopher in the Bargello is now recognized as his work and not that of Donatello. A drawing from the Ashmolean of four soldiers (one of which is a direct copy from Donatello’s St George) is touching evidence that Raphael was in Florence at the age of 20 when he came to the city to study her works of art.

In the last room in Palazzo Strozzi is the astonishing sight of a huge horse’s head from Naples (much larger than life-size), until recently considered a Classical work but now attributed to Donatello and thought to have been made for an equestrian monument that was never carried out. It was owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent, who donated it to the court of Naples. The sculptor would have been proud to see it displayed beside a magnificent horse’s head of c. 340 BC, one of the least-known treasures in Florence’s archaeological museum but perhaps the most important ancient bronze in the city. Scholars believe it must have been seen in the Medici palace by both Verrocchio and Donatello before working on their equestrian statues in Venice and Padua.

Ancient bronze horse’s head of the 4th century BC, from the Museo Archeologico in Naples. It is thought that Donatello was familiar with this work and that he drew on it for his equestrian statue of Gattamelata in Padua pictured above.

The catalogue, although expensive, is full of interest. Once again, as in so many art historical contexts, it is interesting to note that Vasari is still taken as a fundamental source when describing works of art and their history.

This is an exhibition not to be missed.

By Alta Macadam. For descriptions of the places in Italy with works by Donatello see Blue Guide Florence, Blue Guide Venice & the Veneto, Blue Guide Central Italy. Alta Macadam is currently at work on a new edition of Blue Guide Venice.

Book Review: The Bookseller of Florence

Four hundred and eighty pages might seem a lot to fill, when one has chosen as one’s subject a man about whom next to nothing is known. But Ross King, in this ambitious book published last year, has managed to fill them nonetheless, and the result is eminently readable. 

Vespasiano da Bisticci (the eponymous bookseller) was born c. 1422 into a poor family. His improvident father died early, leaving an indigent widow with more children than it seems reasonable to expect her to have clothed and fed and educated, when all she had been left with were debts. But somehow she managed it. One would like to know more about her, but there is no more to say. Florence in the early 15th century, we learn, was a city where 70–80 percent of boys attended school but where girls were largely encouraged never to leave the house, certainly not to go ‘leaping about the piazza’ in gaudy gowns. 

Vespasiano grows up and is apprenticed to Michele Guarducci, a bookbinder and stationer. Florence at the time is enjoying its golden age and in Guarducci’s shop Vespasiano meets a number of illustrious men. He seems to have had a natural instinct for endearing himself to them. He knew how to cultivate the right people, was obviously a good networker, and though not a scholar himself, was skilful at understanding his product, at knowing how to talk knowledgeably about it and how to source exactly what his customers might want. By dint of quite a lot of obsequious fawning, he goes on to obtain important patrons such as Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence, Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino and King Ferrante of Naples, acting as their agent and procuring manuscripts for their libraries. 

As far as Vespasiano the man goes, that is just about it. The rest of the book consists of lengthy digressions on various subjects, with the persona of Vespasiano forming the link between them. There is the story of the texts of Vespasiano’s books (notably Greek and Roman classics): the means by which they were retrieved from oblivion and the part that Florence played in this fascinating saga, complete with vignettes of the misogynist scholars, cultivated thugs and dilettante noblemen who had an appetite to acquire them. Then there is the story of the manuscripts those texts were turned into: vellum versus parchment; ‘modern’ Roman versus Gothic script; styles of illumination. Then comes the wider history of 15th-century Italy: the infighting in the city states (King gives us a lengthy account of the Pazzi Conspiracy in Florence), tussles with a warrior pope and the conquest of Otranto by the Ottomans in 1480. Badly shaken by this, Italy begins a gradual descent from enlightened humanism to something more inward-looking and defensive. Savonarola makes bonfires out of half a century of learning before ending up on a pyre himself. As for Vespasiano, having been personally reponsible for the production of around one thousand manuscripts, he abandons his faith in the power of Aristotle to guide mankind and reverts to an uncompromising and depressing form of apocalyptic Christianity.

And of course, along the way, there is the elephant in Vespasiano’s bookroom: the printing press. King takes us to Germany for its invention and then to Subiaco, near Rome, for its arrival in Italy. Florence proves a late adopter of the new technology; perhaps because her high literacy rate meant that she was ahead of other cities in terms of manuscript books and thus was slower to feel the need of printed ones. Vespasiano does not seem to mind that a printing press has been set up a few blocks away from his shop; at any rate, he does not feel threatened by it. He is like one of those people who scoffed at the first smartphones, blithely certain that no one will ever really want to do anything else with their handset than make phone calls. Vespasiano was not alone in his disdain. The printing press, many believed, would spread fake news. It would turn out books that were riddled with errors. It would bring texts before the sort of people ill-equipped to digest and understand their meaning. 

There is no climactic finale, though. Vespasiano sees that business is no longer what it was and chooses to retire. He decides that he himself will become a writer and sits down to compose biographies of 103 of the ‘illustrious men’ he had known during the course of his career. He could name-drop like mad; the illustrious men of his acquaintance included popes and princes, scholars and sculptors, many of them still household names today. 

There was also a single woman, Alessandra de’ Bardi. This seems exciting, not for tokenistic reasons but because so few such biographies exist and it might shed light on the lives that medieval Florentine women led and the prospects that were open to them beyond the hearth and the dowry chest. Unfortunately it seems that Vespasiano believed that no other prospects were appropriate and took the opportunity to turn Alessandra’s life into a disquisition on virtuous female behaviour, vigorously channelling his inner Cato the Elder. Interestingly, King does not actually tell us this. He remains completely silent about the single female Life, perhaps, one feels, out of disappointment and frustration that his bookseller was not more ahead of his time. What does emerge from King’s narrative is an impression that the Renaissance Florentine convent offered more scope to a lively-minded woman—of any class—than marriage did. King includes delightful details about a nun called Sister Marietta who worked as a compositor in the San Jacopo printing works. 

