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