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Florence is world renowned as one of Europe’s great capitals of art – here are the best museums and galleries to discover in the birthplace of the Renaissance.
The Tuscan capital is deeply proud of its Renaissance past – with its antique frescoed palazzos, church-filled piazzas and horse-drawn carriages roving the centre, the city seems almost suspended in time. Its museums and galleries provide a glimpse into Florence’s history, when art, architecture, philosophy and science flourished and thrived.
Anyone who knows Florence knows that many of the city’s greatest treasures are found in its churches – first among them being Santa Croce. Home to the jaw-dropping frescoes of Giotto and Taddeo Gaddi, Vasari’s Last Supper and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli, a stroll through the aisles here is like a walk through the fabled halls of Florentine history. In the basilica, you can also learn about the Florentine flood of 1966 – when the rapidly rising Arno River ravaged the city, severely damaging many precious artworks – and marvel at the painstaking restoration that followed. Enquire ahead about the fabulous and free volunteer-led tour in English (included in the entry ticket), and don’t forget to visit the scenic courtyard.
One of the oldest buildings in Florence, this former courthouse-turned-prison-turned-museum merits a visit for its bizarre history and architecture alone. The Bargello’s imposing Medieval tower and crest-lined courtyard brim with the spirit of the tumultuous political and family rivalries that forged Florence. Today, the Bargello also houses the city’s best sculpture collection. Upstairs, you’ll find two very different bronze interpretations of David from Donatello and Verrocchio, as well Il Marzocco, Donatello’s famed lion symbolising the power, pride and independence of the Florentine Republic. You’ll also find glazed terracottas by the della Robbia family and a parade of important sculptures by Benvenuto Cellini, Giambologna and Michelangelo. The most striking of these is an unfinished figure that, despite its lack of completion, gives a glimpse of the mind and the hands of a master at work.
Most visitors come to this gallery for one reason and one reason only: to see Michelangelo’s magnum opus, David. Yes, the tickets are costly and the lines are long without a reservation, but it’s absolutely worth it. Originally commissioned for the Duomo, Michelangelo’s towering marble statue of the biblical hero has become an iconic symbol worldwide, synonymous with both Florence and the Renaissance. Standing at a staggering five metres (17 feet) and famously carved from a single ‘flawed’ slab of white Carrara marble, David is a timeless testament to Michelangelo’s enduring genius.
The tiny church of Santa Maria del Carmine in the Oltrarno is easy to overlook when planning your itinerary. However, inside lies the Brancacci Chapel, where you’ll find the handiwork of three famed Florentine 15th-century painters: Filippino Lippi and the master-apprentice duo of Masolino and Masaccio. Art students flock to the chapel, which has been called the Sistine Chapel of the early Renaissance, to study the pioneering use of perspective, variations and evolution of style, colour palette and painting techniques of the era. History lovers can search the frescoes for the faces of important Florentine figures hidden in the crowds. Bear in mind that the chapel and church have separate entries. Plan ahead, as the chapel has varying hours and requires timed-ticket entry.
For a museum that’s a little out of the norm, head to Ferragamo. Hidden beneath the famed shoe designer’s signature shop on Via Tornabuoni, you’ll find a museum dedicated to the life and creative work of original proprietor, and shoemaker to the stars, Salvatore Ferragamo. Here, you can trace Ferragamo’s rise from young shoemaker in Naples, to a factory worker manufacturing cowboy boots in Boston, to Hollywood designer. When Ferragamo returned to Italy, he decided to open his namesake shop in Florence. These halls display his footwear as works of art, showing one-of-kind, custom-made heels from the 1920s-1950s created for starlets such as Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn alongside photos, sketches, models and tools for shoemaking. Themed exhibits showcase various rotating designs from the archive’s collection.