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.

The Verrocchio room

The Verrocchio room

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).

Lady with a Bouquet - Verrocchio

Lady with a Bouquet – Verrocchio

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”).

Death of Francesca Pitti Tornabuoni - Verrocchio

Death of Francesca Pitti Tornabuoni – Verrocchio

There is much, much more to be admired in the Sala del Verrocchio…but that will have to be for another post!

Nearby curiosities:

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.

 

Situated deep in the Oltrarno area of Florence is the beautiful Brancacci Chapel fresco cycle; a real hidden gem on the “other” side of the river. The chapel itself dates back to 1367, when wealthy Florentine silk merchant Piero di Piuvichese Brancacci stipulated in his will that a family chapel be constructed inside the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, and dedicated to his name saint, St. Peter.

Construction was completed in 1389, and the decorative work began in 1424 as a result of the efforts of Pieros’ nephew, Felice Brancacci. The commission for the Stories of Saint Peter were given to two men: the Late Gothic painter known as Masolino, and the much younger, more revolutionary artist, Tommaso di ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai, nicknamed Masaccio.

The reasons behind this collaboration are still unknown, and what is more puzzling is why the work was left unfinished by Masolino in the summer of 1425 (when he left Florence to go to Hungary), and by Masaccio in 1428 when he went to Rome, where he died shortly after his arrival. Most recent scholarship finds that even given the nearly 30-year age difference, the two artists seemed to have worked independently at the Brancacci Chapel, painting in their own styles and each working on separate scenes—inferring that they were professional equals.

 

1. The Temptation of Adam and Eve
6. The Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha
12. Disputation with Simon Magus and The Crucifixion of Saint Peter

The 1430s saw the once popular and wealthy Brancacci family fall into political disgrace. After marrying into the Strozzi family (sworn enemies of the Medici), they were later declared rebels and subsequently exiled for siding with the Strozzi, who had tried to prevent the rise of Cosimo de’ Medici as the unofficial ruler of Florence.

After the Brancacci family’s banishment, the chapel was renamed Madonna del Popolo with the 13th-century panel of Madonna Enthroned being moved here from the high altar (it is still in place today). This is perhaps when parts of Masaccio’s fresco featuring portraits of the Brancacci patrons were destroyed.

Toward the end of the 1400s, the chapel’s decoration was revived once again, most likely commissioned by individuals from patrician Florentine families, including Piero del Pugliese and Tommaso Soderini (both are portrayed in the Raising of the Son of Theophilus). From then on, work was completed by Filippino Lippi, who worked on the lower register of the left wall (completing the Raising of the Son of Theophilus and Saint Peter Enthroned), which Masaccio had begun. Filippino went on to paint Saint Peter in prison visited by Saint PaulDisputation of Saint Peter and Saint Paul with Simon Magus, the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, and Saint Peter Freed from Prison.

2. Expulsion from Paradise
3. The Tribute Money
9. Raising of the Son of Theophilus and Saint Peter Enthroned

Due to 18th century redecoration in the chapel, several works have unfortunately been lost, including Masolino’s Evangelists in the ceiling vaults, and the Masaccio lunettes depicting the Shipwreck of the Apostles and the Calling of the Apostle Peter. Part of the frescoes in the upper portion of the back wall were also destroyed when the wide Baroque window was inserted. Substantial damage to the original colors was caused by smoke and heat from a large fire in the roof of the Church in 1771.

The reading order fresco cycle of the Brancacci Chapel

1 The Temptation of Adam and Eve

2 Expulsion from Paradise

3 The Tribute Money

4 The Sermon of Saint Peter

5 Baptism of the Neophytes

6 The Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha

7 Saint Paul Visiting Saint Peter in Prison

8 Liberation of Saint Peter

9 Raising of the Son of Theophilus and Saint Peter Enthroned

10 Saint Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow

11 The Distribution of Alms and The Death of Ananias

12 Disputation with Simon Magus and The Crucifixion of Saint Peter

This tiny little chapel provides some of Florence’s most powerful Renaissance art. Masaccio, in his very short life, was responsible for revolutionary changes in the way figures were depicted and for the use of mathematical perspective (he will be the first to use it in painting in the Early Modern period). His slender Expulsion and sweeping Tribute Money are two of the most studied paintings in the history of art—both make a dramatic break with tradition in favor of a more intense, dynamic naturalism. During the same century, but several decades later, Filippino Lippi will fill the chapel walls with new, more expressive figures, in part heralding the Mannerist movement.

