Here’s my guide to the must see art works and masterpieces in Florence Italy, for the art lover’s checklist.
Florence is the cradle of art in the Western world. The city is a designated UNESCO site for its artistic heritage.
With more than 16 million visitors annually, Florence is home to scores of museums, palaces, churches, and cloisters that contain incredible masterpieces. There’s an intense concentration of art work. So intense you might suffer from Stendhal Syndrome.
In the 14th and 15th century, Florence witnessed the birth of one of mankind’s greatest experiments, the Italian Renaissance. Within Florence’s medieval walls, lived the greatest painters of the time. It was in Florence that Europe’s first museums took shape. They began in family collections, then turned into princely collections.
This art lover’s guide to Florence takes you on a tour of 30 renowned Renaissance era masterpieces in Florence. They are seminal groundbreaking works by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto, Masaccio, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and Giorgio Vasari.
These incredible Florentine paintings are varied. Some are colossal fresco cyles on chapel walls and devotional paintings hidden away in dark churches. Others are classic portraits or depictions of mythology. Together, they create the drama and magic that is Florence.
Many of these artists pioneered artistic techniques that would change the world — single point perspective, trompe l’oeil, continuous narrative, a humanistic naturalism, and the rebirth of the ascetic values of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Art Lover’s Guide To Florence: Must See Art in Florence
Let’s take a tour of 30 masterpieces you can’t miss in Florence.
1. Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, San Marco Monastery
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.”
Far Angelico’s best work can be found in the Museum of San Marco Monastery where he frescoed the halls and monks dormitory cells. His most famous painting, The Annunciation, is one of the most celebrated images of Western art.
This celestial masterpiece exudes a light-filled tranquility. In it, the Virgin Mary greets the Angel Gabriel in a walled garden with Corinthian columns, evoking the Garden of Eden. Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to Christ.
The fresco isn’t opulent. Mary’s clothes are pale. She’s slumped over, as if she’s already having morning sickness.
The only elaborate image is Gabriel’s wings, embellished with peacock eyes. The moment of immaculate conception is symbolized by the small grated window with light coming through into the room, or figurative womb, of Mary.
There’s a seriousness, an intimacy, to the scene, and there are few symbolic objects: no memento mori or crown of thorns, no lily, no book. This is not an art work that tells you how to feel. Rather, it summons you into its world.
The Annunciation was the last thing the monks saw before retiring to bed. The painting was a reminder for them to say their prayers. And it’s the start of the cycle of frescoes that depict the life and passion of Christ in the monks cells to follow.
2. Masaccio, The Holy Trinity, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella is a beautiful church with a striking polychrome and white marble facade. The interior is a true marvel. And it holds one of the most famous and innovative paintings in Italy, The Holy Trinity by Masaccio.
Masaccio was an early Renaissance superhero, who tragically died young of malaria at only 27. Masaccio was the first artist, in art history, to incorporate single point linear perspective into his art. This created the illusion of space within a painting and made The Holy Trinity look like a recess in the chapel.
A remarkable thing about the painting is the architectural details. Masaccio used forms of ancient Roman architecture — coffers, columns, a barrel vault, capitals, and a triumphal arch.
In 1952, the Death (or skeleton) at the bottom of the Holy Trinity fresco was discovered underneath plaster. On the ghoulish skeleton, you can see words, which translate to “What you are I once was; what I am, you will be.” This message warns the viewer of his or her own mortality and future death.
3. Botticelli, Birth of Venus, Uffizi Gallery
Sandro Botticelli is the undisputed master of the early Renaissance period. His graceful Birth of Venus is the Uffizi’s most famous art work, akin to the Mona Lisa in Paris’ Louvre Museum. Botticelli spent his entire life in Florence and was a friend of the Medici family.
Birth of Venus is a dreamlike celebration of beauty and love. It’s a lush, richly symbolic, and 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 scallop shell tended by her maids.
The model for Birth of Venus was reputedly Simonetta Vespucci, known as Italy’s most beautiful woman. Venus’ pose was inspired by the Medici family’s marble sculpture Venus de Medici (also in the Uffizi).
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’ gold flecked hair is gleaming and highlighted. Venus’ nakedness is idealized and innocent, not erotic. The painting was restored in 1983 and 1987.
4. Botticelli, Primavera, Uffizi Gallery
Botticelli’s next most famous work is Primavera, also known as the Allegory of Spring. Venus is in the center of an orange grove with a half circle enveloping her.
