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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.

Marvellous and Macabre: the art of Jacopo Ligozzi

Ligozzi's drawing of a gerbil

An exhibition devoted to Jacopo Ligozzi (c. 1549–1627) is open until 28th September in Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

But who was Ligozzi? Born around 1549 in Verona, he spent most of his life in Florence and is especially known for his scientific drawings from nature. But as the exhibition also illustrates, he had great success at the Medici court as he could turn his hand to designing all kinds of things for them: from decorative harnesses for their horses to pietre dure table tops and embroidered head-dresses for the duchesses. But in order not to depend on the favours of the ruling family at any one time, and to ensure he could always earn his bread and butter, he also produced numerous paintings. This exhibition illustrates the diversity of his talents as well as his eccentricities.

It opens in the magnificent Sala Bianca, the Pitti’s 18th-century ballroom, with a small selection of watercolours of fish, plants, birds, mice and moles, commissioned over a period of some ten years at the end of the 16th century by Francesco I, who was famous for his interest in the natural sciences. The second half of the room has drawings made by Ligozzi for the apparatus used on ceremonial occasions, and two paintings by him of ladies of the court proudly wearing the paraphernalia designed him (that of Margherita Gonzaga is on loan from Lisbon). The designs for bizarre goblets, including an entire album of them, become so intricate that some of them begin to resemble the crazy inventions of Heath Robinson. In contrast, the exquisite pen-and-ink wash drawing of Portoferraio shows what a great talent Ligozzi had for landscape.

Ligozzi's Pietre dure portrait of Pope Clement VIII

There are some magnificent examples of  pietre dure work on show. Tabletops closely covered with inlays of precious stones portraying all manner of flowers and birds are displayed without their pedestals and can be seen to full advantage.

A small room contains some very macabre works, two of them on the verso of painted portraits of a lady and of a boy, both from the private collection of Lord Aberconway in Bodnant, Wales. These memento mori fully deserve the description of them given in situ as ‘repugnant’ and ‘savage’. Also here are four drawings of the Cardinal Sins, reunited from Paris (the Louvre) and Hanover. A small allegory of the Redemption from a private collection in Madrid is similarly disturbing. The dark atmosphere is only alleviated by the music provided in this room (and close by, one can go out into the little loggetta, which has a charming ceiling frescoed in 1588 by Alessandro Allori of wash day in the palace).

The last four rooms display Ligozzi’s oil paintings, which vary greatly in interest and quality. Those painted in the 1590s for the little-visited Florentine church of San Giovannino degli Scolopi (in Via Martelli, two steps from the Baptistery) are among the best: Jacob’s Dream and The Fall of Lucifer, which form a pair, and St Jerome Comforted by an Angel, with exquisite details of his piles of books and the angel in a beautiful dress. Ligozzi is known to have been a deeply religious man and his son became a Dominican friar, but his best paintings are those with an element of eccentricity, either in the composition or the details. His Madonna of the Rosary has a rather mundane Mother but a delightful Child, and they are set in a garland of roses of varieties which go from cream to deep red. Next to it hangs a Transport of St Catherine which shows the Saint stretched out comfortably (the pose has faint echoes of Mary Poppins) as she floats aloft with the help of angels. There are also some much larger altarpieces, one of the best of which is Mary Magdalen in Adoration of the Crucifix set in a wood, which is over 3 by 2 metres, painted in 1607 for the church of San Martino in Pisa. Also displayed here is a guide book to the convent of La Verna, written and illustrated by Ligozzi and complete with keyed plans: it seems that he wanted to turn his hand to everything!

The small last room has arguably his best oil paintings: four Passion scenes. They show Ligozzi’s imaginative creativity in their composition and use of colour, as well as fascinating details in the hats, armour, bejewelled costumes, and landscapes.

This is the first time that due attention has been paid to all aspects of Ligozzi’s work. It is an exhibition well worth seeing.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

News from Florence

Madonna and Child by Jacopo di Cione. Photo ©Sailko.

