The Bargello Museum is to sculpture what the Uffizi is to painting. An impressive museum that contains some important work by Michelangelo.
An impressive collection in an equally impressive setting, the Bargello is the home of Donatello’s famous nude “David”, the first freestanding statue of its kind made since antiquity. And the statue of the drunken Bacchus that put Michelangelo’s on the artistic map.
The Bargello contains one of Italy’s most impressive collections of Renaissance statuary. It’s a relatively quiet and beautifully laid out museum, where it’s possible to appreciate the art without the rush. Its splendid courtyard is a bonus where one can take a rest from sightseeing.
What to see in the Bargello
In many ways the Bargello represents a whole history of sculpture: from some example of 14th century sculpture, to the best of Renaissance and Mannerist artists. You’ll find Donatello’s famous first nude statue and some splendid works by Michelangelo. Verrocchio, Cellini and the Flemish sculptor Giambologna whose Mercury has an elaborate pose, an exaggeration typical of Mannerism. Plus a rich collection of ivory objects and decorated ceramics.
Bargello Museum – The highlights
SALA MICHELANGELO (GROUND FLOOR)
Bacchus by Michelangelo (1496)
The drunken God who tries to keep his balance holding a cup of wine is at once clumsy and graceful. The incredible details, the grapes and his hair, left his contemporaries speechless. But his patron Cardinal Riario didn’t appreciate the subject. Michelangelo sculpted this at the start of his career when he was 22, after having studied Classical statues in Rome.
Tondo Pitti by Michelangelo (1504-1505)
A delicate and intense portrait of the Virgin and Child. Are you a Michelangelo’s fan? Here’s a complete list of Michelangelo’s works in Florence.
Mercury, by Giambologna
This mannerist Flemish artist was a virtuoso of the human body, finding the extreme of poses (see also the Ratto delle Sabine Loggia dei Lanzi). Here the god seems light, endowed with wings on his staff, heels, hat. He is shown as if in flight, blown along a cherub. Between Michelangelo’s death in 1564, and the rise of Bernini, around 1620, Giambologna was the foremost sculptor in Europe.
Ganimede, by Cellini (1548-50)
The same artist that gave us the gorgeous Perseus in Piazza Signoria sculpted this sensual and delicate Ganimede. Ovid has it that the god Jupiter transformed himself into an eagle to carry the young shepherd Ganymede off to Olympus, where he made him his cup bearer.
The representation in Renaissance and later art shows Ganymede born up by an eagle, its wings either spread in flight or enfolding the youth, its claws holding his limbs.
Adam and Eve, by Baccio Bandinelli(1551)
Bandinelli dominated sculpture after Michelangelo left for Rome in 1534. He made the Hercules and Cacus in Piazza Signoria, which some contemporaries called “a sack of beans”.
He was a rival of Michelangelo, whose work never got close to achieving the same success. His reliefs on the choir screen of Florence Cathedral explain the vogue that his austere, rather arid work enjoyed at the Medici court. But he was controversial, and not popular among his contemporaries like Cellini.
SALONE DONATELLO (FIRST FLOOR):
David bronze by Donatello (1440)
One of the masterpieces of the early Renaissance, this bronze statue by Donatello is the first freestanding nude since antiquity. David, who bears the tools of Hermes (hat and sandals) is in a reflective pose, he appears almost too calm after having beheaded his enemy Goliath. The drama has passed, and the pose is more sensual than dramatic.
Compare it to the more famous David by Michelangelo, who is caught just before the attack.
Baptistry Doors competition panels, by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti (1401)
The job of designing the Baptistery’s doors was decided via a competition. Ghiberti won the commission and his theme was “Isaac’s sacrifice”. Ghiberti was still following late Gothic influences, while Brunelleschi was trying something new, and more geometrical with Classical taste, and arguably more expressive. Which one do you prefer?
Saint George by Donatello (1416-1417)
The statue was supposed to inhabit a niche in the exterior of Orsanmichele Church. One of the first ‘modern statue’, the saint is at once holy and very human. He’s ready for battle, standing strong and confident against the enemy. On the basement, notice the scene of Saint George killing the dragon, that shows the famous Donatello’s technique of the ‘stiacciato‘ (flattened relief).
The Bargello – A turbulent history
The history of the building is a turbulent one. Built in 1255 as the town hall, it’s the oldest surviving seat of government still surviving in Florence. And its name reveals its deeper, darker purpose. It became the residence of the police chief, called “Bargello”, and it was here that wrongdoers were interrogated and imprisoned.
Criminals used to receive their last rites in the first floor Cappella del Podestà, aptly frescoed with scenes from the life of Mary Magdalene, by artists from the Giotto school. Her presence was far from coincidental. As a redeemed sinner, she was a suitable example for the crooked citizens that were brought here. Executions took place in the enclosed court until 1786, and today it is a peaceful and elegant space that seems to have shrugged off its less than savoury past.