The choice of an orange grove is significant because the Medici, Botticelli’s chief employer, had adopted the orange tree as their family symbol.
READ: Who Were the Medici?
On Venus’ left, the Three Graces (who represent chastity, beauty, and love) dance in celebration, while Mars dissipates the clouds.
The translucent drapery of their clothing is incredible. Even their hair is interwoven with pearls. On the right, Zephyrus is in hot pursuit of his intended, a nymph who transforms into Flora.
Primavera is enigmatic. Its meaning is uncertain and has stumped scholars for centuries. Most believe the painting depicts the realm of Venus, as sung by the ancient poets. It could also depict a springtime wedding, and was possibly created for the wedding of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s cousin.
Typical of Botticelli, his figures are elongated, weightless, and stand in odd positions. The painting is decorative, almost the opposite of the naturalism most Renaissance painters championed.
But it may have been what the Medici demanded. Both Flora and/or one of the Three Graces (on the left) is a portrait of Simonetta Vespucci.
5. Titian, Venus of Urbino, Uffizi Gallery
Venus of Urbino is one of Florence’s greatest masterpieces. In it, Titian created one of the most famous — and provocative — nudes of all time. By depicting her as the mythological Venus, Titian got away with it.
In the painting, a beautiful and languid Venus stares directly back at us, almost coyly. She’s in an opulent domestic setting. There’s a softness to the layers of paint, which makes it more sensual. Titan also uses chiaroscuro (contrasts of light and dark) to contrast Venus’ skin with the dark rich background.
There’s a debate about who Venus really is. Some art historians think it’s a painting of a courtesan. Others think it’s a marriage portrait. Evidence for the latter theory is the presence of the dog (who represents marital fidelity) and the trunk of clothes (which could be her trousseau).
With Venus of Urbino, Titian sets the standard for the reclining nude, which would be subsequently repeated by many famed artists — Velasquez, Courbet, and Ingres.
Perhaps the most famous reiteration, directly inspired by Venus, is Edouard Manet’s Olympia in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Like Titian’s Venus, Manet’s painting caused a scandal when it was unveiled.
6. Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch, Uffizi Gallery
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 his BFF 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, the original owner’s house collapsed, shattering the painting 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.
7. Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child, Uffizi Gallery
You see this beautiful 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 famous ones by Giotto and Cimabue.
In contrast, Lippi’s Madonna and Child 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 his way 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.
READ: Best Museums in Florence
8. Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Gallery
This Florence masterpiece is an early unfinished painting by Leonardo. If anyone deserves the title “Renaissance Man,” it’s Leonardo.
Leonardo was a painter, polymath, inventor, astronomer, architect, anatomist, and engineer. Despite being spread too thin and often leaving works unfinished, Leonardo left a long-lasting legacy.
In 1481, Leonardo was given the Adoration of the Magi commission by the Augustinian monks of San Donato in Scopeto in Florence. But he left for Milan the following year, leaving the painting mostly unfinished.
In it, Christ has just been born. Three kings come and offer three gifts. Mary and Christ are in the center in a triangular form.
The painting is chaotic, with many competing narratives and animated figures. The focus of the painting is the reaction of the onlookers, which Leonardo portrays with psychological insight.
What’s revealed in the underpainting is Leonardo’s working method. You can see the way he constructs features. You have a sense of his deep understanding of human anatomy. You can also see Leonardo’s famous sfumato technique — where colors blur together to create an atmospheric smokiness and softness.
9. Florence Baptistery, The Last Judgment
Florence’s Baptistery is a key monument of the proto-Renaissance and top attraction in Florence. Its highlight is the stunning golden Byzantine-style ceiling fresco, created by Venetian mosaic artists in the 13th and 14th centuries. It spans 80 feet from side to side. The mosaics tell bible stories.
The most impressive scene is The Last Judgment, the apocalyptic tale where Jesus determines who will go to heaven and hell. Jesus is massive, 19 feet tall. Seated on the rims of Paradise, he stretches his hands to separate the righteous and the damned.
There’s a shockingly low number of people depicted as heading to heaven, mostly clergy. Ugly devils with bat wings push the damned to the right. Hell is dominated by a great horned Satan. The damned are hanged, mutilated, and thrown into fire — a scene which may have influenced Dante’s Divine Comedy.