But what became of the text of Vespasiano’s Lives? ‘A terrible irony befell Vespasiano’s project,’ King tells us. ‘As well he knew, the fame of illustrious men was sometimes lost to history not because no one preserved their deeds but because the manuscripts that celebrated these deeds had perished or been lost. Such could have been the fate of Vespasiano’s manuscript. Since his presentation copies were all copied by hand, their readership was circumscribed, and his praises of illustrious men, as the decades passed, went largely unheard. A few more handwritten copies were made from his manuscripts in the centuries that followed, but all quickly disappeared into libraries or simply vanished from sight in a sorry reprise of the loss of knowledge during the “Dark Ages” that he had done so much in his lifetime to reverse.’ 

Ironically, Vespasiano’s text is known to us not through the offices of its own author but because a stray manuscript from the Vatican Library, rediscovered and issued in printed form in 1839, came to the attention of Jacob Burckhardt, who was electrified by it and used it as the basis of his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1878), hugely influential and still in print. It is through Burckhardt, via the printing press, that the existence of such a man as Vespasiano da Bisticci and the concept of such a thing as the Renaissance is known to us at all.

All of this must make us wonder about the technology shift that is taking place in our own time. We are abandoning print on paper and, in a bizarre about-turn, going back to scrolling. But our electronic medium is far more ephemeral and fragile than any book, either written or printed. And the risk of unedited, inaccurate, misleading information finding its way onto the internet is infinitely greater. We do not know what Vespasiano would have made of this. We do not really know what he thought about anything except that he was prudish; that he was a good businessman so long as established markets remained strong; and that he lacked vision when faced with a disruptive technology. He died in 1498 and lies beneath the floor of Santa Croce, under a worn and faded slab that bears only his brother’s name. King’s book is his eloquent epitaph.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

Ross King: The Bookseller of Florence. Vespasiano da Bisticci and the Manuscripts that Illuminated the Renaissance. Chatto & Windus (Penguin Books) 2021.

News from Florence: The Uffizi

At the time of writing this article, Italy was experiencing its second wave of Covid-19 and we were all being invited to stay at home as much as possible to avoid another lockdown. Museums and galleries were still open, even though theatres and concert halls were closed. Since then, however, museums too have had to close their doors and—with the dramatic drop in visitor numbers that this necessarily means—directors are thinking hard about how to plan for the future. 

Until the latest closure, there was much to report about the activity of the Gallerie degli Uffizi. The director, Eike Schmidt (who, Florentines were concerned to hear, has himself fallen victim to Covid-19 and is isolating at home), has opened or reopened many more rooms: in 2019 masterpieces by Bronzino, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese were all rehung. The worksite, known for decades as the ‘nuovi Uffizi’ or ‘grandi Uffizi’ has finally been given an end date: 2024. 

Meanwhile the Corridoio Vasariano is set to reopen in 2022 and for the first time in its history it will be decorated with ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and inscriptions. Now that Palazzo Pitti and the Galleria degli Uffizi are united under a single directorship, the corridor will become the natural link between the two, with an exit to Palazzo Pitti. The walkway (nearly a kilometre long), which passes over the Arno by Ponte Vecchio, is especially wonderful for the unique views it gives of the city through its little round windows. Over the past 60 years, many directors attempted to reopen it fully but none succeeded and latterly it had become an expensive ‘extra tour’ offered by travel agencies, accessible only by booking months ahead and given a rather exaggerated ‘off the beaten track’ appeal. Now, thankfully, it is to become part of the visit to the Uffizi and work should begin in 2021.

Another piece of good news is that the Uffizi’s official website, with its easy booking system, is now up and running after the director successfully saw off a number of organisations with websites posing as ‘official Uffizi ticket vendors’. The website also has a catalogue of all the works on display and you can make a virtual tour of part of the gallery. 

Government funds have also been made available to proceed with the loggia designed by Arata Isosaki. In 1998, Isozaki won an international competition to design a new entrance to the Uffizi. Protests immediately ensued—understandably, since the new design would encroach on the integrity of the the remarkable urban space created by Vasari. Isozaki’s winning entry will now be used as a new exit, on the other side of the building (although its detractors still consider that the proposed gigantic loggia will represent an unforgivable intrusion into the heart of Florence, just metres away from Palazzo Vecchio). The present director argues that it should be seen as a contemporary interpretation of a classical Renaissance loggia. If, as he has suggested, it is up and functioning by Christmas 2024, we will find out whether others share his view. The area designated for its construction has for years been a building site, abandoned behind hoardings, so there will be some relief that at least the present unsightly exit will no longer exist. Nevertheless, it is tempting to wonder if the size of the loggia couldn’t be modified, to help it settle more comfortably into the Florence townscape.

The cityscape of Florence, with Palazzo Vecchio prominent in the centre. The Uffizi stretches behind it and the long façade of Palazzo Pitti is on the far right. How will this view be altered by Arata Isozaki’s new Uffizi Loggia? (Photo: © James Howells)

The dramatic drop in visitors because of Covid-19 remains a cause for concern. An experimental remedy by the Uffizi has been to take out advertisements in the national press, encouraging people to visit. This is an unprecedented move, aimed at Italians rather than tourists. This year Eike Schmidt even joined Chiara Ferragni, a famous influencer, who was at the Uffizi modelling for Vogue Hong Kong (an event which in itself must have brought a princely sum into the gallery’s coffers). The director made use of her visit for a much publicised ‘photo opportunity’—an Instagram selfie with Chiara in front of Botticelli’s Primavera—something which left many of Florence’s more traditional academics gasping. Schmidt was quick to point out that his photo-op had led to a considerable increase in young visitors to the gallery and had been an excellent marketing ploy, helping the Uffizi and its treasures to reach Chiara Ferragni’s 20 million followers. Critics from the ancien régime felt Schmidt had lowered himself to the role of ‘rock star’.

There has also been research into the attics and deposits of both the Pitti and the Uffizi, and three more ‘famous people’ have been found belonging to the series of portraits painted by Cristofano dell’Altissimo which forms an incredibly long frieze beneath the ceilings of the three corridors on the Uffizi’s second floor. They were commissioned by the Medici in 1552–89, copies of portraits collected by the historian Paolo Giovio, who died in 1552. One of the three is of the young Henry VIII of England, who will be able to take his place among this exalted company after restoration. We are told that another, better-known series of ‘famous men’, frescoed by Andrea del Castagno for a room in a villa in a suburb of Florence and which has been in the Uffizi (but rarely visible) since the mid-19thcentury, is finally to be given its own room in the gallery. 

