Where? Room 10-14 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1482 and 1485
Commissioned by? Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), ruler of the Florentine Republic and one of the most important driving forces of the Renaissance.
What do you see? The goddess Venus is shown naked on top of a shell on the seashore. She is born from the sea as a mature and sexual woman. Her facial expression is very peaceful and innocent. She tries to conceal herself with her hair and arm. This pose of Venus is inspired by the Greek statues made of Venus. For example, you can see the similarity to the positioning of the arms in the statue of Venus de' Medici (which is also in the Uffizi). If you look carefully, it looks like Venus is floating on the shell as the positioning of her feet and body is physically unrealistic. On the left, Zephyr, the god of the west wind, blows Venus to the shore. Meanwhile, Zephyr is carrying the nymph, Chloris. They are surrounded by flowers which are falling from the sky. On the right, Ores, goddess of the seasons, hands a flowered cloak to Venus to cover herself.
Backstory: This is one of the most famous paintings in the world. Venus is born from the sea foam (her Greek name Aphrodite means ‘arisen from foam’). According to the myths, the Greek god Cronus castrated the god Uranus and threw his genitals into the sea. Aphrodite was later born from the foam of his genitals. The theme of the painting is inspired by the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Amazon link to the book), which consists of 15 books and 240 myths starting from the creation of the world until the deification of Julius Caesar. Ovid (also known as Homer) writes in his work about an adult Venus who is rising from the sea to inspire love.
Symbolism: Violets, the flowers of love, are blowing in the wind on the left. The shell represents feminism. The dress of Ores and the robe she is holding for Venus are decorated with various spring flowers related to the birth theme, including red and white daisies, blue cornflowers, and yellow primroses.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. According to the myths, she was born from the foam of the sea. This happened when the Titan Cronus castrated Uranus, his father, whose genitals fertilized the sea and led to the birth of Venus. The goddess Venus is known in Greek mythology as Aphrodite. In Latin, Venus means ‘sexual desire’. She is the mother of Aeneas who survived the fall of Troy and fled to Italy. As such, Venus was considered the mother of the Romans and therefore a very popular goddess among the Romans. Perhaps because of this, Julius Caesar claimed to be an ancestor of Venus.
Why Venus? Whereas Mary was the ideal woman to paint from a Christian point of view, Venus represents the moral dangers and shame of the human body. Christianity taught the people to be ashamed of the nude human body. Botticelli was trying to blend the Christian worldview and the arising humanist worldview. From that background, you can understand why Venus is still partly covering her nakedness with her hair (the Venus of Urbino painted in 1538 by Titian will show you a much more explicit depiction of Venus). This is a transition from religious art to Renaissance art. In some sense, Venus represents the opposite of Mary.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter that belonged to the Florentine school of painters. He was a student of Filippo Lippi. Botticelli was in love with Simonetta Vespucci (a cousin-in-law of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci), who was already married to Marco Vespucci. Simonetta was known as the greatest beauty of her time and died in 1476. As a result of that Botticelli never married. Throughout his life, he has been inspired by Simonetta, who has served, according to popular belief, as the inspiration for many of his paintings (including this painting). According to his wish, Botticelli was buried at the feet of Simonetta Vespucci.
Fun fact: Many people have noted the ‘cadaverous’ color of Venus, which is not considered very attractive. This was not some macabre fantasy of Botticelli, but merely a consequence of the deterioration of the pigment over time. And if you look carefully, the neck of Venus and her left arm are longer than you would expect. Botticelli incorporated these elongations on purpose as they were considered a form of beauty.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster and canvas.
Where? Room 97 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Cardinal del Monte, who gave it as a present to Ferdinando I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
What do you see? A young Bacchus is holding a glass of wine in his left hand. He has a wreath of vine leaves and grapes on his head. It seems that he is wearing some makeup on his face. With his right hand, he is playing with the drawstrings of his half-opened robe. Bacchus is sitting on a chaise longue (a Roman type of chair/bench – also called a triclinium). On the stone table in front of him are a ceramic bowl of fruit and a jug of wine. The bowl of fruit contains both healthy and spoiled fruits as well as fresh green leaves and spoiled yellow leaves. Bacchus already seems a bit drunk and extends an invitation to the viewer to join him for a glass of wine and maybe something more… If you look carefully, you can see the ripples in the glass of wine to indicate the movement of the left arm of Bacchus towards the viewer.
Backstory: This painting was created when Caravaggio was staying with his first patron, Cardinal del Monte. True to his unconventional style, Caravaggio painted an imperfect, limited, earthly version of Bacchus. This may be close to some of the figures he met in the many taverns and brothels that he liked to visit. Cardinal del Monte gave it away in 1608 to the Grand Duke of Tuscany on the occasion of the marriage of the Grand Duke’s son Cosimo II. The painting has long been unknown to the public as it stayed for centuries hidden in some of the private quarters of its owners. It was rediscovered in 1913 in the storage of the Uffizi Museum after which it was attributed to Caravaggio.
Symbolism: The bowl with spoiled fruit is an example of a vanitas, which means ‘emptiness’. Vanitas refers in the traditional Christian view to the emptiness and worthlessness of all earthly goods and ambitions. Spoiled fruit is one common way to present this. It was appropriate to depict this fruit with Bacchus as he was associated with fertility and agriculture. Notice also the dirty fingernails of Bacchus. Some interpret this as a warning of the consequences of earthly pleasures, while other just attribute this to the style of Caravaggio (he painted in great detail what he saw, including dirty fingernails). The vine leaves in Bacchus’ hair are one of his sacred symbols, and that is how we can easily recognize him. Finally, it seems that Bacchus is wearing some makeup on his face, which is often associated with sexuality and strengthens the idea that he is inviting the viewer for more than a glass of wine.
Who is Bacchus? Bacchus (in Greek Dionysus) is the god of the wine, fertility, madness, theatre, and religious ecstasy. He is the son of god Zeus and the mortal Semele.
Why Bacchus? Bacchus was a chronic alcoholic and was a good subject to depict the misery of the common people (or as some people think, the miserable state of Caravaggio at the time of the painting). Bacchus was also the inspiration for popular festivals, called Bacchanalia, which were introduced to Rome in the second century before Christ. These festivals contained a lot of alcohol and nudity and were a popular theme in Renaissance art. The fact that Bacchus was associated with drinking and other crazy activities made him a popular subject for some less religious artists. Caravaggio has created more paintings in which Bacchus was the subject. For example, around 1593, he created the painting Young Sick Bacchus which is considered to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio. This painting is now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying both attention to the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a brilliant contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. Caravaggio had a tumultuous life and was accused of murder, assault, many fights, and he served in prison. However, his sheer brilliance as an artist has given him a place in the history books. His painting style has had a big influence on the development of Baroque painting (which includes drama and an intense contrast between light and dark). Among his many famous works are his Medusa in the Uffizi Museum and The Musicians in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Many experts believe that Caravaggio used a mirror to draw this painting such that he did not have to make the drawing first, but could immediately work on the painting. This means that the model for this painting offered the wine with his right hand, instead of the somewhat awkward way in which Bacchus is using his left hand. Another reason to believe that Caravaggio was using a mirror for this painting is that after a cleaning of the painting a very small self-portrait of Caravaggio working on a painting was revealed in the reflection of the jug of wine (but it is difficult to see).
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Room 83 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Guidobaldo II Della Rovere (1514-1574), the Duke of Urbino (a sovereign of central-northern Italy), commissioned this oil painting for his wife, Giulia Varano (1523-1547).
What do you see? A representation of a beautiful and sensual Venus, the goddess of love, is looking you straight in the eye. She lies naked on top of a white sheet in a room of a big Renaissance palace. Notice the beautifully painted folds in the sheets and the pillows. Venus is only wearing a gold bracelet with black enamels on her right arm, a ring on the pinky of her left hand, and a pearl earring. She has roses in her right hand, and you can see that one of the roses has already fallen on the red bed which has a pattern of black flowers. Her hair, partly woven in braids, is falling over her shoulders. Her body is contrasted with the dark background on the left, emphasizing her nakedness. Notice how the straight lines of the architecture nicely contrast with the curviness of Venus. The two maids in the background are apparently searching for Venus’ clothes in one of the two bridal chests.
Backstory: Guidobaldo II Della Rovere gave this painting to his young wife (who was 15 at the time of the painting), and the painting provides the meaning of marriage. Some people consider this as one of the most erotic paintings in history. But others have a less flattering opinion. The American author Mark Twain described the work as follows in 1880: “The foulest, the vilest, the most obscene picture the world possesses.” The theme of this painting is referred to as a ‘reclining female nude’, a genre that became popular in the early Renaissance. For this painting, Titian was inspired by a painting of the Sleeping Venus (also known as the Dresden Venus) which was started by Giorgione and finished after his death by Titian. And this painting has inspired many future variations on the reclining nude, including Olympia by Édouard Manet.
Symbolism: The painting provides three lessons of marriage for Giulia Varano. She needs to be erotic, faithful, and become a mother. The clear eroticism in the painting should remind Giulia of her sexual obligations in the marriage. The dog laying on the bed is a symbol of marital faithfulness. The maid on the right side, who is overlooking a kid, is a symbol of motherhood. The chests on the right were a typical wedding present in Italy at that time. The white sheets on which Venus is laying represent purity. Venus holds some roses in her hand, which were a symbol of love. Similarly, the red bed on which she is laying also represents love.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. One of the two children of Venus is Aenaes, who was one of the few people to escape from Troy according to Virgil’s poem Aeneid. Two of the descendants of Aeneas were Remus and Romulus, who founded Rome.
