Surprising Sights

There was still so much art and architecture to see, and Thursday was a day full of surprises. We had not talked in-depth about the Bargello or San Lorenzo like we had about other locations, and for that I am grateful – it contributed even more to the surprise I felt when I fell in love with these places too.

Our first stop was the Bargello, a beautiful and imposing stone structure that was originally a palace, then converted to a jail, then back to a palace, and finally to the museum we were visiting. In it, I was surprised to find art we had spent quite a bit of time on in class, that I didn’t expect to be housed there, particularly Donatello’s St. George. When we had visited Orsanmichele, the oratorium/church/granary/fortress earlier in the week, I had expected to see his sculpture there, but it had been moved to the Bargello for safekeeping. Again, I was shocked at the sheer emotion Donatello was able to convey – not only did he sculpt people, he sculpted their character, their personalities. You could see the apprehension in young George’s eyes as he prepared to battle, the strong stance a warrior takes when they know they are about to engage in a difficult battle. I think its my personal favorite of all the niches from Orsanmichele (and I’m not just being biased because Donatello did it…although that plays a part).

Two more of Donatello’s sculptures were present in the Bargello, his interpretation of David and Amor-Atys, or a small cherub. Both are casted in bronze and again show Donatello’s affinity for creating realistic figures. The David statue was particularly striking in person, due to his proud stance after beating Goliath in battle. This bronze casting was the first freestanding nude contrapposto since antiquity. Although David’s sandals and helmet are a little strange, I can see the talent Donatello exhibited, especially in the head of Goliath and the feathers on his helmet, one so realistic and delicately curved along David’s inner calf that it looks to be a real feather. It was also intriguing to see that bronze work was actually not one of Donatello’s best mediums, as evidenced by the panel of patchwork on the upper part of David’s thigh where the bronze casting did not come out as planned. I know I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Donatello is one of my favorite artists!

There were other intriguing works in the Bargello as well. The Bacchus statue, done by Michelangelo, was hilarious in his drunken stance and glazed over expression, reminding me of many a college student who stumbled back into Vickroy in the early morning, waking me from deep sleep with their loud laughter and stumbling. There was a delicate bronze casting of Apollo, quite literally floating on one dainty foot with his arms gracefully holding a caduceus. The original base of the Perseus statue from the Loggia dei Lanzi is housed in the Bargello as well, with four bronze statues depicting gods from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or the legend of Perseus. There are also beautifully carved mythological symbols and motifs, set so beautifully within the stone that it almost looks as if the work was completed yesterday. There was also a gorgeous hall of miniatures, where a small wooden image of the Christ Child was held. St. Francis of Assisi began the tradition of setting up Nativity sets around Christmas and putting the Christ Child in them on Christmas Eve. As legend goes, when he went to put the wooden doll into the crèche, the small child smiled at him – a true Christmas miracle!

Speaking of small children, our next stop was the Ospedale de Innocenti, the Renaissance orphanage designed by Brunelleschi. The arched arcade style front created a type of serenity that I hadn’t really felt with Brunelleschi’s work before. The blue enameled tiles, created by Lucca Della Robbia, showed small infants swaddled, representing the building’s purpose. Despite the serenity the architecture inspired, there was little that was actually serene about the work the Ospedale did. As Dr. Aronson told us about the orphanage, she began to tear up, talking about how difficult it would be to bring your child to this place and never see them again. I immediately thought of all the pictures she shared with us of her two-month-old grandson, and I could understand her tears. She loved him so much, and I couldn’t imagine the fear a mother figure must feel at the thought of giving up a child.