In the last few months Schmidt has also suggested that some paintings could be returned to the churches from which they were removed. This might include Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna, painted for a chapel in Santa Maria Novella. It was moved from there to the Uffizi in 1948. However, Schmidt has also publicly recognised the complications involved. Such a move would naturally open up a whole debate. The reasoning behind the idea is to draw visitors to other places in Florence and ‘decentralise’ the Uffizi, creating a network of museums along the lines of a museo diffuso (a concept much in vogue in Italy at present, where visitor overcrowding at certain key sights has been a growing problem—at least before Covid-19). One of the buildings suitable for use in such a project could be the Medici Villa at Careggi, which has been inaccessible for decades. 

And finally, the Uffizi has recently welcomed the loan of Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), from the National Gallery in London, which is the centrepiece of an exhibition exploring the relationships between art and science (for an English video, see here).

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

An update on Dante

Domenicho di Michelino’s famous likeness of Dante in the Duomo of Florence.

Work is underway to plan next year’s celebrations for the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (see previous article posted here on 22 March this year “Dante Day”). In fact Sergio Mattarella, the Italian President, went to Ravenna on 6th September to open the events (albeit behind a mask) at the recently restored tomb of the great poet, who died in Ravenna in 1321.

There is talk of a reconciliation between Florence, Dante’s birthplace, and the town of Ravenna in Romagna across the Apennines where he died in sorrowful exile. Although the Tuscan city has numerous memorials to Dante—inside and outside the church of Santa Croce, on street plaques throughout the city, a copy of his death mask in Palazzo Vecchio—there has always been a feeling that the poet’s rightful resting place should also be in Florence (the Medici pope Leo X almost succeeded in having his remains moved there). Ravenna, however, points out that it was thanks to Franciscan friars in their city that the poet’s bones were preserved at all. His tomb, right beside their convent, is a disappointment at first glance: a gloomy mausoleum erected at the end of the 18th century with further ‘embellishments’ added in the first decades of the 20th century (during celebrations for the sixth centenary of his death), but it does preserve a relief of 1483 by the great Venetian sculptor Pietro Lombardo, which shows the poet in profile surrounded by his books. Florence in fact failed to commemorate her famous son until the 19thcentury, when a cumbersome statue was set up in the centre of Piazza Santa Croce (moved to a less conspicuous position a few years later) and a rhetorical monument was erected inside the basilica. The museum known as the Casa di Dante has no original works. It is perhaps the Baptistery of Florence which stands as the most moving testimony to Dante’s presence in the city he loved and where he once acted as a Prior. He was baptised here and recalls his ‘bel San Giovanni’ in the Commedia. In 1302 he was sentenced to death in his native city, and in order to save his life he never returned there, seeking refuge instead in other places in Italy, ending up in Ravenna where he was given a home and so was able to finish the Divina Commedia.

As part of the celebrations in Florence (even today seen by some as an opportunity to ‘reconcile’ Dante with his native city) there are plans to give the Dante Museum a much-needed face-lift, and also to put on permanent display the wonderful series of frescoes of famous men (which includes Dante by Andrea del Castagno) which for many years has been hidden away in an area of the Uffizi not normally open to the public. The delightful painting in the Duomo, of Dante ‘protecting’ Florence, has been chosen as the logo of the 2021 events. There will also be all sorts of theatrical events, readings and concerts.

Dantedì (‘Dante Day’), on 25th March, is to become an annual event. One of the most interesting events scheduled for next year is the inauguration of the Museo della Lingua Italiana, a museum of the Italian language, in part of the convent of Santa Maria Novella. There will be exhibitions at the Uffizi and at the Bargello, which will include editions of his works and the most famous of the commentaries. The Accademia della Crusca in the Medici villa of Castello will publish a Dante dictionary in recognition of the fact that it was Dante who established Tuscan as the literary vernacular of Italy. In Ravenna there will also be many important exhibitions, concerts and performances. Projects are going ahead despite fears about Covid-19—of course ‘virtual’ exhibitions and events are also a possibility. One of these has already begun here, where a a panel of a hundred artists, literary figures, journalists and people from all different walks of life, have each been asked to provide a commentary on one Canto of Dante’s opus

So the ‘bel paese’ (Dante, Inferno, canto XXXIII) is at least planning better days ahead, even linking concepts such as ‘unity’ and ‘Europe’ to its greatest poet.

by Alta Macadam

Artemisia Gentileschi

This month, a new exhibition devoted to the art of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was to have opened at the National Gallery in London. Blue Guides was to have visited the exhibition and posted a review of it. That will now have to wait.

Artemisia Gentileschi features in many Blue Guides, notably the volumes covering Rome, Florence and Southern Italy. She was particularly fond of biblical and religious scenes with a tough female protagonist (Samson and Delilah, Salome with the Head of the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes). London’s National Gallery recently acquired a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of St Catherine of Alexandria, the saint who was broken on the ‘Catherine wheel’. The entry on Gentileschi in Blue Guide Florence says the following:

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652). Talented and independent, Gentileschi trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, an artist who owed much to Caravaggio. She worked in Rome but moved to Florence to carry out commissions for Cosimo II de’ Medici. Dramatic Caraveggesque chiaroscuro certainly suited Artemisia’s choice of subject matter. She had a particular affinity for the story of Judith and Holofernes (her most famous treatment of the subject is in the Uffizi). Legend relates this to the fact that Artemisia was raped as a young woman and that her assailant was never brought to justice.


“Judith and Holofernes”. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

According to the National Gallery, this story was no legend. Artemisia was indeed raped and her assailant, though found guilty, was never fully punished. Her attacker, Agostino Tassi, enjoyed a career in Rome producing painted decorations for a number of palazzi and as assistant to Claude Lorrain. Blue Guide Rome, in its Glossary of Artists, merely mentions him as a “painter known for his landscapes. In Rome he worked alongside a number of other artists.” Perhaps, after this London exhibition, we might feel tempted to say more.

Apart from the Judith and Holofernes in the Uffizi, there is another version of the same scene, in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. It is that version that is pictured above. And you can read more about the National Gallery’s planned exhibition on Gentileschi here.

