The Gems of Florence

Article excerpt


I stood in the bustling heart of Florence, the Italian city that gave birth to the Renaissance, trying to frame the baptistery, the cathedral, and its bell tower in my viewfinder as they stretched to converge high in the sky. "Perspective," I thought, the strange illusion that comes into play every time we observe or attempt to reproduce the world around us. Yet the art world had to wait until the Renaissance artists of Tuscany introduced this elementary principle of realism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, first in the work of Giotto (1266-1337) and then in a fuller form in that of the genial Masaccio.

The Romanesque baptistery, facing the cathedral, is thought to be the oldest building in Florence. As I moved closer to study the famous panels on its east doors depicting scenes from the Old Testament, a slight, old man broke into a monologue. He spoke with the unmistakable Tuscan cadence; a voiced "h" seemed to have been added to the beginning of each word. "Young people today don't appreciate art," he said. "They walk past this masterpiece by Lorenzo Ghiberti with indifference. He spent most of his adult life sculpturing these and the doors facing north. Look at that masterly relief in that middle panel on the left. That's the story of Jacob and Esau," he pointed excitedly. "There, Isaac orders Esau to go hunting...."

He held my attention and that of half a dozen other tourists for a while. I couldn't help marveling at his erudition, passion, and genuine pride in his countryman's achievements. "You do realize these are not the originals," he concluded, smiling mischievously. "They are kept in the cathedral museum." That much I knew.

Florence-born Ghiberti was one of the most important sculptors of the early Renaissance. His work paved the way for the High Renaissance style adopted by the likes of Tuscan natives Michelangelo, who described Ghiberti's east doors as the "gates of paradise," and the eclectic genius Leonardo da Vinci.

Ghiberti spent more than twenty years on his masterpiece and received assistance from a Florentine youth known as Donatello. The young sculptor grew into a leading figure of the Renaissance. Donatello gradually shed Gothic influences in his works and increasingly applied realism. His bronze David, kept in the Bargello museum, is the first nude Renaissance sculpture; his Magdalen, displayed in the cathedral museum, is so realistic that it incarnates suffering.

I squeezed past a group of young people listening to a six-member Peruvian band to get closer to the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, known as the Duomo. The facade had been cleaned and liberated from ugly scaffolding for two special reasons: The Duomo was celebrating seven hundred years of existence, and an important meeting of European Union nations had recently been held in Florence. To present the city's architectural gems at their best, the courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti and churches including Santa Croce and San Lorenzo had been restored. Sixty other projects had been completed for the occasion at a cost of $25 million.

My attention was drawn by the cathedral's ribbed cupola, the creation of architect Filippo Brunelleschi. He, Ghiberti, Masacio, and Donatello are the fathers of the Renaissance. The period was characterized by intense involvement with art and literature, revived interest in Greek and Roman art, and added emphasis on realism.

Brunelleschi received the commission to design and build the dome of the unfinished Gothic cathedral in 1418 and spent eighteen years realizing what became an epochal engineering feat. He used two octagonal shells, placing one inside the other, and employed a revolutionary bricklaying method. Each line of bricks interlocked with the one below it, making the dome a self-supporting structure. …