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The Middle Ages on the Road

16th-century French tapestry of the story of Laureola and Leriano with, in the background, mules being saddled and packed for a lengthy journey.

At the Bargello museum in Florence a small and delightful exhibition in the two rooms off the medieval courtyard is running until 21st June. Il medioevo in viaggio is the result of collaboration between four European museums (the Bargello, the Musée du Moyen Âge in Paris, the Museu Episcopal of Vic in Catalonia, and the Museum Schnütgen of Cologne). The exhibition has already been shown in Paris and will move on in the summer to Vic. Here in Florence it also celebrates the Bargello's 150th anniversary and it is the last exhibition to be held under the excellent curatorship of Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, who has now retired as Director.

It has much of interest for Blue Guide users, and for all those who love travel.

 

The exhibition begins with a fascinating portolano (or portulan) of c. 1440. This is a parchment map showing coastal harbours (with the rulers of the day shown sitting in their tents). Also on show is the oldest nautical chart known, dating from the 14th century, which illustrates the behaviour of the winds. These precious parchments are both preserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale and the Archivio di Stato.

 

The history of pilgrimage is illustrated with more intimate artefacts, including a codex from Lyon showing a bishop blessing two pilgrims’ bags and staffs before they set out on their journey. Early medieval leather shoes and badges and brooches worn on hats and cloaks are on display, and tiny portable altars in porphyry (used when Mass was celebrated on the road) include one probably made in Winchester in the 11th century. Even baptisms could be performed en route, and a  little 13th-century wooden salt cellar, in the form of a church with a bell-tower, was evidently used to produce Holy Water for such a ceremony. One of the very few paintings in the exhibition (loaned from Vic) shows a 15th-century Flight into Egypt, clearly referring to contemporary travel, since the Holy Family are accompanied by a maidservant carrying their luggage on her head and a cow is being led along beside them so milk would be available for the Child, and there is another group of travellers in the background.

 

Crusaders and their horses are recorded with 13th-century bits and stirrups. A beautiful very well preserved 14th-century miniature from the Bargello illustrates a city being besieged by land and sea. An ivory plaquette is of twofold interest: its smooth back with traces of wax has proved it was used by a traveller to take notes, and its recto is carved with a scene of two crusaders holding their noses to block the stench emanating from the bodies of Christian soldiers killed in the Seventh Crusade to the Lebanon in 1253 after they had been exposed too long in the sun, but which the conscientious St Louis IX is happily burying. This saintly king of France reigned for 44 years and was a great reformer and founded the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris for his collection of relics: but he was no good as a crusader and died of dysentery on a voyage to Tunis.

 

Another extraordinarily precious possession of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence is a 1392 edition of the Il Milione of Marco Polo, one of the most famous travellers of all time. The ring with an engraved ruby, thought to have belonged to the Black Prince himself, made in England in the 14th century (lent by the Louvre), is appropriately displayed above a brooch made in France in the same century and now in the Bargello. They both have very similar enamel and gold decoration as well as identical inscriptions from St Luke, which indicate that they were considered talismans designed to bring luck to the wearer.

 

Caskets for valuables, trunks and bags and portable folding furniture are also part of the display. An octagonal table with Gothic carvings, dating from the late 15th century, was evidently taken on trips by its wealthy owner since it could be 'closed up' so it fitted snugly against a saddle. The exhibition closes with a wonderful tapestry made in France in the early 16th century illustrating a popular medieval legend but chosen for this show because it includes a charming detail of a mule being loaded with trunks as a group of travellers prepare to set out on a journey.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Hellenistic bronzes in Florence

The Boxer, lifelike portrait of a pugilist.

“Power and Pathos. Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” is the penultimate exhibition to be held under the mandate of James Bradburne, Director General of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi. Bradburne has succeeded in turning the palazzo into Florence's most important exhibition space.

And no more fitting show could have taken place to mark the end of his tenure: it is filled with great masterpieces, and accompanied by a scholarly catalogue. When it closes in Florence (on 21st June) it will travel first to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles  (until 1st November) and then to the National Gallery of Art in Washington (until 20th March 2016).