Letter from Italy

Virtual museum tours: some of the best

For professional guides in Italy this is, of course, a period in which they suddenly find themselves without work. However many museums, while closed to the public, have made it possible not only to consult their catalogues or browse the collections online but have also opened virtual exhibitions. The Uffizi in Florence is one such example.

Easter is usually the busiest time of year in Florence, with hundreds of thousands of visitors. The traditional Scoppio del Carro is held in Piazza del Duomo on Easter morning. This year, however, there will be no visitors and no events—even church services must be attended remotely. Spring is definitely on the way, however, and the plants and birds at least are enjoying the sun and clean air as never before. The Uffizi’s ‘The Easter Story’, an exhibition on the theme of the Resurrection, will help us to look forward to better times ahead.

And the Uffizi is not alone in its response. Lisa Corsi, a professional guide who lives in Florence, has investigated some of the most interesting websites available in English at this period of universal lockdown and shared her findings with Blue Guides.

Italy

1. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence offers various online exhibits at this link: www.uffizi.it/en/online-exhibitions Here is a list of the current online exhibits, all with high-definition pictures of Uffizi works of art.
– “Non per foco ma per divin’arte. Dantean echoes from the Uffizi Galleries”. An excursus on the figure of Dante and on his legacy in the works and in the minds of the artists.
– “On being present; recovering blackness at the Uffizi Gallery”. The idea is to understand and resignificate with a historic approach, the presence of black people in the Uffizi paintings.
– “In the light of the Angels; a journey through 12 masterpieces of the Uffizi Galleries, between human and divine”. This exhibit is all about Angels; from Giotto to Giovanni da San Giovanni, with very good pictures.
– “Today a Saviour has been born to you: the Uffizi Galleries’ paintings on the Nativity and Epiphany”. A thematic exhibition.
– “Following in Trajan’s Footsteps; a virtual exhibition on items from the reign of Trajan present in the Uffizi collections”.
– “The Room of Saturn in the Pitti Palace; a history of the arrangements in the Room of Saturn, from the 16th century to the present day”. I found this interesting, and it also includes the latest changes from 2018 in the room that features the largest group of paintings by Raphael.
– “#BotticelliSpringMarathon A virtual exhibition on the construction of the contemporary Botticelli myth through social media”. An excursus on the fame and fortune of Botticelli from the 19th century to social media.
– “The Easter Story: Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ among the artworks of the Uffizi Galleries”.
– “Views from around the World; an ‘intercultural vision’ of some masterpieces of the Uffizi Galleries”.
– “The Scenic Virtuality of a Painting: “Perseus Freeing Andromeda” by Piero di Cosimo. A masterpiece of the Florentine Renaissance depicting the myth recounted by Ovid in Book IV of the Metamorphoses”. An in-depth approach to one of the Uffizi’s most unusual paintings.
– “Between Human and Divine: Cimabue and the Santa Trinita Maestà”. Observing the details of one of the most important medieval paintings in the Uffizi collection.
– “New languages to communicate tradition: Vanished Florence. Images of the city in the 18th and 19th centuries, before it became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy” This is fun, though mostly aimed at people who know Florence quite well.
– “Painting and Drawing ‘like a Great Master’: the talent of Elisabetta Sirani (Bologna, 1638–55)”. An exhibit on one of the rare women painters of the past.
– “Federico Barocci, master draughtsman. The creation of images; extraordinary examples from the rich collection of the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Uffizi”.
– “Amico revisited. Drawings by Amico Aspertini and other Bolognese artists; discovering marvels from the collection of prints and drawings of the Uffizi”.
– “Traces 2018. Letting fashion drive you in the Museum of Costume and Fashion”.
– “Traces. Dialoguing with art in the Museum of Costume and Fashion”.
– “The World of Yesterday: rare book collection of the Library on view”. These 39 books tell us the fascinating story of Pasquale Nerino Ferri (1851–1917), the first director of the Uffizi’s Prints and Drawings Department, through analysis of his handwritten notes and the dates and dedications written by his correspondents from all over Europe.

2. The Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan has a good site. The online collection features 669 records, all with high-resolution images and information on the various works. At this link pinacotecabrera.org/en/collezioni/the-collection-online you can browse the collection searching by author, material, date, etc. There is also a section dedicated to the masterpieces which features (with great pictures) the 11 most famous paintings in the collection (by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Hayez, Boccioni, Pellizza da Volpedo and Modigliani).

3. Also in Milan, the Museo Poldi Pezzoli offers an online catalogue of many of its artworks. It is very well done. The museum was once the house of the art lover and collector Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli (1822–79). Here’s the link to its site: museopoldipezzoli.it/en/artworks.

4. Virtually visit the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome and its grounds. It is the residence of the Italian head of state, the President of the Italian Republic, currently Sergio Mattarella: palazzo.quirinale.it/visitevirtuali/visitevirtuali_en.html.

5. Also in Rome the Galleria Borghese offers good pictures and a little explanation of some of its artworks: galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it/en/il-museo/autori-e-opere.

Rest of the world

6. The Archeological Museum in Athens has a good site, very easy to navigate. Here’s the link: www.namuseum.gr/en/collections.

7. The Prado Museum in Madrid has a great site with lots of artworks featured by artist, by century, by theme. Here’s the link: www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-works. And here are the Prado masterpieces: museodelprado.es/en/the-collection.

8. The British Museum in London has a very good site that allows you to browse the collections and also to virtually visit its rooms. Very well done. Here’s the link: britishmuseum.org/collection.

9. The Metropolitan Museum in New York (metmuseum.org) has an online collection: metmuseum.org/toah/works.
It also offers an interesting “Timeline of Art History”: metmuseum.org/toah/chronology/#!?time=all&geo=all. There are also many essays that can be read online at its link: metmuseum.org/toah/essays
And some videos: metmuseum.org/art/online-features/met-360-project.

10. The site of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is very impressive and offers different possibilities, including a virtual tour of the rooms.
There is also the “Explore the Hermitage” section, where you can choose to learn more on a single work of art, or learn more on the buildings, visit the online collection and more. Here’s the link.
The only downside is that this is a very “heavy” site to navigate and it requires a fast internet connection and a good computer.