Why Venus? Venus was a symbol of love and sensuality. As this painting was for private use, Venus was a symbolic inspiration for this painting. In reality, a contemporaneous model has been used to depict Venus, most likely Angela del Moro, a friend of Titian.
Who is Titian? Titian (1488/1490 – 1576) was a painter and greatest member of the Venetian school of painters. He was very talented in painting both portraits and landscapes, which is and was a rare combination. In his teenage years, the Bellini brothers (Gentile and Giovanni) taught him how to paint, but his work was quickly considered to be better than that of the Bellini brothers. Many of the paintings of Titian throughout his long career contain nudity.
Fun fact: More than 300 works of Titian survived, partly because Titian became very old for his time. While there is quite some discussion about his actual year of birth, he claimed in a letter to the Spanish king, Philip II, to have been born in 1474. That would mean he died at the age of 102. The consensus nowadays is that Titian grossly exaggerated in that letter and that he was born around 1488-1490. Another characteristic of Titian was that, while he was considered to be the leading painter in Venice, he was notoriously greedy.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Room 35 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Mary sits on a paved terrace in front of a palace-like building and is reading at a richly decorated desk carved from marble. She gets surprised by a visit of the youthful Archangel Gabriel, who explains to her that she will be the mother of the Son of God. Gabriel raises his right hand to greet Mary and holds a white lily in his left hand. Mary hesitantly raises her left hand to greet the angel. The landscape in the back shows mountains, a sea, and cypresses, all typical elements present in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. All perspectives – height, width, and depth – converge on Mary, making her the center of attention. Interestingly, the desk of Mary and the palace-like building seem somewhat out of place in this setting, and the figures of Mary (who is usually described as a simple woman) and Gabriel seem to fit better with the bed of flowers and the nature-like background.
Backstory: This painting has been in the Uffizi since 1867. Before that it hung in the San Bartolomeo at Monte Oliveta Church in the countryside of Tuscany. There has been a constant debate on who painted this work. The consensus is now that this painting was created in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. A popular explanation is that the painting was started by Andrea del Verrocchio, who left a note to his pupil Leonardo da Vinci to finish the painting. This painting is now considered by many to be Leonardo’s first major work, as he made the background, the wings of the angel, and the finishing touches to the painting. The painting is based on Luke 1: 26-38, where the Archangel Gabriel foretells the birth of Jesus to Mary.
Symbolism: The angel holds a Madonna lily in his left hand. This lily represents the purity of Mary and is also the symbol of the city of Florence. Mary can be identified by her dress which is largely blue. The enclosed garden in which Gabriel is kneeling is a symbol of Mary’s virginity. The marble desk or sarcophagus in the middle has been painted after the tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici which was carved by Verrocchio.
Who is Mary? The Virgin Mary has been the most popular subject in Christian art. She represents four Roman Catholic dogmas, which are at the basis of Catholicism: Perpetual Virginity (when she gave birth to Jesus), Mother of God, Immaculate Conception (Mary was already without sins in the womb of her mother), and the Assumption into Heaven at the end of her life.
Why the Annunciation? The ‘Annunciation’ has already been the subject of art since the fourth century. It has been a very popular theme in Florentine art. It shows the moment that the Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. He is known to be one of the biggest multi-talents the world has ever seen. The fact that he studied science and nature extensively helped him in his artwork. He has produced a large number of sketches in which he practiced to draw specific human features, such as hand gestures, facial expressions, bone structures, and other anatomical features. Some of his most famous paintings include the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Virgin of the Rocks of which one version is in the Louvre and another version in the National Gallery in London.
Fun facts: The wings of the Archangel Gabriel are painted by Leonardo da Vinci and are most likely copied from a bird in flight. However, if you look carefully, these wings have been extended later on by another unknown artist. People have also noticed some rookie mistakes in this painting, indicating that the young Leonardo was still mastering the tricks of perspective. For example, look at the right hand of Mary, which rests on the reading desk. The desk is closer to the viewer than Mary. However, that makes it strange that Mary’s right hand is on the left side of the reading desk. In other words, her right hand is too close to the viewer compared to the rest of her body. Finally, the painting lacks some of the emotions in the faces of the angel and Mary. But Da Vinci would learn over time how to include these emotions, which is clearly visible in his Mona Lisa.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Room 10-14 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1477 and 1482
Commissioned by? Lorenzo de’ Medici as a wedding gift to his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici
What do you see? This painting is full of allegories (hidden meanings), which leads to much debate on how to interpret the painting. In the meadow, you can see hundreds of different flowers. The blue figure on the right is Zephyr, the god of the west wind. Zephyr is chasing the nymph Chloris, who is associated with flowers and spring. Zephyr’s breath turns Chloris into the woman with the dress decorated with flowers (who is thought to be the goddess of Spring, called Flora). The central figure in the middle is Venus. To the left of Venus, the three Graces (Charites in Greek) are dancing. The Graces are minor deities in Greek mythology. To the left of the Graces is Mercury (Hermes in Greek), the messenger of the Greek gods, who is scattering the clouds with his staff. Some people say that Mercury may be modeled after Lorenzo de’ Medici who commissioned this painting. On top on Venus is Cupid (her son) aiming his flaming arrow at one of the Graces.
Backstory: The painting only got his name, La Primavera in 1550 when Giorgio Vasari saw the painting. This painting is also known as the Allegory of Spring ('primavera' is Italian for 'spring'). While many interpretations have been given to the painting, a popular interpretation is that the painting is inspired by a story from the poet Ovid. In his book Fasti (Amazon link to the book), the nymph Chloris is naked and attracts the first wind of the spring, which is represented by Zephyr. When Zephyr captures her, flowers sprang from her mouth and she turns into the goddess Flora. After Botticelli completed the painting, it was placed in the summerhouse of the Medici family, where would hang next to The Birth of Venus which Botticelli completed a few years later.
Symbolism: Venus represents the goodwill (humanitas) and divides the spiritual values on the left from the material values on the right (the earthly desires shown by Zephyr). Notice that Cupid is blindfolded while aiming his arrow on one of the Graces. This is a reference to the saying that love is blind. In the background of the picture, you can see orange trees, which are a symbol of the Medici family. Venus stands in front of a myrtle bush (the dark leaves behind her), which is a sacred plant for her as it was the first plant she used to cover herself when she arose naked from the sea. The Graces on the left and the right are wearing expensive jewelry in the colors of the Medici family. Some people believe that each of the flowers symbolizes a unique message. At least for some of the flowers the message is clear. For example, the strawberries in the crown of Flora represent seduction and the roses in her hand symbolize love. Finally, the city of Florence is named after the goddess Flora (which is Latin for ‘flower’).
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. Venus is also known in the Greek mythology as Aphrodite. Venus and Mars are the parents of Cupid. In art, Cupid is often depicted together with his mother, Venus.
Why Venus? Nudity was the natural state of Venus, which provided a good excuse to include nudity in an artwork. This was an important reason for her popularity in Renaissance art. Whereas in this painting Venus is still dressed, this will quickly change. A few years later Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in which she is already largely naked.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter who belonged to the Florentine school of painters. The name Botticelli means “little barrel”. He got this name because people described his brother as “fat like a barrel”. Botticelli was initially trained by his brother to become a goldsmith, but at the age of 14, he became an apprentice to the successful painter Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), known from the painting Madonna and Child with Two Angels. Later in his life, Botticelli became a mentor to both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Fun fact: The painting contains over 500 individual flowers and between 170 and 200 different varieties. Most of these flowers were growing in the spring around Florence. Botanical experts are already inspired for centuries by these flowers. They have been able to identify about 130 flowers, including daisies, forget-me-nots, jasmine, lilies, and violets. For the remaining flowers, there is quite some debate on whether these are fantasy flowers created by Botticelli or real flowers that existed in 15th century Florence but are now extinct.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 41 of the Uffizi Museum
Created for? A wedding gift of Raphael to his friend Lorenzo Nasi.
What do you see? This painting – also known as Madonna del Cardellino – shows the Virgin Mary (referred to as the Madonna), Jesus, and Saint John. Mary sits on a rock and wears a red dress with a blue mantle on top of it. She protectively watches the two children in front of her. Saint John, the boy on the left with the gold curly hair, is dressed in animal skins. He holds a goldfinch bird in his hand. He wants to give the goldfinch to Jesus who is touching the head of the bird. Jesus is close to his mother and places his foot affectionately on his mother’s foot. The three figures in this painting are shown in a pyramidal form – known as the Renaissance triangle – a popular composition in the early Renaissance to represent symmetry in a painting. In the background, you can see a blue and green landscape with bushes, trees, hills, a river, a bridge, a castle, and some houses.
