Everybody knows Michelangelo’s David. And if you visit Florence, you’ll see him everywhere. On t-shirts, aprons, and even made of chocolate. He’s magnificent. But what if you don’t have time for queuing at the Accademia Gallery or you want a more intimate experience with Michelangelo? Here’s where you should you go in Florence to see some of the artist’s less well-known but equally fascinating work.
The Bargello Museum – Home to some incredible Michelangelo sculptures
In the hall of Michelangelo at the Bargello you can meet the drunken Bacchus (1496-1497). It’s an early work, done when the artist was 21. This statue of the god of wine, precariously balanced on one foot, has some incredible detail, showing off the skills of the young Michelangelo. Notice the teeth in his half open mouth, the elaborate locks of hair, and the grapes in his hand. The artist even manages to give the eye a drunken look.
Michelangelo took inspiration from classical statuary, as many artists did in the Renaissance. But he also put in some personal touches, like the unsteady posture and the mole on the right cheek. It all shows how modern he was as an artist. At the age of 21 Michelangelo was already an accomplished sculptor, who was studying the classics but also learning from reality. In fact at one point he was learning anatomy by dissecting corpses at Santo Spirito convent.
Tondo Pitti, a masterpiece in marble. This is a bas-relief of the Virgin and the Child, done at the same time as the David (1504-1505). Here there’s real psychological depth. The face of Mary drawing you in, with an expression that is at once composed and watchful. There’s no joy in her gaze, perhaps just the thought of what’s to come.
Brutus, the powerful face of a murderer. This is a bust of the traitor who organised the murder of Caesar in the name of the republic. It has been read as Michelangelo’s political statement against the Medici. But I’m more interested in his look. The position of the head, turned to the right, shows strength of will and a great energy. Brutus seems collected and cold, with an enigmatic half smile.By Miguel Hermoso Cuesta – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
Michelangelo sculptures at the Medici Chapel, a reflection on the passing of Time
In the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapels in San Lorenzo Church, Michelangelo tried his skills with architecture. He also decorated the tombs of some members of the Medici family, his patrons for a long (and tormented) period. You’ll find some thought-provoking sculptures here.
The statues reclining on the tombs are allegories of Time, reminders of how brief our life on earth is. Dawn and Dusk guard the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici Duke of Urbino. They represent the transitional moments between day and night, and light and dark. Dawn has a languid look and seems to have just woken up, while the male Dusk seems lost in thought.
On the opposite side is the tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici Duke of Nemours. Here the female Night and the severe looking Day have the same grave look. She’s surrounded by symbols of darkness, the moon, and the owl.
Michelangelo and the Medici
Michelangelo (1475-1564) went to work for the Medici when he was a still a boy. At 14, he was one of the young students at the School of Sculpture founded by Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo saw his extraordinary talent and invited him to live in his house in Via Larga – today Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Here Michelangelo met the most important artists and philosophers of the time and perfected his art.
He then moved to Bologna and Rome, before coming back to Florence in 1504 when the David was commissioned. In the years that followed he lived between Rome and Florence, working for Pope Giuliano II (who commissioned the Sistine Chapel) and later for the Medici Popes Leone X (son of his first patron Lorenzo the Magnificent) and Clemente VII.
Over the years, the relationship with the family became strained because of political differences. He took on a lot of projects that he never completed like the facade of San Lorenzo church. Michelangelo eventually left Florence for good after disagreeing with the regime of the Dukes of Florence.
The Statue of the David
“This figure has put every other statue, ancient and modern, Roman or Greek in the shade”, wrote Vasari. Michelangelo was originally commissioned to carve a statue for the facade of Florence’s Cathedral. But when the Statue of David was unveiled to the public, in 1504, a new location was decided, the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza Signoria. Today a copy of the statue still stands here, while the original is in the Accademia Gallery.
Planning a visit to Florence? Check our self-guided itinerary for the best day in Florence.