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Dante Day

Italy is still in the front line of the battle against Coronavirus, with more deaths in a day (475 on 18th March) than in any other country including China. The population is taking lockdown seriously and inevitably the use of the web from home-users has increased enormously. I was interested to see reports in the newspapers of the forthcoming ‘Dantedì’, instituted by the Minister of Cultural Affairs. The idea is to make 25th March into an annual celebration in honour of Italy’s greatest poet, Dante Alighieri. The date has been chosen as it was on that day in 1300, under a full moon, that Dante and Virgil begin their week-long journey from Hell through Purgatory into Paradise in The Divine Comedy. March 25th is also the feast-day of the Annunciation, which began the new year in the Florentine calendar up until the 18th century.

The day is intended to celebrate Dante and the Italian language. This year’s celebration was planned as an ‘antipasto’ to the great events scheduled for next year, 2021 which marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. With the country in lockdown, no public events can be held in the piazze this year, but there will be numerous events online and on television.

Dante (1265-1321) was born in Florence and the city later provided the great human melting-pot from which the poet took inspiration for some of the most memorable characters of the Divina Commedia. Dante also served a two-month term as one of the six priors in the Florentine government in 1300. During his absence in Rome, as part of an official delegation to Pope Boniface VIII, he was accused of fraud and corruption by a faction of the Guelf party and when he failed to return in 1302 to defend himself he was sentenced to death. He chose to go into exile and was never to return to his beloved city.

The Divina Commedia was written during his exile and in it he re-elaborated, with amazing imagination and poetic skill, the classical myth of the descent into Hades. It provides an astonishing ‘summa’ of medieval culture, but this epic poem is also written in a language (partly created by the poet himself) which is as close to modern Italian as Shakespeare’s language is to English today. What perhaps impresses us most in the poem is that Dante, while providing a vibrant fresco of the political and religious controversies of his time, is also able to tell us about himself, about his friends and enemies, about his teachers, his passions and his religious belief. The Commedia is about a man called Dante Alighieri, who finds salvation thanks to the love of the angelic Beatrice. But author and ‘hero’ are one and the same: Dante’s fede (faith), which he defines as ‘the substance of our hopes’, permits him to assert that the story that he tells actually took place. And when we read the Commedia, it is very difficult not to believe him.

The poet died (and was buried) in Ravenna. Naturally he features in our description of that city in Blue Guide Emilia Romagna, but he is also frequently recorded in other Blue Guides, because so many buildings and monuments in Italy are mentioned in his poem. But it is in Florence where his presence is felt most: in the medieval area where he lived, in the places he describes (now marked by marble plaques), in the monuments inside and outside Santa Croce, and in the frescoed portraits of him which still survive in the city.

Florence was also the birthplace of Boccaccio (1313–75), a great admirer of Dante. He experienced the great plague of 1348, which in his Decameron becomes an allegory for the moral decay of his time. It is for this reason that Boccaccio’s stories, written in beautiful and articulate prose, should not be regarded simply as examples of literary originality and of a Renaissance sense of humour. The tales recounted in the Decameron are told by three young men and seven young women who, in order to escape a city devastated by plague (and also by greed and avarice) find refuge in a villa near Fiesole, where they create a world in which the mercantile mentality is refined through a rediscovery of the values of classical humanitas and courtesy. With a lightness of touch and true wit, Boccaccio reminds us that the first step towards creating a more humane society is to recover the precious art of story-telling.

In these dire times we have much to learn from these two great medieval literary figures.

Alta Macadam. Florence, 22nd March 2020

I gratefully acknowledge the help of my son Giovanni Ivison Colacicchi in interpreting the poetic significance of both Dante and Boccaccio. Giovanni and his companion Elisa are at present in lockdown in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, one of the regions of Italy worst hit by Coronavirus, but they are lucky enough to be able to carry on their teaching activity from home, and their 3-year-old son Francesco is greatly enjoying their presence, 24 hours a day.


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Pope Francis takes a walk

With Italy in lockdown because of Coronavirus, we were treated to the extraordinary sight of Pope Francis walking along the deserted Corso in Rome from Piazza Venezia to the church of San Marcello. He decided to make this gesture of solidarity and hope to the faithful since the church contains a Crucifix said to be miraculous. He went in and knelt before it, a lone figure, to pray for the end of this current ‘plague’. On the same day he also went to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to offer up a prayer before the greatly venerated image of the Madonna which for centuries has been known as the ‘Salus Populi’ or ‘Saviour of the People’. These simple gestures, typical of the present Pope and made totally regardless of security, were seen by many Italians as an encouragement to all at a time when, for the first time in history, churches all over the country are forbidden to hold services.

We have just brought out the 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome and in fact had expanded our text on the San Marcello Crucifix, which now reads as follows: “Today the church has become a site of modern pilgrimage, with a banner on the façade proudly advertising its ‘Crocifisso Miracoloso’ or wonder-working Crucifix […] a 14 th -century Cross which was greatly revered by Pope John Paul II, who in the year 2000 had it moved to St Peter’s during Lent”. For the future 13th edition will remember to note this historic visit by Papa Francesco.

Many will be sceptical about the miraculous element in this story but no one can deny that it was a spontaneous act of faith and encouragement from a pope greatly admired for his closeness to the people. The fact that he left the Vatican to pray before this precious ancient work has encouraged a feeling of involvement in a country and a city where a great many devout Catholics are now isolated one from the other. We are told that the Pope is now in confinement at Santa Marta, just as we are in confinement in our own homes.

Alta Macadam, 15th March 2020


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Letter from Italy

With the closure today of the museums and monuments in all of Italy, those of us who visit them also for work are left wondering how such a thing could have happened in our lifetime. We suddenly find ourselves facing a drastic shortage of culture: no libraries, no theatre, no cinema. However, the very direct explanation by Prime Minister Conte late last night made it all too clear how necessary such measures have become in a country where the dreaded Coronavirus is suddenly holding us all hostage. There is no doubt that Italy has trusted leaders in Conte and President Mattarella, and the country’s medical profession are displaying all their dedication and efficiency. There is an evident preparedness in those in places of responsibility and a feeling of teamwork and pulling together in times of emergency. Millions of other Italians have merely been asked to stay at home for the time being. A measure which seems eminently sensible and which should not be a great sacrifice. Who knows how this forced restriction might even foster closer family relationships and make the homes themselves more comfortable. My garden will certainly enjoy greater attention. And with all the benefits of the internet, no one need feel cut off. There is even hope that the closure of museums and monuments will give those great institutions a chance for practicalities impossible when they are open all the time—even if only some radical cleaning, but also perhaps some reorganisation—an almost welcome pause to ‘stand back’ and contemplate themselves and their ‘mission’. I look of course on the rosy side of things, the side for those fortunate enough to have families and homes, but there is a very ugly side of this ‘shut down’, such as the situation in the overcrowded prisons, or that of people cut off from their families who are in hospitals or nursing homes, and the extremely dire economic consequences. This situation is making us all wonder about how we should live our lives in the future, about how long we can expect to enjoy ‘normal’ life in our global world.

