Known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and historical home to the powerful Medici family of art patrons, Florence has a rich artistic legacy that attracts millions of tourists each year. They come to marvel at the countless treasures crafted from the hands of heavyweight artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli; tucked away in the city’s many museums and historical buildings.
The sheer volume of art in the city is thought to be responsible for a phenomenon called the Stendhal Syndrome. This psychosomatic illness causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness and sometimes even hallucinations and can occur when an individual is exposed to large amounts of particularly beautiful art. While all this may sound rather dramartic, it’s not a bad idea to have a plan of action for your art trip to Florence, so here are some of the most famous pieces to see on your voyage.
David by Michelangelo – The Accademia Gallery
Undoubtedly the most famous piece of art in the city and perhaps even the most famous statue in the world, Michelangelo’s ‘David’ is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture dating from the start of the 16th century. Made of marble, the statue represents the biblical hero David and already stood out in its time because it differed from previous representations, which until then had always included the head of the slain Goliath.
Unfinished Statues of the Slaves by Michelangelo – The Accademia Gallery
Ideally located on the way to Michelangelo’s ‘David’ are his four famous unfinished statues of ‘Slaves’, which give a glimpse into the master’s working technique. It shows he liked to start his statues by carving the abdomen and torso first and let this dictate the rest of the sculpture. Whether his ‘Slaves’ were intentionally left unfinished or not is a subject of great debate amongst art historians. Whatever the case, the statues stand as a strong symbol of the sculptor’s belief that sculpture is an “art that takes away superfluous material”, as the ‘Slaves’ are seemingly struggling to break free from their stone prisons.
Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci – The Uffizi Gallery
Moving now to the most popular Uffizi Gallery, you’ll find another world-famous and unfinished piece of art, this time by Leonardo da Vinci. ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ is an early painting by the master and as it remains unfinished, it partly shows how he planned and built up the painting, with preparatory perspective drawings in the background. Featuring the Virgin Mary and Child in the foreground with the Magi kneeling in adoration; the oil on wood painting is also thought to have a self-portrait of Leonardo on the far right. The final altarpiece was later painted by Filippino Lippi and is also at the Uffizi.
Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci – The Uffizi Gallery
Also in the Uffizi Gallery and perhaps even more famous is Leonardo’s ‘Annunciation’, which depicts the Christian celebration of the moment the angel Gabriel appears before Mary; a moment that features in the repertoire of almost all of the great masters. Leonardo was only in his early twenties and still in the art workshop of Renaissance painter Andrea del Verrocchio when he painted his famous version. There has always been strong controversy surrounding the piece, as the wings have been lengthened by a later artist and the composition and perspective is awkward.
The Birth of Venus and Allegory of Spring by Sandro Botticelli – The Uffizi Gallery
A visit to the Uffizi Gallery would not be complete without entering the Botticelli room. Here, you can view the artist’s two most famous and extremely large paintings, as well as an impressive collection of other works by his hand. In ‘The Birth of Venus’, the Renaissance painter depicts the birth of the goddess from the sea, showing Venus as an Italian Renaissance ideal and in a way that is meant to bring pleasure to the viewer. In the same room ‘Allegory of Spring’ – also featuring Venus and other mythical figures – is one of the most contested paintings in the world, because art historians still can’t agree on the meaning of the painting and its exact origin is unclear.
Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna – Loggia dei Lanzi
Adjoining the Uffizi Gallery is the Loggia dei Lanzi building with wide arches that are open to the street in which passersby can marvel at Giambologna’s sculptural masterpiece: ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’. Full of passion and movement, this statue is carved from a single block of marble and depicts an episode in the history of Rome that became a popular subject for Renaissance artists. It tells the story of a time when ancient Roman men abducted women from the neighbouring Sabine families to acquire wives for themselves. Although in this context ‘rape’ means ‘abduction’, the statue with semi-clothed figures does exert a certain sexual undertone which has more than likely helped to elevate its fame.
The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore by Arnolfo di Cambio and Filippo Brunelleschi – Piazza del Duomo
And finally, the city’s most famous red-roofed duomo appears in countless skyline images of Florence and is a must-see dramatic piece of architectural art for anyone visiting the city. It was designed in the Gothic style by Italian architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio and the dome (the largest brick dome ever constructed) was engineered by one of the foremost architects and engineers of the Italian Renaissance, Filippo Brunelleschi. The cathedral’s interior is characterised by green, pink, and white marble with several elaborate doors and interesting statues; while the inside is Gothic and vast, giving it an empty impression.
This is by no means a full list of all the impressive and world famous art you can see in Florence, but it’s certainly a good place to start and ensures you visit the city’s most famous galleries: The Uffizi and the Accademia. The approaching low season (which runs November to March in Tuscany) is a great time to duck in and out of less crowded galleries and you’ll pay less on your arty trip.