Backstory: Raphael created this work for his close friend Lorenzo Nasi, a wealthy wool merchant from Florence. The painting shows the meeting between Saint John, Jesus, and Mary. This scene is based on a medieval religious text, Meditationes Vitae Christi (see a later translation here), which describes the Holy Family meeting Saint John in the desert on their way back from Egypt (a story not mentioned in the Bible). The composition of the work was directly inspired by the painting Saint Veronica by Hans Memling, which was created between 1470 and 1475. The clothes of Mary, the composition, and the city in the background are all elements that can also be seen in Memling’s painting. Raphael's painting deteriorated severely over time, and in May 1999 it was taken down for restoration. It took almost ten years to finish the restoration. In the meanwhile, a much-lower-quality copy of the painting was on display in the Uffizi Museum.
Symbolism: The Virgin Mary is dressed in red and blue. Red is a symbol of the passion of Christ and blue is the symbol of the Church and of Mary. It was one of the more expensive pigments and therefore appropriate to use for an important figure like Mary. The European goldfinch is associated with the crucifixion of Jesus. In this painting, Saint John passes the bird on to Jesus as a forewarning of his violent death. From the book that Mary is holding, experts have identified the words “Sedes Sapientiae”. This is one of the devotional titles given to Mary and means “seat of wisdom”. It emphasizes that Mary gave birth to Jesus (who represents wisdom). When Mary is depicted in the role of the “seat of wisdom”, she is typically shown seated on a throne with Jesus in her lap. However, in this case, the rock on which Mary sits serves as the throne.
Flowers: Several flowers can be seen in the painting. While not all flowers have been identified conclusively, many believe the flowers to be: anemones (representing Mary’s sorrow for the passion of Jesus), daisies (representing the innocence of Baby Jesus), plantains (representing the path to follow Jesus), and violets (representing humility).
Why a goldfinch? In European art, the goldfinch is frequently used as a symbol. The European goldfinch, Carduelis Carduelis, has a red face and a black and white head. Hundreds of paintings from the Renaissance have depicted the goldfinch. The European goldfinch is often associated with resurrection, but also with the soul, sacrifice, and death. Legend has it that the goldfinch got the red spot on its head during Jesus' crucifixion when it wanted to pluck a thorn from Jesus’ crown, and a blood of drop from Jesus splashed on its head. The goldfinch is indeed known to eat thistles and thorns and has therefore been associated with the crown of thorns that Jesus wore at his crucifixion.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), popularly known as Raphael, was born in Urbino, a small city a few hours east of Florence. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he is considered one of the great masters of the Renaissance. He was a very talented architect, drawer, and painter, but is best known for his paintings of the Virgin Mary (called Madonnas) and his large-scale depictions of humans. The current work was created during Raphael's period in Florence and shares many similarities with two other paintings of Raphael: the Madonna of the Meadow in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and La Belle Jardinière in the Louvre. A few years later, in 1508, he moved to Rome where he completed many works for the Pope, such as the Portrait of Leo X with Two Cardinals.
Fun fact: IIn 1547, the house of the Nasi family, which was several feet away from the Ponte Vecchio, collapsed. Two of the occupants were killed and much of its decorations got damaged. Raphael's painting was also badly damaged. Battista Nasi, the son of Lorenzo Nasi, did all he could to retrieve the remainings of this painting as it was a very valuable asset of his father. The painting had broken into six large pieces and even more smaller pieces. Battista could recover most pieces, except one large piece from the bottom left corner. The painting was restored by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, a good friend of Raphael. He did a great job in restoring the painting as this painting has become a very popular part of the Uffizi collection over the next centuries.
Where? Room 74 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Elena Baiardi for the funerary chapel of her husband Francesco Tagliaferri in Parma
What do you see? Mary is holding the Baby Jesus. Mary has a very long, swan-like, neck. Notice also the length of her fingers and shoulders, and the oversized Jesus. These extended body features are typical of mannerism. Mary’s beautiful hair is painted in detail as well as the pearls in her hair. She has bare feet and her right foot is resting on two beautiful green and orange pillows. On the left, six (somewhat eroticized) angels are all looking at different directions. Can you identify all six angels? In the bottom right, Saint Jerome (a well-known priest born in the fourth century) is depicted as a Greek statue. On the left, you can see the angel holding a large vase with the shadow of a cross painted on it.
Backstory: This painting is also known as ‘Madonna of the Long Neck’ or ‘Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Jerome’. The painting is unfinished as Parmigianino died in 1540, which adds to the mystery of the painting. Quite some people say that Jesus already appears dead in this painting, something that could fit with the purpose of the painting to appear in a funerary chapel.
Symbolism: Mary is wearing a blue robe, representing her purity, virginity, and royalty. On the right, the small figure of Saint Jerome is included, which was required by the commissioner for Saint Jerome’s connection to the worship of Mary. In hymns from the medieval times, the neck of Mary was compared to an ivory tower or column, which explains the presence of the exaggerated length of Mary’s neck as well as the columns on the right.
Why Mary? Mary had a symbolic role of representing the church. This representation is in line with the analogy between the long neck of Mary and the ivory columns. The columns are also an architectural reference to the church.
Who is Parmigianino? Parmigianino (1503-1540) was born in Parma (where he was named after, though his real name is Girolamo Francesco Mario Mazzola). He is known for his unorthodox and mannerist painting style. Another well-known painting of Parmigianino is his self-portrait in a convex mirror which can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Giorgio Vasari claimed that Parmigianino was an incarnation of Raphael (they both died at age 37). He is also known for his great etchings and woodcarvings.
What is mannerism? This painting by Parmigianino is one of the prime examples of mannerism. This style started in around 1520 at the end of the High Renaissance and lasted until about 1580 when the Baroque movement took over. In mannerism ideals such as proportions, balance, and ideal beauty are violated on purpose. This style leads to paintings that are asymmetric and out of balance.
Fun fact: Just like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Parmigianino found it difficult to finish his work due to his attention to detail. Indeed, several parts of this painting are unfinished, but we have a decent idea of what he intended to paint from the many surviving preliminary drawings that he created before starting with this painting. First, look carefully to the right of the feet of Saint Jerome (bottom right), where another foot is drawn. Probably Parmigianino wanted to paint Saint Francis here, but he did not finish that. Second, the baby is bold now, but possible the hair still had to be added. Third, see also the columns on the right. From the bottom, you can see a series of columns, but from the top, it looks like only a single column. Fourth, do you see the sixth angel, which is still unfinished, below Mary’s right elbow?
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Room 41 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Agnolo Doni to celebrate his marriage with Maddelena Strozzi (from the powerful Strozzi family).
What do you see? Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus are shown in the center. Mary is sitting on her knees and looks up to Jesus while handing Jesus to Joseph. On the right, a young John the Baptist is depicted and in the background a group of five young and naked people. Look at the body of Mary, which is partly turned around in a somewhat unnatural pose. This painting has been influential for future work and has been labeled as one of the foundations of mannerism, which is an art style in which ideas such as proportions, balance, and ideal beauty are violated on purpose. Look also at the frame, which contains five carved heads. The head of Jesus is on top, and the other four heads represent the four prophets that told about the coming of the Messiah. This painting stands out because of its bright colors, which are due to the tempera pigment used by Michelangelo. This pigment typically keeps its color over time.
Backstory: The Doni Tondo (also referred to as the Holy Family) is painted by Michelangelo around the same time that he sculpted the world-renowned statue of David. The painting is still in its original wooden frame, which may have been designed by Michelangelo (but there is some debate about this). There is quite some debate about the meaning of this painting. For example, it is unclear to several art historians why the nudes are included in the background. Another issue of debate is whether the man in this painting is actually Joseph. Some people suggest that as the man looks much older than Mary that it could also be Joachim, the father of Mary.
Symbolism: The most common interpretation of this painting is that the young nudes in the background represent the pagan people, who are still not converted to Christianity. John the Baptist (the patron saint of Florence) is strategically posed in between the Holy Family and the pagan people in the background to bridge the gap between both worlds. In front of John the Baptist, there is a plant that is a combination of a hyssop (a symbol of the humility of Christ and baptism) and a cornflower (a symbol of Christ symbolizing heaven). The clover in the foreground represents the Trinity (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit). The carvings on the frame include crescent moons, lion heads, stars, and vegetation, and are believed to refer to the Doni and Strozzi families.
Who is Doni Tondo? Agnolo Doni was a wealthy Florentine banker. The word ‘tondo’ was used to refer to a circular work of art. Tondo is derived from the Italian word ‘rotondo’, which means round. The term ‘tondo’ is typically only used for large round paintings (over two feet in diameter)
Why the Holy Family? The Holy Family is a model for Christian families. The Holy Family is depicted in two different ways. Most commonly, it consists of Jesus of Nazareth, his mother, the Virgin Mary, and his foster father, Saint Joseph. However, there are also other versions in which Saint Joseph is replaced by Saint Anne, the mother of Mary.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was an architect, engineer, painter, poet, and sculptor. He is considered to be one of the greatest artists ever and was considered the best artist of his time. He is probably most well-known for his sculptures (think about the David and the Pietà) and his frescos at the Sistine Chapel.
Fun fact: This is the only finished panel painting by Michelangelo that exists nowadays. In the National Gallery in London, there are two other panel paintings of Michelangelo, The Entombment and The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels, but he did not finish these paintings. Michelangelo was quite good in not finishing his work, as can be seen by the fascinating series of unfinished sculptures in the Galleria Accademia. Of course, Michelangelo has also painted frescos, like the famous ones in the Sistine Chapel.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 3 on the ground floor of the Bargello Museum
Commissioned by? Raffaele Riario, a cardinal and art collector.