For my involvement in the Blue Guides to Italy (Blue Guide Rome has just been published) it means I cannot set off for Venice and the Veneto for work on a volume coming up for revision: a restriction which has been imposed on me for the very first time by circumstances beyond my control (the only other time this happened to me was when I had to cut short a trip for Blue Guide Northern Italy when I was staying in Trieste the day of the terrible earthquake which hit the Friuli in 1976).

We can but hope the virus will soon be dominated with the help of everyone round the world and that we will soon return to a life as we know it, if greatly sobered by what has happened to us all.

Alta Macadam. Florence, 10th March 2020

Florence: Forged in Fire

There are just a few days left to catch this exhibition in Palazzo Pitti (Forged in Fire. Bronze sculpture in Florence under the last Medici; on until 12th January 2020), which illustrates the bronze sculpture made for the Medici court in the 17th and 18th centuries, some of the most important work in this medium in Europe at the time. For long this period in Florence (beginning with the reign of Cosimo II) was equated with decadence and it has only been since the 1960s that scholars have begun to re-evaluate the role of the Medici grand-dukes in promoting excellence in art and their activity as collectors, and the exhibition has been an occasion to study in depth the sculptors at work in this Baroque period. Accompanied by a superb scholarly catalogue, complete with full biographies of each artist, it underlines the standing of artists such as Giovanni Battista Foggini, Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi and Giuseppe Piamontini, all three of whom produced large, sometimes life-size bronzes as well as the much more familiar small bronzes (masters of which including Antonio and Giovanni Francesco Susini and Pietro Tacca are well represented in the exhibition). The curators have even been able to retrieve eleven of the twelve celebrated bronze groups of religious subjects made between 1722 and 1725, by many of the artists present in the exhibition, for Anna Maria Luisa, the Electress Palatine, and which she kept in her rooms in Palazzo Pitti (these later found their way to museums as far afield as Madrid, Detroit, Berlin, Birmingham and St Petersburg). Soldani-Benzi’s patron was the Prince of Liechtenstein and works from the ‘Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna’ are also present in the exhibition—seen in Florence for the first time. The sculptures on show are mostly in patinated bronze, which sometimes takes on a greenish shiny tone, or reddish tint, rather than the more familiar ink black of Renaissance bronzes.

Apart from the numerous sculptures, a collection of drawings by Soldani-Benzi (only acquired by the Uffizi in 2017) is exhibited opposite a pair of very fine green porphyry vases with gilt bronze decoration by the same artist (and preserved in Palazzo Pitti).

The works by the lesser-known Piamontini include very impressive large-scale bronzes (lent from a Ministry in Rome) closely inspired by ancient marbles, some of which could be described as reproductions of Classical works in a different medium.

In 1687 Foggini, after a spell in Rome, was appointed court sculptor to the grand-dukes and was also responsible for producing furniture and other fine objects, some in pietre dure. His versatility as a sculptor is well illustrated in this exhibition and he emerges as the central artist of his time in Florence. For more details of the exhibition, see here.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

News from Florence

Bernardo Daddi’s ‘Maestà’ in Orsanmichele, of which one of the paintings newly acquired by the Accademia is a copy.

For anyone taking advantage of the relevant calm in Florence this month (when the queue outside the Accademia, the city’s most famous gallery, is usually minimal—though it is still always worth booking your visit online) there is a fascinating little exhibition now running (until 5 May)..

What brings these eight paintings and single piece of sculpture together is the fact that they have all been added to the Gallery’s holdings during the tenure of the new director, Cecilie Hollberg, in other words, over the last three years.

The early paintings are all gold-ground and each has a story to tell about its provenance and connection to other works in the Gallery’s collection. Some were in storage elsewhere in Florence, others were exported illegally and have been recovered by the police, others have been purchased. They are beautifully exhibited in a little room and there is something almost touching about them, given that they have been retrieved from oblivion, carefully dusted off and restored, and put in their historical context. None of them is of the first importance but all of them add something to the glorious history of art in Florence.

The obscurity of some pieces is underlined by the attribution of two of the works, one to the ‘Master of 1416’ and the other to the ‘Master of 1419’. The former is a copy of Bernardo Daddi’s famous Maestà in Orsanmichele, painted some 60 years earlier, showing that the Florentines of the early 15th century still considered it one of the most beautiful works in the city. The latter unidentified ‘Master’ is named after a work now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Cleveland, Ohio. The painting by him here, The Most Holy Trinity (La Santissima Trinità), shows God the Father enthroned holding an image of Christ on the Cross, with the dove of the Holy Spirit flying down towards it. The Gallery possesses another (more important) painting of the same subject, the central panel of a triptych by Nardo di Cione. The composition is very similar, but in Nardo’s work God the Father is sitting on a beautiful red-black-and-gold cloth and the Dove perches in the centre of Christ’s halo.

The Madonna of Heavenly Humility (she is seated on clouds rather than on the ground, hence the neat title) is attributed to a Master named after the Bracciolini Chapel in the church of San Francesco in Pistoia. The Child is rather oversize, but this work was considered important enough to be confiscated by the state (after it was illegally exported from Italy to Switzerland in 2003) in order to preserve it in its Tuscan context.

There are also two doors of a tabernacle known once to have been in the Corsini Palace (which still contains the most important private collection in Florence, albeit closed to the public). They are by the prolific painter Mariotto di Nardo (son of Nardo di Cione) and are of exceptional interest for their decoration in gilded pastiglia, which forms leafy frames all around a scene of the Annunciation and figures of four saints. In another work by Mariotto in the exhibition, the Coronation of the Virgin with Angels, the painter has characteristically included lots more angels in the background depicted in gold.

