Although Lorenzo il Magnifico ran an informal art school, the idea died with him until 1562, when Cosimo I and sculptor Baccio Bandinelli founded the Accademia, the first formal academy of art and architecture in the world, which did away with the old artist-pupil relationship in favour of the more impersonal (and state controlled) approach.
The Accademia’s Gallery was founded by Grand Duke Pietro Leopold in 1784 to provide students with examples of art from every period. In 1935 its building was graced with the loggia from the former hospital of San Matteo, a work inspired by the Spedale degli Innocenti, complete down to the della Robbia lunettes. The Accademia’s street, Via Ricasoli, makes a beeline for the Duomo, but on most days the view is obstructed by crowds milling here. In the summer the queues are as long as those at the Uffizi, everyone anxious to get a look at Florence's most famous statue, Michelangelo’s David.
The big room at the entrance was named after the cast of a ancient statue of the Dioscuri, that has since been replaced by Giambologna's model for the Rape of the Sabines in the Loggia dei Lanzi. On the walls are 14th and 15th century works, including the painted frontal of the Adimari cassone Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi shows a delightful wedding scene of the 1450s with the Baptistry in the background, a work that has been reproduced in half the books ever written about the Renaissance.
Also here are the Madonna del Mare by Botticelli, with the sea in the background, and his Trebbio altarpiece, painted for the Medici. The large Trinity by Baldovinetti, painted for the church of Santa Trínita, shows the divine trio encircled in the whirlwind of red winged cherubim.
Here too is St Stephen with SS James and Peter (1493) by Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Perugino’s Assumption of the Virgin, one of his masterpieces, and Filippino Lippi’s Deposition, completed after his death by Perugino and Raffaellino del Garbo's Resurrection.
This precocious symbol of republican liberty originally stood in the rain in the Piazza della Signoria, but in 1873 it was installed, with much pomp, in a specially built classical exedra in this gallery. Michelangelo completed the David for the city of Florence in 1504, when he was 29, and it was the work that established the overwhelming reputation he had in his own time. The monstrous block of marble – 16ft high but unusually shallow – had been quarried 40 years earlier by the Cathedral Works and spoiled by other hands.
The block was offered to other artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, before young Michelangelo decided to take up the challenge of carving the largest statue since Roman times. And it is the dimensions of the David that remain the biggest surprise in these days of endless reproductions. Certainly as a political symbol of the Republic, he is excessive – the irony of a David the size of a Goliath is disconcerting – but as a symbol of the artistic and intellectual aspirations of the Renaissance he is unsurpassed.
And it’s hard to deny, after gazing at this enormous beefcake alla fiorentina, that these same Renaissance aspirations by the 1500s began snuggling uncomfortably close to the frontiers of kitsch. Disproportionate size is one symptom; the calculated intention to excite a strong emotional response is another. In the David (whose hair was originally gilded, until the rain washed it away) virtuosity eclipses vision, and commits the even deadlier kitsch sin of seeking the sterile empyrean of perfect beauty – most would argue that Michelangelo here achieves it, perhaps capturing his own feelings about the work in the David’s chillingly vain, self-satisfied expression.
The story goes that before the statue was displayed to the public, Piero Soderini, the head of the Repbulican city council, had a preview and commented that it was very good, only the nose was too big. As Michelangelo climbed up the scaffolding, he grabbed some plaster dust and pretend to lightly chisel the nose, sending the dust down. Soderini was pleased at the result: 'Now you've really brought it to life!'
This is also one of the few statues to have actually injured someone. During a political disturbance in the Piazza della Signoria, its arm broke off and fell on a farmer’s toe. In 1991, it was David’s toe which fell victim when a madman chopped it off. Since then, the rest of his anatomy has been shielded by glass.
The glass shield, however, might not prevent the 5.5-tonne David from just toppling over on its own accord. The marble block wasn't the highest quality to begin with, the statue's off-centre pose and three centuries of standing out in the Piazza della Signoria weakened it. Although it was thoroughly restored in 2004, in 2014 geo-scientists from Italy’s National Research Council discovered hairline cracks in the ankles and lower legs. The tree stump behind the statue that takes much of the weight has been patched up several times over the years.
In 2017, after a series of earthquakes rocked central Italy, concern for its safety (and that of Florence's other masterpieces) has grown, prompting a movement to construct an anti-seismic museum in Florence. The EU solidarity fund has contributed €30 million to study what can be done, not only to protect the David and other treasures, including Giotto’s Campanile.
In the Galleria next to the David are four of Michelangelo’s famous nonfiniti, the Prisoners or Slaves, worked on between 1519 and 1536, sculpted for Pope Julius’ tomb and left in various stages of completion, although it is endlessly argued whether this is by design or through lack of time.
Whatever the case, no works better illustrate Michelangelo’s view of sculpture as a prisoner in stone just as the soul is a prisoner of the body. The sculptures were discovered in Michelangelo's studio after his death, and were given by his nephew to Grand Duke Cosimo I, who initially placed them in Buontalenti's Grotto in the Bobboli Gardens, until they were moved here in 1908.
The big busy Mannerist paintings around the David are by Michelangelo’s contemporaries, among them Pontormo’s Venus and Cupid, with a rather Michelangelesque Venus among theatre masks. There's Francesco Salviati‘s irridescent Madonna and Child with the young St. John and an angel and Santi di Tito‘s Deposition of Christ, and one on the same subject by Bronzino, both of which have been recently restored, along with a couple of large works by his student, Alessandro Allori.
The hall off to the left of the David was formerly the women’s ward of a hospital, depicted in a greenish fresco by Jacopo Pontormo— now hidden in a gallery of plaster models by 19th-century members of the Accademia, a surreal, bright white neoclassical crowd.
These rooms glitter with their gold backed paintings. One star here is the large only known work by the early 14th-century painter, Pacino di Buonaguida: The Tree of Life, an immensely complicated piece with rondels on the Life of Christ growing on a tree surrounding the Cross, rooted in the Garden of Eden with Heaven and salvation at its crown.
Another room is dedicated to the followers of Giotto, including a fragment of a fresco by Giotto from the Badia Fiorentina, and some lovely trefoil panels by his student Taddeo Gaddi and works by Bernardo Daddi, including a large Crucifixion.
A third room is dedicated to Andrea Orcagna and his brother painters, Matteo, Nardo, and Jacopo di Cione. Look out for Andrea's Pentecost, Nardo's Trinity triptych and Jacopo's recently restored masterpiece, his Coronation of the Virgin.
The excellent collection of old musical instruments, once housed in the Palazzo Vecchio, has now moved to the Accademia. Some 150 exhibits, including several violins and cellos by Cremona greats like Stradivarius and Guarneri, are on display. There's also a piano by Bartolomeo Cristofori its inventor of the piano, also commissioned by the Medici.
At the entrance, the first notable work is the Massacre of the Innocents by Jacopo di Cione's workshop and the sweet Madonna of Humility by Silvestro Gherarducci, who worked as an illuminator in the scriptorium of Santa Maria degli Angeli, along with Lorenzo Monaco, whose beautiful golden Annunciation Triptych is in the next hall.
Most of the works in this, the main hall, were commissioned by Florence's Guilds, including Giovanni del Biondo's complex altarpiece of the Annunciation and the Coronation of the Virgin by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini and Spinello Aretino.
There are more works by Lorenzo Monaco in the International Gothic hall up the steps along with an elegant Madonna and Child with Saints by Gherardo Starnina.
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Images by: PD Art, Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License, Gary Ullah