Guide to the Must See Masterpieces of Florence's Bargello Museum
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Here's my guide to visiting the National Museum of the Bargello in Florence. The august museum houses a world class collection of Renaissance sculptures. In this guide, I identify and describe the 15 best masterpieces of the Bargello and give you tips for visiting. If you love or want to understand the Renaissance, the Bargello is a must visit site in Florence.
The Bargello boasts early Michelangelo works, some of Donatello's most famous sculptures, and works by other famous Renaissance artists like Cellini and Giambologna. Basically, the Bargello is to Renaissance sculpture what the Uffizi Gallery is to Renaissance painting.
Located right in the heart of medieval Florence, the Palazzo Bargello dates from 1255. The palace was first a barracks and prison and then the seat of government. It was the architectural inspiration for the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria.
In 1865, the Bargello opened as a museum by royal decree. In the 19th century, it was restored to its former glory. The halls and galleries of the Bargello are arranged around a large open courtyard.
Inside the courtyard, you'll find an arched colonnade, arched windows, and magnificent sculptures. There's a monumental exterior staircase built in the 14th century by Neri di Fioravante. On the stone wall above the staircase are the coat of arms of aristocratic families that served as judges in Florence.
What To See Inside the Bargello: Must See Masterpieces
The rooms in the Bargello aren't arranged chronologically and are somewhat illogical. It's easy to get lost or disoriented.
The ideal way to visit the Bargello is to head up to the second floor where the early Renaissance works are shown. Check out the Donatello and Verrocchio rooms, then head back downstairs to the Michelangelo room.
That way, you'll get a didactic overview of the Renaissance (early, mid, high Renaissance) and the late Renaissance Mannerist movement. The progressive development of sculpture in the 15th and 16th centuries is laid out before you.
Here are the 15 must see artworks you should put on your Bargello check list:
1. Michelangelo, Bacchus, 1496-97
Bacchus was commissioned by Cardinal Raffaele Riario, a Roman collector of antiquities. Previously, he'd been swindled, via a dealer, by a Michelangelo forgery. Michelangelo had faked an antique Cupid by artificially aging it. It's the only known Michelangelo forgery.
The savvy cardinal saw through Michelangelo's ruse. Still, a good imitator had potential. The cardinal was sufficiently impressed to order up Bacchus. Michelangelo carved it when he was only 21.
But upon seeing the rather debauched finished product, the cardinal was underwhelmed and refused it. Michelangelo then sold it to banker Jacopo Galli. 66 years later, Bacchus was bought by the Medici, the wealthy banking family that ruled Florence for three centuries.
Bacchus was the Roman god of wine, madness, and ecstasy. Michelangelo's Bacchus embodies the new realism of the Renaissance.
A nude Bacchus appears a little tipsy, leering and holding a goblet of wine. He appears unbalanced, held up by a tree trunk and a fawn who steals his grapes. His hair is adorned with an identifying wreath of ivy leaves.
Legend holds the Michelangelo even broke off Bacchus' penis so the statue would appear old. He did this with other sculptures too, burying them in dirt and smearing them with feces. At the time, ancient statues were being dug up in Florence, and Michelangelo was fascinated with them.
Bacchus wasn't a hit. It was considered rather vulgar. No one liked the awkward and ungainly pose or the slightly soft and feminine body. But, in a way, the statue was groundbreaking. No sculptor had ever before portrayed Bacchus drunk and in a flawlessly controlled disequilibrium.
2. Michelangelo, Bust of Brutus, 1539-1540
This is Michelangelo's only known bust. It was commissioned by Michelangelo's friend Donato Giannotti for Cardinal Niccolo Ridolfi. The handsome bust is stylistically similar to ancient Roman busts, in particular a bust of Caracalla.
In the bust, Michelangelo depicts the man who successfully plotted to kill Julius Caesar. Caesar was the first Roman emperor after centuries of republican rule. Michelangelo intended the bust to represent freedom from tyranny.
At the time, Florence's turbulent history paralleled that of ancient Rome. Like Rome, Florence became almost a Medici monarchy after Florence had been a democracy. Both Cardinal Ridolfi and Michelangelo were members of the republican faction that fought against the Medici.
In an ironic twist of fate, in 1590, the Medici family bought Michelangelo's Bust of Brutus. It later traveled from the Uffizi to the Bargello.
3. Michelangelo, Pitti Tondo, 1504-05
This graceful relief carving was a private commission from Bartolomeo Pitti. The tondo, or round format, is typical of domestic art.
Pitti Tondo depicts a common Renaissance theme -- Mary with baby Jesus and St. John the Baptist. Its similar to Michelangelo's painting, Doni Tondo, in the Uffizi. As was Michelangelo's tendency, the Pitti Tondo is unfinished, the contours left raw.
In the relief, Mary sits on a square bolder, holds an open book, and looks meditative. Next to the stern madonna is a playful Jesus with pudgy flesh. Because of her size, Mary seems almost to burst from the carving. She holds the book toward Jesus and, to underscore the moment, points an index finger his way.