The newly acquired piece of sculpture is a portrait bust of Giovanni Battista Niccolini, signed in 1827 by Lorenzo Bartolini, the most important sculptor of his time. The sitter, Niccolini, was a playwright, born in Pisa in 1782 and who died in Florence in 1862. The bust will be displayed beside the original plaster cast Bartolini made for it, which together with numerous other works from his studio was already owned by the Gallery. The bust was purchased by the newly-established Friends of the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, who are giving welcome support to its activities.

After the magnificent exhibition on the 14th-century fabric industry, held here early in 2018, it seems that the museum’s policy (since it certainly has no need to increase its visitor numbers), at least for the time being, will be to hold small, choice exhibitions such as this one, which do not demand huge expenditure (the cost of the entrance ticket will not be increased during these shows).

I was interested to note that in the gallery with Michelangelo’s Slaves and his St Matthew (which leads up to the tribune with the colossal David), the label on the Pietà from Palestrina has at last been changed and its attribution to Michelangelo given as ‘very doubtful’ and still an ‘open subject’ (in fact the latest edition of the Blue Guide Florence chose to ignore it). At the same time, though, a fascinating suggestion has been made on the notice: that this could be a tribute to Michelangelo by the great Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. One of the tasks of the Blue Guides is to ensure the information provided is up-to-date.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Leonardo’s Leicester Codex

The celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) have already begun, with the Uffizi’s exhibition of the Leicester Codex. Purchased in 1717 by Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, the Codex was preserved in the UK by the family until it was sold to Armand Hammer in 1980. In 1994 it was acquired by Bill Gates, who has lent it to Florence for this show (which runs until 20th Jan). The curator is Paolo Galluzzi, director of Florence’s Galileo Museum.

The Codex was compiled while Leonardo was living in Florence at Palazzo Martelli, and it concentrates on the theme of water. At the entrance, the visitor is invited to ‘walk across’ the waters of the Arno to see a reproduction of the famous Pianta della Catena, a bird’s eye view of Florence made at the end of the 15th century, which highlights the places frequented by Leonardo when he was at work on the Codex. Apart from working on the ill-fated fresco of the Battle of Anghiari (described in Blue Guide Florence), he also studied anatomy by dissecting corpses at Santa Maria Nuova (still functioning as a hospital today) and measured the Rubiconte bridge (now replaced by Ponte alle Grazie), observing the force of the Arno sweeping past its pylons in the river bed.

While writing the Codex, Leonardo also consulted the works of earlier natural scientists in the library of San Marco, seven volumes of which have been lent to the exhibition (their authors include Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy and Strabo). Two others of particular interest are a tract by John of Holywood (known in Florence as Giovanni Sacrobosco, lit. ‘holy wood’), born in Halifax, Yorkshire at the end of the 12th century, which was still a celebrated work in Leonardo’s time; and the treatise on architecture by Francesco di Giorgio, which has margin notes in Leonardo’s hand.

The Codex itself, with its closely filled pages (recto and verso), written from right to left and crowded with sketches, is displayed in 18 showcases. Leonardo’s famous ‘mirror writing’ is explained by the fact that he was left-handed, making it easier and faster for him to write like this. In the centre of the hall are some five touch screens where the Codex can be ‘read’ in its entirety (also in English), with aids to its understanding. These are installed low enough for children to use (but it would have been nice to have benches in front of them in order to sit down).

Animated diagrams and reconstructions show how closely Leonardo studied the structure of water, from a dew drop to ocean waves, from springs to the dynamics of water flow and the erosion of river banks, from moisture in the air to the steam created by heating water, from the prevention of floods to the invention of locks along canals. He even describes how the eye perceives sunlight reflected by water. He suggests that water can be harnessed for the good of man if it is coaxed (rather than coerced) into different directions, and his plans for the drainage of the Arno basin, and for a canal to link Florence to the sea, are illustrated. The words invented by him to describe water, in all its various aspects and infinite movements, are pointed out.

Parts of the Codex are also dedicated to the moon, which Leonardo recognised as having the same physical nature as the Earth. He describes the Earth as containing a ‘vegetative soul’ and suggests that the flesh, bones and blood of living creatures are related to the Earth’s soil, rocks and water. His geological studies led him to understand the origin of fossils found on high ground formerly covered by the sea.

Some other treatises, written by Leonardo at the same time as the Leicester Codex, have been lent to the exhibition: one on the flightpaths of birds and experiments in mechanical wings (lent by the Biblioteca Reale in Turin); two (smaller) double sheets from the Arundel Codex about the canalisation of the Arno (lent by the British Museum); and four sheets of the Codex Atlanticus (lent by the Ambrosiana in Milan).

This is an exhibition dense with information that attempts to explain Leonardo’s complicated mind and to compass his interests, which darted from one observation to another. It succeeds in producing a picture not only of his deep scientific knowledge but also of his humanity, so many centuries ahead of his time and based on precise observations of the world about him.

The excellent catalogue is available also in English and the exhibition has a website.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence and co-author of the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy (details to follow shortly on this website).

Islamic Art in Florence

Egyptian jug (14th century). Brass with silver and gold inlay. © Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

The world of Islamic art has been explored in Florence this summer in a major exhibition (Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th century, open until 23rd September), divided between the Uffizi Gallery (the Aula Magliabecchiana exhibition space on the ground floor, so accessible directly from the ticket office) and the Bargello Museum. As is well known, the religion of Islam prohibited cult images and generally speaking all representations of the human form (the only religious element being inscriptions) and so Islamic art consists largely of metalwork, textiles, ceramics, carvings, carpets, all of which we tend to group under the title of ‘decorative arts’, which in terms of 20th-century Western Art History lost ground to the study of painting and sculpture. For those of us ill-versed in the history of Islamic art, perhaps one of the most striking things about this exhibition is the wide date span of objects which have great similarities and stylistic unity, and the occasional difficulty scholars have in identifying not just the region of origin, but even the country. This is also because the works were often made by itinerant craftsmen who were called on to satisfy the trade in luxury items throughout the Islamic world and beyond. Perhaps we have become all too used to looking closely at the dates and birthplaces of the artists when standing in front of a painting or sculpture in Italy.

