Palace of Bargello
In the heart of town, just behind Piazza della Signoria, you will find one of the most prestigious of the city’s museums: the Bargello. The building gets its name from that of the chief of police, Bargello, who made his headquarters here in the middle of the 1500s.
Actually, the building has a much more ancient history: it was the first in Florence to house the city’s public officials, well before Palazzo Vecchio was ever built. Its birth is tied to the development of the Communes, when Florence used to coin its own money, had its own constitution and government with its own “captain of the people” who headed the city administration. The building’s history parallels the tormented history of the city: its walls have seen popular uprisings, battles between Guelphs and Ghibellines, followers of the pope and the emperor.
From the 16th century on, when the building housed the city’s prison, it began a slow decline: many of the ancient rooms were transformed and split up to make more cells, new walls were built and archways were closed. Then, in the 19th century, works began on the restoration which would bring back its original look and the Bargello was again transformed but this time, into the home of the Museum of today. Some of the principal masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture began to flow into the Bargello, works by Donatello, Michelangelo, Giambologna and Cellini. And that is not counting the infinite number of bronzes, painted ceramics, medals, busts, seals, wall hangings and furniture coming mostly from private collections.
Starting in the courtyard facing the beautiful ancient medieval balcony – the so-called “Verone” – from which the head of city administration would talk to the people, you already get a taste of the extraordinary artistic patrimony contained here. Under the archways there are important monumental sculptures, some of which come from the Boboli Gardens or from Palazzo Vecchio. The oldest piece is a magnificent Roman sarcophagus decorated with two dolphins, once used as the base of a fountain. Among the 16th century works, the grandiose statue of the god Ocean stands out, destined for the Boboli Gardens where today, there is a copy. And, as the only example of 19th century sculpture, there is the famous bronze of the Fisherman by Vincenzo Gemito that shows, in an extremely realistic and, at the same time, delicate way, a young boy intent on fishing.
The whole environment breathes the atmosphere of long ago: on the wall of the portico are still the symbols of the various quarters of the city and at the center of the courtyard, a well reminds us of where the old gallows once stood, where death sentences were carried out.
In the many halls of the museum, you can follow an amazing artistic itinerary which includes fascinating classical, medieval and Renaissance works of great worth.
The most visited room is that dedicated to Donatello, with some of the fundamental works of the artist besides sculptures from the beginning of 15th century Florence. First among them, the famous David in bronze, placed on a marble base decorated with harpies. It is a revolutionary work, full-sized and totally natural. Donatello shows David as young and proud, with a smooth, sinuous body. The expression on his face is fantastic; it shows the mischievousness of the adolescent who has just completed a heroic act.
The sculpture is designed to be observed from any point of view; moving around it, you discover different details: from behind, for example, there is all the sensuality of the still adolescent body while, from the side, you notice the profile of the pointed helmet. The hero has the look of the biblical figure – the sword and Goliath’s head at his feet – but he wears the winged sandals of the god Mercury, symbol of commerce and of the more practical aspects of daily life. Thus the work is interpreted in the wider sense, as the triumph of civic virtues over the brutality of power. A crowd, during a revolt, stole it from the Medici’s palace where it had been created, and brought it to Palazzo Vecchio, as a symbol of republican freedom. It was then moved to a room in the Pitti Palace, then on to the Uffizi Gallery in the 1700s and finally found its way into the rich collection of the new museum.
Other masterworks by Donatello are the “Attis” or “Cupid” and the celebrated Saint George, originally created to decorate a niche in the Orsanmichele church. The figure of the saint, turned slightly, seems to dominate the space, in an attitude of proud awareness. On the base is the traditional scene of the saint freeing the princess from the dragon.
Donatello utilized here for the first time the technique for which he’s famous: the “schiacciato”, a style of relief in which deep space was portrayed in extremely low relief, one level “squashed” on top of another.
Among the 15th century works, you can’t miss the bronze tile of “The Sacrifice of Isaac” with which Lorenzo Ghiberti won the famous contest to design the door of the Florentine Baptistry, winning the job over Brunelleschi. Another unmissable room is dedicated to Michelangelo, holding some of the finest sculptural work of the 1500s. There’s the Brutus and the David-Apollo, in which Michelangelo uses his revolutionary “unfinished” technique: the rough surface here, apparently unfinished, turns into an extraordinary and emotionally expressive element. The room also contains another masterpiece, the Winged Mercury, Giambologna’s most famous work.
The museum has some amazing collections: ceramics for example, in the room of the same name, with certain pieces of an extremely high artistic level. Or the one-of-a-kind exhibit dedicated to Andrea and Giovanni della Robbia, who brought glazed terracotta to a high art. There is the rich collection of small bronzes, most of which come from the Medici’s. There are certain important pieces by both Giambologna and Cellini, witnesses to the wide collecting activity during the Medicis era, when princes and grand dukes ordered these small, precious treasures either for themselves or to be offered as gifts. And so, some of these works, passing through the hands of Florentine ambassadors, travelled across Europe and, where the original was not to be had, produced an uncountable number of copies that could be defined as a style all their own, a universal language.
Finally, you can’t miss visiting the Palace armoury. The rooms hold what is left of the historic “Medici Armoury”, one of the most important collection of arms in the world that at one time boasted almost 10,000 pieces. Unfortunately, starting in the 18th century, a large part of the collection was sold as scrap and disappeared all over the world.
A millennium of examples are held within the Bargello armoury, a thousand years of history. Parade arms, arms for war, for hunting, as well as those used during tournaments and sporting events. It is in this historic room that your visit to the Bargello can come to its rightful end: in this particular museum, more than anywhere else, art joins with history in an extraordinary and unforgettable plunge into a sea of beauty.