What do you see? A life-like statue of the Roman god Bacchus. He is naked and standing with a large cup of wine in his right hand. He has curly hair made up of grapes and a wreath of ivy leaves in his hair. The effects of drinking the wine are visible in the expression of his face and his unstable pose. Bacchus seems to be looking at the cup, but his eyes are rolling. His unstable pose can be seen best from the right side as illustrated in the drawing of Maarten van Heemskerck of this statue in the garden of its owner Jacopo Galli. Bacchus is leaning somewhat backward with his shoulders pulled back and his belly pointing forward. Interestingly, when we look from the left side, the body seems to be quite balanced. So, when walking around this statue, he sometimes seems to be out of balance and from other angles he seems quite stable. In his left hand, Bacchus is holding a large bunch of grapes and a piece of animal skin that touches the rock-like base. You can see the face of the animal from the back of the statue and some have suggested that this is a wolf, though there are several other opinions on what animal it is. Behind his left leg is a tree trunk for the stability of the sculpture. Next to Bacchus is a young satyr, which is a male figure with a permanent erection and with the ears, horns, legs, and tail of a goat. The satyr is smiling an eating from the grapes.
Backstory: Michelangelo started to work on this painting in July 1596 when he was 21 years old. Cardinal Raffaele Riario commissioned the statue. He had earlier bought a statue from Michelangelo, called Sleeping Cupid. However, after he bought it, he discovered that the statue was not an antique one as was told to him, but rather a statue created by Michelangelo (the statue is now lost). However, Riario’s interest in Michelangelo’s talents was triggered, and he commissioned him to make a statue of Bacchus. However, upon completion, Riario rejected the statue. While it is not clear why he rejected the statue, it was probably because it was too radical. More specifically, it could be for reasons similar to other people who have criticized the statue, which include its uncommon pose, the vulgar face, and the somewhat unmanly body of Bacchus. It is interesting in itself that a cardinal commissioned such a pagan statue. The statue was instead acquired by the banker Jacopo Galli to put it in his garden. Together with the famous Pietà statue in St. Peter’s Basilica, created between 1498 and 1499, Bacchus is the only statue by Michelangelo that survives from his early period in Rome.
Who is Bacchus? Bacchus is the Roman god of wine, intoxication, fertility, religious ecstasy, and drama. His equivalent in Greek mythology is Dyonisus. He is the son of Zeus, and there are different stories about who his mother is, but the most popular one is that his mother was Semele who was a mortal. Bacchus is often depicted with grapes, ivy leaves, wine, and satyrs (like in this sculpture). He has been a source of inspiration for many artists in ancient Greece and during the Renaissance. For example, Titian made a painting on Bacchus and Ariadne which is in the National Gallery in London. Caravaggio also created a famous painting of Bacchus which is in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was an architect, painter, poet, and sculptor. He was born in the Republic of Florence. Except for short periods in Venice and Bologna during his teenage years, he spent the rest of his life in Florence and Rome. In 1596, Cardinal Riario invited him to Rome where he was commissioned to make the statue of Bacchus. While in Rome, he also completed the Pietà statue. In 1499 he moved back to Florence. He only returned to Rome in 1505 to work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After finishing the ceiling, he moved back to Florence for 20 years, only to return to Rome in 1534 where he would soon start his work on the fresco of The Last Judgment.
Fun fact: The penis of Bacchus is missing. It seems to have been removed by a chisel rather than broken off. Also, the erection of the satyr, which was typical for him, is not present. Moreover, a hand of the statue had broken off (see the drawing of Van Heemskerck above) but was restored before 1553. It is unknown who removed some of these parts, but some people suggest that it could have been Michelangelo himself to make the statue look more like one from ancient Greece (where some of those body parts were often missing). Michelangelo’s intention with this statue was indeed to create it in the style of the Greek antique statues, and he succeeded in this as this statue was regularly mistaken to be a statue from ancient Greece. Michelangelo wanted the statue to be in this ancient style to prove that at 21 years old he would already rival the famous ancient Greek sculptors. In that way, he could establish his reputation quickly.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Framed poster of statue (Amazon links).
Where? Room 7 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1430 and 1435
Commissioned by? The nuns of the Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence.
What do you see? Jesus and the Virgin Mary are on top of a series of small clouds, floating in the sky. This painting depicts paradise. Jesus is crowning the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Mary has her arms crossed on her chest, slightly bends forward, and has a humble look on her face, while Jesus is decorating her golden crown with a jewel stone. Surrounding Jesus and Mary is a crowd of angels, blessed people, and saints. A choir of angels is playing music and dancing. You can see several angels scattered throughout the painting, recognizable by their wings, who are either playing music or are dancing. Three angels are dancing directly to the left of Mary, and you can see three others directly to the right of Jesus. On the top right and top left you can see some trumpets high up in the air and in the center foreground you can see two angels playing musical instruments. The angel in blue, turned with the back towards us, is playing a portable organ, and the angel to the left is playing a string instrument.
Backstory: The painting probably formed an altarpiece together with two side panels, Wedding of the Virgin and Death of the Virgin, which are now both located in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. This painting contains both elements that are Gothic and elements that are typical for the Renaissance. For example, the golden background is gilded and is an element that was common in Gothic painting. The use of halos is also typical Gothic. The realistic way in which the people are depicted and the three-dimensionality are examples of the Renaissance style.
Symbolism: The gold crown signifies both power (by being an advocate of the king) and wealth (regarding God’s promises). Jesus and Mary are surrounded by bright rays of light, symbolizing their divinity.
What is the Coronation of the Virgin? Mary is crowned by her son Jesus as the Queen of Heaven. This occurs after Mary has been assumed into heaven. In ancient times it was common for the king’s mother to be crowned queen. This subject was quite popular in art since the 13th century.
Why is Mary the Queen of Heaven? One of the many titles that Catholics have given to Mary is Queen of Heaven (Regina Caeli in Latin). Historically, in the Bible, the mother of the king had important powers in counseling the king and she was referred to as the Queen Mother. The reason that Mary is sometimes called the Queen of Heaven is that, according to the Catholic Church, Mary was assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life. In Heaven, she is crowned as the queen (which is the coronation of the Virgin) as she is the mother of Jesus, who is the heavenly king of the universe. On October 11, 1954, Pope Pius XII decided that Catholics should celebrate the Queenship of Mary. Since 1969, the Queenship of Mary is a public holiday on August 22 in several countries, such as France and Spain.
Another work of Fra Angelico on the Coronation of the Virgin? The current version originally belonged to the Church of Sant'Egidio in Florence and is shown in the Uffizi since 1825. However, Fra Angelico has painted another well-known version of the Coronation of the Virgin. This version is currently in the Louvre in Paris. In that painting, you can see that blue skies replace the more old-fashioned Gothic golden background.
Who is Fra Angelico? Fra Angelico was born around 1387 as Guido di Pietro and died in 1455. He was a Dominican friar and was widely respected because of his gentle personality. While he started in the monastery as an illustrator of manuscripts, he became known as a masterful painter of altarpieces. Only after his death the name Fra Angelico was given to him. In his work he freely interpreted biblical stories, rather than accurately depicting the stories, to trigger spiritual responses of the people seeing those paintings and to stimulate prayer.
Fun fact: Fra Angelico was known during his life as Il Beato Angelico or simply Il Beato (which means ‘the blessed’). He was a devout friar during his life and only painted religious works. He prayed before every painting, and once the painting was done he did not alter them anymore as he believed that God inspired his work. While he was already called ‘the blessed’ during his life, Pope John Paul II officially beatified him in 1982, praising his immaculate lifestyle and divine paintings.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? The Private Chamber of Eleanor in the Palazzo Vecchio
Commissioned by? Cosimo I de’ Medici and/or his wife Eleanor of Toledo.
What do you see? This fresco shows three different scenes related to the biblical story of the Jews that escaped from Egypt where they were repressed. First, the three young people in the center foreground and the three people in the left foreground represent the Jews that were preparing to escape from Egypt (note that the bottom left of the painting is missing due to damage from moisture). For example, the man on the left has some unleavened bread on his head which the Jews took with them when escaping Egypt. You can also see a silver jug and a gold basin from the Egyptians in the foreground. Second, the fresco shows the escape from the Jews from Egypt by crossing the Red Sea. In the top right you can see the Jews who safely crossed the Red Sea after God opened it up for them. If you look carefully, you can see that one of the Jews on top who still has the unleavened bread on his head. The man among the Jews in the blue robe is Moses. In the sea on the left, you can see the Egyptians and their horses getting drowned while they were chasing the Jews. Third, the scene in the right foreground shows Moses (the man with a brown robe, grey beard, and two rays of light radiating from his head) sitting on a rock. Moses is pointing at Joshua to designate him as his successor. The hand of Moses is most likely inspired by the hand of God reaching out to Adam in Michelangelo’s fresco of the Creation of Adam of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
Backstory: In 1539, Cosimo I, Duke of Florence, married to Eleanor of Toledo and in 1540 they moved into the Palazzo Vecchio. At that moment the Palazzo Vecchio was not decorated like a palace that could impress its guests, so Cosimo I commissioned several artists to decorate the palace. This fresco was painted for the private room (also referred to as the chapel) of Eleanor of Toledo, which was one of the first rooms in the Palazzo Vecchio to be decorated. The story in the painting contains both the beginning and the end of the story of Moses in the Bible. In the beginning, he leads the Jews through the Red Sea to get out of Egypt where they were repressed (see Exodus 14). After that, the Jews wandered for 40 years through the desert before they could see their promised land. Before entering the Promised Land, Moses passed on his leadership to Joshua (see Numbers 27), and Moses died with the Promised Land in sight.