Perhaps the most striking feature of the exhibition is the consistency it reveals in the styles of masters working in the Alexandrine world of Greece and during the later Roman era. A map (also reproduced in the catalogue) records the extraordinarily wide geographical area where the pieces have been found, either underground or underwater. The exhibition has deliberately concentrated on the “explicitly ‘un-ideal’: the innumerable contingencies of real-life physiognomy” which are the feature of Hellenistic art. But the curators of course were faced with the fact that so little bronze sculpture (as opposed to marble sculpture) survives because it was so often melted down. A tragedy because the skill (and technical ability) of the sculptors was never again equalled until the Renaissance.

To set the tone of the display (which is not chronological), the first room has just two exhibits. The first is a bare limestone base with its statue missing, which is here because it bears the signature of the greatest Hellenistic sculptor, Lysippus of Corinth, who was Alexander the Great’s court sculptor and who is reported by Pliny to have made no fewer than 1500 bronze statues. Not one of these survives, but other statue bases like this one can still be seen in Greece. The other exhibit is the splendidly-displayed Arringatore, or Orator. Because it normally forms part of the collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence itself, it seems appropriate that it should be here to greet visitors, its right hand stretched towards us in a gesture usually interpreted as a call for silence. The Etruscan inscription on the toga tells us that the statue was made in Chiusi and it is dated to the late 2nd century BC.

The next room has another magnificent piece from the same museum, the Medici-Riccardi Head of a Horse. Examination of its copper-tin alloy during its restoration for this exhibition has confirmed its date of the second half of the 4th century BC. It belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and is to this day perhaps the most important classical bronze in Florence. Beside it is displayed a very well-preserved statuette (found in Herculaneum) of Alexander the Great mounted on his famous steed (the mane worked in just the same way as the larger head), with silver trimmings (one of many important pieces from the Archaeological Museum in Naples loaned to this exhibition).

Two very different but memorable portrait heads dating from the 3rd century BC are also in this room: that of Queen Arsinoë III of Egypt, and an unknown man, much less regal, wearing a flat leather cap (known as a kausia). He was fished up in the Aegean sea in 1997 and it has been lent by the local museum of Pothia on Kalymnos, in the Dodecanese. This is one of numerous underwater finds which have been made in recent years, and it is always good to learn, as in this case, that they have remained close to where they were found. This piece is an almost miraculous survival: its flashing eyes, made of alabaster and faïence, are still intact and it takes an honourable place alongside works of much greater fame and from much more accessible museums.

In the third room we come face to face with the famous, over life-size Boxer (from the Museo Nazionale in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome), as he sits to regain his strength, his hands strongly bound up in leather and with clear signs (made with copper inlays) of combat on his scarred face with its broken nose. Dating from the 3rd century BC and unearthed in the 19th century on the Quirinal hill, this would have been brought back to Rome as war booty and exhibited in a public place as an example of the highest expression of art known at the time, an accolade it holds to this day.

Close by, in strong contrast, is a little brown statuette from the Metropolitan Museum of Art of an elderly man in a short tunic with a notebook tucked under his belt: he only has one leg and an arm is missing but he is thought to represent an artisan. Also from the same museum comes an exquisite statue with a green patina of Eros fast asleep: depicted as an infant with exquisitely carved wings, this is the forerunner of many depictions of cupids, cherubs and putti in Western art. A statuette of Hermes in his flat hat is a beautiful work lent by the British Museum, somehow typical of that museum’s extraordinary collection of masterpieces, not all of them as well known as one would expect.

The ‘pathos’ of the exhibition’s title is summed up in the portrait of a man from Delos, one of the best-known of all Greek portraits, lent from the Archaeological Museum in Athens. He has a furrowed brow above piercing eyes made of glass paste and black stone. It is exhibited near two other portrait heads: one from an Etruscan votive statue thought to have been found on an island in Lake Bolsena in 1771 (and now in the British Museum) and the other from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, an extraordinarily refined work which retains even its eyelashes and its unshaven chin, also found in Italy (in 1847), and a very early example of Etruscan/Italic/Roman art (late 4th century BC).

