Beginning in the 13th century, Florence bloomed. Its superb wool and silk textiles gained renown far beyond Europe. Florentine banks flourished—their gold florin became international currency. And rich dynasties like the Pittis and Medicis commissioned great works of Florentine art. The Renaissance had its early glimmers with Cimabue (1240-1302) and his pupil Giotto—who painted natural landscapes, voluptuous figure studies, and faces of complex humanity. A hundred years later Masaccio and Brunelleschi were fascinated by the study of space and light, while Fra Angelico concentrated on “volumetric modeling of forms with light and shadow” (so says the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Later that century, Botticelli gave birth to an ethereal and luminous sensuality. On his heels were Rafael, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Later still, Florentine sculptors led by Donatello (1385-1466) veered away from the easy medieval forms to ones of vast human variety. Their countless masterpieces are now in Florentine museums. A visit to any of them will enlighten and delight.
Museo del Duomo, Palazzo Pubblico, & Pinacoteca
Start with these three museums in Siena; all three contain early works that predate Florence’s Renaissance. Among them are Duccio’s magnificent Maesta; the immense narrative of Lorenzetti’s Good Government Bad Government; and Martini’s Madonna col Bimbo, painted in 1305, which displayed a then-uncommon tenderness and vulnerability.
This Florentine museum is one of the world’s very best—but don’t make your first visit here an endurance test. Just make sure to see the true showstoppers: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and dream-like Primavera, Da Vinci’s Annunciation, Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, and Tintoretto’s provocative Leda and the Swan. End with Caravaggio’s Adolescent Bacchus. Then celebrate life with a glass of wine.
Michelangelo’s Slaves, which seem to be trying to erupt form the coarse marble encasing them, are themselves worth a visit here. But of course, his Palestrina Pietà and his iconic but uneasy David (sculpted when the artist was just 25) are not to be missed. Two superb Botticelli paintings are also here: Madonna of the Sea, and the very sensitive Madonna with the Young Saint John and Angels.
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
Michelangelo’s Pietà, which he carved at the age of 80, is the showstopper here; a more somber highlight is Donatello’s heartrending Mary Magdalene, carved from wood. It is countered by the delightfully boisterous, plump and funny Choir Boys, by Della Robbia. Don’t miss the silver altar from the Baptistery, a dazzling tour de force of gold and silver smithing.
Start with the Galleria Palatina. If you can still remember your name after it, move on; you’ll find Titian’s sultry The Concert and sensuous Mary Magdalene, Raphael’s riveting Woman With Veil, Ruben’s world-weary Four Philosophers, and tempestuous Consequences of War. There’s also Fra Bartolomeo’s heartbreaking Lamentation, and Caravaggio’s more-human-than-human Sleeping Cupid. And a few hundred more.