For many years in the buildings adjoining the magnificent church of Santa Croce (in the rooms around the sacristy and in the great refectory) some important works of art have been on a temporary display. A few weeks ago a definitive arrangement of them was presented to the public. They have been housed in the conventual buildings since the first years of the 20th century (when they were rescued from religious houses suppressed by Napoleon).

In the last few decades Santa Croce has found itself in a rather unhappy geographical position: on a straight street which provides an entrance to the city from the ring-road, which makes it a favourite place for bus tours. An added attraction is the old-established 'leather factory' attached to the church, and leather goods are now sold in the shops on the approach so that, all in all, it represents a perfect stopping place for tour groups which are being hurried on their way from Venice to Rome, but in this way can also fit in a few hours in Florence en route. So it is all the more important that if you are on your own and the church becomes too crowded (as it more often than not does by mid-morning), you can now visit the quieter areas which have been beautifully restored.

Close to the famous frescoes by Giotto in two chapels at the east end of the huge church, you enter a corridor off which is the sacristy, where Cimabue's famous painted Crucifix has at last found a permanent position. It was the most important work of art in Florence to be damaged in the Arno flood of 1966. After a spectacular restoration it is now hung high enough in this beautiful room to be safe from the waters of the Arno should they ever break their banks again. Painted before 1288, it shows Christ 'patiens' (suffering) rather than 'triumphans' and is for that reason a particularly dramatic figure. The sacristy, because it was part of such an important religious house, is very spacious and has its own 'chapel' covered with splendid frescoes by Giovanni da Milano, one of the most interesting followers of Giotto.

From the sacristy you can now go into an adjacent room which has a well in a niche frescoed by Paolo Schiavo, currently being restored. The well would have provided fresh water for the lavabo that was once here. The walls have now been hung with panel paintings (from suppressed churches and convents) which have been in storage here ever since the first years of the 19th century. A triptych by Giovanni del Biondo is dedicated to St John Gualberto, with stories from his life. A modern frame has been reconstructed around Nardo di Cione's triptych which is particularly interesting for its predella, which has unusual scenes from the life of Job. Also here is St James the Greater Enthroned by Lorenzo Monaco.

The Chapel of the Novices, built for Cosimo de' Medici by his favourite architect Michelozzo, is also now open. It houses two huge paintings in wonderful gilded frames by Battista di Marco del Tasso; a Deposition by Salviati and a Descent into Limbo by Bronzino. There is also a Descent from the Cross by Alessandro Allori and a Trinity (with the dead Christ) by Ludovico Cigoli. The enamelled terracotta altarpiece is a della Robbia work and above it a little stained-glass window (designed by Alesso Baldovinetti) has the two Medici patron saints, Cosmas and Damian.

In a tiny barrel-vaulted room off the chapel, with one little window and just large enough to hold a coffin, a bust of Galileo records the fate of the great scientist's corpse, which was hidden here in 1642 before it was decided he could be given a Christian burial inside the church nearly a century later. In the corridor outside are four gold-ground paintings and a monument to Lorenzo Bartolini, who by the time of his death in 1850 had become the most important sculptor of his day.

Back in the church itself, beside the very beautiful Annunciation tabernacle by Donatello, a door leads out to the first cloister. At the foot of the steps, behind a white curtain, is the Pazzi Chapel, one of the most perfect Renaissance interiors in Florence. Close by is the second cloister, one of the most peaceful and beautiful spaces in the city. The rooms of the museum here are now a bit shabby, but don't miss the last room, which has a delightful fragment of the Madonna learning to sew and a fragment of the grieving Madonna in a delicate peach-coloured robe, which found its way here in 1904 from somewhere in the city. In the same room are two newly restored Madonnas, one by the Maestro di San Martino alla Palma, and one by Jacopo di Cione, with the Child in a golden tunic. From this room you enter directly into the splendid Gothic refectory with its huge frescoed representation of the Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi. This space has now regained its spacious atmosphere. Don't miss the fresco fragment with one of the earliest views of the Baptistery or the gilded bronze St Louis of Toulouse made by Donatello for the exterior of Orsanmichele.