The famous Greek bronze Apoxyomenos (the athlete scraping himself down with a strigil) from Ephesus is represented by a replica from Vienna (spectacularly restored in 1902 after it had been found in 234 pieces) and the head of an athlete purchased through Sotheby’s by the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth in 2000 (with a long pedigree including its presence in an 18th-century collection in Venice). A Roman marble statue the Uffizi here is also derived from the Apoxyomenos (wrongly restored in the Renaissance to hold a marble vase instead of a strigil).

Two more statues come from Florence’s Archaeological Museum: the Minerva of Arezzo, derived from a statue of the Praxiteles school (of which numerous copies have survived); and, in the last room, the so-called Idolino, which dates from around 30 BC and would have served as a lamp-stand at banquets. Its very beautiful head shows great similarities to that of the lovely small bust of an Ephebe from Benevento (lent from the Louvre and exhibited beside it) with red copper lips: this is dated a few decades before the Idolino.

Florence’s Archaeological Museum have been involved as partners in this exhibition and in fact have produced their own little show in conjunction with the main one (it also runs until 21st June). Entitled “Small Great Bronzes: Greek, Etruscan and Roman Masterpieces from the Medici and Lorraine Collections”, it shows some of the museum's most precious possessions, arranged by type

by Alta Macadam. Alta is the author of Blue Guide Florence and Blue Guide Tuscany, available in both print and digital format.

Winter in Florence: a new look at Donatello

by Alta Macadam (author of Blue Guide Florence)

 

The wide streets around San Lorenzo, the great Medici church close to their family palace, which in effect form a piazza, have recently been cleared of market stalls so that the exterior of the building has regained its dignity. Inside visitors have been provided with a wonderful opportunity to come face to face with one of Donatello's pulpits in the nave, now restored. An ingenious scaffold and lighting system has been set up so and if you put one euro into a little machine you can then climb up to the level of the pulpit and examine the details of the gilded reliefs. This is an occasion not to be missed, since the pulpits have always been very difficult to see, being raised up on columns. The pulpit in question is the one on the right, from which the Epistle was read, and the three reliefs at the height of the walkway are the Resurrection, the Ascension (or Christ Appearing to the Apostles) and the Descent into Limbo. Although Christ takes on a quite different appearance in each of the scenes, they were all cast together and they have a more or less continuous background. They date from the very end of Donatello's long life, around 1460.

 

In the Resurrection Donatello famously portrays Christ as an anguished, elderly, infirm figure, hooded and still in his grave cloth, supported by his banner. In contrast (and following the familiar iconography of this scene), the soldiers in the foreground are depicted as genial innocents, most of them fast asleep but all in different attitudes, and with their feet carefully modelled. There is one seen from behind who seems to be hanging onto the edge of the tomb in astonishment, having just awakened; and if one looks even closer, there are two more in the far background on the other side of the sarcophagus: it is difficult to make out whether the scene includes six or seven soldiers. The frieze at the top of the pulpit has little playful putti and centaurs in relief around the central signature 'Opus Donatelli Flo' (the great sculptor was always touchingly proud of his birthplace), and at the corners are 'classical' horsemen, standing holding their horses’ bridles in a manner reminiscent of the Dioscuri.

 

In the Descent into Limbo Christ is still an elderly man but a much less dramatic figure: it is the scene itself which is particularly harrowing. On the extreme right stands the emaciated Baptist holding out his hand to Christ. All around, some half hidden, are the Saints who await liberation. But the crowd also includes figures without haloes: the head of Eve appears in the doorway and in front of her is Adam, with his arms stretched towards Christ. Two small grotesque devils, one entwined with a snake, and both with webbed feet, are also present. It has been suggested that the iconography of this panel may have been inspired by a miniature Byzantine mosaic which Donatello would have seen in the Baptistery (and which is today preserved in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.

 

In the Ascension (or Christ Appearing to the Apostles) scholars have detected the intervention of Donatello's assistants. Here a more genial Christ is shown in the act of blessing as cherubs help him on his slightly awkward upward journey, leaving behind the crowd of kneeling Apostles and the Virgin. They are seen behind a 'fence' which has ramblers on it and there are more roses and ferns on the ground at their feet.

