I will never forget Alberto Giovanni.
It was the winter of 1988 and on our way to London to spend a couple of weeks with friends during the Christmas vacation, we planned a short visit at Florence.
Florence (Firenze in Italian) is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany and is the most populous city in Tuscany. The city lies on the banks of the Arno river and is known for its history and for its importance in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, especially for its art and architecture. A centre of medieval European trade and finance, the city is often considered as the birth place of the Italian Renaissance. Perhaps not many of us know that from 1865 to 1870 the city was also the capital of Italy.
The Duomo, Florence
On December 19, we took a whirlwind tour of the famous tourist places of Florence including Michelangelo’s David and the Duomo and kept the next day free to shop around the market places of Florence and take a walk in the Florentine gardens.
The next day we were out of the hotel by 10.30 in the morning and were figuring out the map of Florence, when someone came towards us and tipping his cap said “ Buon giorno Signore (Good morning in Italian). My name is Alberto. It looks like you need some help with the directions”. On being told our plans for the day he thought for a minute and asked us if we had heard of the Pitti Palace Museum. He guessed that my answer would simply be negative and added “This largest museum complex of Florence is perhaps the best place to visit in the whole of Italy and is located nearby”. Even before I could respond, Jeet my travel companion and host in Italy asked him the time required to visit the museum and the expense involved. We were told that the museum closed by 3 P.M. and thereafter he could take us to a reasonably priced market place where lots of Asian tourists come for shopping.
As soon as Alberto’s cab reached the parking lot of the museum, he spotted someone and shouted “Hey Francisco, come quick and meet my guests from India”. Francisco seemed to be a tourist guide. Alberto asked him to tell us a brief history of the palace, while we were sipping orange juice from tetra packs, which Alberto had got for us.
Francisco showed us the ground plan of the palace, which looked something like this:
Francisco told us that the construction of this largest architectural monument in Florence started sometime in 1461 at the behest of Lucca Pitti, a merchant and banker of renown and a friend of the Medici family (the de facto rulers). The construction began according to the plans of the famous architect, Brunelleschi and had progressed to the second floor, when Luca Pitti fell out with the Medicis and ran into severe financial crisis, leading to the abandonment of the project, sometime before his death in 1472. However, the palace continues to bear his name.
The palace was purchased by Eleanor of Toledo, the Dutchess of Florence (wife of Cosimo de Medici) from the descendents of Luca Pitti and thus began the splendid extension and further beautification of the palace. On moving into the palace, Cosimo engaged Giorgio Vasari, the famous painter and architect who is also known for his biographies of some of the Italian painters. It is Vasari who has provided us the most authentic account of the construction of the palace. In keeping with the new master’s taste, the palace was more than doubled in size by the addition of a new block along the rear. Vasari also built the Vasari Corridor, an above-ground walkway linking Cosimo’s old palace with the Pitti Palace. This enabled the Grand Duke and his family to move easily and safely from their official residence to the Pitti Palace. Initially the Pitti Palace was used mostly for lodging official guests and for holding occasional functions of the court while the Medicis’ principal residence continued to be the Vecchio Palace.
The Dutchess also planned and executed a large garden around the palace, which is now known as the Boboli Gardens.
The successive enlargement of the Pitti Palace by the new rulers were executed with admirable fidelity to the original plans of Brunelleschi. This resulted in a continual transformation of the interior so that today it is virtually impossible to find among the labyrinth of large and small chambers, corridors and passageways, the original apartments which were the private chambers of the Pittis for over half a century. By doubling its size and adding side wings, this bare fifteenth century building was transformed into one of the most impressive Renaissance Florentine buildings.
However, it was not until the reign of Eleonor’s son Ferdinando and his wife Cristina that the palace was occupied on a permanent basis and became home to the Medicis’ art collection. Over the centuries Pitti Palace housed two more dynasties: the Lorraine and the Savoy. The growth and enlargement of the palace represents the culture and tastes of the owners from the late Renaissance to our own days. Its sumptuous decorations, its extraordinary art collection which grew over the years, its art objects, fountains, and the rare plants in the Boboli Gardens are a testimony of the history of this spectacular building over the centuries.
Finally in 1919 Victor Emanuele III gifted the palace to the state for public use and particularly to serve as a museum.
At this point, Francisco took our leave, as he had to attend to a large bus-load of Italian – speaking tourists, who had just arrived at the far end of the parking lot.
Alberto took center stage and pointing towards the three storey edifice told us that the largest gallery, the Palatine Gallery, perhaps the most famous of the galleries, a large ensemble of over 500 principally Renaissance paintings, was furnished by the Medicis and the Lorraines. The Silver Museum and the Monumental Apartments once were the residence of Cosimo III and some of the subsequent rulers.
The Tour of the palace
While welcoming us the Reception Officer gave us a brochure which told us about an important event in the history of the palace. Leopold Hapsburg Lorraine decided to open the west wing, seat of the ancient Medici apartments, to the public, so that the royal collections of the Medici family could be displayed, while the court carried on living in the east wing. The Palatine Gallery was opened to the public in 1834. It was interesting to note that clothing propriety was a must for the visitors to the gallery during those days.
The Palatine Gallery
The Palatine Gallery, contains a large collection of over 500 principally Renaissance paintings, which were once part of the collection of the Medici family and their successors. The gallery which spills over into the royal apartments, contains works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Corraggio, Pietro da Cartona and others. The character of the gallery is still that of a private collection, and the works of art are displayed and hung much as they would have been in the grand rooms for which they were intended. They are not in a chronological sequence, or according to schools of art.