10. Giorgio Vasari, Frescos in the Hall of Five Hundred, Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio‘s main reception room is the Hall of the Five Hundred, the Salone dei Cinquecento. The name derived from the 500 man assembly that met there in pre-Medici Florence. The hall is the largest room in Italy built for a palace.
In the mid 16th century, the then spartan hall was lavishly remodeled by Giorgio Vasari. Vasari was a late Renaissance artist and the world’s first art historian. He painted massive frescos depicting the The Battle of Marciano, in which Florence triumphed over rivals Pisa and Siena. Vasari also painted the 39 gilded ceiling panels, telling the life story of Cosimo I.
But before Vasari, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to fresco the great hall. He never finished and moved to Milan. Legend holds that, instead of painting over Leonardo’s unfinished work, Vasari built a false wall over the fresco to preserve it. Then he painted The Battle of Marciano on the false wall.
Vasari even left a cryptic clue. On a flag on his fresco, he wrote the phrase “He who looks will find.” Only 15 known Leonardo’s exist, making this possibility tantalizing.
Preliminary investigations suggest Leonardo’s work may indeed lie hidden beyond the false wall. But, to date, further investigation is halted. Historians are hesitant to damage Vasari’s frescos in favor of possible Leonardo frescos.
11. Giorgio Vasari, Apartment of the Elements, Palazzo Vecchio
On the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio are the sumptuously decorated private rooms of the Medici.
They consist of the Hall of the Elements, the Hall of Opi, the Hall of Ceres, the Hall of Jupiter, the Terrace of Juno, the Hall of Hercules, the Scrittoio di Minerva, and the Terrace of Saturn. All the rooms are decorated with allegorical frescoes by Battista del Taso and Giorgio Vasari.
The highlight is the Room of the Elements, Sala deli Elementi, the first of five rooms that make up the quarters of Cosimo I. It’s decorated with gorgeous mythological paintings created by Giorgio Vasari and his workshop in 1556-66.
The paintings symbolize the ancient elements of air, water, fire and earth. The main figure in each picture is an antique god. For a fine view of Florence, you can step out onto the Loggiato di Saturno in Cosimo’s quarters.
12. Pietro da Cortona, Frescos in the Palatine Museum of the Pitti Palace
To visit the Pitti Palace is to immerse yourself in beauty and history. The palace is an incredibly unique combination of splendor, in situ art collections, and beautiful gardens. It’s one of the Florence’s most popular must see attractions.
By far, the Pitti’s most important museum is the fabulous Palatine Gallery. It occupies the left wing of the first floor. The gallery houses an impressive and priceless collection of over 500 paintings, chock a block on top of each other amid lavish stucco, gilt, and silk furnishings. The ceilings themselves are stunning works of art, the first and the most important example of Baroque art in Florence.
In 1641, Cosimo I commissioned Baroque muralist Pietro da Cortona to decorate the ceilings of five formal reception halls on the first floor. Cortona was renowned for his frescos in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini.
He chose planetary themes — the Saturn Room, the Hall of Venus, the Apollo Room, the Jupiter Room, and the Mars Room. He completed 3 of the 5 rooms himself before being called back to Rome.
The frescos were intended to celebrate the Medici lineage and their virtuous leadership of Florence (a bit of propaganda). Cortona worked for the first time with white and gold stucco. He painted in a neo-Venetian style. The local artists were duly awed.
13. Bennozzo Gozzoli, Frescos in the Medici-Riccardi Palace
The Chapel of the Magi is located in the Medici-Riccardi Palace. Though the palace itself is rather a brooding rusticated stone affair, upstairs in the Piano Nobile hides one of the most precious hidden gems in Florence — the Chapel of the Magi. The chapel is accessed via a stairway from the courtyard.
The Chapel of the Magi was a private chapel used exclusively for the Medici’s prayer and devotion. The small chapel is decorated with a beautiful series of frescos painted in 1459 by Benozzo Gozzoli. Gozzoli was trained by Ghiberti and Fra Angelico, and thus developed a charming narrative style.
READ: Who Were the Medici?
The frescos are in two parts, the Procession of the Magi on three walls in the main room and the Adoration of the Magi in the chancel. The frescos are meant to glorify the magnificence of life at the Medici court. It was a form of propaganda to show their wealth and greatness. Throughout the chapel, there’s an abundance of purple porphyry and gold, just to underscore the point.