Legend holds that Michelangelo carved Pitti Tondo in response to Leonardo da Vinci's return to Florence. And specifically after seeing Leonardo's heralded Madonna with Child and Anna. The two had an intense rivalry. Michelangelo detested Leonardo and sought to demonstrate his superiority.
4. Donatello, Bronze David, 1440s
Commissioned by Cosimo de Medici, 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.
5. Donatello, Marble David, 1408-09
Marble David is an early work by Donatello, completed 30 years before his Bronze David. It was commissioned to be a statue on a buttress of Florence Cathedral. But it wasn't large enough. It was placed outside the Duomo for 7 years.
Then, the City Council basically stole it and placed it in the Piazza della Signoria. Marble David then traveled to the Palazzo Vecchio to the Uffizi and, finally, to the Bargello.
Donatello was only 22 when he carved Marble David. He was still rooted in the International Gothic Style. David's face is expressionless and largely lifeless. The pose is static. Marble David doesn't seem terribly beautiful at first glance, probably because it was intended for a high perch.
Dontatello worked twice on the statue. When it was moved to the Piazza della Signoria, he was asked to transform, to the extent he could, Marble David from a spiritual figure to a more of a Renaissance action figure.
Donatello added a bronze sling and attempted to hide David's scroll in drapery. The sculpture represents an important moment in art history -- the transition from Gothic to Renaissance classicism.
6. Donatello, St. George and the Dragon, 1416
St. George is one 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.
Below the sculptures is a low relief panel. It continues the story, showing St. George slaying the dragon and rescuing the princess. The panel is considered the first example of a technique called rilievo schiacchiato, or "squashed" relief, which Donatello pioneered.
The technique is intended to give the illusion of deep space on a relatively flat surface. Leonard da Vince studied Donatello's relief. Unfortunately, because the statue was outside for five centuries, much of the detail has been eroded.
7. Donatello, Marzocco, 1416
Marzocco was the first statue the Medici placed in the Piazza della Signoria. The word "Marzocco" comes from the Latin word Marte, referring to Mars, the god of war. The statue was intentionally symbolic. A heraldic lion, carved from gray sandstone, sets his paw on a shield with a red fleur de lis on a white background.
That's Florence's flag and it was a symbol of the civic militia. Though it was a powerful economic center, Florence wasn't a military power and didn't have a standing army.
The city viewed itself as an underdog in all the regional skirmishes. If Florence was in trouble, the Council sounded a gong. The citizens -- the civil militia -- came forward with their swords and weapons to defend the city.
Marzocco appears humanized. Michelangelo reputedly said that Marzocco was the most "honest man" he knew. In 1885, Marzocco was moved to the Bargello for preservation. A copy is now in the Piazza della Signoria.
8. Bernini, Bust of Costanza, 1636-37
This bust has a serious backstory. Around 1636, famed Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini met Costanza Bonarelli in Rome. She was the beautiful and educated wife of one of his assistants, Matteo Bonarelli. She would literally drive Bernini mad -- the one instance where an otherwise careful Bernini was diverted off the fast track to success.
Bernini became obsessed with Costanza and the two began an affair. One of Bernini's most beautiful portrait sculptures is the marble Bust of Costanza in the Bargello. It's considered the perfect example of a Bernini "speaking likeness" -- a bust where Bernini's subject is caught in an act, rather than merely posing.
Costanza appears singularly youthful and passionate. She's depicted slightly disheveled, lips parted, and blouse agape. As if the pair had just finished an amorous encounter.
At the time, only aristocrats were enshrined in marble. Nor did artists usually create expensive and informal marble busts just for themselves. It was likely a sign of Bernini's deep love.
But the love affair had a tragic denouement. Bernini caught Costanza with another lover, his brother Luigi. In a homicidal rage, Bernini chased Luigi through Rome, beating him with an iron bar. Bernini sent a manservant to slash Costanza's face with a razor blade.
What was Bernini's punishment for this savage event? Not much. Pope Urban VIII, a Bernini fanboy, told Bernini he was sentenced to marry and settle down. Even after he married, Bernini kept the Bust of Costanza for 3 years in his studio. He finally gifted it to the Medici family (perhaps at his wife's urging).
9. The Competition Panels
The Bargello also houses the Competition Panels. In 1401, Florence held a competition for a set of bronze doors to be made for the Baptistry of the Duomo. Artists submitted bronze samples. This competition helped kick off the Renaissance.
Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were the finalists. Some art historians say the competition ended in a dead heat and that Brunelleschi refused to work with Ghiberti. But the preponderance of the evidence seems to support Ghiberti winning the competition. He was simply the better metal worker, whereas Brunelleschi excelled at architecture.
The Ghiberti doors that won the competition were initially placed on the eastern side of the Baptistry, but were eventually moved to the northern side. Created in 1403-24, the doors depict scenes from the passion of Christ and the suffering of Isaac. The original doors are now in the Duomo Museum, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, with copies on the Baptistry.
