At the end of the 1700s, the grand duke of Lorena, Pietro Leopoldo, illuminated sovereign and art lover, decided to put all the art schools in Florence into a single space, giving birth to the first Fine Arts Academy in the city. To the rooms of two ancient convents, one of which used as a hospital, was added an exposition gallery: a place designed to show students examples of the masterworks from the past so that they could practice and study art.
So it was for teaching purposes that works from the Florentine school were chosen since they were considered to be the only true examples of design perfection. In particular, the choices were limited to the Renaissance, the period in which Florence held the undisputed record as far as Art was concerned.
Over the years, the collection has grown enormously and today the Gallery is a vast museum that exhibits many fine masterpieces. There is also the Musical Instrument Museum, which became part of the complex in 1996.
Actually, there is one piece in particular that attracts the attention of the innumerable tourists: Michelangelo’s famous David, one of the most famous sculptures in the world, that makes the Gallery a truly unmissable stop on any visit to the city.
The statue was moved to the Gallery in 1873 and was set into a space specifically designed for it by the architect Emilio De Fabris, the same architect who completed the facade of the Duomo, the city’s cathedral. The placement of the David was carefully studied from a scene design perspective, so that it would be the culmination of its own expository route. The effect is truly breathtaking: the extraordinarily proud stance, the wary attitude, the tension of the muscles, the astounding realism of the anatomical details.
At the same time, Michelangelo illustrated the moral virtues of Renaissance man, master and creator of his own destiny. The statue has been a symbol of the city since the Medici’s. It was designed originally to be one of the figures decorating the facade of the Duomo, but when it was finished, a panel of experts decided to place it in front of the Palazzo Pubblico, which ultimately became Palazzo Vecchio.
Of the ancient plaster casts of Renaissance works, you’ll find that of the famous Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna, the original of which is in the Loggia dei Lanzi in piazza della Signoria; here, it is located in the Hall of the Colossus. The Gallery is host to a large collection of Florentine paintings that range from the 13th to the 19th centuries, including famous works by Botticelli, Perugino and Pontormo. The works of Botticelli, in particular, for whom a special exhibition was created at the start of the 20th century, became literally cult objects, enthusiastically appreciated by the public. His works became a magnet that attracted —if only temporarily— even more interest than the David.
Part of the collection is also composed of Michelangelo’s famous Prisoners that, at one time, decorated the Buontalenti grotto in the Boboli gardens. The fame of these four figures representing slaves, with their typical Michelangelesque massive physique, is due above all to his “unfinished” technique: it is as if the strength of the figures breathes out of the rough stone, trying to free itself, open itself to life. For Michelangelo this was not simply for stylistic purposes, but a truly philosophical concept: the human soul too, imprisoned within the body, battles every day to create its own freedom.