Art Lover's Guide to Tuscany: Must See Paintings and Sculptures
Here's my guide to the must see art works and masterpieces in Tuscany. This region of Italy has some of the world's best art galleries and museums. It's celebrated for its Medieval (Gothic) and Renaissance art. Tuscany is even regarded as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, beating out Rome.
Beginning in the middle ages, there were four main Tuscan art schools that competed against each other: the Florentine School, the Sienese School, the Pisan School, and the Lucchese School. Some of the best known Florentine artists are Michelangelo, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Lippi, and Masaccio.
The Sienese School of painting flourished between the 13th and 15th centuries. For a time, Siena even rivaled Florence, though its art was more conservative. The most important Sienese artists were Duccio, Simone Martini, and the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
Tuscany Checklist: Must See Masterpieces in Tuscany
When it comes to art, you're spoiled for choice in Tuscany. And it's not all located in bella Florence, as you might think. If I have to narrow it down to avoid a treatise, here's what I think are the 16 most significant and influential art works in Tuscany, for your Tuscan checklist.
These pieces either helped transform the history of art or were the iconic masterpieces of their time period. If you're an art enthusiast and enchanted by Tuscany, this guide will tell you exactly where to go to fulfill your art fantasies.
Let's take a tour of the most important art works in Tuscany.
1. Michelangelo's David, Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence
Michelangelo's commanding statue of David is probably the world's most famous sculpture. The 17 foot statue is considered the embodiment of male beauty, a Calvin Klein-like model of physical perfection.
David was commissioned for Florence Cathedral. The city intended to place the statue high above in a niche. But they decided that David was too beautiful for that location.
Instead, David was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence's seat of government. Originally, parts of David were gilded. But the gilded surfaces were lost during the statue's exposure to the elements. In 1873, David was moved inside to the Accademia.
For more information on visiting the David in Florence, click here for my complete guide.
2. Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Sandro Botticelli is the undisputed master of the early Renaissance period. His Birth of Venus is the Uffizi's most famous art work, akin to the Mona Lisa in Paris. Botticelli spent his entire life in Florence and was a friend of the Medici family.
The beautiful Birth of Venus is a dreamlike celebration of beauty and love. It's a lush, richly symbolic, and a groundbreaking piece. It was the first large scale painting of a nude woman in almost 1000 years. The nudity wasn't religious either; it was pagan.
Venus, the goddess of beauty and love, is born fully grown from the foam of a wave. We see an ethereal Venus, half awake and fragile, blown by the Zephyrs. She floats on a shell tended by her maids.
Botticelli was a highly skilled painter and had an understanding of human anatomy. But he also made objectively beautiful paintings with luminous pastel colors. Even Venus' hair is gleaming and highlighted. Venus' nakedness is idealized and innocent, not erotic.
The model for Venus was reputedly Simonetta Vespucci. She was considered the most beautiful woman in Italy.
Vespucci reputedly had a torrid affair with Lorenzo the Magnificent's brother, Giuliano. Botticelli was obsessed with Vespucci as well, frequently painting her image long after her death at just 22. When Botticelli died, his tomb was placed in the Vespucci Chapel near his muse.
3. Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Raphael was another prodigious talent of the Italian Renaissance, producing a series of masterpieces before his premature death at the age of 37. The Uffizi contains one of his loveliest paintings, the serene Madonna of the Goldfinch.
The painting shows Mary with a young Christ and John the Baptist. The goldfinch is a potent symbol of the passion of Christ, of Christ's suffering.
You can see a tenderness between mother and child. Christ puts his foot on his mother's foot, as he (rather amusingly) stands in a staged and artificially elegant contrapposto pose. The Madonna doesn't sit on a throne anymore, but a rock. Nature has taken on the expression of God, without kingly symbols.
Raphael's Madonna is a survivor. In 1547, when the original owner’s house collapsed, the painting was shattered into 17 pieces. The work was only 41 years old.
Back then, an artist used nails to put it back together and the cracks were painted over numerous times during the following years. Five centuries later, the painting was a dour dusty brown and green. In 1998, a 10 year restoration returned the painting to its former glory -- with Raphael's trademark reds, royal blues, and gold.
4. Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child With Two Angels,
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
You see this painting right after coming from Room 1 of the Uffizi. In Room 1, there's three giant and solemn medieval paintings of a Madonna and Child from the 13th century, including the one by Giotto above and a famous one by Cimabue.
Lippi's Madonna is like a breath of fresh air. It's humanist in approach. The boldly colored painting feels playful. Mary is portrayed as a beautiful real woman who you might see on the streets of Florence. Similarly, the angels look like children. Mary's halo is almost transparent.
Lippi was one of the leading Renaissance painters in the generation following Masaccio and Giotto. He was also Botticelli's teacher. You can see his influence on Botticelli. They both emphasize the decorative to large degree.
