This battlemented urban fortress, well proportioned yet of forbidding grace, for centuries saw duty as Florence’s police station and prison. Today its only inmates are men of marble, gathered together to form Italy’s finest collection of sculpture, a fitting complement to the paintings in the Uffizi. The Bargello is ‘stone Florence’ squared to the sixth degree, made of rugged pietra forte; it was the model for the even grander Palazzo Vecchio. Even the treasures it houses are hard, definite—and almost unremittingly masculine.
The Bargello offers a compelling insight into Florence’s golden age, and it was a man’s world indeed. Completed in 1255, it was intended as Florence’s Palazzo del Popolo, though by 1271 it had become the residence of the foreign podestà, or chief magistrate, installed by Guelph leader Charles of Anjou. The Medici made it the headquarters of the captain of police (the 'Bargello', who was always a non-Florentine to ensure impartiality), with the city jail and torture chamber, a function it served until 1859.
Renaissance Florence had the peculiar custom of painting portraits of the condemned on the exterior walls of the fortress; Andrea del Castagno was so good at it that he was nicknamed 'Andrea of the Hanged Men'. All of these ghoulish souvenirs have long since disappeared, as have the torture instruments—burned in 1786, when Grand Duke Peter Leopold abolished torture and the death sentence in Tuscany, only a few months behind the Venetians, who were the first in the world to do so.
The Bargello's landmark tower, the Torre Volognana, is actually older than the Bargello itself. This was one of the scores of private towers, built for status as much as defense, that gave medieval Florence a Manhattanish skyline. The Comune bought it when the Bargello was built, and it remains the only private tower to retain its original height. Up in the window is the great bell called the 'Montanina', which was rung for emergencies, and to announce executions.
The Bargello became a museum in 1859. After an imaginative restoration in the 1860s, its Gothic courtyard, once site of the gallows and chopping block, began to fill with treasures from the Palazzio Vecchio and the Boboli Gardens. This is one of Florence’s most romantic corners, its shadowy arcades and stately stairs encrusted with centuries of the podestàs' armorial devices and plaques in a wild vocabulary of symbols, watched over benignly by big cowardly lions of Oz with rusting crowns.
It's a tardis, this Bargello. The collection is enormous and most everything in it is first-rate. You could easily spend all morning here (it closes early, 1.50pm).
The visit begins with the rooms kept for special exhibitions and the Sala della Scultura Medievale, with works by Arnolfo di Cambio and others.
The main gallery, the Sala di Michelangelo, is dedicated to that artist and his century, although it’s an oddly decaffeinated Michelangelo on display here, low on his trademark angst and ecstasy. His Bacchus (1496), a youthful work inspired by bad Roman sculpture, has all the personality of a cocktail-party bore. Better to invite his noble Brutus (1540), even if he’s just a bust – the only one the sculptor ever made, in a fit of republican fervour after the assassination of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici. Also by Michelangelo is the lovely Pitti Tondo and the unfinished Apollo/David.
The real star of the room is Benvenuto Cellini, who was, besides the many other things one can read about in his romp of an autobiography, an exquisite craftsman and daring innovator. His large bust of Cosimo I (1548), with its fabulously detailed armour, was his first work cast in bronze, although the unidealized features did not curry favour with the boss that poor Cellini worked so avidly to please. Here, too, is a preliminary model of the Perseus, as well as four small statuettes and the relief panel from the original in the Loggia dei Lanzi.
The last great work in the room is by Medici court sculptor Giambologna, now again enjoying a measure of the appreciation he enjoyed during his lifetime; art historians consider him the key Mannerist figure between Michelangelo and Bernini. Giambologna’s most famous work, the bronze Mercury (1564), has certainly seeped into popular consciousness as the representation of the way the god should look.
The stairway from the courtyard leads up to the shady Loggia, now converted into an aviary for Giambologna’s charming bronze birds, made for the animal grotto at the Medici’s Villa di Castello.
