Archive for the ‘Italian Art’ Category

Givovanni d"Ambrogio 15th Century Museum of the Works of the Duomo, Florence

Givovanni d’Ambrogio
15th Century
Museum of the Works of the Duomo, Florence

A recent incident with priceless art in Florence has me considering the easy access the world has to Florentine art.

While comparing his own hand to that of a 15th Century work by the Renaissance sculptor Giovanni d’Ambrogio, a visiting American surgeon broke one of the fingers off Ambrogio’s statue of the Virgin Mary. Tempers flared, threats made, waters calmed and the surgeon is, by this writing, on his way home or already home.

Hmmm . . .

What I have always shared with clients as we travel across Italy is that all of Italy is an open air museum. The temptation to touch a work of art is so strong, and the accessibility of those art works so open in museums, that such temptation proves too much for some.

In the Museum of the Works of the Duomo, only steps from where this American surgeon created such a stir, is Michelangelo’s Nicodemus Pieta, one of the last of the master’s works.

You can walk right up and, if you were so inclined, reach over a short railing and touch the master’s work.

This is not the first such incident with Florence’s art.

In August of 2005, a young Italian man under the substantial influence of alcohol accepted a bet from friends to climb the Fountain of Neptune (Amananti, 16th Century, called “biancone“) in the Piazza della Signoria. As he reached to pull himself up using Neptune’s left hand it came off. Video surveillance captured the incident and eventually the damage was paid for by the guilty party.

The Broken Finger

The Broken Finger

I feel badly for the surgeon that made this error, and at the same time am embarrassed about the incident.

Yes, there are many more important events occurring in our world these days. However, the attention that this incident has garnered underscores the commitment a civilized society places on its art.

Bottom line? When you are in museums anywhere, no less Florence, enjoy . . . but DON’T TOUCH!

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Agnolo Bronzion The Brazen Serpent, Fresco Chapel of Elenora of Toldeo Palazzo Vecchio

Agnolo Bronzino
The Brazen Serpent, Fresco
Chapel of Eleanora of Toledo
Palazzo Vecchio

Hidden surprises await!

Imagine a Renaissance artist tracking progress on his fresco’s by writing notes on the frame of a door. Such is the case in one of the most underrated and least visited of Florence’s architectural treasures, the Ponte Vecchio.

Built as the seat of government for the city, the palace was completed in 1299. Its history, alone, is a fascinating overview of the city’s political challenges – a topic for another article.

Located upstairs on the main level of Palazzo is a jewel of a chapel created for Eleonora of Toledo, wife of the first grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I. Commissioned by Cosimo I, Agnolo Bronzino (he of much fame, including his incredible Martyrdom of St. Lawrence in the Medici family church of San Lorenzo), the chapel is an oft overlooked treasure. Cosimo favored the work by Bronzino and commissioned portraits of himself and Eleonora as well as his children.

After Bronzino completed the large fresco on the south wall, The Crossing of the Red Sea and Moses Anointing Joshua, he began work on The Brazen Serpent. He created the fresco while working around an extant door (see photo above) within the chapel.

As he worked, he recorded what I call diary notes about start and stop dates on his frescoes. On the upper right and left door frames of this doorway are the following notes, written by the master:

On the upper right door frame: (“/” indicate new line on the door frame)

Martedi/A di 6/di Sett/bre [1541]/

comincio/lastoria di/

faraone/A di 30 di/

Marzo/1542 fu fin[i]/

la lastai [a] di farone/lunedi adi

5/di giunio 154[2]/comincino/lastoria/delle se’pe

TRANSLATION: On Tuesday 6 September [1541] the story of the pharaoh was begun; on 30 march a542 the story of the pharaoh was completed. On Monday 5 June 154[2] the story of the serpent was begun.

On the left upper door frame:

A di 15../fins la [sto]/ria d’aq’ua

TRANSLATION: On the 15th…the story of the water was completed.

Within the chapel, Bronzino and his apprentices completed the Crossing of the Red Sea and Moses appointing Joshua, as well as the Brazen Serpent, hence the master’s reference to the ‘water’ and the ‘pharaoh’.

Yet another surprise, a note written in the middle 16th Century by a Renaissance master about his work. If you are able to visit the Palazzo Vecchio during a visit to Florence, be sure to stop by the door in the Chapel of Eleanora of Toledo…and be surprised.


