View of Florence from Boboli Garden, Florence, Italy

Florence in the Rain: The Genius Renaissance Artists of Lorenzo de Medici, Part-1.

Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.

Feature image: View of Firenze from Boboli Garden.

Historic Florence (Firenze), the seat of passionate Renaissance artistic creativity, more than five-centuries have passed, and yet the art stays vibrant and engaging. Knowing there was a chance of rain, my wife and I hoped a visit in mid-March might avoid the summer crowds. Unexpectedly, walking in the light Spring rains added to the ambiance, with glistening rain-soaked cobblestones providing high relief for the architectural marvels of the 15th century. The tour groups were probably thinned relative to Summer, but Florence’s attraction was too compelling to dissuade visitors. Approaching the trip, I pondered how best to experience such an enormous cornucopia of artwork. I had three questions: i) why did Florence play such a prominent role in the early Renaissance; ii) why Florence, and not elsewhere; and iii) what fueled this explosive creative artistic expression in Florence? Browsing for answers, I came across “Magnifico” by Miles Unger. His fact-filled biography of Lorenzo de Medici answered many of my questions and helped me contextualize the upcoming trip.

Lorenzo de Medici
Lorenzo de Medici

Why Florence: Quickly, I discovered the Medicis, and especially Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492), helped fuel the Renaissance culture in 15th-century Florence. The Medici family’s classical Greek and Roman sculpture collections and passionate patronage for neo-revivalism of Italian and Greek art and literature drove other wealthy families to compete for influence by funding artistic projects in Florence. The culture allowed Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Botticelli (1445-1510), Donatello (1386-1466), Ghiberti (1378-1455), Michelangelo (1475-1564), Verrocchio (1435-1488) and others to establish thriving workshops, employing and training scores of talented artists. As a budding poet, Lorenzo de Medici was considered a colleague, as well as a patron by noted writers and philosophers of his time, including Luigi Pulci, Angelo Poliziano, and Pico della Mirandola. The flourishing art scene engendered a Golden Age in Florence, resulting in international recognition,  and prestige for the Firenze Republic. Without military might, in an unstable Italy and Europe, the republic gained respect throughout the region. To the benefit of the Florence arts economy, kings, cardinals, and popes often consulted Lorenzo de Medici for recommendations on artists to execute commissions. With well-developed artistic and architectural design talents, Lorenzo de Medici was the penultimate Renaissance man and a consummate respected politician. Our trip became a walk in the rain to view the artistic masterpieces that would never have existed but for the families of Lorenzo de Medici’s time, i.e., 500 years ago in the early 15th century.

Emillio Zocchi (1835-1913) “Michelangelo bambino (Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina)
Emillio Zocchi (1835-1913) “Michelangelo bambino (Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina)


Michaelangelo's David, Accademia, Florence, Italy
According to the Bible, Goliath, a giant, challenged Saul to send out a man to fight him. No one volunteered until young David, armed only with a sling and stones, came forward. David hit the giant in the forehead with a stone and killed him. Michaelangelo’s muscular David in The Accademia looked quite capable of slaying Goliath without a slingshot.

Michelangelo: Many visit Florence just to see Michelangelo’s sculpture, The David, in the Accademia. In the Palazzo Pitti Gallery, we found a beautiful sculpture of the young Michaelangelo intently working on a faun’s head sculpture. According to Medici family lore, Lorenzo de Medici, then age 40, discovered the teenage Michaelangelo working in his sculpture garden with other noted sculptors. He was using a badly damaged classical Greek sheep’s statue as a model to fashion an entirely new faun’s head. Lorenzo was so taken with the young Michelangelo’s talent that he approached the boy’s father to allow the youth to join his household, which, at that time included Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo da Vinci was 37 and already recognized for perfecting his use of sfumato (graduated shading between light and dark that evaporates into the canvas) to create three-dimensional life-like aspects in his paintings.

In The Accademia Gallery, we found The David, executed by Michelangelo in 1502-1504 on a left-over block of marble. Barely 27 years old, he completed his masterpiece in two years. Viewing other unfinished works by Michelangelo in The Accademia, we could see the massive work needed to free a sculpture from its rocky marble tomb with simple hand tools. Describing The David, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, is quoted by the museum: “Nor has there ever been seen a pose so fluent, or a gracefulness equal to this, or feet, hands, and head so well related to each other with quality, skill, and design.”