The Procession of the Magi covers three of the four chapel walls. Each wall represents one of the three kings or magi arriving in Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn king, bringing expensive gifts. Famous Medici appear in the guise of the magi, equating themselves with immortality.
READ: Hidden Gems in Florence
14. Masaccio, Frescos in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine
The Brancacci Chapel is a supreme example of early Renaissance painting. It’s completely filled with frescos by Masaccio and his workshop.
As I mentioned earlier, Masaccio was an influential painter. A Medici rival, 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.
The Brancacci Chapel became a sort of school for Renaissance artists. According to Vasari, all the most celebrated artists came to the chapel, sketchbooks in hand. Masaccio’s frescos were fairly recently restored in the 1980s.
15. Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, Uffizi Gallery
The Doni Tondi, or Holy Family, is Michelangelo’s most famous painting, aside from his work in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums. It’s the only painting Michelangelo ever made that wasn’t painted directly on a wall.
The painting was commissioned by a Florentine merchant, Agnolo Doni, to celebrate his marriage and the birth of his child. The figures are rendered in a sculptural style. The ancient Laocoon sculpture, in the Vatican Museums, had just been unearthed in Rome. It likely influenced an admiring Michelangelo.
The Doni Tondo is unconventional and seems to anticipate the late Renaissance Mannerist style. The colors of the Doni Tondo are bright and unnatural. The composition is a difficult spiral pose.
The Doni Tondo is characteristic of Michelangelo’s women who … well … look like muscular men. You almost think of Rosie the Riveter when you look at Mary’s right bicep.
16. Caravaggio, Medusa, Uffizi Gallery
Caravaggio was the most important and influential Baroque artist. Caravaggio’s story is one of talent and turbulence. He acted like a devil, but painted like an angel.
Caravaggio rejected the sanitized idealism that characterized much of the Renaissance era. He invented and used a darker, dramatically lit palette. He produced naturalistic and emotionally-charged raw works that were viewed as morbid, bluntly realistic, and shocking at the time.
Medusa was a subject right up his alley. According to the poet Ovid, Medusa was renowned for her loveliness. But when Poseidon raped Medusa in the Temple of Athena, Athena was ticked off. She transformed Medusa’s glorious mane of hair into snakes — a symbol of female rage.
Upon looking at her, Medusa’s enemies were turned to stone. Medusa became both a beautiful victim and a monstrous villain. Perseus promised to procure her head and stop her reign of terror.
In Caravaggio’s rendition of the ancient myth, Medusa is shown alive and in the very moment of transformation. Her severed and deformed head is painted on canvas applied to a wooden shield. She peers into an unseen mirror in writhing agony. Caravaggio might have inspired Bernini’s later Medusa in the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
Apart from the Uffizi, there are also a few stunning Caravaggio paintings in the Palatine Gallery of the Pitti Palace — Sleeping Cupid, The Tooth Puller, and Portrait of Fra Marcantonio Martelli.
17. Andrea del Castagno, The Last Supper, Convent of Sant’Apollonia
Castagno’s The Last Supper is an almost unknown masterpiece. This huge beauty covers one wall in the refectory of Florence’s 15th century Sant’Apollonia convent, near San Marco.
It’s a free museum, funded by the Italian state, at least for now. When you walk through the unassuming door, you leave your signature with the custodian and can enjoy sublime art without the crowds.
Castagno was part of the second generation of the early Renaissance period. As a painter, he was inspired by sculpture, particularly by the work of Donatello. His The Last Supper is a painting Leonardo probably knew, studied, and tried to move beyond. It’s considered the first fully Renaissance Last Supper.
Tremendous in its own right, Castagno’s painting imparts incredible spiritual power in an architectonic space. It’s a wildly exciting illusory mix of forced geometric perspective, exaggerated horizontality, metaphysical symbolism, and episodic herky-jerkiness. Dressed in intricately painted togas, each disciple looks like an ancient Roman philosopher.
The protagonist (Jesus) and the antagonist (Judas) take center stage. The betrayer Judas (no halo) is banished to the spectator’s side of the table, and almost resembles a satyr. The rest of the apostles are identified by name on the plinth at their feet.
The overall optical effect is like seeing a hallucinogenic inlaid marble table from above. There’s no light source, windows, or central majestic Jesus, so the eye darts about this uncentered mazy space.