Upstairs, the magnificent Salone del Consiglio Generale, formerly the courtroom of the podestà, contains early Renaissance sculpture, most especially the masterpieces of Donatello. When Michelangelo’s self-absorption and Mannerist exaggeration begin to seem tiresome, a visit to this room, to the profound clarity of the greatest of early Renaissance sculptors, will prove a welcome antidote. Donatello’s originality and vision are strikingly modern—and mysterious. Unlike Michelangelo, who went so far as to commission his own biography when Vasari’s didn’t please him, Donatello left few traces, not only of his long life, but of what may have been the sources of inspiration behind his three most celebrated works displayed here.
The chivalric young St George (1416) is from the façade of Orsanmichele; his alert watchfulness, or prontezza, created new possibilities in expressing movement, emotion and depth of character in stone. Note the accompanying bas-relief of the gallant saint slaying the dragon, a masterful and very early work in perspective.
Donatello’s fascinatingly androgynous bronze David, obviously not from the same planet as Michelangelo’s David, is young, cool and suave, and conquers his Goliath more by his charming enigmatic smile than by his muscles. Cast for Cosimo il Vecchio in 1430, this was the first free-standing nude figure since antiquity, and one of the most erotic, exploring depths of the Florentine psyche that the Florentines probably didn’t know they had.
The same erotic energy and mystery surrounds the laughing, dangerous-looking, precocious boy Cupid, or Atys Amor; with its poppies, serpents and winged sandals, it could easily be the ancient idol people mistook it for in the 1700s. Like Botticelli’s mythological paintings, Atys is part of the artistic and intellectual undercurrent of the period, full of pagan magic and mysticism, a possibility rooted out in the terror of the Counter-Reformation and quite forgotten soon after.
Other Donatellos in the salone further display the sculptor’s amazing versatility. The small, rather haughty marble David (1408) is his earliest known work – he was about 20 at the time. In the centre of the hall, his Marzocco, the symbol of Florence, long stood in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Although the two versions of Florence’s patron saint, John the Baptist, are no longer attributed to Donatello, they show his influence in their desire to express the saint’s spiritual character physically rather than by merely adding his usual holy accessories. The Dancing Putto and two busts are Donatello’s; his workshop produced the gilded bas-relief of the Crucifixion.
Between the panels, the vigorous relief of a tumultuous Battle Scene is by the little-known Bertoldo di Giovanni, Donatello’s pupil and Michelangelo’s teacher in the gardens of the Medici Palace. There are a number of other excellent reliefs and busts along the walls, by Agostino di Duccio and Desiderio da Settignano, and some of Luca della Robbia’s sweet Madonnas.
The remainder of the first floor houses fascinating collections of decorative arts donated to the Bargello. The Sala della Torre is devoted to Islamic art. The Sala Carrand, named after the French donor, contains splendiferous Byzantine and Renaissance jewellery, watches and clocks, and a Venetian astrolabe.
Off this room is the Cappella del Podestà where the condemned were given their last rites, while their eyes were filled with a fresco of the Last Judgement by the school of Giotto, rediscovered under the plaster in the 1840s; note the scene of Paradise, which includes the earliest known portrait of Dante, with his piercing gaze and eagle’s beak nose.
Some of the most interesting items are in the next rooms, especially the works in the Sala degli Avori (Hall of Ivories) – Carolingian and Byzantine diptychs, an 8th-century whalebone coffer from Northumbria adorned with runes, medieval French miniatures chronicling the Assault on the Castle of Love, 11th-century chess pieces, and more.
A stairway from the ivory collection leads up to the second floor, where you’ll find a colourful array of enamelled terracottas from the della Robbia family workshop, a room of portrait busts, beautiful works by Antonio Pollaiuolo and Verrocchio, including his David and a bust of the lovely Young Lady with a Nosegay, with her hint of a smile and long, sensitive fingers. There is also a collection of armour, and the most important collection of small Renaissance bronzes in Italy.
Via del Proconsolo 4
Hours: Mon-Fri 8.15am-1.50pm; Sat & Sun 8.15am-4.50pm; closed the 2nd and 4th Sun each month, and the 1st, 3rd & 5th Mon.
Adm €8; €4 reduced; under 18 free. Free on the first Sun of each month
+39 0552 388 606
Images by: Terrasque, Ufficio di Turismo, Ed. Bragi