Florence’s Bargello Museum: more naked men per capita than the Uffizi

by Alexandra Korey

Much loved in the 19th century, the national museum of sculpture in Florence, better known as the
Bargello, now sees a much smaller flow of tourists than the flashier Uffizi and Accademia. While there
are reproductions of the Uffizi’s colourful paintings and the very famous David on everything from
serious books to less serious men’s underwear, the duller stone and bronze works housed at the
Bargello seem unable to compete.


The reality is that the Bargello houses more naked men per capita than the Uffizi, and does not lack in
famous names either: with its 3 Michelangelos, one ought not to snivel at it. It’s also pretty colourful,
since it’s got a great collection of maiolica (glazed terracotta). I know that many short-visit tourists don’t
go to the Bargello since there are, apparently, more important options. But I was surprised to hear
that many Florentines have never been there. This museum contains sculptures that put Florence
on the map – works by Donatello that essentially began the Renaissance. How strange that my friends
had never been inside.

While the Uffizi is getting new signage, services and spaces, the Bargello lags behind in modern
museology, making it useful to take a qualified tour (I like Context Travel) if you don’t happen to have
an art historian handy. Museums like this require narration to be understood and fully appreciated. You
could print this post and bring it with you, and that’d be like having an art historian in your pocket. To
complete this effect I’m going to walk you through the space chatting as if you were my best friend. I’ve
turned off my scholarly voice.

There is no map available to visitors of the Bargello, so you’re going to have to use your imagination.
After you purchase your ticket, you’ll enter an open courtyard that has an imposing stone staircase on
its right side. The courtyard is decorated with hundreds of coats-of-arms of the podestà, the head of
Florentine government who resided here. The building dates to 1255, with many subsequent additions
and alterations. This history helps explain the rather illogical arrangement of rooms and the steps that
separate them even on the same level. When the Medici had full control of Florence, the role of the
building and of the podestà turned toward law enforcement, and later it became the city jail. Only in
1840, thanks to the discovery of some frescoes, was this use of the building revoked (the jail was moved
to Le Murate, where it stayed until 1985, and that building has now been renovated and turned into a
cultural complex).

The rooms in this museum are not arranged chronologically, in that the first room to the right,
near the stairwell, houses the Michelangelo and Michelangelesque sculptures. If you were to do
things “right,” you might first head upstairs to the Donatello room, complete the second floor with the
Verrocchio room, and then head down to Michelangelo at the end. This order of rooms would present a
traditional “progressive improvement” view of art history that can be helpful for the simple reason that
students keep styles and artists’ names in their head best if taught things in order.

As you’re not a student, feel free to check out Michelangelo’s Bacchus in that ground floor room first.
He’s a youthful work by Mike, and what I think is coolest is the way that marble is made to look like soft
flesh. Drunkenness requires a softness of focus that is not easy to render in hard stone. The other works

in this room are less spectacular, but the Pitti Tondo is a nice way to see Michelangelo’s work in

The largest room in the Bargello is on the first floor: the Donatello room contains, as you might
imagine, sculptures by this man who first used the natural contrapposto pose that characterizes early
Renaissance sculpture. Compare two Davids by Donatello with the more famous David by Michelangelo
at the Accademia! Don’t miss the snarky naked putto (cherub) in bronze, sheathed in mystery (we don’t know
when he was made, nor what he really represents).

This room has two possible exits – a door toward the back of the room, or the door through which
you originally came. Take the latter if you want to get to the loggia in which there are some fun bronze
sculptures of animals. Take the former if you like strange Ottoman bronze objects. In the intermittent
rooms are decorative objects in metal, maiolica, and ivory. There is a large glass case that contains
jewelry and cameos that I find particularly fascinating. There is a ring that has a velvet lining for
comfortable wear, an item that particularly intrigued me when I first came here as a student.

There’s a frescoed chapel with a pretty good scene of tortured souls in Hell and what is claimed to be
a portrait of Dante on the altar wall. In the glass cases at the back of the room don’t miss the small
enamel and silver plaques that are some of the most amazing goldsmith work you’ll ever see.

Many people seem to miss the upper level of this museum which houses a huge coin collection, a room
full of miniature bronze sculptures, another dedicated to seriously gaudy maiolica by the Della Robbia
Family, and finally the Verocchio room. The star of this room is yet another statue that represents
David, so of course you’ll want to compare him to the Donatellos you saw downstairs. On the left
wall just inside the door is a fascinating bas-relief that represents the story of a woman who died in
childbirth and the grief of her husband, who commissioned this work. It’s one of the most touching pieces
in Renaissance art history.

Alexandra Korey no longer teaches art history, preferring blog readers to students, since if you’re still
reading this, you’re really interested in hearing what I have to say. You can read more of her ramblings
about life in Florence with an aesthete’s eye on her blog www.arttrav.com

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