Symbolism: This painting contains various allusions to Cosimo I and his wife, Eleanor. Moses alludes to Cosimo I, who wants to be perceived as a new Moses; someone who leads his people to new heights. The crossing of the Red Sea by the Jews alludes to the 1537 battle of Cosimo I at Montemurlo, in which he ended all opposition to the Medici family as rulers of Florence. The appointment of Joshua by Moses refers to the birth in 1541 of Francesco, the son of Cosimo I and Eleanor, who had to succeed Cosimo I.
Who is Eleanor of Toledo? She was the Duchess of Florence from 1539 till 1562. Eleanor of Toledo (1522-1562) was born in Alba de Tormes in Spain and was the first wife of Cosimo I, who was the second Duke of Florence and became the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. The marriage between the two was a political marriage as it strengthened the position of the Medici family. She got 11 children with Cosimo I and they had a faithful and good marriage. Bronzino painted a well-known portrait of Eleanor and one of her sons which is on display in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
The Private Chamber of Eleanor: This room was used by Eleanor to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and to pray to God. It contains several frescos. On the ceiling, four saints are depicted: Michael, Francis, John the Evangelist, and Jerome. When you stand in front of the Crossing of the Red Sea, you can see an altarpiece by Bronzino depicting the Deposition of Christ. To the right, you can see the Miracle of the Brazen Serpent. This fresco depicts the story of the snake plague that hit the Jews in the desert. They could be cured by looking at the image of the snake on the top. Behind you, you can see two other scenes from Moses painted by Bronzino. To the left of the door, you can see the Miracle of Spring, and to the right of the door, you can see the Gathering of the Manna. These two frescos depict how the Jews got water and food while they were in the desert.
Who is Bronzino? Agnolo di Cosimo (1503-1572) was born near Florence and is better known as Bronzino. He is one of the most important painters in the Mannerist movement in the 16th century. He was a big fan of the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. He was an excellent portrait painter, but also painted many biblical scenes. He was the court painter of the Medici Family when Cosimo I was in charge of Florence. Despite his superb talents, he is somewhat less popular than some of the other famous painters of his time as the paintings of Bronzino lack drama and dynamics. The figures that he paints often lack emotions and are depicted in a calm state. For example, look at the lack of drama in the very calm sea in which the Egyptians are drowning in this painting.
Fun fact: Bronzino included several (almost) naked people among the Jews, including the figure in the right foreground. The ancient Greek statues inspired the shapes of these nudes. The person in blue to the left of Moses in the foreground is a self-portrait of Bronzino. The lady on the right with her hand on her belly is probably Eleanor who was pregnant. She was pregnant with Francesco, who would succeed Cosimo I and ensure the continuation of the Medici family as rulers of Florence. Francesco was born on March 25, 1541, which was the day on which the founding of Florence was celebrated. The timing of his birth was not considered a coincidence and exploited by the Medicis as a sign that Francesco was destined to be the new leader of Florence.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 8 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Uncertain. Originally, Giovanni de’ Medici ordered this painting to give it to the King of Naples, but this deal was abandoned due to a lack of funding for Filippo Lippi.
What do you see? A praying Virgin Mary. Two angels are holding the child Jesus in front of Mary. Mary and Jesus both seem to be lost in their thoughts. Mary is depicted in a very elegant way compared to earlier paintings. For example, look at her sweet facial expression and the graceful veils and pearls in her hair. Notice also the halo above the heads of Mary and Jesus. These halos are just a simple circle and mark the transition between the solid gold disks used in earlier work and the disappearance of the halo in later Renaissance paintings. The angel on the right seems to giggle and watch the viewer directly in the eyes. Mary, Jesus, and the angels are depicted in front of a window, which can easily be mistaken for the frame of this painting. In the background, you can see a landscape inspired by Flemish paintings.
Backstory: This painting was one of the first in which Mary and Jesus are depicted in a very human way. Mary is shown as an elegant young woman. This painting has served as an inspiration for many future paintings of Mary, but also for paintings of Venus. For example, the Birth of Venus by Botticelli (a pupil of Filippo Lippi) has been heavily inspired by this painting.
Symbolism: The pearls and veils that are carefully inserted in Mary’s hair and are gracefully draped around her neck are a new element that Lippi introduced to represent the elegance of Mary. The forehead is bigger than usual as the forehead was an object of beauty during that time (see the pearl on Mary’s forehead to emphasize this). You can see the shadow of Mary in the window frame on the left. This is another example of a physical detail, whereas earlier paintings of Mary focused mainly of the spiritual symbols. However, you can also see a seashore in the landscape, which refers to one of Mary’s titles ‘port of salvation’. The rocks in the landscape refer to the biblical tale of Daniel. Finally, Mary is wearing a blue dress, representing her purity, virginity, and royalty.
Who is Madonna? A Madonna is a representation of Mary with or without her child Jesus. Madonna comes from ‘ma donna’, which is Italian for ‘my lady’. In English, this is often referred to as ‘our lady’ and in French as ‘notre dame’. There are different types of Madonna painting. The ‘Madonna and child’ like in this painting was a very popular subject during the Renaissance. Other types of Madonnas that have frequently been used in the art are, for example, the ‘Madonna enthroned’, ‘Madonna of humility’, ‘adoring Madonna’, and ‘nursing Madonna’.
Why Madonna? The Madonna and child is the most popular theme in Christian art. Often Mary and Jesus are surrounded by angels or saints that pay their respects to them. Jesus and Mary are the most central figures in Catholicism, and their depiction should remind people of their religion.
Who is Filippo Lippi? Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), also called Lippo Lippi, was born in Florence. He was the son of a butcher, but his parents died when he was still young. After his aunt took care of him for a few years, at age eight, he joined the convent of the Carmine where the friars took care of him. The friars discovered his love for art and gave him some great opportunities to pursue a career in art. His son, Filippino Lippi also became a famous painter (and is thought by some to be the model for the giggling angel in this painting). Sandro Botticelli is the most well-known pupil of Filippo Lippi. Another well-known work of Filippo Lippi in collaboration with Fra Angelico is the Adoration of the Magi in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: Filippo Lippi was a Carmelite monk and was supposed to live a celibate life. However, he did not take the rules too strict as he was an extremely lustful man. When he was in his 50s, he became the chaplain of a convent of nuns, and he fell in love with one of the nuns named Lucrezia Buti. He asked whether Lucrezia could serve as his model for Mary in this painting. This request was granted on the condition that there was always another nun present during these painting sessions. One day Lippi escaped together with Lucrezia from the convent (some stories tell that he abducted her) to live together with her. Together they got two sons.
Patrick A. Rodgers, CC BY-SA 2.0
Where? Room 7 on the first floor of the Bargello Museum
When? Uncertain, but sometime between 1425 and 1455
Commissioned by? Cosimo de’ Medici
What do you see? A bronze statue of about 5 foot (150 cm) tall. David is nude, except for the military boots he is wearing and the shepherd’s hat with a wreath of laurel around it. He is sculpted as a young man with long curls and is not very muscular. David is calmly looking down, which is not exactly the pose we expect after the defeat of Goliath, and he is depicted in a somewhat androgynous way. For example, he has small breasts and from the back it is not clear what the gender of the statue is. David holds the sword of Goliath in his right hand and a stone in his left hand. He has his left foot on top of the head of Goliath. His eyes are gazing downward and, to increase the impact of Goliath’s look, the statue is placed on a pedestal so that the viewer can meet his gaze. The bearded Goliath still wears his helmet, which is decorated with cupids. You can see cupids in front of a chariot in which another cupid is sitting. The helmet also has feathered wings. David is standing with his right foot on the short right wing, and the left wing runs along the right leg of David all the way up to his groin (which you can see from the back only).
Backstory: In 1408-1409, Donatello also created a sculpture of David. This marble sculpture, however, is clothed and can also be found in the Bargello. According to Vasari, the pedestal for the bronze statue of David is probably created by Desiderio da Settignano. This statue is the oldest surviving bronze since antiquity. Bronze was perceived to be the most precious metal after gold, and therefore it was considered to be a special statue.
David and Goliath: The story of David and Goliath is described in 1 Samuel 17. The Philistines were at war with Israel, and the giant Goliath challenged the Israelis to fight with him. If an Israeli would beat Goliath, the Philistines would become their servants, but if not, it would be the other way around. When none of the Israelis dared to fight him, the small David stood up. He declined to wear the armor of King Saul [though it does not say that he went out naked]. He goes into the fight with a sling and five smooth stones and kills Goliath with a single throw. David then took the sword of Goliath and cut off his head. The story of David and Goliath has been an inspiration for many artists, including Michelangelo whose statue of David is in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence.