Palazzo Vecchio

Piazza della Signoria, Florence


Museum only: Euro 6.50 per person

Tower only: Euro 6.50 per person

Museum and Tower: Euro 10.00 per person

Please note below that you can also climb the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, though the hours are significantly reduced from the full museum hours.

Every day except for Thursday: 9 a.m. – Midnight
Thursday: 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Following days are included: 1 April, 1 may, 2 and 24 June, 15 august
Every day except for Thursday: 9 a.m.- 7 p.m.
Thursday: 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Exceptionally the museum will be open:
13-28-29-30-31 October: 9 a.m. – Midnight
Every day except for Thursday: 9 a.m.- 7 p.m.
Thursday: 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Exceptionally the museum will be open:
1-2-3-10 November: 9 a.m. – Midnight
Every day except for Thursday: 9 a.m.- 7 p.m.
Thursday: 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Exceptionally the museum will be open:
7-8-22-23-26-27-28-29-30 December: 9 a.m. – Midnight
(Closed on Christmas Day)

The TOWER of the Palazzo Vecchio:

Summer opening time:
1st April – 30th September
9 – 21   (no admission after 20.30)

9 – 14    (no admission after 13.30)

Winter opening time:
1st October – 31st march
10 – 17    (no admission after 16.30)
10 – 14      (no admission after 13.30)

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In 1453, Andrea Mantegna married Nicolosia Bellini, the sister of Giovanni Bellini, a member of a famous family of Venetian painters. Sometime in the following years, and before Mantegna’s departure for Mantua in 1460, he completed his tempera on canvas work, Presentation at the Temple. In this unique work, Mantegna has portrayed members of his own household, along with figures of Mary, Simeon and the child. To the left of Mary’s shoulder is what art historians believe to be a portrait of Nicolosia, and on the far right is what historians believe to be a self-portrait of the artist. Behind St. Simeon, and nearly lost in the background of the work, is believed to be a portrait of Mantegna’s father whose role in the work is that of St. Joseph: note the aureola, the artistic tradition of portraying an aura over the heads of holy figures.


Andrea Mantegna Presentation at the Temple 1460

Andrea Mantegna
Presentation at the Temple

After Andrea and Nicolosia’s departure, Mantegna’s brother in law, Giovanni, began work on a Presentation at the Temple,  this one tempera on wood panel. Bellini’s work is even more autobiographical than that of his brother in law. Behind what is believed to be a portrait of Giovanni on the far right, is a portrait of Giovanni’s brother Gentile. (Some art historians believe it could also be a portrait of Mantenga. No evidence exists to this day to clarify those observations.) The father figure from Mantegna’s work is far darker, and has lost his saintly attribution. The face of the father, now dark, nearly fierce, portrays perhaps anger at his daughter’s departure and his changed role of leading a household of two immensely creative Venetian painters. The woman to the far left in Bellini’s work is believed to be Giovanni and Gentile’s mother, Anna.

Giovanni Bellini Presentation at the Temple 1465

Giovanni Bellini
Presentation at the Temple

Note, also, that in Mantegna’s work, there is a frame around the entire canvas. In Bellini’s there is only a parapet. The change in viewing the pieces seems to make Bellini’s work more personal and approachable, less distant and formal than that of Mantegna. One last touch by Bellini adds to the lack of formality in his work; there are no longer aureola. Bellini has moved the figures into the world of ‘us’ rather than of ‘them.’

When you see the two works together – hardly likely in physical fact as the Mantegna work is in the Gemäldegalerie in  Berlin and the Bellini hangs in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice-there is no doubt that Bellini must surely have observed Andrea’s work as it progressed. Giovanni presented an even greater honor to Mantegna’s unique style by replicating, with little change, the location and posture of the figures in the earlier work.

Bellini created an entirely new way of painting, one that used a technique of darker, richer tones and colors. Both Giovanni and Gentile went on to further fame in Venice as remarkable painters. Giovanni, additionally, tutored both Giorgione and Titian, gigantic talents of their age as well.

Portrait of the Artist (Circled in Red) Raphael, 1509 School of Athens

Portrait of the Artist (Circled in Red)
Raphael, 1509
School of Athens

An observation about this positioning of the face in self-portraits and portraits of artists by other masters is their similarity.

In the School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael in what were called the Stanza dall Segnatura in the Apostolic Chapel in the Vatican, there is a self-portrait of the artist. Though painted nearly fifty years after Mantegna’s and Bellini’s works, the position of Raphael’s head, the figure’s eye contact with the viewer of the work are strikingly similar to, particularly, Bellini’s self-portrait.