18. Ghiraldaio, The Last Supper: Church of Ognissanti
Near the Arno River is one of the most fabulous churches in Florence — Ognissanti. The church and the convent were decorated by the greatest Early Renaissance masters of the times: Giotto, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio. But because Ognissanti is off center, it doesn’t get many visitors and is a hidden gem in Florence.
The museum’s highlight is Ghirlandaio’s beautiful fresco of The Last Supper on the back wall of the refectory. Ghirlandaio was Michelangelo’s teacher. You can only see it for four hours (9:00 am to 1:00 pm) on Mondays and Saturdays.
The painting is massive, covering the entire rear wall of the refectory. The perspectival construction creates the illusion that the real dining room continues in the fresco.
As is now increasingly typical, Judas is isolated opposite from Christ and the apostles on a long horizontal table. He wears yellow, the symbol of treachery. Typical of Ghirlandaio, the fresco is filled with animation, symbolism, and vivid detail. It almost looks like a terrace garden party, with a Paradise-like landscape.
19. Plautilla Nelli, The Last Supper, Museum of Santa Maria Novella
Dominican nun Plautilla Nelli created a ground breaking addition to the Last Supper genre. Way ahead of her time, Nelli was a self-taught painter and innovator who ran an all woman artists’ workshop out of the Santa Caterina convent.
In 1568, she embarked on her most ambitious project, a monumental The Last Supper painting featuring life size depictions of Jesus and the twelve apostles. She was likely the first woman in the world history to paint this iconic scene.
Nelli’s large canvas is remarkable for its challenging composition, powerful brushstrokes, and adept treatment of anatomy at a time when women were banned from studying the scientific field. Her painting was likely a workshop collaboration, with Nelli executing the drawings and painting the heads shown in 3/4 profile.
In 2015, Nelli’s work was painstaking restored over four years. In 2019, it was unveiled in public for the first time in 450 years. The work was installed in the Santa Maria Novella Museum, where it hangs alongside masterpieces by Masaccio, Brunelleschi, and Ghirlandaio.
20. Andrea del Sarto, The Last Supper, Monastery of San Salvi
The Monastery of San Salvi houses Andrea del Sarto’s masterful The Last Supper. Giorgio Vasari described the painting as an “Endless majesty with its absolute grace of all the painted figures.” Experts rank del Sarto’s The Last Supper second only to Leonardo’s.
Del Sarto was a painter in the High Renaissance, instrumental in the development of the Early Mannerism period. This painting shows Del Sarto at his artistic maturity, with perfect composition and vivid expressive color.
Around the table, set up with a white tablecloth, all the apostles are depicted on the same side as Jesus. A dark haired Judas sits on Jesus’ right, receiving a piece of bread. John reaches out in a tender expression, entwining his fingers with Jesus. Del Sarto’s drawings for this and other scenes are in the Uffizi Gallery.
The most original part of del Sarto’s Last Supper is the upper part. Del Sarto painted a perfectly foreshortened balcony where two characters, at sunset, look over a scene below. During the siege of Florence in 1530, Charles V’s invading army spared The Last Supper for its sheer beauty.
21. Piero della Francesca, The Duke and Duchess of Urbino, Uffizi Gallery
Piero della Francesca is an admired 15th century Italian painter. The Duke and Duchess of Urbino is one of his finest works and a famed painting of the Renaissance. Della Francesca used a cool color palette and sense of geometry and formality to create his works. In addition to being an artist, Piero was a mathematical theorist.
This double portrait used to be a diptych. It was hinged like a book, with landscape scenes painted on the back. The painting is one of the most celebrated portraits of the Renaissance.
It’s a strange juxtaposition and unflattering portrayal of the couple. The couple face each other and look into each others eyes. They are together, but apart. Only a background landscape, rare for that time in painting, connects them.
The duchess’ deathly white skin contrasts sharply to the duke’s bronze and warty face. She has a very high forehead, which was the fashion then, and a complicated braided hairstyle. The duchess had just died and this was a commemorative portrait.
The duke is on the right rather than the left, as was traditional, to disguise a right eye lost from jousting. But his crooked nose is on full display. It’s a classic cexample of the Renaissance tendency to render something ugly as beautiful.
22. Raphael, Portrait of Leo X With Cardinals, Pitti Palace
Leo X is one of Raphael’s most important Renaissance portraits. The Pitti Palace received the painting in a “trade” with the Uffizi Gallery in exchange for the acclaimed Raphael double portrait of Agonoli Doni and Maddalena Strozzi, which is now on display in the Uffizi’s Raphael and Michelangelo Room.