Inscription: The base of this statue carried a Latin inscription, which can be translated as: “The victor is whoever defends the fatherland. God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe. Behold - a boy overcame a great tyrant! Conquer, O citizens! Kingdoms fall through luxury, cities rise through virtues. Behold the neck of pride, severed by the hand of humility.” This inscription was intended to remind the Medici family of how to reign Florence.
Symbolism: This statue symbolized the victory of humility (represented by David) over tyranny (represented by Goliath). The Medici family displayed this statue in the courtyard of the Medici Palace to remind them and others of their humility and strength, but also to justify potential violence against people who were against their regime. The statue was placed footsteps away from the famous Judith and Holofernes statue by Donatello which can now be admired in the Palazzo Vecchio. The cupids on the helmet of Goliath are a symbol of non-religious passion and are a reference to the pagan people who are defeated by God. The wreath of laurel on David’s head is an indication of his victory over Goliath.
Who is Donatello? Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (c. 1386-1466), better known as Donatello, was born in Florence. He was a sculptor that was ahead of his time. He was initially trained in a workshop of a goldsmith. Early in his career he worked together with and learned from Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. He has created statues and reliefs using materials such as bronze, stone, wax, and wood. Together with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, he is considered to be one of the four greatest artists of the Renaissance.
Fun fact: It is assumed that Donatello was homosexual and some people argue that he created this nude statue of David deliberately in a daring erotic posture. The left wing of the helmet that runs all the way up the right leg of David until the groin is interpreted as another sign that this is a homoerotic statue. Homosexuality, however, was forbidden during that time in Florence, but Donatello’s good friend Cosimo de’ Medici defended him from insults and the law. Cosimo was known to appreciate very talented artists and therefore he overlooked some of the bad behaviors that they may display.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster, canvas, or statue (Amazon links).
Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0
Where? Hall of Lilies (Sala degli Gigli) on the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio
Commissioned by? Cosimo de’ Medici
What do you see? Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, raises her sword to cut off the head of Holofernes, the general of the Assyrian army. She has already struck him once, which is why he looks already dead. She is holding the head of Holofernes by his hair. Judith seems to be in her thoughts, possibly still balancing the idea of killing Holofernes to protect the people from her city and violating one of the Ten Commandments (not to kill). At the same time, she is shown as a strong and fearless woman. Donatello sculpted her dress in a very realistic way. The dress looks a bit wrinkled as you may expect in this kind of scene and is beautifully hanging around her raised arm. The crushed body of Holofernes is laying at the feet of Judith. He looks like he is already dead, with his arms hanging unnaturally and his mouth wide open. Holofernes sits on a cushion, which bears the inscription “OPUS . DONATELLI . FLOR”, which means that this is the work of Donatello from Florence (it is the only work that Donatello signed). At the bottom of the statue, you can see some Bacchic scenes, which refer to the pride and lust of Holofernes. This bronze statue was originally gilded (painted in gold) and you can still see some of those gold remains on the sword of Judith. It is also one of the first “in the round” statues, in which you can look at the statue from all possible angles (see some pictures from different angles). A replica of this sculpture can also be found on the Piazza della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Backstory: The story of Judith beheading Holofernes comes from the deuterocanonical book of Judith, chapters 10:13. Holofernes was a general in the Assyrian army and was planning to destroy the Jewish city in which Judith lived. The Jewish had no chance against the army of Holofernes and were considering to surrender. Judith was a beautiful woman and widow, and she heard about the plans of the people from her city to surrender. She decided to take matters into her own hands and goes to the camp of Holofernes’ army. She convinces the Assyrians that she has reliable information on how they can conquer the whole Jewish region without casualties and she is allowed into their camp. She waits several days until Holofernes is drunk, seduces him with her beauty, and finally chops off his head when she is alone with him in his tent. She brings the head of Holofernes back to her city and devices a plan for the Jewish to kill the Assyrian army, in which they succeed.
Symbolism: The sculpture shows that Judith, a simple widow, could triumph over a general from an army that was thought to be much stronger. The sculpture served as a symbol to the Florentine people to remember them that no matter how big the enemies of Florence could be, even the simplest members of society could help Florence to be triumphant. The granite base of the statue originally contained the following inscription: “Kingdoms fall through luxury [sin], cities rise through virtues. Behold the neck of pride severed by the hand of humility.” This inscription was ordered by the Cosimo de’ Medici referring to the Medici family as the defenders of the freedom of Florence. However, it was removed when the Medicis were exiled from Florence.
Who is Donatello? Donatello (1386-1466) was born as Donato di Niccoló di Betto Bardi in Florence. He received his training in the workshop of a goldsmith and was also trained by Lorenzo Ghiberti. He was a sculptor who worked with various materials, including bronze, clay, stone, stucco, wax, and wood, and he created both self-standing sculptures and reliefs. After Michelangelo, many consider him to the second-best sculptor ever. Donatello’s most well-known work is the sculpture of David, which is now in the Bargello Museum. During his life, he worked and lived in Florence, Rome, Padua, and Siena.
Hall of Lilies: The walls of this room were to be decorated in 1482 by the greatest artists of that time (Biagio d’Antonia, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Piero del Pollaiolo). However, Domenico Ghirlandaio was the only one who painted a wall. The middle of the wall depicts the deification of Saint Zenobius (the first bishop of Florence at the beginning of the 5th century). On the left and the right are characters from Roman history. The other artists backed out and instead the other walls were decorated with gold fleur-de-lys on a blue background. The fleur de lys (which means in French “lily flower”) is a stylized lily and was the symbol of the House of Plantagenet, a royal family from Anjou in France, who helped to protect the freedom of Florence. The lilies on the wall also explain the name of this room. The coffered ceiling with various ornaments and lilies and the frieze below the ceiling, which is full of lions, is created by Giuliano da Maiano. The portal connecting this room with the Audience Hall is created by the brothers Benedetto and Giuliano de Maiano.
Fun fact: Little has been written about the life of Donatello, so most information about him is inferred from his work. This provides room for endless speculation as the works of Donatello were very unconventional for his time (nowadays the word unconventional has been replaced by innovative). Donatello was supposedly openly gay and had an unpleasant personality. However, he was a friend of the Medici family, which ensured him a lifelong guarantee of assignments (and he supposedly never rejected an assignment, however small it was). He would make whatever the Medicis asked him and therefore the Medicis could use him not only to create beautiful art but also to express the ideas of the Medici family.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Framed poster (Amazon link)
Where? Room 96 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Cardinal del Monte, who gave it as a gift to Ferdinando I de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany
What do you see? A depiction of the head of Medusa painted on a circular and curved wooden shield. Medusa is a woman described in Greek mythology. With her glance she could turn people who looked at her into stone. Instead of normal hair she has living, venomous snakes on her head. The snakes are watersnakes from the Tiber river as those were the best type of snakes Caravaggio could find nearby. I count at least eight snakes on her head. The blood streams out of her head as she has just been killed by the Greek demigod Perseus. This painting shows the moment that Medusa is looking at the reflective shield that Perseus is holding (which according to the myth actually happened just before she got beheaded). She realizes that her head is separated from her body, but that she is still conscious. You can see this realization by the horror in her eyes. As the painting is created on a shield, Caravaggio’s idea was that this painting actually represents the view of the shield as held by Perseus just after he killed Medusa. It is also interesting to have a closer look at Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow in this painting. Do you see how Caravaggio used these contrasts to show the head of Medusa as a three-dimensional object?
Backstory: The painting is actually a self-portrait of Caravaggio. As he painted Medusa on a convex shield, he has actually used a convex mirror to paint his own face. If you look carefully, you may notice that the forehead and cheeks of Medusa are somewhat bigger than expected. Caravaggio created two versions of the Medusa painting. The first version is also known as Murtola (or Murtula), named after the poet who first wrote about it. The first version was painted in 1596 and is slightly smaller than the second version discussed here. Unfortunately, the first version belongs to a private collection nowadays. Do you see the differences?
Who is Medusa? In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of three sisters (Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa) who were often referred to as Gorgons. Both Stheno and Euryale were immortal, but Medusa was not. They were daughters of Phorcys (a sea god) and his sister Ceto (a sea goddess). According to the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful young woman. However, after Poseidon (the god of the sea) made love to her in Athena’s temple, Athena (the goddess of wisdom and war) changed her beautiful locks into living, venomous snakes (in other mythological stories the three sisters were already born with snakes on their heads). Medusa had a horrific facial expression that could turn people (or according to some, only men) who looked at her into stone. The Greek hero Perseus, a demigod, used a shining shield that he got from the goddess Athena to avoid looking at her directly and succeeded to cut off her head. He used her head as a weapon afterwards as it retained its power to turn people who looked at it into stone. Perseus ultimately gave the head of Medusa to the goddess Athena, who placed the head on her shield (which is what is depicted in this painting). When the head of Medusa was cut off, two creatures arose from Medusa’s body: Pegasus, a winged horse, and Chryasor, a giant with a golden sword.