In a little cloister behind the Pazzi Chapel (entered from the new Information Office) an interesting and well-designed little exhibition illustrates the history of the Arno floods (and a 'totem' outside show the various levels the water reached). Also here there is sometimes access to a huge crypt (beneath the sacristy), the 'Famedio', a First World War memorial opened by the Fascist regime in 1937 with the names of the 3,672 Florentine soldiers who fell in the fighting inscribed on black marble all around the walls.

As mentioned above, Santa Croce and its piazza can become uncomfortably crowded—but you can slip away from the crowds with the greatest ease if you seek out the little medieval church of San Remigio, in an extremely peaceful corner of town. At the far end of the piazza (the opposite end from the church) take Borgo de' Greci and then (second left) Via de' Malagotti, which leads to it directly. The church contains one of the most beautiful 13th-century paintings of the Madonna and Child in Florence, by an unknown master named from this work the 'Maestro di San Remigio'.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence, available in print and digital formats. For more, see here.

Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation

Baccio Bandinelli, self-portrait, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

by Alta Macadam

 

This exhibition, running at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence until 13th July, is the first ever show devoted to this sculptor, who was of supreme importance during his lifetime in 16th-century Florence, not only for his skill as an artist but also because he was the official sculptor of the Medici. He learnt his art directly from Michelangelo and (the far less well-known) Giovanfrancesco Rustici. Bandinelli’s pupils included Vincenzo de’ Rossi, Ammannati, and his successor as court sculptor for the Medici, Giambologna. The Bargello is therefore the most fitting place to hold this exhibition, since in the first room of the museum, recently rearranged, all of these sculptors are very well represented.

 

The reason for the notable lack of interest in Bandinelli (1493–1560) until now is probably due most of all to the fact that he was clearly an unpleasant man and jealous of his position as the Medici favourite. In public he was particularly fond of doing down Cellini, whom we know far better through his delightful Autobiography and who was by far the greater sculptor, but who suffered from the success of his rival.

 

Bandinelli had the grossly mistaken idea to carve a colossal statue as a pair to Michelangelo’s David outside the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio. It is one of the worst sculptures produced in Florence in the 16th century. Representing Hercules and Cacus, the two figures are flabby and in fact border on the ridiculous. Cellini was delighted to point this out to Cosimo I in the presence of Bandinelli, but Cosimo still continued to commission statues from Bandinelli rather than Cellini including, nearly thirty years later, the huge but feeble and languid Neptune for the fountain a few metres away in Piazza della Signoria (it had to completed by his pupil Ammannati after his death). Cellini’s famous Perseus is in the loggia of the same square but its model and original base and exquisite bronze statuettes are preserved in the Michelangelo room where the exhibition begins. Cellini would have been satisfied indeed that these and some of his other superb sculptures are displayed here, establishing his pre-eminence.

 

Bandinelli’s earliest sculptures in the exhibition include a mutilated classical Mercury from the Louvre, a bas-relief of the Flagellation from Orleans (with a plaster cast of it from the Casa Martelli in Florence) and several red chalk drawings from the Louvre and another from the British Museum. There is also a small relief of the Deposition in gilded and painted stucco from the Victoria and Albert Museum. All these demonstrate clearly Bandinelli’s superb skills as a draughtsman, and also particularly as a sculptor in low relief.

 

A number of busts by him of his patron Cosimo I are displayed together, including one which he carved for the façade of his own residence in Via Ginori, as a proud statement of his allegiance to the Medici family (now in a private collection it has rarely been seen since its was removed from the house front). Accompanying these works is Cellini’s colossal bronze bust of Cosimo, now even more impressive since, in the new display of the permanent collection here it has been raised higher on a pedestal, and clearly it is a greater portrait of the powerful Duke than any produced by Bandinelli.