 

The two end panels cannot be seen at such close range, but they are visible from the steps and are also wonderful works: the Marys at the Tomb and Pentecost. The Tomb scene is very dramatic, taking place as it does in a dark, underground burial crypt with a row of columns which partly obscure the sarcophagus, and one of which gives support to one of the Marys in her astonishment at seeing an angel blocking her way. Another Mary descends the steps but her face is totally hidden from view. A few trees can be seen outside in the background, above the roof. The Pentecost scene, although designed by Donatello, was executed in its final stages by pupils. The elderly Madonna is surrounded by the Apostles who have thrown their Crosses on the ground.

 

The other long side (which you can still only see from below, but which is now well illuminated) has two panels which are old replacements in wood, but the third is a very fine Martyrdom of St Lawrence, with smaller figures in a room portrayed in deep perspective. It is thought that Donatello worked on this panel before those on the other side, just after his return to Florence from Padua.

 

The pulpit opposite is still being restored and the idea is to move the scaffolding across to it also once the restoration is completed (probably in around a year's time).

It is almost certain that the panels were not originally intended for pulpits but were made for a funerary monument or an altar in the church. One wonders if it might be thought legitimate to dismantle them once restoration is completed and display them in a way that they can be seen with ease.

 

The extraordinary genius of Donatello, so idiosyncratic in his iconography, can also be seen a few metres away in the Old Sacristy, beautifully kept and wonderfully illuminated. Donatello decorated this lovely little domed chapel (designed by Brunelleschi) some decades before he worked on the pulpits. And here on a cupboard is a terracotta bust of the young St Lawrence (or St Leonard?) one of the most charming Renaissance portraits which still mystifies art historians and which in situ is simply attributed to an unknown sculptor. One day perhaps it will join the catalogue of works by Donatello.

 

It is always somehow surprising that we cannot be sure of certain attributions, and that works which have been known about for centuries can sometimes be convincingly found to be by a master's hand. This has happened recently to a terracotta relief of a Madonna and Child which belongs to the church of Santa Trinita and which in the early 19th century was moved by the Vallombrosan monks outside onto the campanile (presumably as 'protection' for the church). In 2004 it was brought back inside again (and replaced outside by a copy) and since it had been much ruined by the elements was sent to the restoration laboratory of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. It revealed itself to be a very beautiful relief and is now attributed to Donatello himself (there are great similarities between it and a terracotta relief in Florida which is a recognised work of the master). At the same time an oval empty space (flanked by two painted angels) has been noticed inside the church in the niche above the tomb of Giuliano Davanzati and it has been agreed that the relief will be placed there when it returns to the church, in the belief that it must originally have been made for this position.

 

All this shows how work never ceases to protect and study the works of art in Florence and that restoration projects are carried on apace with all the skill and expertise we have come to expect from the state restoration laboratory here.

The Medici Villas of Tuscany and Tourism

Villa La Magia.

There are no fewer than seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Tuscany alone—more than in some entire countries. This has perhaps tended to diminish the importance of the achievement last year of a group of experts, led by Prof. Luigi Zangheri, to have twelve Medici villas and two gardens in and around Florence (out of a total of 36 which exist in Tuscany) accepted together as a single World Heritage Site. The proposal set before the international committee had to prove that not only are these fourteen villas and gardens unique, but also intimately connected one to the other through their historical and architectural features. All of them had to be already sufficiently protected by 'buffer zones' and thus inserted in a landscape which also has fundamental significance. Their new position under the protective wing of UNESCO will now ensure that they are preserved intact, together with their surroundings, in the future.

 

The fourteen villas concerned are as follows: the state-owned Villa di Careggi and Villa della Petraia, next to each other on the northern outskirts of Florence; the privately-owned Villa Medici on the old road up to Fiesole; Villa di Poggio Imperiale on the south bank of the Arno and the Boboli Gardens in the very centre of town.

A little further afield, also state-owned, is the Villa di Poggio a Caiano, in the province of Prato just outside Florence. Built for Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1480 by Giuliano da Sangallo, the classical elements in its architecture—which preceded by some 60 years the buildings of Palladio—are of astonishing novelty for the time. Close by, in a wonderful landscape, is the Villa di Artimino.