Medusa in art? Medusa has been a popular subject in art. Famous artists have used her story as the inspiration for their artwork. Well known versions include a painting of Leonardo da Vinci (that has not survived), a painting by Peter Paul Rubens in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, a marble bust by Gianlorenzo Bernini, and Antonio Canova’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Outside the Uffizi Museum (in the Loggia del Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria) you can also admire a bronze sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini. This sculpture was made in 1545 and shows Perseus after he took the head of Medusa. He is almost completely naked, wearing his winged sandals and standing on top of Medusa’s body.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisa da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying attention to both the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a beautiful contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. He was a brilliant and unconventional artist. During his life he received quite some commissions for religious paintings. However, Caravaggio always knew to how add some dark elements to the painting. He liked to use beggars, criminals, and prostitutes as models for his paintings, which would often give unexpected outcomes for familiar biblical scenes. Two beautiful examples of his religious paintings are Death of the Virgin in the Louvre and The Entombment of Christ in the Vatican Museums.
Fun fact: Monica Favaro and colleagues published an academic study on which materials have been used in this painting and the evolution of these materials over time. The shield is made from poplar wood and covered by a linen. On top of the linen, Caravaggio added four different preparation layers (which are layers of paint that have dried and are again painted upon). These preparation layers helped to build the foundation of the painting (such as the main areas of dark and light). On top of these four preparation layers another layer of paint is applied containing a failed experiment of Caravaggio to make the background of the painting reflective. On top of this layer, a green layer, consisting of a mixture of verdigris and lead-tin yellow, is applied, forming the background of the painting as we see it today. On top of this background layer, three other layers of paint have been applied to form the painting (consisting of a mixture of siccative oils, turpentine and mastic with traces of beeswax). Finally, the painting contains additional layers to conserve the painting. As you can read, this painting is a fairly complex chemical composition!
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links).
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 24 in the Palatine Gallery in the Palazzo Pitti
When? About 1505
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? The Virgin Mary is holding Baby Jesus in her arms. Both have faint halos above their heads. They are painted against a dark background such that the viewer is completely focused on Mary and Jesus. Madonna is dressed in a deep blue mantle and a red gown. She is wearing a veil on her head and she has gold-blond hair. Her head is slightly tilted forward and she looks to be in her thoughts. She looks down with her eyelids half closed. Note that you can barely see her eyebrows, just like, for example, in the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, as women during that time had the habit of removing their eyebrows. Baby Jesus is safely sitting on his mother’s left hand. He looks like a healthy, chubby baby and he has his hands on Mary’s chest and shoulder. He is wearing a light-colored cloth around his waist. He looks peacefully in the direction of the viewer. He looks to be very comfortable in his mother’s hands and not afraid to look at the outside world. This Madonna by Raphael may look like a simple painting, but it is highly admired because of how harmonious and peaceful it is and the motherly love it depicts. It reminds many of how their own mother must have held them as a baby or how they held their own babies (which is something that is hard to describe in words).
Backstory: This painting is often referred to as the Madonna del Granduca (or Gran’ Duca). This name has been given as the painting was owned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand III. He bought the painting in 1799 for around $600. He loved this painting so much that he took it with him everywhere he went. Because of this, the painting is sometimes referred to as the Madonna del Viaggio (which is Italian for ‘journey’). Raphael painted this work while he was in Florence. During that time he got influenced by the techniques of Leonardo da Vinci who was also in Florence during that time. We can specifically identify the use of the sfumato technique (which is a soft transition between different colors and tones). This technique was one of the specialties of Da Vinci. In this painting, Raphael uses bright colors for the clothes of Mary but makes sure that the transition between the different colors is quite smooth. You can also see this technique applied in the face of Mary, for example, around her eyes.
Symbolism: This painting shows the motherly love of the Virgin Mary for Baby Jesus. The blue color of Mary’s mantle symbolizes her role as the Queen of Heaven. The red color of her gown symbolizes the blood of Christ, referring to the crucifixion of Jesus.
Madonnas by Raphael: During his career, Raphael painted many Madonnas. Most of these paintings have become very popular because of the way Raphael painted Mary with dignity, grace, and purity, something that he could do like no other artist. The current painting is one of the first Madonnas that he painted. Other highly appreciated Madonnas by Raphael are the Alba Madonna in the National Gallery of Art, the Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi Museum, and the Madonna of the Pinks in the National Gallery in London.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was born in Urbino (almost 100 miles East of Florence), which explains his last name. He is popularly known as Raphael. When he was 15 years old, he moved to Perugia (about 80 miles Southeast of Florence) where many artists lived, and he probably became an apprentice of Pietro Perugino. He learned very quickly and completed his training by 1500. He gained a reputation as a very talented painter and got his first commissions before he was 20 years old. Around 1504, he moved to Florence where he was influenced by the works of Leonardo da Vinci who was in Florence between 1500 and 1506. While Raphael learned a lot from other painters, he always kept developing his own unique style. In 1508, Pope Julius II asked him to come to Rome where he spent the rest of his life.
Fun fact: The dark background in this painting helps to emphasize the beautiful blue and red colors of Mary’s clothes. While this contrast is admired and one of the strengths of this painting, recent research using x-rays has shown that Raphael originally included a background of architectural structures and a landscape. These backgrounds are typical for the Madonnas that Raphael painted as can be seen in the examples of his other Madonnas above. The dark background that we see in the current version of the painting has been added later on by another painter. This may have occurred around the time of Caravaggio, who successfully incorporated dark background into his paintings.
Where? Room 21 in the Palatine Gallery in the Palazzo Pitti
Commissioned by? Fra Francesco dell'Antella, the Florentine secretary to Alof de Wignacourt, who was the Grand Master of Malta
What do you see? A somewhat chubby child is sleeping. The child represents Cupid, the god of desire, erotic love, affection, and attraction. Cupid is resting with his head on top of his quiver with arrows and is holding an arrow (with a small piece of red) in his left hand. You can also recognize the bow with a broken string in front of his legs. The wings of Cupid are also present. While the left wing is clearly visible, the black background hides a large part of the right wing of Cupid.
Backstory: Caravaggio created this painting while he was on Malta, where he became an honorary knight. It is the only known painting he created there, evidenced by an inscription on the back of the painting. The sleeping Cupid became a popular topic in Renaissance art after Michelangelo’s sculpture of a sleeping Cupid in 1496 (this sculpture is lost, probably it got destroyed in a fire in London in 1698). Michelangelo’s sculpture, in turn, was inspired by old Greek statues of the sleeping Cupid.
Symbolism: The depiction of Cupid, with his broken bowstring and his arrows aside, represents the abandonment of earthly pleasures. Whereas an active Cupid is typically seen as a symbol for spreading the love, this particular representation has a completely different meaning. The painting was commissioned by a friar to remind him and others of their vow of chastity.
Who is Cupid? Cupid (Eros in Greek) is the god of desire, erotic love, affection, and attraction. He is the son of Venus and Mars. He is often portrayed as a chubby boy. His main attributes are his bow and arrow, and he typically has two kinds of arrows. The first kind are arrows with a sharp golden tip, which can fill someone with uncontrollable desire. The second kind are arrows with a blunt tip of lead, which can fill someone with aversion and the desire to flee.
Why Cupid? As Cupid can both fill someone with uncontrollable desire and fill someone with aversion, he makes a great subject for allegories. Love and hate have always been great topics for art as they represent some of the strongest emotions that people possess. The particular way in which he is represented in an artwork can tell a wide variety of different stories. The subject of a sleeping Cupid was already frequently used by the ancient Greek, who mainly used this subject as a symbol of love as an everlasting emotion, which is present whether someone is awake or asleep. Caravaggio has also included Cupid in some of this other works, such as his painting The Musicians in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is a student of Simone Peterzano, who in turn was a student of Titian. Caravaggio had an important influence on the formation of the Baroque period. So much so, that the followers of his style are referred to as Caravaggisti. While Caravaggio never had a school to share his techniques with others, his work has had a big influence on artists like Rubens, Bernini, and Rembrandt. Caravaggio created many masterpieces including his Medusa in the Uffizi Museum and The Fortune Teller in the Louvre.
Fun fact: Quite some people have commented on this painting, stating that the child looks dead. An analysis by a doctor, published in the famous medical academic journal The Lancet, states that the sleeping Cupid suffers from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Symptoms include the yellowish skin of the child (indicating jaundice), the blue/purple color in the lips and ears indicates a low level of oxygen saturation, his body seems to suffer from edema, and his joints are inflamed. The question remains why Caravaggio would paint a sick or dead child. It could be an effective way to deliver the message of the painting, or it could be a macabre joke of Caravaggio (which is certainly not impossible given the turbulent life that he lived).
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Wai Laam Lo, CC BY-SA 3.0
Where? Room 18 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between the third and first century before Christ
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? A life-size marble statue (about five feet tall or 155cm) of the Greek goddess Venus. At her feet is Cupid (the god of Desire, erotic love, attraction, and affection) riding a dolphin. Venus is depicted in a fugitive pose after arising from the sea. The statue was considered one of the most erotic statues in the world due to her almost perfectly sculpted buttocks (which you cannot see, unfortunately). While her arms are partly covering her breasts and pubic area, it actually draws the attention to these parts of her body.
Backstory: The origins of this statue are unknown, and thus we don’t know who sculpted her. It is the oldest statue in the Uffizi and is referred to as Venus de’ Medici because the Medici family acquired it in 1677. The statue was initially displayed in Rome, but Pope Innocent XI decided that it should be moved to Florence. Pope Innocent XI was a deeply religious man and decided that such a notorious naked statue does not belong in Rome. The statue was originally colored. However, over time the statue lost its color and experts thought that the colors were not part of the original. So, in the 18th-century acids were used to remove the last traces of color from the statue. Recent microscopic research has shown that the statue was colored originally. The original color of her hair was gold, she had red lips and her ears were pierced for earrings. This marble statue is a copy of an original Greek statue of Venus in bronze. The Venus De’ Medici is one of the most copied statues of all time (for example, there is one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Interestingly, the Venus de’ Medici, with Cupid riding a dolphin is not tied to any known mythological story, which adds to the fascination and speculation about this statue.