The painting depicts Pope Leo X, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Leo was know for his lechery and wasteful habits. His policies also led to the Protestant Reformation.
But there’s no chaos in the portrait, aside from his rather corpulent body. Leo is clad in red, a symbol of the papacy.
The composition of the portrait is unusual, with Leo appearing to be reacting to someone entering the room. The painting was lauded as masterpiece of realism and naturalism. Ironically, though it was a dynastic piece for the Medici family, it shows two of the worst popes in the history of the Catholic Church.
23. Giotto, Frescos in the Basilica of Santa Croce
Giotto was the greatest painter of the 14th century, a founding father of the Renaissance. He was the first artist in two centuries to portray the likenesses of real people.
Giotto was revolutionary in suggesting a three dimensional pictorial space. He abandoned the stark outline and ornate patterns for figures. Instead, he used subtle gradations of light and shadow.
Giotto spent much of his life at Santa Croce, frescoing the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels.
An aristocratic banking family, the Bardi hired Giotto to decorate their family chapel, just to the right of the choir. In 1320-28, Giotto painted seven episodes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he personally identifed with. They are some of Giotto’s most important later works. You read them from right to left, top to bottom.
The frescos show Giotto’s innovative nature. The figures depart from the figurative stiffness characteristic of medieval times. They have an intensely emotive faces.
Giotto’s figures are depicted as compassionate, even appearing to cry at St. Francis’ death. The Santa Croce frescos are the highest point of Giotto’s pictorial work. Generations of future artists were to come to Santa Croce to admire and learn from them.
The precious frescos were painted over in the 18th century. They were rediscovered in the 19th century. But an ineffective rework damaged them. Hence, today there are some empty patches. The chapel is currently undergoing another restoration.
The Peruzzi Chapel features Giotto’s first work in Santa Croce. Giotto covered the chapel with stories of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.
Sadly, the frescos are in poor condition. Giotto painted them in the secco fresco technique, where the plaster is allowed to dry before the oil paint is applied. This is easier than true fresco, painted on wet plaster. But it’s much less durable.
Painted 30 years earlier, the Peruzzi frescos are less impressive than the Bardi frescos. Those are livelier and more dramatic. Still, it’s believed that both Masaccio and Michelangelo studied the Peruzzi frescos.
24. Taddeo Gaddi, Frescos in the Basilica of Santa Croce
The frescos in the Baroncelli Chapel are considered the most important work of Forentine painter Tadeo Gaddi, an apprentice and godson of Giotto. Construction of the Baroncelli Chapel began in 1328. It’s one of the best preserved chapels in Santa Croce, boasting a beautiful altar, stained glass window, and ceiling cupola.
Gaddi painted the fresco cycle between 1328 and 1338. It represents stories dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Gaddi’s frescos are famous for their narrative style, psychological acuteness, and realistic detail.
In the scene depicting the marriage of the Virgin, for example, the actual ceremony is almost lost amid the holy burly of the guests and musicians. Only at a second glance do you see Mary and Joseph joining hands. A Paradise-like garden is visible above the high wall, a beautiful touch.
25. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, Uffizi Gallery
Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the most talented painters of the Baroque period. She rivaling Caravaggio himself. Judith Beheading Holofernes is her masterpiece.
The painting depicts a classic biblical scene, popular with many artists including Donatello and Caravaggio. It’s the Old Testament story of Judith and Holofernes, in which a heroic woman single handedly beheads the warlord who’s besieged her town in Israel.
Typically, a widowed Judith is portrayed as virtuous, delicate, or almost disgusted by her murderous task. The actual act of beheading wasn’t even depicted, until Caravaggio’s 1599 treatment (in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini).
Artemisia’s version is even bloodier, a shockingly violent beheading. The focus of the painting is Judith, not Holofernes. He looks to be almost dead, his limbs visually cut off and body radically foreshortened.
Judith is depicted as a muscle-y determined woman on a mission. She’s not subtle or disgusted. She’s out to get her man with a large sword and rolled up sleeves.
Rivulets of blood spill onto white sheets. Artesmisia was raped by her tutor, Agostino Tassi, when she was just 17. To give her painting an autobiographical spin, Artemisia rendered Judith as a self portrait and gave Holofernes the face of Tassi.