 

Some of Bandinelli’s best marble reliefs were carved for an elaborate new choir he designed for the Duomo, directly beneath the dome, but which was never completed and was ultimately considered unsuitable for the church (it included two entirely nude statues of Adam and Eve which were to flank the altar, and which are on permanent display in this room). Some of the superb original reliefs are on display next to a model of how this ambitious project would have looked: it was to have included some 300 similar reliefs. Bandinelli’s Bacchus is also displayed here, rejoining three other statues on permanent display in this room: Sansovino’s earlier Bacchus; Cellini’s classical Ganymede; and Michelangelo’s David-Apollo, all four of which are known to have been special favourites of the Duke’s, which he kept together in a room of his palace.

 

The exhibition continues in two small rooms also off the courtyard. Here you can see a series of Bandinelli's exquisite small bronzes, all from the Bargello collection. Seen on their own they confirm his mastery of this genre. All around the walls are examples of Bandinelli’s splendid drawings, many in red chalk, from the Uffizi, including two of his famous patrons Pope Leo X and Cosimo I, clearly drawn from life in the 1540s.

 

In the last room there is a memorable portrait of the young Bandinelli by an unknown Florentine painter influenced by Andrea del Sarto and a marble relief of a bearded man attributed to Bandinelli, as well as his self-portrait in terracotta dating from around 1557. The show helps reinstates Bandinelli as an artist of great merit, and it is always a delight to return to the Bargello, which is one of the finest museums in Florence and never, for some mysterious reason, over-crowded.

 

Alta Macadam is the author of Blue Guide Florence.

Uffizi selfies come to Budapest

Self-portrait by Pál Szinyei Merse (1845–1920)
Pál Szinyei Merse’s plein-air rendering of a field of poppies

 

As part of the Budapest Spring Festival, an unusual exhibition has come to the Budapest History Museum: “Painters in the Mirror”, a display of self-portraits by Hungarian artists from the collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The Uffizi has an extensive collection of self-portraits, the largest in the world: over 1,600 of them, of which 24 are of Hungarian artists. They are displayed in the Corridoio Vasariano, a covered walkway built by Vasari in five months to celebrate the marriage of Francesco de’ Medici and Joanna of Austria in 1565. Nearly a kilometre long, its purpose was to connect Palazzo Vecchio via the Uffizi and Ponte Vecchio with the new residence of the Medici dukes at Palazzo Pitti. The Medici family found it particularly convenient in wet weather and it was sometimes used as a nursery for the children of the grand dukes. Elderly or infirm members of the family were wheeled along it in bath chairs. The Uffizi’s collection of self-portraits has been hung here since the early 20th century. The collection was begun by Cardinal Leopoldo in 1664. Having acquired the self-portraits of Guercino and Pietro da Cortona, he went on to collect the ‘selfies’ of some 80 more artists. The collection continues to be augmented.

The first Hungarian self-portrait to enter the collection was that of the elder Károly Markó, a painter of almost Claude-like landscapes who settled near Florence in 1848. The collection continued to expand throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, largely by invitation. The portraits of Rippl-Rónai, István Csók and Pál Szinyei Merse arrived at the Uffizi by this route. The great painter of large-scale historical canvases Gyula Benczúr was also invited to contribute a self-portrait and produced one expressly for the Uffizi. Other self-portraits were acquired by purchase. It was not long before artists eagerly sought to have themselves represented at the Uffizi, and the gallery received numerous offers, some of which it accepted and some of which it did not. Miklós Barabás, considered (at least in Hungary) one of the finest portraitists of his day (1810–98), submitted a portrait (it was submitted, in fact, by his son-in-law) but it was not considered by the board of judges to be of sufficient artistic merit. It was not returned, however, and is still the property of the Italian state, officially entered in the Uffizi’s inventory. It forms part of the current exhibition, hung alongside a charming likeness by Barabás of a young woman in a black dress, painted against a backdrop in the Hungarian—and Italian—national colours of red, white and green.

 

Self-portraits of Hungarian modern and contemporary artists include Victor Vasarely’s typically optical-illusory upside-down image of himself, and a fine work by László Fehér (b. 1953), who presents a typically hyper-realist image of himself in a small pocket mirror.