Further explorations in future posts!


If you wish to view the Bellini masterpiece in Venice, here are details:

Fondazione Querini Stampalia

Santa Maria Formosa

Castello 5252, 30122 Venezia

Tel 041 2711411

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10:00AM to 6:00PM

Closed Monday

Tickets: Euro 10 per person, available at the door ticket office

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Allegory with Venus and CupidAgnolo di CosimoCalled Bronzinoca. 1545

Allegory with Venus and Cupid
Agnolo di Cosimo
Called Bronzino
ca. 1545

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, studied from the age of fourteen in the bottega of Jacopo da Pontormo. In 1545, he received a commission (most likely from Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany though some attributions list this as a commission from Francesco Salviati) for a painting to be given to King Francis I of France. The oil on wood painting is called “Allegory of Venus and Cupid” or “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time.”

What many people do not know is that Bronzino included an homage to the master, Leonardo da Vinci, in this complicated and convoluted work.

From Venus’s intimate embrace with her son, Cupid, to the upper right  bald figure of Time who holds the hour glass in his hand, most of the foreground of the work is relatively easy to understand. Move to the background and interpretations dissolve in what is a surreal backdrop of shadow and mannerist painting.

One particular figure is the subject of this article.

To the left of Cupid, whose naked buttocks disconcertingly intrudes on the left, is the figure of someone – a woman? a man? – in the midst of agony, anger and despair. Various interpretations have this figure representing jealousy or, by some, as the figure of syphilis, representative of unwise (out of wedlock?) intercourse. Regardless, it is clearly the image of someone in great distress.

Now, more back story.

In 1505, Leonardo da Vinci was given the commission for a fresco depicting the Battle of Anghiari to be completed on a wall in the Council Chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. His cartoon, long lost, depicted a tortuous configuration of horses and men engaged in the heat of battle.

It was to one particular figure that Leonardo gave the most fearsome features-one Niccolò Piccinino. A condottiero (military leader) of considerable fame and success, he succumbed to the forces of Ludovico Sforza at the Battle of Anghiari (1440). In the throws of that battle, as Leonardo portrayed the action, Niccolò’s fierce and focused face is grimaced in a combination of determination and madness.

battle of AnghiariCartoon copy by RubensOrig by Leonardo da Vinci1505Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Detail, Battle of Anghiari
Cartoon copy by Rubens – 1603
Orig by Leonardo da Vinci
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Now, back to Bronzino.

It is believed that Bronzino was given the opportunity to study Leonardo’s design, most likely from a 1553 engraving by Lorenzo Zacchia. Historians believe Zacchia created the engraving from studying the actual cartoon. Leonardo’s figures made a deep impression on the young Bronzino.

During some recent discussions with friends in Florence, it was posited that Bronzino was so affected by the face of Niccolò Piccinino that he created a mirror of the condottiero’s face, and used it (in homage to da Vinci) for a face in his Allegory.

Below is a close up detail of the Anghiari face, flipped horizontally and a close up the Bronzino’s figure.

Bronzino, Leftda Vinci, Right

Bronzino, Left
da Vinci, Right

Whether this recent interpretation will stand the test of time remains to be seen. What is true is that there is a startling similarity in the faces – one on a cartoon created by Leonardo, and the allegorical figure included in Bronzino’s work.


The Bronzino work, Allegory of Venus and Cupid, is in the National Museum in London

Battle of Anghiari, by Leonardo da Vinci.

There has been a great deal of inquiry recently about whether some of Leonardo’s work existed behind a ‘second wall’ in the Sala dei Cinquicento (once the Council Chamber) in the Palazzo Vecchio. In March of 2012, the search for this possible fresco was terminated, though these articles are interesting. Listed below are a few links for those who are interested.

New York Times

U.K. Telegraph

Discovery News

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Fillipino LippiExorcism of the Demon in the Temple of MarsStrozzi ChapelSanta Maria NovellaFlorence

Fillipino Lippi
Exorcism of the Demon in the Temple of Mars
Strozzi Chapel
Santa Maria Novella

Fillipino Lippi created one of the most complex frescoes of the Renaissance in the Strozzi Chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. By some it is called the Exorcism of the Demon in the Temple of Mars. By others, the Miracle of St. Phillip. This is, regardless of its given name, a challenging and surprising work of art.

