Studio Traveler's focus on Italian cities continues with this week's post on Florence by guest blogger Lindsay Morris.  Even with art history degrees from Davidson College and from St. Andrews University, I thought Lindsay was brave to choose to Florence.  How does one make the appeal of that most visited city vivid and new again?  Lindsay manages to do both, partly by writing exceptionally well and partly by bringing her expert's eye to some lesser known masterpieces.  With that in mind, Lindsay has aptly titled her post 'FLORENCE: A City with More Than One View', referencing both her opening quote from E.M. Forster's classic novel and the infinite surprises to be found in and around the city. 

“It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons.” 
                                                                                           E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

For centuries, the human eye has been enchanted by the magical riches of Florence.  From the city’s blanketed natural beauty of the surrounding Tuscan countryside to the serpentine flow of the Arno River making its way along its banks to the Etruscan hillside of Fiesole overlooking the heart of the city, inspiration is more than abundant. Artists even before the pinnacle of the high Renaissance have flocked to Florence to capture its loveliness in fresco, canvas, ceramic, sculpture and architecture. 
Giotto, Funeral of St. Francis, probably 1320s. Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence.

Perhaps the most significant predecessor to the Florentine Renaissance masters was Giotto di Bondone. In my early travels to Florence as a teenager I very quickly dismissed the genius of Giotto’s subtle palette and his even more understated, yet marvelously executed skill in capturing the human spirit. It was nearly 15 years ago that I fully appreciated the unsurpassed execution of the simple beauty of the human soul that Giotto brings to life in comparison to the darker palettes of his Italian Byzantine teachers such as Cimabue. He resuscitates humanity with breath and gives rhythm to the hearts of the human forms he creates. Unlike those artists who would learn from his mastery and focus more on the human form like Leonardo and Botticelli, Giotto is primarily interested in the human psyche. When I witnessed Giotto’s mastery of the Funeral of St. Francis as a then 20 year old art historian, I wept. The monk at St. Francis’ head pleads with the Almighty God for St. Francis’ life as two others at the feet and hands can’t bear to be parted. Even though I stood seven centuries removed, I could not help, but partake in their emotional worship of their beloved. If you make yourself even remotely vulnerable as you approach this remarkable fresco, you will soon find yourself heartbroken.

Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1438-45, fresco, Monastery of San Marco, Florence.
(Probably commissioned by Cosimo de Medici)

Just over a century later, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, known to us as Fra Angelico, followed in the footsteps of Giotto and Massaccio. He is still known today as “Beato” Angelico or “Blessed” because of his pious life and most of all the sincerity of his devotional work. Perhaps the most beautiful and in my mind, one of the most understated tourists sites visited in Florence is that of the Monastery of San Marco where Fra Angelico’s artistry adorns the corridors and living quarters. As a college student studying in Florence during 9-11, I found indescribable peace in Fra Angelico’s creations at San Marco. I especially fell in love with one of his Annunciation frescoes. While most of his annunciations and contemplative biblical scenes are intimately situated in the monks private quarters, this particular scene every monk encountered various times a day as they climbed the steps to their private chambers. Its inscription reads “As you venerate, while passing before it, this figure of the intact Virgin, beware lest you omit to say Hail Mary”. There are no gilded ornate emblems here, but simple unequivocal reverence. The intimacy created by the Corinthian columns and architecture compels one to reflection and solitude as you contemplate the tremendous calling of Mary to bear the baby that would be Christ our Savior. For me, the calling provided space in my every day busy life as a student exploring Florence to meditate on my life, my gifts and inevitably my own higher calling just as the monks responded to their daily spiritual calling.

Jacopo da Pontormo, Deposition, Capponi Chapel, Church of Santa Felicita, Florence. 1525-26

Perhaps the most compelling and little known gem of Florence’s artistic heritage is that of the Church of Santa Felicita and work of Florentine mannerist, Jacopo da Pontormo, Mannerism was the artistic response to the neoplatonic perfection of the high Renaissance and featured human forms that were stylistically enlongated and lyrical in their rendering. The color palette of the mannerists consisted of demarcated colors and organic use of fabric. Santa Felicita is located immediately across the Ponte Vecchio adjacent to the Pitti Palace. Sadly not often taught as part of artistic curriculums, I stumbled into Santa Felicita by mistake when I was seeking sanctuary from the heat of the Tuscan summer. What I encountered captured me both body and soul almost immediately. Pontormo’s altarpiece features a whirling vortex of the grief stricken. The serpentine composition gracefully flows downward toward the limp and unnaturally contorted body of the Christ. The young man whose very sheen of the fabric of shirt suggests the unbearable physical as well as spiritual weight that he carries, pleadingly looks to us for help. The burden of our sins is just too great. While nature has lost all the vibrancy of color, the mourners interestingly have not. Their clothes are painted with a vibrant monochrome color and perhaps hint at the joy that the Savior’s death brings. Pontormo’s figures and their contortions represent the very essence of the manneristic movement. The Virgin Mother’s body is unnaturally large in comparison to the crowd enveloping her and the figures as a whole create an architectural flow that further accentuates the weight of the melancholy. Of all the sites in Florence, this intimate church and hidden chapel are a must see. The beauty and genius of Pontormo were underestimated during his lifetime and only in recent years have been given the credit they deserve.

***All art images are from wikiart.com