In recognition of his handsome grace and elegance, something we could not hope to match, we and others could not resist capturing selfies with David, but, of course, we were fully clothed

Palazzo Medici Ricardi, Florence, Italy
Elaborate ceiling frescoes adorn the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi ballroom

Day1 -Palazzo Medici – The House of Medici: Unbeknownst to us when booking our hotel, the Il Guelfo Bianco was just a few doors down the street from the Medici family residence at 3 Via Camillo Cavour (formerly Via Largo). The Palazzo Medici was designed by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo and built in 1444-1484 for Cosimo de Medici, Lorenzo de Medici’s grandfather. The Florence municipal government now occupies half of the palazzo, and the other half is a museum. When designed and built, the Florentine republican spirit frowned on overt displays of wealth, so in keeping, the exterior of the Medici Palazzo is simple, but the design displays massive strength through the use of heavy rough-cut stones and high ceilings on the lower level with progressively smaller, smoother stones and lower ceiling heights on the top two floors.

Palazzo Medici Ricardi, Florence, Italy
A sitting room adjacent to the music room

Exterior simplicity is not matched inside, where the Medici felt comfortable displaying their vast wealth and art collections. With commercial banks throughout the important cities of Europe and Italy, the family palazzo was the nerve center for a financial-political empire. While much modified by subsequent generations of Medicis and the subsequent Ricardi owners, the interior today still offers an imposing confirmation of wealth and status. We wandered beneath gold-gilded frescoes on high ceilings as we passed through a large ballroom hung with huge tapestries, a richly decorated music room, and corridors lined with sculptures and paintings. Rising from simple rural Tuscan merchants, the Medici generations produced four popes, Pope Leo X (1513–1521), Pope Clement VII (1523–1534), Pope Pius IV (1559–1565) and Pope Leo XI (1605); and, two queens of France, Catherine de’ Medici (1547–1559) and Marie de’ Medici (1600–1610).

The Medici chapel, Palazzo Medici, Florence, Italy
The Medici Chapel

The Medici Chapel: (1459-1560) The chapel was started by Cosimo de Medici and continued by his son Piero (Lorenzo de Medici’s father). It includes beautiful frescos by Benozzo Gozzali, a richly inlaid marble floor, and a gold-gilded ceiling. Hunting scenes in the frescoes show a procession of nobility, and portraits of important families supporting the Medici.

The Medici family’s patronage of artists resulted in the incorporation of family portraits into religious paintings; for instance, a young Lorenzo de Medici was included in the “Adoration of the Magi” by Sandro Botticelli; his brother, Giuliano, in Botticelli’s painting “Mars and Venus” and his mother, Lucrezia and children, in Botticelli’s painting “Madonna of the Magnificent.”

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
Between rain showers, the crowds returned

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore: Just a light drizzle greeted us as we emerged from Palazzo Medici. A short walk down the wet street brought us to the plaza (piazza) in front of the Duomo, also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The cathedral is stunning, with intricately inlaid white and green marble accented with red marble. It is also massive. The wait time in the rain to view inside was about two hours, but we had paid for skip-the-line tickets a few days later, so we walked on, enjoying the rain-fresh Spring air.

We had read that the crowds in the piazza could be intense, and even on a misty day in mid-March, they were. Dotted about the piazza were tour groups of 30-40 individuals, umbrellas in hand, clustered around tour guides, and listening intently. According to a friend who had visited previously, the best time for photos was late at night, so we decided to come back after dinner and were glad we did.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore aka The Duomo and its bell tower silhouetted against the dark sky
Dome of Brunelleschi, Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
Inside the Cathedral, the magnificent Dome of Brunelleschi was constructed from 1420 to 1461. Unfortunately, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) did not see his creation finished.
Piazza dell Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy
Piazza dell Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio: Another short walk on the damp cobblestones brought us to the Piazza della Signoria, the public square in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which was the seat of government in Lorenzo de Medici’s time. The Piazza della Signoria was where citizens would gather every three months to watch the drawing of seven names from a box to form the next Signoria, the three-month citizen government. While the Medici and other wealthy families decided whose names went into the box, the process left the citizens feeling involved in their Firenze Republic. Patronage was everything, and affluent families paid a high price for their political influence by funding public works and often directly funding the government and citizen army.

