The Domain of the Medici


I’m in Ireland at the moment – more on that later – and find that I’m a bit behind, so you’re going to get Florence and Rome first, which will give me enough time to take decent pictures (ones where it isn’t raining, which it does a lot here).

The important thing to remember about Italy – besides the fact that you really can’t go wrong for food when you know what to look for – is that workers have an amount of freedom in certain areas. The first thing Anne and I heard upon entrance to Italy was “There is a strike” – and please insert an Italian accent, it’s more dramatic that way. Or maybe more frustrating. There wasn’t any sort of demonstration in Venice, but lo and behold, in Florence –

Fortunately, none of the strikes prevented our trains from running and there was no issue in Rome, but it does sound a lot like it’s no big deal. The few people we did find working on these instances seemed pretty bored with the whole idea. This was actually on the second day in Florence, by the Medici Ricardo Palace.

Florence was the seat of the Medici family, a bunch of bankers with a lot of money to play with; for this reason they were the ones to basically fund the Renaissance – all of the artists we know (and many we don’t) were given projects by the Medici: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Donatello, Botticelli, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi…

One of the masterpieces made possible by the Medici’s money was the cathedral of Florence, the Duomo; when the Medicis came into power, the cathedral of Florence – what was meant to be a great masterpiece – was left uncompleted, as no one could figure out a way to construct the dome of the church. There had been a few attempts, which of course failed, after which the cathedral was considered a lost cause: the intended dome was just too big to engineer. The current Medici – one of the first in the line – wanted to prove himself to the other rich families in town and so cast a net to find an architect that could solve the conundrum. Brunelleschi was the only man with an answer; his design involved ribs that makes the weight ‘happen’ (note that I am not and will never be an engineer), as well as a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t really interest me. Anyway, at the end of a couple of years, the Medicis had their victory, leaving their permanent mark on Florence.

The cathedral itself is a marvel – green, red/pink, and white stone combine for a remarkable-looking building. It’s very complex, but I like it all the same.

Right opposite the cathedral is a building whose name is not written on the maps. It stinks because there’s a great story behind it – after a bit of digging, I’ve got the name to go along with the tale: ‘The Baptistry of Florence’ and ‘The Gates of Paradise.’ We go back to the Medicis again; the baptistry (a building outside of the church meant for baptisms) was looking a bit plain to them, and so three doors were commissioned: the two side doors were to be made of a dull metal and slightly less intricate, but the third and front door was to be much more complex and covered in gold. There was a competition held to see who would make these doors; the competitors included Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia, Brunelleschi, and Ghiberti. Brunelleschi and Ghiberti had a long-running feud going, and ended up as the two finalists. They both made panels to show the Medicis, and there was a lot of deliberation; in the end, the 21 year old Ghiberti won, perpetuating their rivalry.

These gates were dubbed ‘The Gates of Paradise’ by Michelangelo; on closer inspection, it lives up to its name.

This depicts Moses receiving the commandments. It doesn’t show the true genius of the doors as well as the others might, but it’s my favorite story of all the panels I saw. The trick is that the majority of the golden panels have three types of relief: in the background, there is carving into the metal, in the middle ground and parts of the foreground, there is carving around the shapes, and in some parts of the foreground there are shapes carved away or out of the metal (this generally happens with heads, to make the scenes more three dimensional). That is why the Medicis chose Ghiberti.

The tricky thing about museums is that they tend to close on Mondays. It stinks.

We were in Florence for half a day on Sunday and a day on…MONDAY, which meant that we had to be choosy about which museums we were to go see. Anne desperately wanted to see The David, so we went to Museo della Academia after seeing the cathedral. Photos were not allowed so you’ll have to rely on Google Images, as well as my word. I wasn’t expecting The David to be so huge: the guy is already on a high podium, but would have given any normal person severe neck cramps anyway (17 feet tall!). He’s situated under a tall dome and just dominates the space. It’s crazy to think about someone being able to carve something like that (though I have my suspicions about his hands – they look too big); I heard once that Michelangelo carved it with water sprinkling over the statue all the time that he was working on it: it kept the dust down and cleared everything away. I also heard that Michelangelo took off his shoes just once or twice a year, which meant that a layer of skin would be peeled off along with his shoes. I know, it’s vile. (Sorry.)

