The Bargello is remarkable as much for the history and architecture of the building, as for its contents. It is recognizable by its bell tower and crenellated walls, which gives it a fortress-like appearance. It is one of the oldest public buildings in Florence.
Dating to 1255 and originally the seat of the Governor of Florence, this building has served as the personal residence of the Duke of Calabria (1326), and then the headquarters of the local Magistrates of the Ruota (1502) before it was taken over by the Captain of Justice, known as the Bargello, and turned into a prison (1574). In 1786, Grand Duke Peter Leopold abolished the church office that ran the Inquisition, and had all the instruments of torture burned in the courtyard, save for a single spiked iron collar that is now displayed in the Armoury. The courtyard was used for executions via hanging until the late 18th century.
The building was restored to its original palatial estate starting in 1856, and in 1865 it was inaugurated as a national museum, containing a very nice array of both Italian and Persian artifacts, as well as sculptures that the Uffizi no longer had room to properly display.
The walls of the inner courtyard are studded with the heraldic coats of arms of the Judges of the Ruota and of the Podesta. The courtyard hosts several marble statuary, including one depicting Cosimo I de’ Medici as a Roman Emperor, carved by Vincento Danti (1536-1586). My favorites here were Juno and the two peacocks, by Ammannati (1511-92), originally intended as part of a fountain at the Palazzo della Signoria, and the Fisher Boy, a 19th century bronze by Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929) that was originally exhibited in Paris. There are also several sculptures here by Michelangelo.
The second story loggia overlooks the courtyard and has vaulted ceilings, restored from when the building was divided into walled prison cells. There is more marble statuary here, but my favorite pieces were the series of life-size bronze birds, including a turkey, a barn owl, a hawk and a peacock, crafted by Giambologna in 1567. In spite of the layers of dust and cobweb that covered them, I could still see the very fine feather detail. These pieces are exposed to the elements but the catalog notes that there were plans to move them to the protection of the Bronze Room at some future point. You can see photos of these birds at this link.
In another gallery, in the oldest part of this building that was originally the Great Council Chamber, I would be introduced to a sculptor whose works would send me on a quest through every bookstore in Florence, looking for a portfolio of his works.
Donatello (1386-1466) was among the most gifted and influential artists of the 15th century. He apprenticed to Lorenzo Ghiberti, and after studying classical art in Rome, returned to Florence where he would eventually receive patronage from the Medici family. Read more about his life at https://www.biography.com/artist/donatello.
In the gallery named for him, most of the works depicted Madonna and Child in both full round sculptures and reliefs, as well as saints, and busts patterned after what I assume were Florentine nobles of the day. There’s a bronze sculpture of a teenage David, fully nude except for a broad brimmed hat with a laurel wreath band, and greaves on his shins. In one hand he holds a sword, and he rests a foot (and his gaze) on the severed head of Goliath. It is thought to have been commissioned by Cosimo De Medici the Elder, and was cast between 1430-40.
My absolute favorite piece from here was Atys – a bronze cherub with leggings, a contagious smile and a defined torso that looked out of place on a figure that elsewise resembled a 2 year old. Of all the pieces here, this one ropes me in as a “new fan of Donatello”. I spent the rest of the day looking for a replica to take home for my garden, but eventually settled for an art book which I will have to translate from the Italian some day. Read more about this piece at http://www.donatellosculptures.com/amor-atys/
There were gilded bronze reliefs by both Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, who would later be commissioned to cast the famous bronze doors at the Baptistry. Ghiberti’s works would come to be known as the “Gates of Paradise”, which I will submit as a separate article here in the future.
Beyond the galleries of sculptures and bronzes, I entered a room that resembled the Medici Chapel I had visited earlier today, with a low vaulted ceiling, except that this one was painted lapis blue and covered with gold painted stars. I kept reminding myself to look at the building as much as the artifacts.
Among my favorite pieces here:
My favorite gallery was The Islamic Room. Here I was introduced to 14th century Venetian-Saracen artworks -- trays and boxes made by Islamic artists who were living in Venice. There were several Anatolian rugs hung on the walls, and cases of brocades from Central Asia (7th-8th cen.) and Spain and Egypt (10th-12th cen). One case held a bronze mirror from Syria (12th cen.). The carved Syrian ivory plaques were stunning, as were the three 15th century damascened iron Persian helmets.
Another gallery of note was the Ivories Room, which held more European carved pieces than I have ever seen in one place, including an oblong Byzantine casket, and another with a rounded top that dated from 15th century Italy.
There is a Medieval Sculpture Room on the ground level that I didn’t spend a lot of time in, containing religious works from the mid 14th century. If you are a fan of Majolica, there’s a room on this floor devoted to that art form. The Medals Room was interesting and housed a collection of commemorative medals dating from the 15th – 19th centuries. The Armoury was not listed in my Rick Steves guide, so I missed it. Only two pages are devoted to it in the back of the catalog. I would look for it specifically if I ever return to Florence.
Photography was allowed in the courtyard, but not inside the museum. I highly recommend the National Museum of the Bargello New General Catalog (ISBN 88-7204-001-9), which I found in one of the bookstores downtown.
Additional photos of selected works from the Bargello can be viewed at http://www.museumsinflorence.com/musei/museum_of_bargello.html
Hours of operation, ticketing and other information can be obtained at https://www.florence-museum.com/bargello-museum-tickets.php
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Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day
and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.
In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.