It was time for David to meet David. That is, it was time for my husband David to meet David, Michelangelo’s iconic sculpture. This was not going to be an intimate encounter. In the nearly post-Covid spring of 2023, the streets outside the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence hummed with visitors eager to spend a few minutes with perfection. People converged as if David were a rock star.
I first met the marble David on a trip to Europe with my father. It was not long after my mother died, and everything was both overwhelming and amazing. At 16 I had no categories for what I saw; AP Euro was still a year in my future. But I liked the word “Renaissance.” I liked the way it rolled around my tongue and that it signaled rebirth and change. Now, returning to Florence decades later, I wanted to gain perspective on the colossal cultural shift that ushered modernity into the Western world.
Santa Maria Novella
By chance, because it was a quick couple of blocks from our hotel, our Florentine guide Alessandra Gardin started us off in the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. She explained that when the Dominicans began to build the basilica in the 1250s, Florence was a tiny village surrounded by high walls for protection from the Goths and Lombards. The townspeople were beginning to amass wealth by importing wool, silk and leather, and transforming them into luxury goods.
Behind its green-and-white marble façade, Santa Maria Novella opened up to share its hidden treasures, including an enormous wooden crucifix by the early Renaissance painter Giotto (circa 1290).
The frescos inside not only venerated Mary, but also introduced us to Florentine gentry, particularly the art patrons and donor families who made the frescos possible.The people in the frescos looked alive. They were not the flat portrayals found in medieval churches. They had lifelike expressions and physicality. They showed emotions. And they stood in beautifully realized buildings with arches that receded into the distance. We were seeing the use of proportion and the beginnings of perspective, bringing us face to face with the early Renaissance.
The artistic genius behind these frescos was Domenico Ghirlandaio. His workshop in the late 1400s was a who’s who of future Renaissance luminaries, including 14-year-old Michelangelo, who drew Ghirlandaio’s ire by trying to correct some of the master’s drawings. Interesting—and fun to imagine the young genius’s hubris. That same hubris enabled 26-year old Michelangelo to convince a 12-member guild committee that he deserved the commission to take over work on the 17-foot slab of marble that emerged as David two years later.
One of Alessandra’s goals was to orient us to Florence.
We wandered from our neighborhood past enticing shopping streets to the Piazza della Repubblica. This would become our route to all things Florentine, from sublime art to amusing shops and gelato. My eyes darted from shop to shop until we reached another piazza, as crowded as a New York subway.
We were in Piazza di San Giovanni, outside Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo, Florence’s signature architectural landmark, with its octagonal dome and graceful campanile. The fourth largest church in the world, the building is so huge it’s hard to grasp its entirety when standing nearby. Imagine praying with 20,000 of your best friends!
This being Florence, famous artists crossed disciplines in surprising ways. Giotto, considered the founding artist of the Renaissance, designed the bell tower. Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith and sculptor by trade and a mathematician and engineer by talent, was awarded the commission to design and build the dome in 1418.
A wonder of Renaissance architecture, the dome has become a lasting visible symbol of Florence. Brunelleschi’s major innovation: an interior supporting dome within the exterior dome, which was clad in more than four million terracotta bricks. The construction took one hundred workers 22 years to build, as chronicled in Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome.
Remembering Ghiberti’s doors
Retreating a bit from the rain and the crowds waiting to go inside and climb the dome, we turned and found ourselves face to face with one of my treasured memories from the trip with my dad: the gilded bronze doors of the Baptistry of San Giovanni.
It’s funny how the memory of the doors stayed with me, while the memory of the Duomo faded. Maybe it was the scale. Maybe it was church fatigue. Whatever the reason, my recollection of those doors, with their pint-sized masterpieces at eye level, endured.
Although the building is an 11th-century Romanesque structure, the doors were designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, a goldsmith and sculptor who won a competition to design doors for the baptistry in 1401, when he was 21 years old. (In case you’re keeping score, Brunelleschi lost that contest.)
Alessandra, excited to hear that I remembered the doors after so many years, showed us what makes them so special and emblematic of the Renaissance. “You can see the perspective very well. For the first time you can see the impressive contrast between the high relief for the figures and the lower relief Ghiberti used for the background,” she said, pointing out the layers in the ten panels illustrating stories from the Old Testament. She reminded us to look at the smaller figures of prophets and local luminaries, including Ghiberti himself, that framed the panels.
It took him 27 years to complete the doors, which utilized 34,000 pounds of bronze. Nicknamed the “Porta del Paradiso” (Gates of Paradise) by Michelangelo, Ghiberti’s doors remain a treasure of Florentine Renaissance art. What I didn’t realize during our visit is that the doors we were looking at are replicas. The originals were restored beginning in 1990, and since 2012 have resided in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo. We enjoyed seeing the replicas in the place I remember seeing the originals, all those years ago.
We were beginning to get the picture. The Renaissance was vibrant. The artists knew and competed with each other. They trained in each other’s workshops. There were lineages. They were supported by various guilds and merchant groups, most notably by the banking Medici family. Under the patronage of Cosimo the Elder and his grandson, Lorenzo Il Magnifico, artists that we, 600 years later, think of as G-O-A-T-S (the greatest of all time) thrived.
“It couldn’t be by chance that some of the most important artists of Renaissance Italy lived and worked in Florence at almost the same time,” mused Alessandra. “It was all because the Medici promoted art.”
