Unless you actually know there is a second floor at the Bargello Museum, I expect you’ve missed out on this exquisite space—and especially on the gem that is the Sala del Verrocchio.
Andrea di Michele di Francesco de’ Cioni (1435 – 1488), better known by his nickname “Verrocchio”—from vero occhio (true eye), a tribute to his artistic nature—was one of Renaissance Florence’s most renowned artists. A painter, sculptor and goldsmith, Verrocchio was the head of an immensely important workshop, where he trained scores of illustrious pupils like Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Despite being a highly regarded teacher who influenced many, attributions and studies of his life are often confusing and unable to be verified. Few drawings or paintings by Verrocchio can be dated or attributed accurately, but his sculptures are well documented and provide clear indications of his achievements. And we are lucky enough to have a whole room dedicated to his sculpture right here in Florence! The Sala del Verrocchio also exhibits pieces by other sculptors of his generation: Antonio Rossellino, Mino da Fiesole, Desiderio da Settignano, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, and Guiliano and Benedetto da Maiano. This group of sculptors were the most talented and prolific to come out of Tuscany since the early 15th century (think Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Donatello).
The moment you step into the room you’re drawn to Verrocchio’s most celebrated masterpiece, Lady with a Bouquet (1475), the marble bust of a lady with a bunch of flowers. The sitter is thought to be Lucrezia Donati, one of the muses of Lorenzo il Magnifico. Such an attribution comes from Lorenzo flying her colors in a 1469 joust, and a set of sonnets that he subsequently wrote about her (Petrarchan in style) in which Lorenzo frequently complimented her hands for their length and beauty.
Although there were many portrait busts being produced in this period, Verrocchio’s was remarkable for its differences: the contemporary clothing, the fact that it was sculpted down to the sitter’s waist; and included her hands clasping a bouquet of flowers against her chest. Her highly celebrated hands have caused much controversy over the centuries. They do seem remarkably similar to creations by Leonardo, who, we remember, was a pupil of Verrocchio…
The most obvious comparison is with Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (1490) – note the position of the hands, and the long fingers are nearly identical. Perhaps Leonardo sculpted the hands, or perhaps Verrocchio’s influence on Leonardo was more remarkable than previously imagined? In all fairness to Verrocchio, the position and movement of her left hand, along with the complex drapery detail are often compared to Christ at Orsanmichele (1467–1483).
Another highlight is The Death of Francesca Pitti Tornabuoni (end of the 15th century) by Verrocchio and workshop. It was Vasari who credited Verrocchio for sculpting the tomb of Francesca in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, and despite its being destroyed, it is widely perceived that this relief came from it. It depicts Francesca Pitti’s death in 1490, with Francesca appearing at peace, contrasted with the surrounding figures whose grief is evident in their violent gestures, agitated limbs and awkward bodies. Francesca is shown as heroic and valiant, the only reference to her suffering is her limp body, ruffled hair and messy clothing. We are aware of this terrible moment in history through a letter from Francesca’s husband, Giovanni, announcing the death of his wife and baby to his nephew, Lorenzo the Magnificent. (For more on this relief, please read this illuminating post by Elaine Hoysted on the blog “Renaissance Mothers”).
There is much, much more to be admired in the Sala del Verrocchio…but that will have to be for another post!
See: Being situated right in the historical center means there are plenty of things to see around here. You’re not far from the Uffizi, Casa Buonarotti or even the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. But if you’re after something a little less intense after all that sculpture, try the Museum of Bigallo right across from the Baptistery. It features the 14th century Madonna della Misericordia and the first pictorial representation of Florence—and always seems to be missed by visitors (open from 10:30am, every hour on the half hour—get there a few minutes early as they’ll turn you away if you’re one minute past!).
Eat: There isn’t a shortage of places to eat around here, but being right in the center means there are a lot of tourist traps to be avoided. Fishing Lab alle Murate is great for a fish craving, but you may need to book as this place is always busy. For a quick snack on the move or a small lunch head to Il Cernacchino on Via della Condotta – they have a great selection of panini, plus a choice of “panini scodella” rolls filled with meatballs, lampredotto or sausages. Their selection of hot food is great for something a little more substantial. I absolutely love I Buongustai for lunch—run by a team of ladies, this place is cheap, cheerful and fast, full of locals and tourists alike. The plates of daily changing pasta are always delicious.
Drink: If you’re after a view, visit Grand Hotel Cavour’s rooftop terrace. For a nice glass of wine, try Antiche Dogane in Piazza Sant’Elisabetta, whose by-the-glass menu is constantly evolving. If it’s beer you’re after, then King Grizzly on Piazza de Cimatori will tick all the boxes.