The Myth of Florence

Florence: A Portrait

by Michael Levey
Harvard University Press, 498 pp., $35.00

When tourists began to visit Italy in large numbers in the eighteenth century, their favorite destinations were Venice and Rome. If they chose to stop in Florence they wanted above all to see the masterpieces from the ducal collection displayed in the Uffizi, notably ancient statues such as the Medici Venus and paintings produced after 1500, of which the most famous were by non-Florentine masters such as Titian and Raphael. In the course of the nineteenth century there was a gradual change in taste, as visitors began to admire the works of native Tuscans of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, such as the frescoes of Giotto and his followers, Ghiberti’s bronze doors on the Baptistry, and the paintings of Fra Angelico, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio. A decisive step in the establishment of the new attitude occurred in 1853, when Botticelli’s Primavera, which was probably painted in the early 1480s and had previously been kept in the reserves of the Uffizi, was first displayed to the public in the Accademia gallery. In 1859 a museum of medieval and Renaissance sculpture, the Bargello, was opened, and ten years later the monastery of San Marco was transformed into a museum devoted to the works of Fra Angelico.

During the past century and a half Florence has acquired a unique status as the art city par excellence. Some of the works produced there, especially in the decades after 1400, have been elevated to the rank of supreme masterpieces of Western art, unsurpassed in aesthetic quality and historical importance. These works are commonly regarded as products of a society in which the visual arts enjoyed an unparalleled prestige, in which artists rubbed shoulders with scholars and wealthy patrons, and in which the latest works of painting and sculpture were eagerly discussed and evaluated by citizens of every class. Florence is described in countless guidebooks as “the cradle of the Renaissance,” the city in which the transition was first made between the medieval and modern world, a transition increasingly associated, in the minds of many people, with the production of works of art. As Michael Levey writes at the beginning of his new book, tourists now flock to the city to encounter “a unique, narrow but tremendous experience, the explosion of art and culture which we call the Renaissance and which detonated first or most patently in Florence.”

The term “Renaissance” has all sorts of positive connotations, but no very precise fixed meaning. The idea of a rebirth of the visual arts around 1300, especially in Tuscany, and above all through the innovations of Giotto, was established by Giorgio Vasari (or more probably by his editors) in 1550, and it provided a counterpart to the already current notion of the revival of classical Latin as a literary language by a group of scholars known as humanists, who were inspired by a wider interest in the written legacy of antiquity, both Greek and Roman. In the nineteenth century, particularly through the work of Jules Michelet and Jacob…

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