Lippi was a womanizer, who led a colorful life. In 1456, Lippi abducted a novice nun, Lucrezia Buti, and had sexual relations with her. The result was their son Filippino Lippi, who also went on to become a famous painter.
This painting caused a bit of a scandal. It's full of illicit love and unholy models. Lippi likely used Lucrezia as his model for Mary, at a time when it wasn't considered acceptable to portray a "fallen" woman. Mary is also not even looking at baby Jesus, but at the mysteriously smiling angel who could be her son Filippino.
5. Donatello's Bronze David, Bargello Museum, Florence
Commissioned by Cosimo de Medici (the Elder), the beautiful Bronze David is Donatello's best work. Bronze David is the first freestanding nude sculpture since Greco-Roman times. It was a radical depiction of the biblical story of David and Goliath. David became a mascot of sort for Florence, as an underdog city state.
A life-like Bronze David elegantly reinterprets the classical canon. The statue inspired Michelangelo to carve his own David (in the Galleria dell'Accademia) in the nude.
But it's not a heroic rendering. There's nothing modest about Bronze David. It's simultaneously eroticized and androgynized. The piece was created for a private environment, where it would be acceptably cheeky.
A pre-pubescent and long haired David stands enigmatically, in a relaxed contrapposto stance with one foot on Goliath's head. He's peculiarly depicted wearing no clothes except for a hat and boots, perhaps to suggest his underdog status. The statue is affectionately nicknamed "Puss 'N Boots."
The nudity of Bronze David is biblically accurate. But Donatello's Bronze David has a girlish figure. A feather climbs up his right leg, a symbol associated with homosexuality. Based on ancient busts, some art historians believe that Bronze David was modeled after the Roman Emperor Hadrian's gay lover, Antinous.
In fact, at that time, Florence was a bit of a gay mecca. Homosexuality between unmarried men was common, but illegal. During a crack down, even Leonardo da Vinci was arrested. Donatello himself was reputedly gay, with a habit of falling hard for his male models.
When the Medici were exiled, Bronze David was requisitioned by the Signoria (Council of Florence) and placed in the garden courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. In 1495, it was moved to the Piazza della Signoria, which served as Florence's outdoor sculpture gallery.
Bronze David was damage by lightening in 1511, and is missing a few pieces. It's been restored and laser cleaned. The restoration revealed traces of gilding (gold leaf) on the boy’s helmet, hair, and boots. The sculpture may initially have presented with gold hair.
6. Donatello's St. George, Bargello Museum, Florence
St. George is another of Donatello's best works. It was originally on the facade of Orsanmichele -- a veritable birthplace and treasure trove of Renaissance sculpture. To protect it, the sculpture was moved to the Bargello in 1892 and placed in a duplicate marble niche.
The sculpture is based on the legend of St. George and the dragon, a familiar fairytale. A town is besieged and attacked by a plague bearing dragon. Desperate, the town offers sheep to keep the dragon away.
When it runs out of sheep, the town offers a person once a year, selected by lottery.
Went the town princess is chosen, there's panic. But St. George steps in, slays the dragon, and marries the princess.
Commissioned by the shield makers guild, the sculpture shows St. George with a large diamond shaped shield. Wearing Roman armor, he appears as if he might jump out of the niche. He once clutched a sword, which is now gone. If you replace the sword with a stone in your mind, it conjures visions of Michelangelo's David, to come a century later.
7. Fra Angelico Paintings, San Marco Monastery Museum, Florence
In 1437, Cosimo de Medici decided to rebuild a crumbling convent complex. He hired Michelozzo to tend to the architecture and Fra Angelico to the decoration. San Marco is now a haven of uplifting tranquility and home to some of Florence's best sacred art.
Fra Angelico was a devout monk who, with Giotto and Donatello, helped transform the art world and usher in the Renaissance. His humanistic pieces, with delicate palettes, led him to be dubbed the "Angelic Painter" or Il Beato (the Blessed). Giorgio Vasari described Fra Angelico as a "rare and perfect talent."
The highlight of the San Marco Museum is the Sala dell' Ospizio, where the most important Fra Angelico paintings are housed, including The Last Judgment, The Crucifixion and Saints, and The Annunciation (at the top of the stairs).
The Annunciation is quite large, with life size figures. It's a beautiful image, but is also elegant and spare, fitting for a monastic space. Some of the usual didactic images from Annunciation paintings, like white lilies, are missing.
8. Masaccio Frescos, Brancacci Chapel, Florence
The Brancacci Chapel is a supreme example of early Renaissance painting. It's completely filled with frescos by Masaccio and his workshop. It's considered one of the three important chapels of the Renaissance, along with the Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Masaccio was an influential painter, despite dying mysteriously at just 27. He was one of the first painters in art history to experiment with single point perspective and three dimensional space.