Close to Florence, on the old road to Bologna, the garden of Pratolino with its extraordinary sculpture of the Appennino by Giambologna, has also been included even though the villa itself (where Handel and Scarlatti performed) no longer exists. Less well-known villas included in the group are the Villa (or Castello) di Trebbio, privately owned, and the Villa di Cafaggiolo, both in the lovely countryside of the Mugello, some kilometres north of Florence.

The last three, the Villa di Cerreto Guidi, the Palazzo Mediceo in Seravezza, and the Villa La Magia outside Quarrata, will certainly gain fame by being included in the list. The pretty village of Cerreto Guidi, between Empoli and Vinci to the west of Florence, is well outside the usual tourist itinerary and the villa is very well preserved and interesting for its architecture. The villa in Seravezza is in the foothills of the Apuan Alps, from which came the marble used for the decoration of many of the villas. The delightfully-named Villa La Magia (‘magic’) is the least well-known of them all: it is outside Quarrata, southeast of Pistoia, and was built by an architect favoured by the Medici, Bernardo Buontalenti, for Francesco I in the 16th century and is surrounded by a park.

 

When drawing up the dossier for UNESCO, the influence of these villas and gardens on the rest of the world was also underlined, and the history of the interchange of experts between the Medici and the ruling families of Europe (for instance, at the end of the 16th century Henri IV had Ferdinando I send the Francini brothers to France, where from then on they were put in sole charge of all the hydraulic works in the country).

 

Although today's tourism is (sadly) often no longer connected to 'culture', it is to be hoped that these villas will now receive many more visitors and draw people out of the city of Florence itself, which can become uncomfortably over-crowded. Italy’s economy needs a thriving tourist 'industry': but only last week there was news that Germany now receives more tourists than Italy (and both countries are still far behind France and Spain). UNESCO’s own website describes the Medici villas and gardens here.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence. Image from the wesbsite of Villa La Magia.

The first collectors of 'Primitives'

'Descent from the Cross' (14th century) by Pietro da Rimini.

The Popularity of the Primitives, an exhibition which runs at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence until 8 December, is concerned with the fascinating subject of when 14th- and early 15th-century Italian paintings (and other early art treasures) came to be considered worthy of notice and were, as a consequence, incorporated in public and private collections. Up until the late 18th century, only works from the time of Raphael onwards were in vogue: besides Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, collections featured paintings by artists such as Correggio, Guido Reni, Federico Barocci and Rubens.

The exhibition tells the story of 42 collectors, almost all of them little-known, who lived in the late 18th or early 19th century. And an impressive amount of scholarly research has gone into it—which is heartening to see, in an age when fewer and fewer museum directors are still art historians, and curators are increasingly put under pressure to devise shows that will make money. To each collector a section is dedicated, depending on the region of Italy where they lived: besides their (for some reason usually unflattering) portrait, there is a display of a small selection of the works they are known to have acquired (and which are now in private or public collections). We discover that these erudite individuals, whether prelates or cardinals, noblemen or tradesmen, shared an interest in the cultural value of these early works and that by obtaining them they rescued them from oblivion and possible destruction. In later times when they fell into the hands of antiquarians and dealers, their monetary value steadily increased, although it is interesting to note that today the ‘primitives’ are worth far less than modern and contemporary artworks.

By looking at the provenance of the works one can see how many of them ended up in the great museums of the world: a certain Agostino Mariotti, who amassed 600 works and who was mentioned by travellers on the Grand Tour, was to leave his collection to the Vatican Picture Gallery. In 1780 Cardinal Stefano Borgia (who almost became pope) acquired St Euphemia by Mantegna, which is on show, and most of his collection is now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. This great Renaissance artist is included as a reminder also that it was not only the ‘primitive’ gold-ground paintings which had been neglected up until this time but also those by artists now considered of fundamental importance. The Ranghiasci family of Gubbio in Umbria, whose large romantic park is today open to the public, owned an exquisite Descent from the Cross by Pietro da Rimini, lent to the present exhibition by the Louvre.