The Brancacci Chapel is open from 10am to 5pm (closed Tuesdays) – For more information and to book tickets visit their website.

Nearby curiosities:

See: Giardino Torrigiani is just a few moments from here, and a real hidden gem which happens to be the largest privately owned garden inside a historical center in Europe. It was designed by Marquis Pietro Torrigiani, who wanted to create a romantic park in an English style. Contact them via email to organise a guided tour of the gardens. 

Eat: The area has countless of places I could recommend, here you are in the ‘real’ Florence, with many restaurants and eateries full of locals. I’ve had great meals at I’Brindellone and Al Tranvai; for baked goods and sandwiches you can’t beat Santo Forno. If it’s gelato you’re after try the sinfully creamy stracciatella at Gelateria alla Carraia, just around the corner.

Drink: This area is popular for the younger crowd, so it’s full of quirky wine and cocktails bars. Rasputin is a definite must, the location is a secret (they tell you the road, and a few clues) but the cocktails are great and the bar has a really cool atmosphere. For beer try Archea brewery on Via dei Serragli or Berbere (Piazza de’ Nerli) for craft beer and great pizza.

The Brancacci Chapel is part of my Oltrarno: History + Artisans walk, which you can book here!

 

 

Mondays in Florence is generally perceived as the day everything shuts down and I’m inundated with people coming to me for recommendations about what to do art and history-wise. The Uffizi, Accademia and Pitti Palace are all closed, along with a number of restaurants, cafes, bars, but don’t despair! Monday is in fact a great day for exploring Florence and perhaps a way to discover something a little off the beaten track.

View over Florence from San Miniato al Monte

View over Florence from San Miniato al Monte

I’ve put together a list of what’s open on Mondays—I’ll also be doing a separate piece on each of them over the following months, so stay tuned!

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Crypt, Baptistery, bell tower, cupola and the wonderful Museo dell’Opera del Duomo often missed by visitors, but really fascinating with many original pieces including the Lorenzo Ghiberti’s doors for the Baptistery Gates of Paradise. (All open on Mondays, but times vary)

Palazzo Vecchio on Piazza della Signoria has been the city hall since medieval times, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (the Duomo and Santa Croce architect) it is now home to numerous works of art and objects. Most interesting are the walls of Salone dei Cinquecento which depict battles and victory scenes by Vasari, which is said to have covered over lost frescoes by Leonardo da Vinci. Visit on a sunny day for a spectacular view over Florence from the tower which once held Cosimo de’ Medici during his imprisonment. (9.00 – 19.00, 23.00 in the summer months)

Orsanmichele the 1st floor where the original statues of the tabernacles are actually only open on a Monday, so it’s a nice way to get a close up look at the figures. The building itself was originally an open grain store (you can see the 13th century arches which originally formed the loggia) but was converted into a church between 1380 and 1404 as a chapel for Florence’s craft and trade guilds. It was these guilds that commissioned the statues of their patron saints to decorate the exterior of the church. On the ground floor, there is a stunning gothic tabernacle by Andrea Orcagna (1355-59). (10.00 – 17.00)

Ospedale degli Innocenti a moving and informative look into the Foundling Hospital and the history of its orphaned children, which spans over six centuries. Designed by Brunelleschi decorated with glazed terracotta reliefs of swaddled babies by Andrea della Robbia, you can see pieces by Sandro Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo and Domenico Ghirlandaio here too. (8.30 – 19.00)

