The Bargello Museum in Florence is a must-visit for anyone who loves sculpture. Here you can discover how this medium developed in Florence, thanks to an impressive collection from early Renaissance to Mannerist works.
The highlights of the Bargello include Donatello masterpieces, showing the new techniques and sensibility that changed the course of art history. And famous works by Verrocchio, Michelangelo, Cellini and Giambologna. It’s a real treasure trove for art lovers in Florence.
Bargello Museum Highlights
1. “Drunken Bacchus” by Michelangelo
Ok, the statue of David is the VIP of all Michelangelo creations. But you’ll find many other wonderful sculptures in Florence by this artist who worked for the Medici family for years. And a few of these works are at the Bargello Museum.
The “Drunken Bacchus” is our personal favourite. The Roman God of Wine looks young, beautiful and a little unstable. He’s standing precariously on one leg, holding a cup – that we presume is filled with wine – as if he’s giving a toast. His eyes give the impression that he’s a little intoxicated. Meanwhile the hair, the grapes that the little satyr is stealing – all confirm the exceptional skills of Michelangelo (he was 21 when he carved this statue!)
=> Other works by Michelangelo at Bargello: “Bust of Brutus” and “Madonna and Child relief” (known as Tondo Pitti).
=> Check out our Michelangelo Itinerary in Florence
2. “Hermes” by Giambologna
At first glance, it looks like this slender God Hermes is about to take off. The winged sandals, the way he points at the sky, his body almost without weight. He holds a caduceus, the staff that symbolises his role as messenger of the gods.
Mannerist artists were trying their hand at creating artificial and convoluted poses for their figures, and Giambologna was one of the most appreciated sculptors in 16th century Florence. Looking at this statue it’s easy to see why. The unparalleled elegance of his Hermes is something to be amazed by.
At Bargello look out also for the great statue of Oceanus by Giambologna, originally created as decoration for a fountain.
=> Another striking work by Giambologna in Florence: the “Abduction of a Sabine” marble sculpture under the Loggia dei Lanzi, in Piazza Signoria.
3. “David” by Donatello
The grand Donatello Hall (on the second floor) hosts some famous masterpieces that made history of art. Here you can have an overview of the main works of early Renaissance. The bronze “David” by Donatello makes the top of the list of Bargello Museum highlights. This small statue of David looks almost effeminate when compared to the imposing David by Michelangelo, his pose gentle and sensual. But in fact he has just slaughtered the giant Goliath, whose head is at his feet.
With his left hand resting on his hip, he seems to wink at the viewer with a half smile, while still holding the stone he used to hit Goliath. The sword used for cutting off the giant’s head rests at a weird angle, giving the body even more movement. And with this a new, revolutionary style of sculpture was born.
4. “David” by Verrocchio
It’s interesting to compare Donatello’s statue to this other “David” by Verrocchio (1472-145), the master who taught Da Vinci amongst others. Verrocchio was clearly competing with Donatello when he created the same subject, but he treated it with a totally different sensibility. The biblical hero David is no longer naked, but dressed as an adolescent pageboy, with a short tunic open on the chest. His idealised beauty doesn’t seem to reach the psychological depth of Donatello or Michelangelo’s statues.
Did you know? => Some critics state that the young model for this statue was none other than Leonardo da Vinci, who was studying in Verrocchio’s Florentine bottega at the time.
By the same artist Andrea del Verrocchio, we prefer the “Lady with the Primroses” (1475-80), also at the Bargello (on the top floor). Critics consider this bust a particularly significant work: the hands are shown and are rendered with an unusual realism, helping to give character to the subject.
5. “Marzocco Fiorentino” by Donatello
One of the symbols of Florence, the ‘Marzocco Fiorentino’ is a lion, that sits with its paw on the city’s coat of arms. For centuries the lion was the protective symbol of Florence, at once an emblem of strength and pride for the Republic’s freedom and independence. Around Florence you find many stone lions prowling around, like the two beautiful examples at the entrance of the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza Signoria.
Donatello was commissioned to create this Marzocco in pietra serena (the grey sandstone used all over Florence for many architectural decorations) and marble, in 1418. It was once guarding the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio – today there’s still a copy there, while the original is kept in the Bargello. This very special lion has almost a human expression, and the long mane makes him proud and elegant.
A curious fact => Every 18th of June the Marzocco gets crowned during an official ceremony. The date is not random: it’s a few days before 24th June, the day of Florence’s saint patron San Giovanni.
6. “San Giorgio” by Donatello
This fierce-looking “San Giorgio” was commissioned to Donatello for the outside niches of Orsanmichele Church. The Arte dei Spadai e Corazzai (Armourers and Swordsmith’s guild) paid for the statue, as he was their patron saint. San Giorgio looks noble and confident, the christian hero that fights against evil, and, as for traditional iconography, he’s depicted as a young knight wearing armour with a cross.
At the base of the statue, Donatello created his very first “stiacciato“. This new technique – a very shallow relief sculpture with carving only millimetres deep – allowed the sculptor to give pictorial effect to the marble slab.
Here you have a scene of Saint George that fights against the dragon, and saves the princess. Notice the fine details, the knight’s flying mantle and the entrance of the dragon’s den on the left. Donatello gives the scene real dramatic effect, with the dragon writhing in pain and the powerful horse rearing. All the lines converge to a point in the centre, where the hero of the scene is, Saint George himself.
The stiacciati-relief have nothing in them but drawing the figure with dents and schiacciato relief. They are very difficult if there is a large amount of drawing and invention involved, because it is hard to give these things grace thanks to the mode’s love of contours. And Donato [ie Donatello] worked best of all sculptors in this genre, with art, drawing and invention.(Giorgio Vasari)
7. Competition panels of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti
These are other significant art history pieces. Among the Bargello highlights are the two gilded panels – decorated with relief sculptures – created by Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi in 1402 hoping to secure the commission to produce the new set of Florence Baptistery doors. The theme was: “Sacrifice of Isaac”.
Critics today argue that Ghiberti was more traditional in his composition, which was elegantly done but a bit static, with the action taking place in one single plane. Brunelleschi’s work has a totally different feel: there’s drama and movement, with Isaac almost trying to wriggle out of the scene while Abraham’s throwing himself at him. There are still some Gothic elements, but overall the scene is much more dynamic.
In the end it was Ghiberti who was given the task to creare the decorations for the doors, which later became knowns as the “Gates of Paradise” => To see the original gates of paradise you must visit the Opera del Duomo Museum.
The base for the Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini
Perseus is one of Florence’s most famous statues. An impressively dramatic work, you find it in Piazza Signoria. But, while the statue you see in the square is the original, the base – that Cellini intended to be an integral part of his creation – has been moved to the Bargello Museum.
Carved out of marble and decorated with niches containing small bronze figures, the details are simply extraordinary. The four bronze statues represent key characters from the story of Perseus – his father Jupiter, and his mother Danae with Perseus as a child, the half-siblings Mercury and Minerva. The whole base recalls a pagan altar, with the goats’ heads that were Cosimo I de Medici’s symbols.
Visit the Bargello
When you visit the Bargello, it’s best to start from the first floor, and explore the grand Donatello Hall (Salone di Donatello). Then move up to the Verrocchio Room (on the second floor). This is where the early Renaissance works are shown. From here, head back to the ground floor to the Michelangelo room (the entrance is on the right).
Starting from the earlier works, you can appreciate how the art of sculpture developed after Donatello and see the progressive development of style and taste with Michelangelo, the late Renaissance and the Mannerists.