 

Each self-portrait in this interesting and absorbing small exhibition is shown alongside another painting by the same artist which may be taken to be representative of his or her oeuvre. Some of the more memorable pairings include Philip de László’s classic, textbook self-portrait hung next to his stunning likeness of Pope Leo XIII; and Pál Szinyei Merse’s view of himself in a wintry birch forest hung alongside his beautiful Poppy Field, its tall grass and cotton-wool clouds redolent of early summer warmth.


“Painters in the Mirror”, at the Budapest History Museum, runs until 20th July. The collection of the Uffizi is covered in detail in Blue Guide Florence.

Florentine Mannerists at Palazzo Strozzi

‘The Visitation’ by Pontormo, from Carmignano

by Alta Macadam

A major exhibition now running at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (on until 20 July 2014) is dedicated to two of the most famous protagonists of Mannerism in Italy. It traces the highly individualistic styles of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, both born in the same year, 1494, and who both started out their careers in the Florentine workshop of Andrea del Sarto. The exhibition's sub-title, ‘Diverging paths of Mannerism’, makes clear the intention is to illustrate the wide differences in style of these two masters. The texts throughout the show often cite Vasari, who first used the term maniera to describe his contemporaries’ way of painting. This ‘mannered’ style, characteristic of the painters who were at work immediately after the great era of Raphael and Michelangelo, was long considered affected and even decadent, but since the 20th century it has been recognised that these 16th-century painters explored new ideas and that their work is often characterised by extreme elegance and refinement.

The visitor is greeted by three huge frescoes from the Santissima Annunziata: on either side of a biblical scene by Andrea del Sarto are the Assumption by Rosso and the Visitation by Pontormo, both of which stand out for their originality. In Rosso’s memorable crowd of Apostles there are numerous different expressions and stances, while Pontormo’s fresco has great elegance and the two central figures portray a touching intimacy.

One entire room is dedicated to portraits by Pontormo. Beside his well-known posthumous ‘official’ Portrait of Cosimo il Vecchio, in his bright crimson cloak, is displayed his much more intimate Double portrait of two friends from the collection in Palazzo Cini in Venice (which is not regularly open to the public so this is a great chance to see this unusual work). It is displayed beside the engaging Young Man from the Palazzo Mansi in Lucca. Two of Pontormo's best male portraits, both sitters shown holding books, are on loan from the National Gallery in Washington and a private collection. Rosso is also given a room of his own to display his portraits: arguably the two most accomplished are those from the Uffizi and the Pitti.

Rosso’s Marriage of the Virgin from San Lorenzo is one of his loveliest altarpieces, crowded and full of colour. Pontormo’s work in the chapel of Santa Felicita, with his famous frescoes, are understandably not present in the exhibition (but can be seen just a few steps away across the Arno), but the lovely little stained-glass window from the chapel and the painted tondo have been brought here so that they can be seen at close range. His Crucifixion, salvaged from a tabernacle near Villa della Petraia and housed in the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, is also on show, and even though greatly damaged it demonstrates his skills in this medium. Pontormo’s small Madonna and Child with the Young St John is here too, from the Corsini Collection (a private collection, the most important to have survived in Florence, but long closed to the public, so this is a welcome opportunity to see it).

Pontormo’s greatest work is the Visitation from the church of Carmignano close to Florence. Mary is shown embracing her older cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) in the presence of two women looking out of the painting, Mary and Elizabeth's ‘alter egos’. It has been restored for the exhibition and its colour and composition make it one of the masterpieces of 16th-century Italian painting. In the same room is Rosso’s Deposition from the church of San Lorenzo in Sansepolcro, one of his highest achievements (also recently restored so that all the details, some quite bizarre, are far more visible). His small painting of the Death of Cleopatra (now in Braunschweig), the only secular painting he produced before he left Italy for France, is particularly beautifully painted, and this is a rare occasion to see this little-known work.

The last room illustrates Rosso’s activity at the French court of François I in Fontainebleau, where he spent the last years of his life, and includes a magnificent tapestry illustrating the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, made there on a cartoon by Rosso (and now in Vienna).