San Lorenzo church very much in Medici territory, this church was designed by Brunelleschi for the Medici, with a grand Renaissance interior. It’s one of the largest churches in Florence (and claims to be the oldest) and is conveniently located by Mercato Centrale – the 1st floor is a great place for lunch! Closed the 1st, 3rd and 5th Mondays of the month. (8.15 – 13.50, 16.50 in the summer months)

Medici Chapels the burial place for the Medici and where to come to marvel over works by Michelangelo. The New Sacristy designed and decorated by Michelangelo shows statues in various states including the allegories of Day and Night, and Dawn and Dusk. (8.15 – 13.50, 16.50 in the summer months)

Museo Misericordia – Behind the row of ambulances by Giotto’s belltower, is an easy to miss museum but open on a Monday. The lift takes you to the 4th floor, and a guide will take you around the rooms giving you an in-depth insight into the history of the Misericordia. It’s free to visit but feel free to leave a donation. (Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 9.00 – 12.00 and 15.00 – 17.00, Saturday 10 – 12)

Brancacci Chapel situated in the Oltrarno, the Masaccio/Masolino/Lippi frescoes here are some of my favorites in Florence, you may need to book a time slot. (10.00 – 17.00)

Palazzo Davanzati the Museum of the Old Florentine House, which gives a look into what a Medieval patrician house was like. Closed on the 1st, 3rd and 5th Mondays of the month. (8.15 – 13.50)

Horne Museum the home of the English collector Herbert P. Horne (1864-1916), with a focus on art and furnishings from the 14th and 15th centuries. (9.00 – 13.00)

Marino Marini Museum ancient, modern and contemporary art all under 1 roof, in the ex-church of San Pancrazio. A few streets away is Todo Modo (Via dei Fossi) a great little independent book store, cafe and theatre. (10.00 – 19.00)

Palazzo Medici Riccardi and the Magi Chapel the Medici family take part in the Journey of the Magi in this tiny chapel decorated by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459-1461). (10.00 – 19.00)

Santa Maria Novella church there’s so much to see here, from Giotto’s Crucifix, Masaccio’s Holy Trinity and Ghirlandaio’s frescoes. (9.00 – 17.30)

Santa Croce Church frescoes by Giotto and burial site for Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. (9.30 – 17.30)

San Marco Church and convent The convent is of most interest here; rebuilt in 1437 by order of Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici with individual friar’s cells decorated by Fra Angelico, whose work is shown throughout the complex. The former library on the first floor houses a considerable number or illustrated choir books on display. Closed on the 2nd and 4th Mondays of the month. (8.15 – 13.50, extended hours on holidays)

Ognissanti Church for Giotto’s beautifully restored Crucifix, then pop next door to see the Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio (open 9.00 – 12.00)

Last Supper of Sant’Apollonia Not far from San Marco with a beautifully preserved fresco by Andrea del Castagno. Closed on the 2nd and 4th Mondays of the month. (8.15 – 13.50)

Casa Buonarroti museum for the great Michelangelo and works collected by the Buonarroti family. (9.30 – 16.00)

Stibbert Museum a short bus journey (no.4 from the station), home to a vast collection of armor and a lovely green park. (10.00 – 14.00, extended hours on holidays)

Casa Rodolfo Siviero the house of a passionate collector, now transformed into a museum, a vast and varied collection. During the summer there’s an “urban beach” on the banks of the Arno just across the street, which is a great place for cocktails in the evening sun. (10.00 – 13.00)

Opificio delle Pietre Dure near the Galleria dell’Accademia Workshop of semi-precious stones. A few doors down is Arà; è Sicilia, the sardine arancini are delicious, and if they’re out of those, go for the pistachio! (8.30 – 13.30)

Stefano Bardini Museum named after its creator, an important Italian art restorer and dealer. The building itself is a thing of beauty – the use of doors, windows and objects of old fragments from ruined churched and villas. (11.00 – 17.00)

Botanical Garden Giardino dei Semplici founded 1545 by Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, and was used to cultivate medicinal plants. (9.00 – 13.00)