At the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio stands a replica statue of Michaelangelo’s David, which was placed there when The David was moved to the Accademia for safekeeping. The caption on The David sculpture in the Accademia indicates: “As soon as The David was placed in front of Palazzo Vecchio, the statue became a symbol of liberty and civic pride for the Florentine Republic. Surrounded by hostile enemies, the city identified with the young hero who, with the help of God, had defeated a much more powerful foe.” (Museo Academia)

The Uffizi Gallery is located along the River Arno near the Piazza Vecchio. We purchased skip-the-line tickets online for entry the next day. A blue sky was trying hard to break through the overcast as we walked to the Arno River to view the Ponte Vecchio bridge.

The River Arno and Ponte Vecchio bridge, Florence, Italy
The River Arno and Ponte Vecchio bridge
Rembrandt, 1665, "A Rabbi", Uffizi gallery, Florence, Italy
Rembrandt, 1665, “A Rabbi”

Day 2—The Uffizi Gallery: The next day, more drizzle and overcast accompanied our walk to the Uffizi Gallery, but with a forecast for afternoon sun, the tour groups had swelled in size and number.

Commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo-I de Medici in 1560, the Uffizzi (offices) was the administration building for the Firenze Republic under the Medici Dukes of Tuscany in the 16th century. When the Medici family ran out of space for their massive art collections, they moved them to the upper floors of Uffizi. As art arrived from the Medici Villa in Rome, Palazzo Pitti, and elsewhere, it eventually took over the administration building, and the offices were relocated to give preference to the art. Viewing the crowded hallways and rooms, it looks like the 300 years of art collected in the 15th to 17th century is still there.

With our skip-the-line tickets, we waited only half an hour to get through security and into the museum. Without those tickets, the wait was likely two and a half hours. Entry to the museum is through underground tunnels connecting the security station in the West with the museum’s East wing. As we came up the stairs from the basement labyrinth, we were greeted by three lovely ancient Greek Venuses, all completely in the buff. I marveled at how much-dedicated effort must have been required to buff them out of their marble prisons. All are over two thousand years old and didn’t look a day over 22.

The three Venus statues, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Three Venus sculptures: “Medici Venus” (200-100BC); Greek; inscribed “Cleomenes son of Apollodorus of Athens made me”; moved to Rome and originally located near the Baths of Trajan on Oppian Hill; relocated from the Medici Villa in Rome in 1677); “Heavenly Venus” (originally from Bologna, purchased by Cardinal Leopoldo de Medici in the 17th century); “Belvedere Venus” (moved from the Belvedere courtyard at the Vatican in the 17th century).
Roman and Greek sculpture gallery, the Uffizi, Florence, Italy
Roman and Greek sculptures line the hallway
Portrait of Galileo, Justus Suttermans 1635, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Justus Suttermans (1597-1681), Portrait of Galileo Galilei @1635 – age 71- after he was convicted of heresy for asserting that the earth rotated around the sun, a position contrary to the teachings of the church – (Galileo tutored the young Grand Duke Cosimo II de Medici in mathematics)

We were overwhelmed by the massive collections compiled by the wealthy families in 15th to 17th century Florence.

The gallery’s paintings include paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Suttermans, Carlo Bolci, Fra’ Bartolomeo (Bartolomeo di Paolo del Fattorino), and many other noted Italian Renaissance artists. They are all displayed in the relatively crowd-cramped, low-ceiling former offices of the Grand Duke’s staff.

After viewing the massive collections, we escaped to the rooftop café for a fresh-air luncheon repast. With the promised break in the rain, the blue sky was filled with puffy white artistically displayed clouds floating above the ancient rooftops of Firenze. What a pleasure it was to eat outdoors in the midst of such beauty and enjoy our fruit bowl and Tuscan Pecorino cheese sandwiches.

(This article continues in Part 2, with experiences in the Accademia Gallery, Palazzo Pitti Gallery, Boboli Gardens, and Ponte Vecchio bridge. ) The link for Part 2 is Florence in the Rain: The Genius Renaissance Artists of Lorenzo de Medici, Part-2.

Rooftop cafe, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Fresh air and a beautiful blue sky with a view greeted us in the rooftop cafe of the Uffizi Gallery.

One thought on “Florence in the Rain: The Genius Renaissance Artists of Lorenzo de Medici, Part-1.

  1. Wow, amazing artwork. You’ve definitely captured the beauty with your photography and lively writing.

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