First, there is a hideous demon, exorcised by Saint Phillip. Lippi has created a malignant beast, one that mythology proclaimed issued breath so poisonous that anyone who inhaled the fumes died.

The god Mars, portrayed on a dais within the temple named for him in the city of Hieropolis, holds a broken lance over his head. Saint Phillip who, taken under arms to the temple to make a sacrifice, chooses to exorcise the demon that lived therein.

The noxious fumes emitted by the demon, so the myths continue, killed the high priest’s son, along with a few others. Not surprisingly, the high priest was not happy for not only had he lost his son; the object of veneration in the temple had also been removed. In a frenzy of retaliation, the priests crucified Saint Phillip. It is written that he was placed on the cross upside down, as was Saint Peter.

Now, for the back story.

It was in the latter part of the 15th Century that the buried corridors of the “Golden House”, the sumptuous palace built by Nero, were rediscovered in Rome. The ‘house’, a huge complex in reality, was connected to the Palatine Hill by those subterranean passages. What the Romans did not expect were the frescoes and what they depicted; inhuman depravity of the most extreme. The church classified the frescoes as “damnatio memoriae”, essentially a conviction of Nero and his excessive style of living, in abstentia, for the crudity displayed. The Romans eventually built directly over the remains of the temple and tunnels in an attempt to banish them from memory.

In spite of the church’s condemnation of the frescoes, artists of the day flocked to study them, to better understand Roman fresco technique and style.

Lippi was one of the artists who viewed those frescoes and there is no doubt, Lippi wrote about this in his papers, that the images he saw in the frescoes deeply affected his work on the fresco cycle in the Strozzi Chapel. On the left side of the fresco are people who hold their noses against the ghastly odor of the beast. Some of those in the temple are overwhelmed by the fumes.

Detail LippiExorcism of the Demon

The beast,  a vision from the  imagination of the artist as to what hell, sin, paganism created must surely have been affected by the frescoes that Lippi studied in those Roman tunnels.

The symbolism of the fresco is complex. Here, in one fresco, is a depiction of Christianity confronting Paganism. Saint Philip’s right arm is raised in the course of the exorcism (a clear reference to the reliquary of the saint’s arm that was at one time housed in the baptistery in Florence-and was reported to have created many miraculous cures) as the pagan god seems to glare at the saint in a direct confrontation. Lippi depicts the victory of Saint Philip’s exorcism and the evocation of Christ by portraying a cross carrying Christ  appearing in the far upper corner of the fresco, an indication that the saint is not only a true communicant of Christ’s; he is able to call for the sanctification of an unholy, pagan, temple.

Discussions abound about the symbolism of the wolf and the bird (woodpecker?) that are on the dais with Mars. These were signs of nature attributed to the god Mars in mythology and, were that god blind as he is often depicted, the position of the head and the posture of the body clearly still direct their attention to Saint Philip.

There is one other possible interpretation of the fresco. Fillip Strozzi II was married to Clarice Medici, she a daughter of Piero de Lorenzo de’ Medici. While he was, indeed, married to a member of the most famous and wealthy family of Florence, Fillipo was vehemently against the social, cultural and political power of the Medici. So strongly opposed was Fillipo II that he became a leader in the 1527 uprising against that family.

Perhaps it is not too liberal an interpretation to imagine that Fillipo’s commission was a not so subtle snub at the Medici family. The demon might represent the exorcism of that family’s power, the stench of the animal’s breath a direct reference to the despised proclamations of the renaissance city’s leaders. The hand of Saint Phillip raised in the course of the exorcism, the evocation of a cross carrying Christ, a sign of hope for a day when the Medici’s would no longer rule.

Regardless, this is an unforgettable fresco, but one panel of a series painted in the Strozzi Chapel, and one that should not be missed during a visit to bella Firenze!

Strozzi ChapelSanta Maria Novella, Florence

Strozzi Chapel
Santa Maria Novella, Florence

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Jacopo da Pontormo1525 - 1528Santa Felicita, FlorenceCapponi Chapel

Jacopo da Pontormo
1525 – 1528
Santa Felicita, Florence
Capponi Chapel

The eyes are haunting: oval, staring in pain and grief. It is the fresco that initiated Mannerist painting in Florence: Pontormo’s Deposition in the Capponi Chapel of Santa Felicita.