The curators of the exhibition are Antonio Natali (much-admired director of the Uffizi Gallery) and the art historian Carlo Falciani. The display, by the architect Luigi Cupellini, is excellent, with clear and helpful descriptions (‘textbooks’ are provided in each room to stimulate children’s interest). Dr James M. Bradburne, Director General of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, is to be congratulated on continuing to produce important and thoroughly enjoyable exhibitions at Palazzo Strozzi. Its programme stands out as the liveliest element in the city’s current cultural scene.

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

Florence and Buda: two cities of learning

Matthias Corvinus, copy of a lost portrait by Mantegna.

It was through Matthias Corvinus (1443–1490), who became King of Hungary aged 15 in 1458, that Renaissance art and Humanism was first exported outside Italy. The King's erudition and interests linked him closely with Lorenzo il Magnifico in Florence, and they exchanged letters about their progress in forming their libraries. Many of the very beautiful volumes (often similar in size and decoration) that they commissioned in Florence from Renaissance artists and scholars have survived. By the end of his life Corvinus possessed one of the most important libraries then in existence—and, far richer than his Medici counterpart, he was able to put together an even more precious collection of manuscripts than the one then in Florence. Some of the manuscripts (including his Bible, exquisitely illuminated in Florence by Attavante and Gherardo and Monte di Giovanni) remained unfinished at his death so never reached Hungary, but are today preserved in the Medici Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence.

In 1476 Corvinus married Beatrice, the highly educated daughter of Ferdinand I of Aragon, King of Naples, and he had a splendid marble bust of her made by Francesco Laurana at the time of their engagement. She was only 16 or 17 years old and Laurana's sculpture is today one of the masterpieces in the Frick Museum in New York. The couple were then portrayed, probably by Giovanni Dalmata, in a double portrait (preserved in Budapest) in profile in low relief in white marble against a dark green background. Beatrice proved a worthy wife, sharing Matthias's passion for books and music and she herself was a patron of the arts. Also preserved in Budapest is the splendid brocaded velvet which once decorated the royal throne in Buda, known to have been made in Florence on a design by Antonio del Pollaiolo (and restored in 2013).

It was at the court of Matthias's predecessor King Sigismund that Filippo Scolari, known as Pippo Spano, had an important career as military leader but he was also a renowned Humanist. At that time the painter Masolino was called to Hungary to carry out frescoes for his funerary chapel, so the artist abandoned his work at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, leaving Masaccio to complete it. Pippo Spano was immortalised in Florence as one of the 'famous men' frescoed by Andrea del Castagno (now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, but sadly usually not on view).

During Matthias's time many Florentine merchants lived in Buda, including Bernardo Vespucci, brother of Amerigo. We know that in 1469 the Signoria sent two lions, symbols of Florence, to Corvinus, as a sign of homage.

A portrait of Matthias, with his characteristic long flowing locks, by an unknown Lombard painter copied from a famous portrait of him by Mantegna (now lost) has had an interesting history. When attributed to Boltraffio, it was purchased from a private Italian collection by the press baron Lord Rothermere, famous as an advocate of the revision of the Versailles Peace Treaty. In certain influential political circles in Hungary at the time Rothermere became so popular for the irredentist campaign in his popular newspapers that a proposal was made to him to become Hungarian head of state (or, if he preferred, to have his son thus enthroned). This clearly caused him considerable embarrassment and to avoid any misunderstanding he presented this portrait of Matthias to Miklós Horthy in 1930, on the tenth anniversary of the latter’s election as regent of the Hungarian state, and it was hung in the royal palace of Buda. It is now in the Szépművészeti Múzeum in Budapest, but in store and so sadly not on view.

At the end of last year Italy dedicated its first exhibition to Matthias Corvinus, appropriately held in the library of San Marco, and curated by Péter Farbaky, director of the Budapest History Museum. Farbaky’s interest in Corvinus had already led to an international conference in Florence at Villa I Tatti in 2007, the papers of which where published in November 2011 by Harvard University.

(by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.)

In March of this year, also in the Budapest History Museum, an exhibition will open of self-portaits of Hungarian artists from the Uffizi collection. The show will be reviewed on this blog.

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