Symbolism: The size of Venus is enormous compared to the small Cupid and the dolphin at her feet to give the impression that Venus is giant. The somewhat apologetic pose of Venus (covering her breasts and pubic area) and the dolphin at her feet make it likely that she got somewhat surprised when arising from the sea.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. Venus is also known in the Greek mythology as Aphrodite. Together with the Mars, the god of war, she is the parent of Cupid. The ancient Romans also considered Venus as the goddess of the gardens, and this makes her a popular subject for statues placed in gardens. Over time many statues have been made of Venus, often as an excuse to depict nudity. A well-known example is the Venus Victrix of Antonio Canova which can be admired nowadays in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
Why Venus? Venus was admired by the Romans and Greeks as she represented love and sexuality. This statue of Venus was heavily inspired by the life-size statue Aphrodite of Cnidus (or Knidos), a famous statue from the fourth century before Christ. These life-size statues of a naked Venus were considered to be very attractive to men in ancient times.
Fun fact: The statue has an inscription at its base reading ‘CLEOMENES SON OF APOLLODORUS OF ATHENS’. However, this inscription is not original as the base with the inscription was broken. The current inscription was added to it in the 17th century. It seems highly unlikely that Cleomenes created this sculpture as he was not a very good sculptor. In the 17th and 18th century it was common practice to add the name of Cleomenes to statues of mediocre quality to enhance the value of those statues. The Venus de’ Medici sculpture, however, is more in line with the work of Praxiteles who created very elegant and graceful statues around the time that this statue was made, but there is not much other evidence to confirm this.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Hall of the Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio
Commissioned for? The tomb of Pope Julius II
What do you see? Two male figures. A vigorous young man is standing with a crown of oak leaves and is holding a sling. The body is twisted in an extreme way, but Michelangelo makes it look like a comfortable position. The body of the young man is finished to perfection. In contrast, at the feet of the young man is an old and wrinkled conquered warrior. The knee of the young man seems to push hard onto the head of the old man. The sculpture is unfinished at the bottom, which allows you to admire the sculpting techniques of Michelangelo. More about Michelangelo’s sculpting techniques can be learned in this video.
Backstory: Michelangelo made this sculpture of almost 9 feet tall (2.61 meters) for the tomb of Pope Julius II (1443-1513). He was the Pope from 1503 until his death in 1513. Pope Julius II was also known as the ‘Warrior Pope,’ as he was very active to make the papacy the most dominant military and political force in Italy. This is also the reason that a statue of a victorious young man seems fitting for his tomb after his death. It is also no coincidence that Michelangelo was asked to create this statue as Pope Julius II was the one that commissioned Michelangelo’s famous frescos at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Symbolism: The oak leaves in the crown of the standing man refer to the emblem of the house of Della Rovere (which means ‘of the oak tree’), a noble Italian family that produced two popes. Several interpretations have been given to the statue, but one of the popular ones is that this statue is an allegory of the victorious overlooking the defeated.
Why the tomb of Pope Julius II? In 1505, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to create the Pope’s tomb for after his death. The original idea was to create a freestanding tomb seven meters wide, eleven meters deep, and eight meters high, with about 40 statues. However, due to a lack of funding and people convincing the pope that it was bad luck to have his tomb built while he was still alive, the project got delayed. After the death of the Pope, the project got gradually less ambitious, and the final tomb includes substantially fewer statues and is not freestanding anymore. The tomb can be found in the San Pietro in Vincoli Church in Rome.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was an architect, engineer, painter, poet, and sculptor. He is considered to be one of the greatest artists ever and was considered the best artist of his time. He is probably most well-known for his sculptures (think about the David and the Pietà) and his frescos in the Sistine Chapel such as the Creation of Adam and The Last Judgment.
Fun fact: The standing young man in this statue is believed to be Tomasso dei Cavaleiri. Michelangelo was 57 when he met Cavaleiri, who was 23 at that time, and fell in love with him. Michelangelo dedicated 30 poems to Cavaleiri in which he expressed his love for him and also used him as inspiration for some of his other works. They remained lifelong friends, even though, Cavaleiri married in 1538 and got two children with someone else. The adoration of the male body was not completely uncommon during the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci also showed this appreciation in his work.
Where? Room 8 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1435 and 1460. The dating of this painting has been the subject of much debate, but most critics believe it is painted between 1435 and 1440.
Commissioned by? Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, a rich Florentine man who had a strong commercial interest in the battle of San Romano.
What do you see? This painting shows a scene from the battle of San Romano on June 1, 1432. This battle was fought between the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Lucca with its allies. The central figure on the white horse is probably Bernardino della Ciarda. He was a former captain in the Florentine army but had recently defected to the opponents. He is fully armored and about to be thrown off his horse by a jousting lance. In the foreground, you can see several fallen horses and soldiers. The composition of the painting is not very realistic as the horses and soldiers in this painting look like dummies. The reason is that Uccello’s main interest in painting was not to perfectly depict a scene from history, but he was more interested in getting the linear perspective right. Look, for example at all the lances that are in this painting. Some are conveniently dropped on the ground in a geometrical pattern. The lances in vertical direction all point to the same vanishing point which Uccello wanted to incorporate to create depth in the painting. The vanishing point is just above the head of the white horse. In the background, you can see some soldiers and dogs hunting for rabbit and deer.
Backstory: The battle of San Romano (a small place in Italy, near Lucca) was part of the war between the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Lucca with its allies from Genoa, Milan, and Siena. An important element of the war was about who would get access to the port of Pisa for trade. The battle of San Romano took place on June 1, 1432, and lasted less than a day. This battle was only a relatively minor battle, but the Florentines remembered it as a turning point in the war. This painting commemorates the Florentine victory in this battle, though Sienese sources disagree with this conclusion. The battle started when Florentine general Niccoló Tolentino was attacked after he was separated from most of his army when he was exploring the area. Tolentino and his small group of soldiers fought a brave fight and did not give up until another Florentine general, Micheletto Attendolo (who is at the center of the Louvre version of this battle), arrived at the battle scene with reinforcements. Attendolo and his army helped Florence to win this battle. The war dragged on for another year without a clear winner and in the end the war was settled through negotiations.
Other versions of this painting? This painting is a part of a triptych (a work of art divided into three parts) made by Uccello. The three paintings represent different moments in the battle of San Romano. There are two alternative explanations about the order of the paintings. The simple explanation is that the three paintings represent the morning of the fight (the version in the National Gallery in London), the afternoon (the current version), and the evening (the Louvre version). A more popular alternative is that the National Gallery version represents the beginning of the battle with Niccoló da Tolentino. The Louvre version represents the arrival of Micheletto Attendolo and his army, and the current version shows the last episode where Bernardino della Ciarda from the opposing army was unhorsed. Note that the current painting of the battle in the Uffizi is the only of the three versions that is signed (see the words PAVLI VGIELI OPVS in the shield at the bottom left).
Who is Uccello? Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was born as Paolo di Dono in Pratovecchio in Tuscany. In his teenage years, he was an apprentice of Lorenzo Ghiberti and later he got influenced by contemporaries such as Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio. He was named Uccello, which is Italian for ‘bird’, because he liked to paint birds. He developed strong scientific interests and was very interested in representing perspective in paintings, something that he and contemporary artists just introduced to painting. The appropriate use of linear perspective was often more important in his paintings than what the painting should represent. In his paintings, he combines elements of the older Gothic tradition (the decorative parts) and the newer Renaissance movement (which introduced depth and perspective).
Linear Perspective? Linear perspective was developed around 1420 by Brunelleschi. It was a completely new approach to represent space in paintings. The simplest idea of perspective is that the size of objects becomes smaller the further away they are from the observer. Paintings with perspective have one or multiple vanishing points which help the painter to create perspective. Foreshortening is a specific form of perspective in which an illusionary trick is used to provide the idea of depth. A great example is when someone wants to paint a picture of a person laying with his feet towards you. To create the idea of depth, the painter will paint the feet of the person bigger than his head. The lamentation of Christ by Mantegna is a great example of such a painting. Note that the linear perspective in Uccello’s paintings is not perfect, but it did help to create depth in two-dimensional paintings. His work served as an inspiration for many artists in the next generations who perfected his ideas about linear perspective in paintings.
Fun fact: This painting of Uccello and its two companion pieces in the Louvre and National Gallery originally had an arched top, possibly a Gothic arch. However, these arches have been cut away around the time that Lorenzo the Medici seized the paintings from the commissioning Salimbeni family. The paintings were changed into rectangular formats and some additions were made to the top corners. There is clear evidence that the top left and right corner did not originally exist, but these additions were made at the end of the 15th century. It is very unlikely that Uccello made these additions, but the unknown artist that made these did a good job as the additions are very hard to notice with the naked eye. An analysis of the different layers for these additions, however, clearly reveals that some different materials and paint compositions are used.