Jacopo Carucci, known as Jacopo da Pontormo or, simply, Pontormo, was born in 1494. A student of the Florentine school, his fresco of the Deposition in the Capponi Chapel of Santa Felicita in the city is considered by many his masterpiece. Brunelleschi, he of the dome and many other architectural splendors for Florence, designed the chapel in which Pontormo worked.

Recently, during a late winter afternoon, I visited the church of Santa Felicita. The nave was empty and through a haze of frosted breath, Pontormo’s work sprang more than ever to life. The fragile odor of incense floated in the darkening space as I approached the gate that protects the fresco. It was, this time more than ever, the eyes of the grief-stricken that most startled me.

When Pontormo was twenty-one he made the journey to Rome with the specific goal of studying Michelangelo’s work. Buonarotti was completing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the effect that it had on the young Jacopo was life-changing. Pontormo had the opportunity to view the mammoth fresco up close, on the scaffolding. Perhaps he studied the faces and eyes of the Delphic Sybil; her large anxious eyes glance to her left, warily.

Delphic SybilDetail, Sistine ChapelVatican, Rome

Delphic Sybil
Detail, Sistine Chapel
Vatican, Rome

A similar wariness, balanced with fear and grief fill many of the eyes of the figures Pontormo created for his Deposition.

The work was finish in 1528 after three years behind a tall brick wall that the artists built  to keep the curious eyes and mouths of critics at bay.

One of the early artists studies for the Deposition illustrates how the artist used a structure for the fresco without the necessity of reliance on the actual cross. During the Renaissance, the focal point of most other artist’s interpretation of the deposition involved, whether centered or not, the physical form the cross.

Study for DepositionJacopo da Pontormo, 1524

Study for Deposition
Jacopo da Pontormo, 1524

Pontormo has created a swirling mass of human form, consumed by grief and loss, fear and trepidation. While the cross is nowhere to be seen, while the body of Jesus is supported and held by men and women whose feet seem to barely touch the ground, Pontormo brings us ‘in’ with the eyes. He has created a scene of intense drama, one that does not rely on the standard interpretation of his time and one that clearly broke with the works of the Renaissance. Mannerism was born.

As I returned to the Borgo San Jacopo on that winter evening, it was the eyes of Pontormo’s vision that haunted me. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Florence, please don’t miss this masterpiece of Mannerist art, one that brought an entirely new vision and freedom to artists of Italy.

Pontormo Deposition Two

Jacopo da Pontormo
Deposition, Capponi Chapel
Santa Felicita


Santa Felicita

Piazza di San Felicita, 3

Florence 50125

Hours: Daily except Sunday: 9:30AM – 12:00 Noon and 3:30PM – 5:30PM

Tel: +

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Head of a Cleric1448Workshop of Ghirlandaio

Head of a Cleric
Workshop of Ghirlandaio

The pensive face of a cleric peers away from us in a little known sketch created in the workshop of Fra Angelico. Yet another mystery confronts us as we consider whether this was created by the Dominican Brother himself, or by a student of his workshop.

The work came to my attention during research regarding Fra Angelico for classes I teach on the Art and History of Renaissance Florence. It was  a complete (and quite rewarding) surprise.

1448 is the date attributed to this metal point on a prepared ochre surface. The work could have been made by Fra Angelico for study by his students. However, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Catalog for their “The Renaissance Portrait From Donatello to Bellini” exhibit, they believe that the work may have been created by Fra Angelico’s most famous student, Benozzo Gozzoli.

Benozzo’s career, like Fran Angelico’s, flourished. He received commissions as varied as the Procession of the Magi frescoes in the Palazzo Medici (now the Medici-Riccardi) in Florence and a St. Sebastian Intercessor for Church of Sant’Agostino in San Gimgnano. More on Benozzo in a future blog post.

The verso of this 1448 work is attributed to the workshop of Fra Angelico (please see image included with this blog). It depicts several figures that are very similar to those created for the Cappella Niccolina at the Vatican. Information about the specific sections of the Angelico frescoes for which these figures were intended was not available to me as of this writing. I continue to research that information through associates in Rome.

Verso, Head of a ClericFra Angelico1448 (?)

Verso, Head of a Cleric
Fra Angelico Workshop

Such treasures of art, available for viewing only a few moments in a lifetime, continue to surprise and amaze.
If you are interested in further information about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “The Renaissance Portrait From Donatello to Bellini” exhibit, which was opened from December 21, 2011–March 18, 2012, or to purchase the catalog, please visit:

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