Outdoor Sculpture in Florence

Florence, Italy has been called an outdoor museum for good reason. Its streets are full of so much sculpture and architecture that one need not enter a museum to see many works of great artistic significance. In fact, during my third stay there, I spent three weeks in the city and did not go in a single museum! This is partly because of this great collection of sculpture in Florence that sits in the city center.

Sculpture in FlorenceSculpture in Piazza della Signoria, Florence

The city’s finest collection of outdoor sculpture is found outside the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s city hall. An impressive array stand next to the Palazzo, in the Loggia dei Lanzi, built in the late 14th century to house public ceremonies. While many of Florence’s treasures are from the Renaissance, these sculptures in the loggia are from various periods.

Piazza della Signoria, Florence

One of the most striking sculptures I have ever seen is Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Woman, and there it is, sitting outside as it has been for the last few hundred years. Art historian Frederick Hartt called it “the swan song of Late Renaissance sculpture in Florence.” It is from the years 1581-1583, well after the Renaissance when a new group of artists was dominating Florence’s art scene: the Mannerists.

Giambologna was an accomplished sculptor– here he displays Mannerism’s fondness for experimenting with the unusual. In this serpentine composition, the three bodies twist upwards, forcing our eye away from the the center, and instead up to the agony in the woman’s face and outstretched arm.

Rape of the Sabine Women in Florence

Behind Rape of the Sabine Woman stand another Giambologna sculpture and one of several ancient Roman female figures discovered in Rome in 1541.

Piazza della Signoria Florence, Italy

Another sculpture that is hard to miss is Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa from the years 1545-1554 when the Renaissance was, shall we say, winding down. While the technique here is incredible, from the ornate tufts of hair and blood to the exact anatomy in Perseus’s body, the sculpture seems devoid of emotion. The sculpture and its pedestal are beautiful, but the intensity or excitement of Renaissance masterpieces is lacking.

Cellini sculpture in Piazza della Signoria, Florence

As with most places in Florence, the Loggia dei Lanzi can be crowded, full of people sitting around on its steps, mostly unaware of the history surrounding them in these sculptures. Try visiting in the evening, when the Piazza is lit up, and in the winter, when there are far fewer crowds.

David in Piazza della Signoria Photo credit: Sarah-Rose on Flickr

One of the most recognizable sculptures in the world is Michelangelo’s David. Even though the one standing outside the Palazzo Vecchio is a copy, its location here is not at all random. Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt David for the façade of Florence’s basilica, Santa Maria del Fiore, but when he was finished, it was considered too incredibleto be put up where people could not see it up close. It was decided that it should stand at the entrance of the city hall where David’s determined look and physical power would symbolize the strength of the republic.

On the other side of the entrance stands Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus. This sculpture has never been everyone’s cup of tea, and here’s why. Bandinelli and other artists of the 16th century tried to emulate Michelangelo but failed, and this may be even more obvious with Bandinelli’s piece.

Piazza della Signoria, Florence, sculpture

Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus

Like the David, it stands outside the city hall and reflects a story of triumph and strength, serving as a reflection of the city’s power. But instead of being humbled by its beauty and humanity, the viewer may be left feeling slightly uneasy. The figures are a bit ugly with their overly-developed faces and muscles. Just because it stands next to David in this famous piazza does not mean this is a masterpiece of the Renaissance!

Have you seen the sculptures in the Piazza della Signoria, outside the Palazzo Vecchio and in the Loggia dei Lanzi? What did you think?

Photo credit: David: Sarah-Rose on Flickr, and Hercules & Cacus from Wikimedia Commons

20 Comments

  • Jenna, I couldn’t agree with you more about how the city of Florence itself is a living museum filled with stunning masterpieces around every corner from its architecture to its outdoor sculpture. A magnificent tribute to the Renaissance, this city offers its visitors a rich and cultural experience that you so brilliantly captured in your writing above. Thanks for this great roundup of the best of Florence!

    • Jenna says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Jeff. Of course, I agree with you about Florence. You and I could go on and on about it! 😉

  • Andrea says:

    I haven’t been to Florence in ages but I do remember all these beautiful sculptures – such a fantastic art city!

  • You are absolutely right – Florence is like an outdoor museum and exploring sculptures during winter evenings is such a great idea.

  • Angela says:

    Absolutely wonderful, I’ve been to Florence only once and longtime ago, but it’s stunning, I would love to go back, I have many friends living there so it’s very likely I’ll go visit them soon 😉

    • Jenna says:

      How fun to have friends to visit in Florence! You should visit but maybe go in the winter when it’s not so terribly crowded…?

  • ehalvey says:

    Love this!! Especially that you don’t need to be in a museum to see art. Cities that embrace and promote public art make me so happy.

  • Erica says:

    Thanks for a well-informed/well-written piece. Florence is definitely a living museum– and
    many of these pieces were considered avant garde in their original unveiling. But what about modern and contemporary pieces? Surely Firenze has more than just these Renaissance archetypes?

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for the comment, Erica. To be honest, I have no idea about contemporary or modern pieces in Florence. When I was there, I was fully immersed in all things Renaissance and the periods that came just before and after. I’d love to explore the art scene there next time I visit.

    • Theresa says:

      In the year 2000, the same Liggia dei Lanzi with all the Florentine sculptures had in the center of the Piazza dei Signori a smooth oval egg by a Japanese sculpture. It did seem out of place but made a great pedestal for many curious children, mine among them. The Japanese tourist had a field day photographing all these little blonde urchins on their Japanese art.

  • Sophie says:

    Florence has such wonderful art everywhere. I remember my then 7-year-old was a bit embarrassed to see David in all his glory, though 🙂

  • Suzy says:

    Part of the reason I love Florence as you do is for its wealth of art outside, accessible to all. I would walk by Piazza della Signoria everyday on my way to school for several months. It’s amazing how much sculpture the piazza contains and how very few stop to marvel at it.

    • Jenna says:

      I had some pretty amazing daily walks through Florence, too, when I was studying there. And you’re right, this piazza contains quite a collection. Hard to believe when you stop to think about it.

  • Leslie says:

    I LOVE these that you highlighted! Every time I’m in Florence I wonder what it would be like to have sculpture like this to look at on say, your daily walk to work. How amazing would that be? And it’s just EVERYWHERE! Nice pix too : )

  • This is awesome. I would much rather see beautiful art outside than in a museum. Gorgeous photos.

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