This is therefore an exhibition to be enjoyed above all for its great variety of beautiful objects, all of them of the highest quality, from the huge geographical area of the Middle East under Islamic rule: Syria and Egypt and the North African coast, as well as Persia, Turkey and Muslim Spain. A feeling of exotic luxury exudes from the wonderful carpets, textiles, velvets, brass-work incised in silver and gold, ivory carvings, tiles, glazed earthenware pottery, glass mosque lamps, etc.

The great majority of works displayed come from Florence itself: from the two major donations made at the turn of the 20th century to the Bargello Museum by Carrand and Franchetti; from the 19th-century collections in the Museo Stefano Bardini and Museo Stibbert; and from the Medici collections now divided into a number of museums in the city. Much of this art is not normally on display, so this has been an occasion to bring these wonderful pieces into the open and delve into the deposits. In particular, part of the Franchetti collection of textiles in the Bargello can at last be seen, and objects from the Museo e Galleria di Palazzo Mozzi Bardini are also on display.

The stuffed giraffe which greets visitors to the Uffizi part of the exhibition has been rescued from the Natural History Museum in Florence: taxidermists were ordered to preserve this extraordinary gift, presented to the Florentine Grand-Duke in 1835 by Ali Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt. It was the successor to another giraffe, sent to Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1487 by the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, and which was once to be seen grazing in the Boboli Gardens. It is known that Lorenzo used to exchange gifts with his contemporaries in Constantinople (Mehmet II) and Cairo (Qa’it Bay). He might even have worn the parade jacket (on show from the Bargello) which bears the name of a Mamluk emir.

The extraordinary flare the Medici family had for collecting beautiful things is once again demonstrated in this show, as well as their ability to ‘enrich’ some precious objects from the East with decorations (it is thought that the handle of Lorenzo’s sardonyx vase from Persia, on display from the Tesoro dei Granduchi in Palazzo Pitti, was designed by Verrocchio). A rock-crystal bottle made in Egypt in the 10th century was given a Renaissance mount and ended up in the treasury of the Medici family church of San Lorenzo. Interestingly enough, there is some brasswork in the exhibition which has not been definitively identified: it could be either Islamic or Florentine. But we know that the precious little coffer with silver and gold damascening, clearly inspired by Islamic art (on loan from the Louvre), was produced in Florence in 1570.

Among the ceramics are five albarello vases decorated with the Florentine heraldic lily, made in Syria in the early 15th century and here re-united from Paris, Toronto and Doha. A large lustreware pitcher made in Valencia (and now preserved in Berlin) bears the Medici arms.

Two large brass basins for ablutions, made in Syria in the late 13th or early 14th century, are displayed together: one is now in Kuwait City but the other, even more beautiful, ended up in Palermo. The exquisite ‘Barberini Vase’ (lent by the Louvre) was once owned by Pope Urban VIII: it was made in the mid-13th century with silver inlay and delicately incised ornament. The pope was evidently unworried about possessing an Islamic artefact.

The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence also preserves Islamic documents and manuscripts (and they are holding their own exhibition, Images from the Orient, in conjunction with this one). The Medici even started their own printing press for Oriental scripts. On show at the Uffizi is the Library’s most precious holding of Islamic manuscripts: the earliest known example of ‘The Book of Kings’, the Persian epic poem dating from 1217.

The huge collection of decorative arts which belonged to Louis Carrand (1821–99), an antiques dealer from Lyon, was begun by his father Jean-Baptiste, and since Louis spent much of his life in Florence, he left it to the Bargello (there are plans to open a new Islamic Hall there: Carrand’s collection is considered to be the best of its kind in Italy). On show for this exhibition are assorted objects of great interest from the collection: ivory plaquettes made in the 11th–12th centuries with musicians and dancing figures; an ivory elephant from a chess set thought to have been made in Iraq in the 10th century; brass objects including a large ewer from Egypt (since it is inscribed with the name of a Yemeni Sultan, it can be dated to 1363–77); tiles from Iran and Iznik tiles from Turkey; Ottoman textiles; a 14th-century glass mosque lamp; a bronze inkwell from Persia; a steel helmet in the form of a turban, and much more.

Part of the textile collection left to the Bargello by Giulio Franchetti in 1906 is displayed in the same room. The largest piece is an amazing strip of red velvet covered with gold discs from Tabriz, identified as one of the panni tartarici (loosely defined as ‘Tartar cloth’) documented in Italy as early as 1295, when it is mentioned in the inventory of Boniface VIII’s papal treasury.

On the ground floor of the Bargello there is a selection of the carpets (together with an Ottoman saddle-cloth) from the Museo Stefano Bardini. Bardini’s carpet collection is the largest in Italy, but also on show here are carpets and textiles which he sold and which have ended up outside Italy: the exquisite Mamluk textile fragment in silk lampas with birds and animals is today preserved in the Musée des Tissus in Lyon (purchased from Bardini in 1907). One of the most outstanding carpets is the one which Bardini brought from the Florentine Capponi family and which he sold on to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is an Isfahan carpet from central Persia, dating from the late 16th century, with a blue border with birds and a frieze of animals against a red ground around the central medallion, which has people enjoying a banquet (you have to look closely to make them out).

The huge Mamluk carpet (with wonderful scarlet and green colours) made in Cairo in the early 16th century, recognised as the largest in the world, comes from the deposits of the Pitti (understandably not on permanent display there because of its size). For this exhibition it is displayed in the Uffizi.

A small area on the ground floor of the Bargello has been dedicated to a fascinating selection of the Islamic pieces from the incredibly crowded rooms of the Stibbert Museum, including 19th-century art created by craftsmen at work in Stibbert’s own lifetime, which he may have picked up on his travels. The fascinating wood manuscript covers from Persia have figurative scenes: a dragon about to eat a king (although the figure of majesty mysteriously appears again in six more scenes on the same panel), and a procession with musicians, mules and a group of women wearing the burka (in black and white). There are also examples of arms and armour from Mughal India and an Indian Qur’an owned by Stibbert’s grandfather.

In the catalogue to this fascinating exhibition, the Uffizi director Eike Schmidt writes that he sees it as the role of museums not only to preserve the past but also to foster a dialogue with the present in order to encourage the flow of art and culture between worlds that are only apparently distant one from the other.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.