A Medici enemy, Felice Brancacci, commissioned the fresco cycle in 1424. They were intended to represent the life of St. Peter, from original sin to the salvation of man. After Masaccio's death, the frescos were completed by Fillipino Lippi.
In the upper registry, there's one of Masaccio's greatest masterpieces, The Tribute Money. It's a story from the New Testament when Christ is confronted by a tax collector. Christ performs a miracle, causing money to appear in the mouth of a fish.
Just to the left of The Tribute Money is another Masaccio must see masterpiece, the Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Eden. An armed angel banishes the pariahs. Adam appears ashamed and Eve cries. It's an emotional painting.
Interestingly, Adam's private parts were painted over with fig leafs on the order of the ultra religious Cosimo in 1642, similar to Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Vatican Museums. During restoration, the figure of Christ was returned to the original nude.
9. Michelangelo Sculptures, Medici Chapel, Florence
In 1519, Michelangelo was commissioned to construct burial chapels for the Medici. The result, the Medici Chapel, is an incredibly unique monument. It's a rare architectural space that was both designed and decorated by a single artist. Michelangelo may have intended to paint the frescos as well. But they were never begun.
There are 6 tomb sculptures carved by Michelangelo. Four are allegories of the passage of time. They were intended to convey the message that time destroys everything earthly, that the days of our lives ineluctably lead to our death.
On the tomb of Lorenzo, the effigy of Lorenzo is shown at the top as a brooding introvert, whose face remains in shadow. Below him are the sculptures of Dawn and Dusk. Dawn suggests the emergence of light. Dusk suggests twilight.
On the tomb of Giuliano, Giuliano's effigy shows him as an extrovert. This is a beautiful sculpture. It's one of Michelangelo's most idealized pieces. I mean, just look at his long elegant neck. The two tomb statues below Giuliano are allegories of Night and Day.
Night is regarded as one of Michelangelo's finest works. The sculpture was based on a classical drawing of Leda. There's no doubt who she is because of the owl and bag of poppies. She's also the only sleeping sculpture.
There's another unfinished Michelangelo sculpture opposite the altar, Madonna with Child. It's above the simple tomb for Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano. The effigies of both Lorenzo and Giuliano turn toward the Madonna.
10. Duccio's Maesta, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena
Painted by Sienese artist Duccio di Buoninsegna, the Maesta is the most famous Italian painting from the International Gothic period and the most precious art work ever created in Siena. It's a famous painting in the course of art history, now housed in the museum of Siena Cathedral.
The Maesta was 17 x 16 feet, a massive double sided altarpiece covered in gold and glitter. It was so large it likely served as a rood screen for the cathedral, separating the laity from the common folk.
When Gothic art fell out of fashion during the Renaissance, the altarpiece was taken down and stored for 200 years. Then, the city council disassembled and sold off some pieces. Many are in the world's most prominent museums. But most of the Maesta is still in Siena.
In the front portion of the Maesta, you see a majestic Mary seated on a throne. Swaddled in translucent drapery, Jesus looks nothing like a baby. More like a wise old man, who's almost standing up.
In the back, you see the life of Christ. In a way, this was the more astonishing and privileged view that the priest would've had. The Crucifixion scene is given pride of place in the center.
11. Nicola Pisano Pulpit, Siena Cathedral, Siena
Nicola Pisano created this famous pulpit between 1265-68. He was helped by his son Giovanni and Florentine architect Arnolfo de Cambio. This pulpit is consistent with the over the top Gothic style of Siena Cathedral.
The pulpit is octagonal in shape and inspired by ancient Roman sarcophagi. It's adorned with marble relief sculptures depicting the life of Jesus. It's propped up on nine columns made of granite, porphyry, and green marble. Four of the columns rest on lions.
This is Pisano's most important work, a symbol of the former importance of Siena, With its realism, the sculpture marked the transition from the Gothic period to the early Renaissance. The pulpit was recently cleaned and restored in 2018.
12. Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
The Hall of Peace (also called the Sala de Novo or Hall of Nine) is effectively the oval office of the Palazzo Pubblico. It's main claim to fame is the amazing piece of political propaganda adorning its walls, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government.
This is one of the most marvelous, poignant, and timeless fresco cycles in Italy. It's the only secular painting of everyday urban and rural life that exists from the middle ages. It's an incredibly significant work.
Created in 1337-41, the didactic paintings are about what actually goes into a good government. A lesson that sorely needed in today's world. Lorenzetti was influenced by the style of Giotto's frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
There are frescos on three walls. The center wall opposite the window is the Allegory of Good Government. One the right wall is the Effects of a Good Government in the City and County. On the left is the Allegory and Effects of Bad Government.
An allegory is a figure that stands in for an idea. The frescos are both a promise and a threat. They remind the Nine how to govern in a moral way.