San Miniato al Monte church near Piazza Michelangelo with views across Florence, the sacristy decorated by Spinello Aretino which depicts Scenes from the Life of St Benedict is brilliant. (9.30 – 13.00 and 15.00 – 19.00)

Medici Villa di Castello gardens in the hills north of Florence, former home of Cosimo I de’ Medici, closed on the 2nd and 3rd Monday of the month. The cave of animals by Giorgio Vasari is worth the short bus trip alone. (8.15 – 18.30, reduced hours in the winter)

Medici Villa La Petraia close to Villa di Castello, closed every 1st and 3rd Monday of the month. Unlike the Medici Villa di Castello, you can see inside the villa here too. It’s free and guided tours start every hour from 8.30 onwards. (8.15 – 19.30, reduced hours in the winter)

For many more wonderful suggestions about how to spend a Monday in the city, see this excellent post on Girl in Florence.

 

How did people eat during the Renaissance? This is something I talk a lot about during my tours as I find it lends a sense of familiarity to a mostly unfamiliar historical period and allows us to connect to the characters that pepper (sorry) the stories I tell about Florence during its Golden Age.

People during the Renaissance loved a good handbook; we have massive amounts of prescriptive literature about everything from how to raise a family (Leon Battista Alberti’s Della Famiglia), to how to be a good artist (Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte), to how not to be generally disgusting (Galateo by Giovanni della Casa). It should not surprise us, therefore, that within many of these behavior manuals we find information about how and what to eat. (Anyone with a bit of knowledge about contemporary Italy knows that variations on these “food rules” are still firmly in place today.)

A traditional breakfast; a slice or 2 of bread and a glass of wine

Typically speaking, there were two meals per day: the comestio, usually eaten sometime before 11am, and the prandium, which occurred just before sunset. Breakfast was virtually non-existent as it consisted of nothing more than a slice of bread and a small glass of wine. Paolo di Messer Pace da Certaldo attempted to bring order to mealtimes in his treatise Il Libro dei Buoni Costumi (a book about how the common man might cultivate good habits) when he advised that meals be “cooked once a day only, in the morning”, to keep “the cooked food for the evening” and “to eat little before going to bed”. In terms of what an everyday meal might consist of, Paolo suggests bread, wine, beans, millet porridge, and chestnuts during the appropriate season. Soups and some vegetables might make an appearance as well. Pork and fowl were reserved for special occasions.

Cannellini beans from Tuscany

Cannellini beans from Tuscany

Even the wealthy in Florence ate rather frugally on a daily basis, though they tended to step it up when guests were invited over. Apparently things had gotten a bit out of control in trying to impress, as the Florentine Republic decided to regulate what could be served at the dinner table when guests were present: only two main dishes, one boiled, one roasted. Fish was substituted on meatless days. Lest you think that sounds meager, consider that the boiled dish could offer three different kinds of meat and the roasted dish four kinds. Exceptions could be made by petitioning the city priors and demonstrating that the exemption was being made for the glory of the Republic and not for personal gain. What I wouldn’t give to see one of those requests!

Restaurants existed in the form of osterie–easy going places where businessmen, artists and literati could spend a few hours eating and socializing. We know the names of some of the more famous osterie, including the “Baldracca” in San Pier Scheraggio, the “Giardino” in via de’ Pilastri and my personal favorite, “Il Pennello” (the paintbrush), opened by painter Mariotto Albertinelli after he decided that the artist’s life was too rife with criticism and humiliation to be enjoyable.

Pappa al pomodoro at Il Pennello in Florence

Pappa al pomodoro at Il Pennello in Florence

Banquets were another story entirely. Used as a symbol of status and wealth, banquets celebrated family anniversaries, public and religious festivals, and of course, weddings. During the warm months, banquets were held in outdoor loggias which were located adjacent to the family palazzo. (Though there were more then 40 of these loggias in Renaissance Florence, one of the only surviving examples is the Rucellai Loggia on via della Vigna Nuova). Neighborhood people not invited to the party would stand a respectable distance away but close enough to glimpse the sumptuous clothing of the guests, see the rich tapestry and lace decorations, hear the music, watch the dancing, and smell the delicious courses as they were being brought out. The host would typically distribute large amounts of food to the people, indicating that the banquet was being held for the entire city.