Marchese Alfonso Tacoli Canacci, who died in Emilia in 1801, is represented by four of the best Tuscan works in the exhibition: a Madonna of Humility by Agnolo Gaddi, which ended up in a private collection in New York; another Madonna of Humility by Fra’ Angelico; a very unusual long predella panel by Giovanni di Paolo of Christ carrying the Cross surrounded by a crowd of saints all holding a Cross; and a tiny Entry of Christ into Jerusalem by Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio. The three latter works went to the national museum in Parma.

Fra’ Francesco Raimondo Adami, a Servite friar at the convent of Santissima Annunziata in Florence, collected important early works which are now part of the collection of the Galleria dell’Accademia itself: on show are St Mary Magdalene with stories from her life, by the Master of the Magdalene (named from this work), and paintings by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, Andrea Orcagna and Fra’ Angelico. Other works acquired at this time by Tuscan collectors (and also included in the exhibition) were to form the nucleus of the earliest works in the Museo di San Matteo in Pisa and the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena.

Only two of the collectors are well-known today since their collections survive on public display under their own names: Angelo Maria Bandini of Fiesole (whose exquisite museum is still in that little town above Florence) and Teodoro Correr (1750–1830) of Venice (the huge Museo Correr is in Piazza San Marco). For this exhibition a relief of the Madonna and Child by Domenico Rosselli, once owned by Bandini, has been loaned from the V&A so that it has been reunited with other works still in Fiesole; and the Correr has sent two of its masterpieces to Florence: a Pietà by Cosmè Tura and another, unfinished work of the same subject, by Antonello da Messina. A superb small St Nicholas of Bari, also by Cosmè Tura, in a section towards the end of the exhibition, illustrates some of the works acquired by French collectors while in Rome.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Sorting out the Uffizi

Giovanni Bellini's enigmatic "Sacred Allegory"

One has to admire the Uffizi Gallery’s directors, for managing to keep the museum open over the years it is taking to rearrange it into the 'Grandi Uffizi', making use of the space in the building on the first floor and at the same time rehanging some of the historic rooms above. All of this goes on with very little notice in the local press and a dearth of comment generally. Even the information office on the ground floor can hardly keep pace: the free leaflet available at fails to illustrate all of the rooms which you can now visit.

For years the official Room 1, the small room on the right as you enter the first long corridor was closed (or only open on very special request since it displayed ancient Greek and Roman sculpture presumably considered of little interest to the average visitor intent on reaching the Botticelli room as soon as possible). This meant that the visitor itinerary began in Room 2,with the three Maestà altarpieces by Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto. Room 1 was nowhere to be seen.

But just a few weeks ago Room 1 (the sculptures have now moved to Rooms 33 and 34) has been reopened to display the very earliest works in the collection, many of them restored last year, so that one can now understand where the art of Giotto sprang from. The room, now with bright white walls and excellent lighting, is dominated by two Crucifixes, facing each other, both with scenes of the Passion. One dates from c. 1200 or even earlier and the other from c. 1240, and already they clearly demonstrate how medieval art progressed in those years. There are also two panels of a diptych by Bonaventura Berlinghieri of Lucca, who clearly influenced the master of the later Crucifix, and St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, still in its original frame. A very well-preserved painting, which only entered the gallery after its purchase by the Italian state in 2006, is a Madonna and Child Enthroned by the Maestro del Bigallo, named after a work in Florence's smallest museums (but one of its most enchanting; it is in piazza by the Baptistery). The Madonna Pisa, named after Luigi Pisa who donated it to the gallery in 1933, is a very moving work, as is the serene St Luke the Evangelist displayed beside it by the Maestro della Maddalena. The Redeemer between the Virgin and Three Saints is signed and dated 1271 and preserves its original frame.

At present Room 2 has only the three famous Maestà paintings—and one rather hopes it will stay that way, now that many of the paintings formerly here are re-displayed in Room 1.

Further along the corridor, adjoining the exquisite Tribuna, the next enfilade of rooms (with pretty ceilings decorated in the late 16th century) have been painted white and the works rehung and given good short descriptions, also in English. Room 19 is now devoted to the early Renaissance Sienese School, and the works include a lovely predella by Neroccio dei Landi and a large triptych by Vecchietta.