26. Raphael, Woman With a Veil, Pitti Palace
This beautiful Raphael portrait is a highlight of the Palatine Museum. It’s believed to depict Raphael’s lover, Margherita Luti. Raphael was a ladies man. While Raphael was painting frescos at the Villa Farnesina, he began an affair with her.
In 1520, Raphael died abruptly at just 37. The diagnosis? According to Vasari, Raphael died from “too much sex,” which caused him to spike a fever. His bedmate on his last happy night? Most likely, Margherita.
Unlike much of Raphael’s other work, this is an intimate portrait. The woman’s right hand rests over her heart and her left hand between her legs. It’s a Venus-like posture reminiscent of The Capitoline Venus in Rome’s Capitoline Museums, equating La Fornarina with the goddess of love.
The painting has an exquisite attention to detail. Luti’s beautiful face is depicted with deep and penetrating eyes. She wears a pink-tinged gown of sumptuous material, executed with masterful skill by Raphael that lends a sense of depth. Rather ironically, this portrait of a baker’s daughter is in the Jupiter Hall, the former Medici throne room.
27. Raphael, Portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni, Uffizi Gallery
This Raphael double portrait was removed from its original in situ location in the Pitti Palace and is now in the Uffizi. The two famous and exquisite half bust portraits depict a newly married couple — a successful Florentine merchant and his aristocratic wife. They were commissioned by Agnolo Doni, who also commissioned Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo.
The works show the influence of Leonardo da Vinci and were meant to compete with the Mona Lisa. The portrait of Maddalena has a similar composition and picture plane to the Mona Lisa — half length in front of a balustrade against a landscape background.
But Raphael departed from Leonardo’s sfumato technique, adopting an absolutely clear use of shape and color. Of particular note is the sublime matching landscape uniting the figures. While Maddalena’s face is stern, that of her husband is more mysterious.
28. Fra Bartolemo, Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola, San Marco Monastery
Fra Bartolomeo, like Fra Angelico, was a talented painter-monk. He was essentially the next greatest painter working at San Marco, and influenced the great Raphael. Fra Bartolomeo’s most famous painting is a haunting portrait of Savonarola in profile.
Savonarola was known as the “mad monk.” He launched an ascetic movement that would temporarily dethrone the Medici, establish a theocracy in Florence, and change the course of religious history ushering in the Reformation. But his rule was so stringent that Florentines rebelled, publicly executing him in the Piazza della Signoria.
Fra Bartolomeo came under Savonarola’s influence in the 1490s and became a friar in 1500. He gave up painting for several years because Savonarola considered it decadent. But the monastery instructed him to resume to benefit the Dominican order.
In this painting, Fra Bartolomeo provides a “true likeness” of Savonarola. His prominent features and alert eyes express a steely determination. The portrait was an homage to the charismatic reformer. It’s undated and may have been painted after Savonarola’s death, in veneration of his life.
29. Giorgio Vasari, The Last Judgment, Florence Cathedral
Another great masterpiece in Florence is the fresco in Florence Cathedral. Covering some 3,6000 square meters, the fresco is the largest fresco in the world. Originally, the Duomo architect Brunelleschi wanted his dome covered in gold mosaics like the Baptistery. But that plan was never realized.
120 years after Brunelleschi’s death, Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned Giorgio Vasari to fresco the dome. The Last Judgment is divided in to five zones.
Enthroned in the center is Christ the judge. The various levels separated by bands show the other players — the elders of the apocalypse, saints, members of the Medici family, and the damned in hell.
In their monumentality, the figures floating against the background of heaven are reminiscent of those of Michelangelo, who Vasari revered. Michelanglo’s The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was Vasari’s inspiration.
30. Fra Angelico, The Last Judgment, San Marco Monastery
The Last Judgment is one of Fra Angelico’s most renowned works of art. The painting was originally in the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. It was recently restored and unveiled to the public anew in 2019. The painting has a unique shape, intended as a seat back for priests during high mass.
As in most paintings on this theme, Christ sits elevated on a throne surrounded by angels and saints. He’s judging who should go to heaven and hell. The bottom right section represents hell. Demons torture the souls of the wicked. A three headed Satan even chews them up.
What’s unique about Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment is the illusionistic perspective and riveting narrative. The tombs recede into the horizon, creating a sense of depth. The concave semicircle at the top suggests the figures are seated at a distance. There are also dancing angels, possibly based on a 15th century hymn equating dancing and love.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the masterpieces of Florence. You may enjoy these other guides to the magnificent art of Italy:
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