Food was eaten with fingers, so hand washing before the meal at a stone basin called a lavabo and during the meal with acqua linfa (water perfumed with orange blossoms) was key. Guests also used napkins to keep their hands relatively clean during the long meal. Any food that remained uneaten was thrown under the table or into bowls placed there for the occasion. In between courses, the tables were cleaned off and guests enjoyed short concerts, dancing and sometimes even plays.

The senescalso was technically responsible for the carving of the meat but in reality he was more of a butler (or party planner) in charge of the entire ritual associated with banquets, from the organization to the execution of the meal itself.

 

This is one of those spots that often makes the rounds on Instagram, sometimes photographed by curious visitors but more often by locals who usually mention wanting to revive this intriguing but abandoned space – Antica Spezeria di San Marco.

Antica Spezeria di San Marco

Antica Spezeria di San Marco

Though the 19th-century facade faces via Cavour, it was part of the once massive Dominican convent of San Marco situated just around the corner. A spezeria was a sort of pharmacy or apothecary shop and was a typical feature of many medieval and early modern convents and monasteries. In addition to medicinal products–usually simples derived from plant or mineral substances or compounds made up of different things combined according to a doctor’s instructions–the San Marco spezeria was also known for special elixirs, cosmetics and perfumes that were sold to the general public starting in 1450. Lorenzo the Magnificent was known to be a fan of the friars’ brand of alchermes–a bright red liquor made from rose water, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves and other herbs thought to have healing properties. (The red comes from crushed up female cochineal insects–think ladybugs–used to make a scarlet dye.)

Known as a favorite spot for the crème de la crème of Florentine society including Pico della Mirandola, Michelangelo and members of famed local families like the Medici, Pitti and Strozzi, we can only imagine what the interior must have looked like. Illuminations like the one found in the medical handbook Tacuinum sanitatis, give us an idea about how these high scale apothecaries were set up. Highly decorated glass and ceramic flasks and jars were carefully labelled so that the contents could be easily identified by the apothecaries; consumers in turn could trust that they were receiving the proper ingredients. Elaborate wooden counters and careful shelf displays contributed to the creation of what scholar Evelyn Welch “a strong up-to-date visual presence”–highly necessary for the success of an apothecary shop.

The Antica Spezeria di San Marco remained one of the premier apothecary shops throughout the 19th century but unfortunately has been closed since 1995, and in my opinion ripe for that aforementioned revival.

Nearby curiosities;

See The church of San Marco its’ covent is worth a visit but for something a little different see the Last Supper of Sant’Apollonia (1447) a few streets away. Here is one of Andrea del Castagnos’ major works, and yet it was only rediscovered in 1891. It’s in excellent condition which is merely down to the fact that it remained covered behind a plaster wall for so many years. Above you can see the Resurrection, Crucifixion and Deposition of Christ which were never covered hence the poor condition. On the wall behind you can see the original sinopia.

The Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno

The Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno

Eat Walking back towards the centre of Florence, you’ll find a good choice of places to eat. For lunch or a snack I would recommend Vecchio Forno on Via Guelfa. A popular bakery for many locals, their breads, mini pizzas and delicious cakes all come highly recommended. For something more substantial Simbiosis should tick all the boxes. A great pizzeria and restaurant, with a interesting winelist full of organic and unusual finds.

Vecchio Forno on Via Guelfa

Vecchio Forno on Via Guelfa

Drink You can find plenty of places to get your caffeine fix around here, but if your after wine, beer or cocktails, make your way back into the centre towards San Lorenzo and stop off at La Menegere. Great coffee, cocktails and food, it also doubles up as a homeware store and florist!

Simbiosis pizzeria in Florence

Simbiosis pizzeria