In Room 20 we skip north to the Veneto, and for the first time Mantegna's wonderful small triptych with the Adoration of the Magi, Circumcision and Ascension, which preserves its beautiful frame, has been given pride of place against a green panel. But it is in the presence of other masterpieces by him, including the portrait of Cardinal Carlo de' Medici (also in a magnificent frame) and his tiny Madonna delle Cave. Giovanni Bellini is also very well represented, with three very different works: his mysterious Sacred Allegory, a portrait of a young man (the signature is false so the attribution is also uncertain), and the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, unfinished so left at the chiaroscuro stage. Now fittingly hung here together with works by these two masters are two panels by Antonello da Messina, who worked in Venice for a period and had a great influence on his contemporaries. They were purchased for the gallery in 1996 in accordance with a bequest by Stefano Bardini. They are panels which once belonged to a polyptych and are the only works by Antonello in Florence: stunning paintings on a gold ground, St John the Evangelist and the Madonna and Child (the Madonna has roses in her halo), here displayed to great advantage.

The next three rooms illustrate the art of the regions of the Veneto, Emilia Romagna and Lombardy in the 15th century, and the new arrangement makes comparisons between these painters much more logical, as well as posing questions of reciprocal influences.

So all in all the Uffizi is becoming ever more full of wonderful works, many kept hidden until now in the deposits, and the display is being up-dated to make the visit more and more pleasurable. Note that the telephone booking service (it is always essential to book to avoid the queue) is extremely efficient and quick: and even in late June of this year it was possible to book a visit in the early morning for just a day or two later (T: 055 294883, operational weekdays from 8.30am–6.30pm, and on Saturday 8.30–12.30).

by Alta Macadam. The latest edition of her Blue Guide Florence is available in both print and digital format.

Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence's pious grand duchesses

Maria Magdalena of Austria as a widow, painted by Justus Sustermans.

The former summer apartments of Palazzo Pitti are playing host (until 2nd November) to an exhibition of many of the treasures which used to be in the Chapel of the Reliquaries, on the palace’s first floor. Founded by Maria Magdalena of Austria (wife of Cosimo II) and numbering some 1,000 pieces, the collection used to be one of the most important in Europe, but it was broken up from 1784 onwards. It has been painstakingly reassembled for this occasion, and these precious devotional objects are displayed more or less chronologically.

Three exquisite works made in Germany are the earliest pieces, dating from the 14th–15th centuries: they were sent as gifts to the Grand Duchess Christine of Lorraine. The later works in the main room include a Cross and pair of candlesticks made in 1632 for the high altar of Santissima Annunziata: the rock crystal is by Matteo Nigetti and the bronze work by Pietro Tacca. In the centre of the room is displayed a large reliquary Cross made for the relic of the True Cross kept in the Duomo, decorated with a huge topaz—it is the work of Cosimo Merlini the Elder and Bernardo Holzmann (1618). Around the same time the silver coffin was designed by Giulio Parigi to display the body of a certain St Cesonius, dug up in the catacombs of San Sebastiano in Rome and sent to Maria Magdalena of Austria after she had ordered a ‘saintly body’ for her collection. The bones of the unknown saint were accompanied by a parchment declaration of its authenticity, today on display beside it. Two reliquaries of the same date by Andrea Tarchiani were presented to Maria Magdalena by her husband.

The adjoining three rooms contain ever more elaborate works commissioned by Maria Magdalena, many of them in amber, ebony and ivory, and later pieces made for Vittoria della Rovere (wife of Cosimo’s sucessor Ferdinando II). The last room has the most astonishing early 18th-century pieces, such as the reliquary by Giovanni Battista Foggini and Massimiliano Soldani Benzi made to preserve the thigh bone of St Casimir (patron saint of Poland).