As a result of the competition, the city commissioned another set of doors form Ghiberti. Created between 1425-52, these doors were famously nicknamed the "Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo. The originals are also housed in the Duomo Museum with copies on the eastern (main) doors of the Baptistry.
10. Giambologna, Flying Mercury, 1580
Giambologna was the most important sculptor in Florence after Michelangelo. In fact, he was the greatest sculptor of the second half of the 16th century, a bridge between Michelangelo (Renaissance) and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Baroque).
Giambologna was a court sculptor to the Medici. The Medici valued his work so much they even forbade Giambologna from leaving Florence. They feared he would be permanently coopted by foreign employers.
Gaimbologna was influenced by Michelangelo, but developed his own late Renaissance Mannerist style. The Mannerists used graceful curves, sinuous lines, and artificially exaggerated poses. Their work has a sort of hyper-elegance. The focus is on refined beauty, not emotion.
Giambologna did four versions of his Flying Mercury. It was his most celebrated composition, after Rape of the Sabines. The piece may have been inspired by the Mercury statuette on the base of Cellini's Perseus.
A graceful and sleek Mercury is the essence of lightness. He's poised on one foot, supported by a zephyr (wind). Mercury raises one arm to point to heaven, in a gesture borrowed from antiquity.
The Bargello also has Giambologna's beautiful Ganymede, showing Ganymede (the son of the King of Troy) born up by an eagle.
11. Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus, 1545-54
Cellini's most famous statue, the bronze sculpture of Perseus, is on display in the Loggia dei Lanza in the Piazza della Signoria. (Hopefully, it will be moved inside the Bargello soon.)
The Medici claimed the demi-god Perseus as the founding father of their family. Cellini's sculpture tells the story of Perseus saving Athens from the petrifying glare of the Gorgon Medusa. Perseus was also an underdog, tricked into attempting to kill Medusa against incredible odds.
In Cellini's rendition of the myth, Perseus yields a phallic sword to vanquish Medusa. Perseus stands triumphant, holding aloft Medusa's severed head. Cellini signed his name across Perseus' sash, in the same way that Michelangelo signed his Pieta at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
The Bargello houses two models of Perseus, one wax and one bronze, in the Michelangelo room. It also has the original base and relief on the statue's predella. The relief depicts Perseus saving Andromeda from a sea monster. The pedestal has four recesses with figures from the Perseus legend.
The bronze model seems influenced by Donatello's Judith and Holofernes. After seeing the wax model, Cosimo de Medici exclaimed "My dear Benvenuto, if you can translate this small model to a large scale, it will be the most beautiful statue of the square."
12. Andrea del Verrocchio, David, 1473-75
The Bargello has another young David, a bronze carved by Andrea Del Verrochio in 1473-75. This was one of Verrocchio's first masterpieces. The Medici commissioned the piece in 1494. David was meant to be a symbol of their rising power.
Verrochio's David is very different than Donatello's Bronze David. This idealized David is clothed and wields a sword. He appears confident, smiling, carefree, and graceful. The hand on the hip underscores his almost arrogant attitude. Only the severed head of Goliath at his feet makes clear that he just won a heroic battle.
Verrocchio used his young student, Leonardo da Vince, as the model for David. The sculpture is a study in realism, with even the veins visible. Restorers have determined that the sword isn't the original. David's gilding was uncovered during laser cleaning.
13. Adam and Eve, Baccio Bandinelli, 1551
Have you ever heard of Bandinelli? I hadn't. His name isn't terribly renowned. But he was a significant sculptor of the Renaissance. He's very underrated, and was overshadowed by Michelangelo his entire life.
Bandinelli's rather poor reputation was partly a result of his rival Cellini's autobiography. Cellini vituperatively dragged him through the mud. His sworn enemy Giorgio Vasari also criticized the artist, though he admitted he was an "artistic genius." But Bandinelli was rediscovered by art historians in the 20th century.
The life size Adam and Eve sculptures were commissioned for the Florence cathedral. But the statues were deemed too racy and overly sensual. Their faces are especially beautiful, with wide set innocent eyes.
It's generally agreed that, with the exception of his Laoccoon in the Uffizi, Bandinelli's smaller bronzes and drawings are his best work.
14. Bartolomeo Ammannati, Fountain for the Sala Grande,
Ammannati was an apprentice of Bandinelli. Hailing from a stone cutting town, Ammannati claimed to drink "hammers and chisels with my mother's milk."
In 1555, Cosimi de Medici commissioned this elegant fountain to celebrate the bringing of running water to Florence for the first time. It was intended to be an allegory of "Florentina," a symbol of the Medici's good government.
Cosimo originally intended to put the Grand Hall Fountain in the Hall of the Five Hundred, or Sala Grande, in the Palazzo Vecchio. But it went to the Boboli Gardens instead. And, horrors, it was disassembled, the components dispersed throughout the gardens. It's now recreated and reunified at the Bargello.
Ammannati created a fountain that symbolizes the creation of water. It's a glorious composition of river gods and allegorical figures. The fountain is presided over by Juno, ensconced in a stone rainbow. Even Michelangelo called it "una bella fantastia."