Although orphanages are often sad, the Ospedale wasn’t all despair – they did lots of good for the children who lived there. Each child brought in earned the last name Innocenti, and every child was trained in an artisan form or trade so they could live productive lives. The girls were made available to marry. To this day, there are thousands of Innocentis in the Florence phone books, and even though not all of them are related by blood, they are related by the ancestors before them who found kindness in the Ospedale. We talked in class about the “wheel,” a literal wheel where mothers left their children to be brought in by the nuns. Dr. Wilkins told us after the fact that there were thousands of small pieces of vellum found in the Ospedale’s basement that held heartbreaking phrases such as “please, name my son Giovanni,” or “take care of my Maria.” When we arrived at the Ospedale, we found that the wheel was actually a small, gated window, its openings only large enough for a newborn to be slipped through into the arms of a waiting nun. We entered the arcade of the Ospedale from the opposite side and made our way towards the famous wheel, and as we walked to the window, I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness and, almost, evil. I felt the helplessness of women who had walked the very steps I was taking centuries before me, strange visions of the last look a mother gave her child before she gave them up forever. I began to tear up, and I understood Dr. Aronson’s pain. I could never imagine slipping my child though that window, never knowing what would become of them. I always knew I had a motherly instinct, but I never thought it would come out so strongly in the presence of such a historical place.

After I shook the feelings of sadness away, I was greeted by the happiness of San Lorenzo. I didn’t think anything of this church in the brief span we covered it in – in my untrained art history mind, it had a boring façade, so therefore I would be uninterested. Well, as soon as we approached it, I found less is more. The unfinished brick façade made me happy in the midst of all the obnoxious Renaissance churches around Florence. Those churches may have been beautiful, but I’m all for simple beauty.

Upon entering San Lorenzo, I was awestruck by the white coffered ceiling with its gold accents, stretching down the aisle of the church for what felt like miles. The Medicis claimed this as their home church during the Renaissance, and I can see why – its fit for royalty! The lighting from the high windows caused the ceiling to glow, as if the white light of the heavens had been harnessed to the top of this beautiful church. The rounded archways and pillars that stretched down the opposite sides of the church were made out of the same beautiful gray stone that Brunelleschi loves to use, and I found myself actually really enjoying his simple, elegant designs where they had only bored me before. The silly little girl part of myself could picture me walking down the aisle of this church at my wedding, which I jokingly told Dr. Ann Wilkins. She responded to let me know when that would be, because she expects an invite!

I kept up with my goal to light candles in every church, but this time, I lit a few extra, just because I loved the church so much and felt such a connection with it. The more I walked around, the more I felt like I had connected with the spiritual presence within the church. I was completely relaxed and had allowed my brain to wander to thoughts of God, not listening with rapt attention to Dr. Wilkins tell his stories like I usually did. Before we moved to the old sacristy, I quickly knelt down and reverently whispered a few Hail Marys, thanking God for my chance to travel to a foreign country and for making this a week of bliss. I could have prayed in that church for the rest of my days.

The church became even more of my favorite place when I saw that Donatello had left his mark there as well. Not only was it the location of his final resting place, but he also did a few works of art there, including the bronze doors of the old sacristy. He sculpted two pulpits in relief, and my favorite was the one depicting the Passion of the Christ. Although they were under repair, we still had the chance to sit down quickly and let Dr. Wilkins tell us about them. He said that the one image on the pulpit of Christ being taken down from the cross shows the Virgin Mary with her hood pulled far over her head, looking tired and quite old. When repair tents do not hide the pulpit, though, you can see that her hood juts far out of the relief, casting a shadow on her face that only makes her appear old. While art historians critiqued this relief technique, the choice is actually quite deliberate: as the Virgin holds the broken body of her son and mourns His death, her hood hides her face from the world, giving her a private moment to grieve her personal loss.

We then made our way into the old sacristy, another Brunelleschi creation housing an incredibly serene umbrella dome and symmetrical decorative pilasters that give it a geometric perfection. The dome itself is a circle within a square, a religious architectural motif representing the earth and the heavens above. My favorite part of the sacristy was the dome on the inside of the altar, a deep blue with shell corners depicting a shell motif, painted beautifully with constellations. I have a soft spot for astronomy, and constellations are my favorite. I don’t really know where this started, but as I gazed up at them, I couldn’t help but think of Galileo, who I had seen earlier in the week. I think this cemented San Lorenzo as my favorite church we visited!

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