After this, we decided to discover if the museum on the pamphlet we’d been given (by a guy on the street, as t happens) would measure up, a museum of Da Vinci’s machines. Da Vinci was not only a noted painter but also a sculptor, engineer, and a designer of war machines; this is what they mean by the moniker ‘Renaissance man,’ a person who has many talents and skills. This was required of artists, as the aristocracy would come to artists not only for art but for other projects, as they were the creative element of society. So it was Da Vinci that painted the Mona Lisa, designed a great bronze horse, placed the ball on top of the dome of the cathedral of Florence (it’s in the photo, apparently a difficult thing to do), and also created several contraptions, such as this one:

This is not a gas mask or a torture device: it’s a way to breathe underwater. Pretty cool. There were a bunch of gears, flying machines, and other stuff, but this was the weirdest.

After that, we walked around, despairing of ever finding good and cheap leather (not for a student budget or the faint of heart), as well of the openness and closed-ness of the museums. However, we came across Palazzo Vecchio, the second residence of the Medici family. I’ll return to the first one later. This was where The David was originally situated, as well as a passel of other bits of art:

This is the glaring man of the fountain. He looks even more pissed off during the daytime; maybe someone ought to give back his clothes.

You may be thinking that the palace looks a lot like a castle – and with good reason. Back in the day, everyone was always trying to kill everyone else – when the Plague took a break, that is. But it looks quite nice on the inside:

The coolest part of the building is the grand hall:

The scaffolding on the right is supposed to cover a work site where eggheads are trying to figure out if there is a masterpiece of Da Vinci’s behind the canvas. It’s said that the painter who painted the massive frames (there are four) was commissioned to throw out a battle scene by Da Vinci (irony: the paintings in this hall are nothing but battle scenes); instead, he covered it over with one of his paintings. The scientists are working with a crack in the canvas as well as a clue painted into the battle scene – a flag in the back of the background says something like, ‘he who seeks, finds.’ I have no real opinion about this; if they do end up finding the alleged painting, the art world will be boiling with excitement for years – and as for me? Que sera sera.

We walked around the rooms of the palace; I was mildly unimpressed (partly because I was tired, I suppose); I really don’t like going to places that were fantastic but now are void of furniture. It destroys the image of what it could have looked like when the Medicis were in power, or rather, the image is never created. However, it does lend itself to finding new things:

Maybe this is why the Medicis are no longer a strong gang of thugs. Obvious much? I wonder where it goes.

And another gem – a real one this time –

This is Judith and Holofernes, a work by Donatello. Judith was a Jew in the Old Testament times that got fed up with Holofernes, who was ragging on the Jews bigtime. She decided to take action one night: she stabbed him in his sleep and then chopped off his head, just to be sure. This is the moment before she chops off his head. It’s gruesome, but there’s a reality there. If you look at it too quickly, a part of you flinches before reality sinks in.

The next day we went to the first Medici palace, where we saw the strike. We were relieved to find that it was open, and found the joy and great rarity of furnished rooms.

This place is also built like a brick shithouse. You can easily imagine living under siege in such a house, built with thick blocks and high windows.

It’s much nicer on the inside.

And here you have it: FURNITURE!

This may not make much difference to some, but for me, it is much easier to contemplate someone living in these rooms, working in them, bossing people around. I could imagine being the maid cleaning, maybe sneaking a peek in one of the chests or drawers, maybe being a lady in an uncomfortable dress reading by the window. I just don’t get that without the furnishings there; otherwise it’s just a big empty space with creaky floors.

Not every room was like these, but the ones that were fitted out did make a world of difference.

There was one space in which we were strictly forbidden to take photos, the old chapel. It’s small but there are paintings on basically every inch of wall space, depicting the three kings in procession to see the baby Jesus. It’s filled with the faces of the Medici court – as well as some of the Medicis as well, in front of an intricate background; every time I looked at a part of the room I saw something different.

After that, we walked to the Palacio Pitti (after ascertaining that the Uffitzi was closed, darn); along the way we saw a famous bridge:

We walked to the ticket office and bought entrances into the garden, as the museums were closed. It was a bit hilly, but afforded some great views of the city:

In this frame you have the cathedral and its belltower, as well as the tower of the Vecchio Palace.

And something for Mom:

Something fell down.

The gardens themselves were less fantastic than those of the Alhambra – though every garden pales next to that – but it does okay for itself:

We spent the rest of the day looking through shops, walking around, eating gelato, and looking at the lights that were set up for Christmas:

The next day we got on the train to Rome!

One response »

  1. Pingback: In a Firenze – The Unread Tome

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