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow

We were off with my group from Florence to Prato, where in the cathedral there is the Chapel of the Girdle of the Virgin Mary—not any old girdle, but the actual one that she dropped down to Thomas as she was being assumed into heaven. It is exposed on its feast days from a pulpit, one of the most beautiful and exhilarating creations of Donatello (the original now under cover in the adjoining cathedral museum). After the delight of seeing it, we still had time to fill in and so on the way back we stopped off at the Villa di Castello, one of the original 16th-century Medici villas, once graced by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and now the home of the venerable Accademia della Crusca, the guardian of the purity of the Italian language.

The garden is famous for its extraordinary collection of citrus fruits and it is hardly surprising that this was one of the first stops for Helena Attlee in her absorbing story of citrus growing in Italy. The garden was created in the 1540s by Niccolo dei Pericoli, known to this day by his schoolboy nickname, Tribolo, ‘the troublemaker’. He knew what he was up to, making sure that the garden was divided up with walls and lots of shade to provide the perfect temperature for the growing fruit. All this was swept away in the 18th century and the more formal open spaces are now too hot for their produce but the garden still impresses with its hundreds of large terracotta pots and extraordinary array of fruits. They are dragged off in the winter into the garden’s limonaia, the lemon house. Many of these limonaie are spectacular buildings in their own right, especially further north among the lemon growers of Lake Garda, where further protective shelter from the cold is needed.

There were only three original species of the citrus genus in Asia, the mandarin, the pomelo and the citron, but they cross-pollinated so easily that hybrids soon formed and flourished even before any fruits arrived in Italy. The citron was the first to appear, in the 2nd century AD, as a mysterious newcomer in that it is ungainly, virtually inedible but exudes a wonderful perfume that suffuses everything that it touches. Lemons, a hybrid between citrons and sour oranges that are themselves a hybrid between a mandarin and a pomelo, arrived in Sicily with the Arabs in the 9th century while pure mandarins only arrived, from China via Kew Gardens, in the 19th century. By then luck and ingenuity had created the extraordinary mix of citrus fruits that made classification a botanist’s nightmare—especially as aristocrats delighted in creating as many exotic and grotesque specimens as possible.

The distinct climatic niches of Italy and Sicily fostered their own varieties. If you are looking for the best arancie rosse, blood oranges, you must come to the slopes of Mount Etna, for here the difference in temperature between day and night is at least ten degrees, without which the blood-coloured pigments cannot develop. For the treasured oil of the bergamot, a natural cross-pollination between a lemon and a sour orange, a thirty-five kilometre stretch of coastline in Calabria, where cultivation began in the 17th century, provides the finest in the world, while the Ligurian coast is the home of the small and bitter Chinotto, most usually found as an ingredient of Campari, but now enjoying a revival in its own right.

Inside a limonaia on Lake Garda

Varieties come and go as easier ways of working or developing the land challenge the original traditions and it is only the most skilful gardeners who can keep ancient specimens alive from one generation to the next. Attlee seeks out these dedicated few, some of whom may indeed sustain revivals of vanished species. The curator of the Castello garden, Paolo Galeotti, had a spectacular coup when he spotted a twig sprouting the celebrated bizzarria, a citrated lemon that had vanished without trace for decades. It is now flourishing. Alas, alone and unprepared as my group were, and without the expertise of Helena Attlee or Signor Galeotti at hand, we missed seeing it (and how could I have taken my recent Turin tour members to the excellent Via del Sale restaurant without insisting on their sorbet made from madarino tardivo di Ciaculli, with a flavour ‘so intense it could be consumed only in tiny mouthfuls’).

It was Goethe who dreamed of the land where the lemon trees bloom and this delightful and informative book is full of the sun, sensuality and scents of Italy. From now on anyone shopping for standard oranges and lemons in their local supermarket will be consumed with guilt at their lack of discrimination. I am not sure whether our excellent greengrocer will be able to source Limone femminello sfusato amalfitano, the distinctive Amalfi lemon, now given protection from outside competitors by the EU, but I have been promised Tagiolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone for supper and, as the summer warms, we might even try the old lemon-growers’ trick of trapping flies in a concoction of ammonia with an anchovy added to it. But please may we have a new edition with a sumptuous display of coloured prints so that we can feast our eyes on the richness of these wonderful fruits when winter comes to northern Europe?

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

The Land where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit is published by Particular Books, London, 2014.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

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