On the central panel we see the large figures representing Justice and the Common Good. They're surrounded by the other virtues -- Fortitude, Peace, Prudence, Magnanimity, Concord, Temperance, and Hope.
The figure of Peace is shown lounging in a diaphanous gown. She's rather lusty looking with protruding nipples that would've been shocking at the time. She appears relaxed. The take home message is that, if all the other virtues work, she has nothing to do.
The effects of a good government are depicted in an imaginary Shangri-La. One part is a paradisiacal urban setting, with a bustling city, prosperous merchants, and dancing figures (it's unclear what gender they are). The rural setting shows harvesting and bountiful fields. It's one of the largest landscape paintings in medieval times.
The "bad" side is much more dramatic. Lorenzetti could let his imagination run wild. These frescos are in worse shape than the "good" frescos and not lit by natural light. But they're still fearsome.
13. Simone Martini's Maesta, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
The Hall of the Grand Council of the Palazzo Pubblico holds one of Italy's greatest works -- Simone Martini's Maesta. The painting marks the day the Virgin Mary got into politics. Mary had never been used in a civil setting before.
In the fresco, Mary is depicted as a medieval queen on a throne beneath a royal canopy. She presides as the protector of the city, surrounded by a retinue of saints and angels.
Her baby Jesus looks old, wise, and is almost standing. Mary holds a parchment which says "judge diligently you who rule the earth." Unfortunately, Martini used the fresco secco (dry fresco) painting style. That means the fresco isn't very well preserved.
Martini's Maesta is similar to Duccio's Maesta found in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Siena Cathedral complex.
14. Barna Da Siena's Post-Black Death Frescos, Collegiate Church, San Gimignano
The Black Death was a massive fracture in the middle ages in Italy. Half of the population of many cities and towns died. Building ground to a half, cathedrals like the Florence's Duomo left unfinished. The dire plague left an imprint on subsequent art.
One such example is the 1360 fresco cycle of post-Black Death paintings, by the mysterious artist known as Barna Da Siena. They're in the 12th century Collegiate Church of San Gimignano.
The subject is 26 scenes from the New Testament, from the Annunciation to the Resurrection. They're set in three horizontal tiers across the nave in the southern wall.
This is one of the most violent fresco cycles every created. They've been attributed to Barna da Siena since the mid 16th century, via art historian and artist Giorgio Vasari. Not only are the frescos dark, but they may be cursed. According to Vasari, the artist allegedly fell to his death from scaffolding while painting them.
The frescos are sinister, evincing unparalleled cruelty and use of sinister images. Was this a reaction to the Black Death or just the twisted psyche of the artist? It's unclear, but probably the former.
You start at the far right side in the upper corner. The frescos were clearly influenced by the Giotto frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, but without the subtlety of perspective. When dealing with conventional subject matter, Barna da Siena is pretty average.
But he excels when depicting violent subject matter, as in the Massacre of the Innocents (a bloodbath), the Crucifixion (gory), the Betrayal by Judas. In the Betrayal, perhaps the best piece, Barna conjures palpable evil. Judas' money hungry eyes are fixated on the bag of coins he receives, as they clink into his hands.
15. Piero della Francesca, Legend of the True Cross, San Francesco Church in Arezzo
Piero della Francesca was a hugely influential artist. His works and early use of perspective (showing Masaccio's influence) left a profound influence on the Renaissance. Most of his work lies in the Tuscan Provence of Arezzo.
Della Francesca veered away from the blank gold backgrounds of the Gothic era, adding landscapes and architectural forms to his paintings to put his figures in a realistic space. Trained as a mathematician, his paintings were incredibly rational, compared to his contemporaries.
Della Francesca's greatest masterpieces is happily still in situ. It's the Legend of the Cross frescos in the Cappella Maggiore of the Church of San Francesco. Most art historians consider it one of the greatest fresco series ever.
It tells the story of the cross on which Christ was crucified, beginning when the tree was planted (a seed put in the mouth of the dying Adam) to when it was buried by King Solomon. The story carries on from Constantine to Emperor Heraclitus, who recovers the True Cross after it was captured by the Persian King.
16. Luca Signorelli, Altarpiece, Museo Diocesana, Cortona
Luca Signorelli was an important early Renaissance artist. He was born in Cortona circa 1450.
Signorelli worked as a young artist in Tuscany and Umbria and went on to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and Orvieto Cathedral (The Last Judgment there is considered his masterpiece). A student of Pierro della Francesco, he went on to influence Raphael and Michelangelo.
In Tuscany, Signorelli and his workshop painted the altarpiece for the Church of St. Margaret. Giorgio Vasari described the 8 scenes as a "beautiful thing," full of expressive pathos. And they out was admired by Pope Leo X. The Lamentation of Christ was executed by Signorelli alone.
If you love Italian art, here are some of my other guides:
If you'd like to see great art in Tuscany, pin it for later.