The next day David and I detoured back about 100 years to the Museo Casa di Dante where we learned about Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in the spoken Florentine dialect, rather than in Latin, paving the way for the modern Italian language. When we met up with Alessandra later that afternoon, she proudly told us that Dante was the father of the Italian language. “Of the 2000 essential words in modern Italian, Dante used 1600 of them,” she said. “In English, it would be like Shakespeare.”
That much we knew. But we knew nothing about the conflicts between various Florentine factions—the Guelphs and the Ghibellines—that got Dante permanently exiled. As much as he loved his home city, he once wrote that it was a city of “wolves that war upon it.” What a surprise for us to learn about Dante as a politician rather than as a lovesick poet forever searching for his beloved Beatrice from the depths of the Inferno to Paradiso.
Leaving the Dante museum, we met up with Alessandra, who guided us past Santa Croce, the Franciscan church considered the “mausoleum of Italian glories” because so many important Italian luminaries are buried there. David and I circled back the next afternoon since we had timed tickets to the Uffizi Gallery to see more spectacular Renaissance art.
As we entered the Piazza della Signoria—the gateway to the Uffizi—the building that instantly caught our eye was the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s city hall from the time of the Medici grand dukes. Now part museum and part city offices, it towered above the two-story, U-shaped Uffizi (the offices), originally built as administrative space when the Medici dukes ruled Florence.
The Uffizi, like the Met in New York, is one of those museums that can be overwhelming. We were glad to have Alessandra guide us through what she claimed was the first museum in the world. We walked through a long hallway with an array of classical statues from antiquity, a dizzying frescoed ceiling and portraits of too many people for us to learn who they were.
Once inside the gallery, we stopped to admire the duke and duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca. There were so many details to absorb looking at this diptych, things we would have never understood on our own. The portraits are in profile because the duke lost his right eye in battle, and he wanted to present his good side. His wife’s skin is painted ghostly white since she had already died when the portrait was painted. But the key to these being Renaissance paintings lies in the background, which depicts the landscape in perspective. It was one of the first paintings to take that leap.
Next stop was the popular Botticelli gallery. He was the official painter of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The delightful La Primavera and the Birth of Venus are paintings we have all seen a thousand times in reproduction. But in real life, right in front of us, they glowed with shimmering details.
“Get closer, get closer,” nudged Alessandra, as she urged us to look at the details: translucent cloth for the nymphs or graces, lush velvet for the pregnant figure in the center, and a dress festooned with emblematic flowers. “Look at the plants and flowers. You can recognize them—chrysanthemum, jasmine, roses, forget-me-nots, iris and orange trees.”
The paintings, she explained, were exceptionally vivid to give the impression of a tapestry. “Tapestries were very expensive, so they were reserved for official rooms. Panel paintings like these were for private rooms.” These were commissioned to wish fertility for a recently married couple.
Another painting of supreme beauty was Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation. We mostly walked past the religious paintings, but this one was special. Da Vinci set the biblical story in an earthly setting, and the archangel Gabriel looked like a real person, except that his wings were those of a bird of prey.
“Da Vinci studied birds and their movements. He also studied mountains and geology,” Alessandra told us. That led to a conversation about sfumato, Da Vinci’s technique of using thin glazes to add a smoky haze to the background, mimicking the hazy landscape beyond where the human eye can focus. “It captures your gaze up to the very end, producing the illusion of infinite space.”
After seeing so many riches, we were grateful to come to the window overlooking the Arno River. Our view past the Ponte Vecchio reminded us how much more there was still to see in Florence.
The next day David and I set off on our own to finally meet Michelangelo’s marble David. It was a good thing that we had prearranged for timed tickets, as general admission was sold out for the day. The small street, without its own piazza, was not designed for 21st-century tourism.
Inside, we followed the crowds. The David, carved from 1502-1504, stood tall on a plinth in a gallery designed to show him off with full dramatic effect.
I still remember wandering through that gallery with my father so many years ago. I knew I was supposed to marvel at the David, but I was deeply moved by the unfinished statues known together as The Captives, also by Michelangelo, that lined the corridor. Seeing those pieces in person, with the figures emerging out of the stone, was a revelation in the art of carving. How does a sculptor see a figure in a block of stone, let alone have the skill to carve it?
With his rippling muscles, curly hair and veined hands, the David has stood free and tall for five centuries, a marked contrast to the captives still trapped in their stones. The statue originally stood outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where it represented a Florence free from outside interference. Today a replica stands in the Piazza della Signoria.
As I inched my way closer, there was a palpable sense of awe, of wonder. People crowded around, phones in hand, trying to take a piece of that perfection home with them. We were no different.
That’s when I noticed his feet. At the base of that perfect body were feet that needed a pedicure. Seriously. Have a look. That’s when David, the live human David, reminded me that biblical David was a shepherd. “He probably went around barefoot. Of course his feet would have looked like that,” he said.
After lunch of a perfect pizza and gelato, we found ourselves back at Santa Croce just before closing to pay our respects to those exemplary Renaissance thinkers. Outside, a sculpture of Dante stands tall against a deep blue sky, while school groups mingle on the church steps.
Inside, a tomb with Dante’s name and likeness stands empty. His contested remains are in Ravenna, the city where he died after his forced exile from Florence.
Nearby rest Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo and other Renaissance superstars, each of whom changed their perspective of the world—and ours.
I was happy to have visited their world, even for just a few days.