The finest rooms were decorated by Pietro da Cortona in the high baroque style. Cortona’s huge, well-received, frescoes depicting the Age of Gold and Age of Silver in the Salla della Stuffa were painted in 1637, and followed in 1641 by the Age of Copper and Age of Iron. Representing the turmoil of life, they are regarded among his masterpieces. The artist was subsequently asked to paint in frescos a suite of seven rooms at the front of the palace. The theme for these frescoes was to be the astrological influence on the life of the ruler. By 1647, when Cortona left Florence, he had finished only three rooms – Mars, Jupiter and Venus. They were to inspire the later Planet Rooms at the palace.
The first room on our left was called the Venus Room. The moment we entered the room, we were totally overwhelmed by the splendid complex, where we were surrounded by beauty on all sides, the architecture, the frescoes and the paintings were all blended into an indissoluble and interdependent whole. This astounding complex houses some of the most exquisite works of Peter Paul Rubens, Salvator Rosa, Titian and Andrea Del Sarto.
While I was having a close look at Rubens’s “The Peasants Return From The Fields”, a gorgeous looking lady,a museum employee whispered into my ear “You might need this” – it was a magnifying glass. Of course, the detailing did require this accessory. In the picture above, please note carefully the eye contact between the girl walking towards the village and the man giving her some directions. In a single canvas, Rubens depicted about the beautiful overcast sky, the vast expanse of the open fields, the stream flowing, the fruit laden trees, the tired horses relaxing after a hard day’s work and women carrying the produce back home.
Hesitantly, I asked her if she would be kind enough to enlighten us about the museum. We talked about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, the stalwarts of the Renaissance era. She asked us if we had seen any of the works of Raphael. I told her about the “Madonna and the child”, so she straight away took us to next room, where Raphael’s famous creation, “Madonna of the chair” was housed. She told us that this painting was done by Raphael in the year 1515-1516 and pointed out the vivid immediacy of feeling and expression in the Mother’s embrace of her son. She also urged us to look at the sweet, imploring gesture of the other child in the painting.
We were told that contrary to the volatile Michelangelo and Leonardo, Raphael was a very gentle family man. Unfortunately he did not live long and died at the age of thirty two. She also explained the minute details of his other famous work “The veiled woman”, which was on display on the opposite wall. She urged us to admire the rich materials which adorn the woman, who tradition indicates as the Roman mistress of the painter. I was totally astounded by the painter’s attention lingered on the beautiful face, the folds in the sleeve, on the play of light on satin and velvet, on the necklace of agate and amber.
This painting is from the collection of Cosimo III de Medici and dated 1616. It is a delicate picture of the serene family life of the painter himself and a tribute to his affection for his wife and children .
In addition to these aforesaid famous works, The Palatine Gallery, also housed important Florentine and Venetian Renaissance paintings including several works by Tiziano. The seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries were represented by some Caravaggio masterpieces. There were works of some very renowned foreign artists, including those by Van Dyck and Murillo.
The Royal Apartments
This is a suite of 14 rooms, formerly used by the Medici family, and also lived in by their successors. These rooms have been largely altered since the era of the Medicis, most recently in the 19th century. They contain a collection of Medici portraits. In contrast to the great salons containing the Palatine collection, some of these rooms are much smaller and more intimate. While still grand and gilded, they are more suited to day to day living requirements. The Kings of Italy last used the Pitti Palace in the 1920s. By that time the palace had already been converted into a museum, but a suite of rooms (now the Gallery of Modern Art) was reserved for them when they visited Florence officially.
The Gallery of Modern Art
In 1919, when the Palace was still a Savoy Royal residence, in the rooms on the second floor the Modern Art gallery was started as an ideal cultural continuation of past traditions. The Gallery hosts Italian art from the second half of the 19th century, mainly represented by works of Macchiaoli, and other works from the start of the 20th century.
Deeply engrossed in the grandeur of the palace, we were alerted by the sound of a siren indicating that the museum was about to close. We thanked the museum staff for the courtesy extended to us. We went to admire the lush green Boboli Gardens, the mid sixteenth century garden style which incorporated longer axial developments, wide gravel avenues, a large amphitheater built of stone and the lavish statuary and fountains. Alberto took us to a nearby small restaurant and we savoured some delicious Italian wine and snacks and cheeses.
After a hearty meal, we were inclined to do a bit of shopping and Alberto took us to the famous flea market of Florence located at Piazza dei Ciompi. At this market you can find not only practically everything for household use, but you can also find furniture and objects from the past, prints, coins and jewellery. You can also find affordable treasures amidst the bric-a-brac and dusty books. It’s worth a trip if only to get an insight into Italy’s past through the artifacts displayed in these cluttered stalls. I was lucky to pick up a couple of leather bound editions of “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens and Rita Gilbert’s “Living with Art”, at throw away prices. We picked up some souvenirs for friends, had a quick drink at a nearby bar and decided to call it a day, as we had to rush to the railway station to board a train to Milan, our temporary abode.
At the end of the day it felt as if we were saying good bye not to a cabbie but to a friend.
I have never been to Italy again, but whenever someone mentions Florence or Renaissance art, the smiling face of Alberto comes to my mind. May be one of these days, I will go back to Florence and bump into Alberto !
Thanks for being with me on this journey.
This post is inspired by Smita’s beautifully narrated “Florence- Reminiscence of the Renaissance”. I was so impressed by the post that I decided to add to her splendid work, my humble submission circulated to some like minded friends in 1989. Thanks Smita
Also some of the pictures have been taken from the internet to give a better view, as those days I didn’t have a digital camera. My grateful thanks to the publishers of these pictures.