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The International Writers Magazine: Italian Art

Ten Masterpieces in Florence
• Emily Mead
Florence is one of the most remarkable cities in the world. To this day it is one of the most visited cities in Italy largely due to its remarkable artistic heritage. If you are lucky enough to travel to Florence here are a few must-see works of art and architecture.


1) The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
(1482-1485) - in the Uffizi Gallery

The Birth of Venus is undeniably one of the world’s most famous and treasured works of art. Sandro Botticelli painted it between 1482 and 1485. Like many of the famous paintings in Florence, Botticelli was commissioned to paint the work by the Medici family.

Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus has been interpreted in several different ways. The goddess of love, Venus, is portrayed naked on a shell on the seashore and on her left the winds blow and on her right a handmaid waits to dress her. Violets, symbols of love drift in the wind. Many people interpret the painting as the birth of divine and pure love itself. As she transitions to earth she is clothed and becomes more modest. We are initially drawn in to the painting by Venus’ evident physical beauty. Plato argued that the contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty and draw the mind towards the godly.


2) The Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538) - in the Uffizi Gallery

The painting The Venus of Urbino was completed in 1538 for the Duke of Urbino. Similar to The Birth of Venus, the painting has many hidden meanings and themes.


The painting was a gift to the Duke of Urbino’s wife and includes symbols of eroticism, devotion, maternity, as well as marital obligations. For a long time the painting was shunned and considered overly crude and vulgar. However, today it is considered one of Titian’s Renaissance masterpieces. The famous pose and style of the Venus has been reinterpreted in several modern art forms. To this day it is one of the most recognizable and bold paintings ever made. The Venus in this painting is also thought to represent love, beauty, and fertility because of her striking beauty and self-assurance.

Many art historians claim the dog is a symbol of marital fidelity, the housemaid rummaging through a chest symbolizing motherhood. The sense of sexuality and eroticism in the painting is consistent with it being a private gift from a husband to his young wife.

David + Michelangelo

3) David by Michelangelo (1501 – 1504) – in the Accademia


Ah, the David. When I saw it for the first time I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it. I even walked right passed Michelangelo’s amazing Prisoners sculptures, struggling in the stone. I was so drawn to the David. I walked towards him in a sort of trance with my eyes peeled wide open. This astonishing Renaissance sculpture was created between 1501 and 1504. It is a 14 foot tall marble statue depicting the Biblical hero David after defeating Golitath. The story ends with David hurling a stone from his sling and hits Goliath in his forehead. Goliath falls on his face to the ground, and David then cuts off his head.

Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he began sculpting the David but he was already a renowned and famous artist by that time. He sought to create the perfect form of man from a block of marble and he succeeded. One thing that immediately struck me about the statue was the size of the hands. They were blatantly oversized but I found myself appreciating and analyzing them the most. Don’t skip out on visiting the Accademia because seeing this masterpiece in person is a truly amazing experience.

4) The Duomo of Florence (1436) by Filippo Brunelleschi - Source:

Did you know that you could climb inside Brunellschi’s famous dome? The best view of the city is from the very top and it is worth the climb. There are 463 steps and at parts it is pretty confined. Unfortunately many tourists have placed graffiti in the walls of the stairwell. On the ascent to the top you get a close up look of the incredible ceiling frescoes of the Last Judgment painted by Giorgio Vasari. Many of the depictions of hell were truly horrific and can’t really be seen well enough from below.

Construction of the cathedral of Florence itself began in 1296. The dome was not built until the early 1400s, when Brunelleschi started to make statues for the cathedral. In about 1415 he prepared a design for the dome that he boldly proposed to build without the aid of formwork.

Duomo Florence
This had never been done before and had been necessary in all previous Roman and Gothic construction. His design was eventually adopted and was an incredible engineering feat. Brunelleschi's dome actually consists of two layers, an inner dome and an outer dorm that would protect it from weather and give the dome a more aesthetically pleasing appearance.
Florenca Gates

5) Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425 – 1452) –
in the Museo del Opera del Duomo

The Gates of Paradise are a pair of gilded bronze doors designed by the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. The doors were made for the entrance of the Baptistery in Florence. The original doors are now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and replicas now adorn the entrance of the Baptistery.

The Gates of Paradise contain five large rectangular reliefs on each door representing scenes from the Old Testament. What makes the doors so interesting are the both scenes that are depicted as well as Lorenzo Ghiberti’s understanding of linear perspective when creating the bronze reliefs. To the eye there appears to be more depth than actually exists. Ghiberti’s intelligent use of landscapes and architectural perspective aided in creating the illusion. Old Testament scenes depicted on the doors include Cain slaying his brother Abel, animals leaving Noah’s arc, and the sacrifice of Isaac.

6) The Medici Palace by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1445 – 1460) – on Via Cavour, near the Church of San Lorenzo

When visiting Florence, I was lucky enough to stay right next to the famous Medici palace. I walked by it everyday and did not know it was the previous palace of the Medici until several days later. Many simply walk by the building without noticing it. Towards 1444 Cosimo the Eldest, the patriarch of the Medici family, commissioned a palace to be built close to the church of San Lorenzo. It was the first Renaissance building erected in Florence. What does distinguish the palace from other nearby buildings are the arched windows arranged along its front. There is also a grand courtyard which would have originally opened up to Renaissance garden.

Medici Palace

One of the most important sections of the palace is the Chapel frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459. The frescoes represent the Procession of the Magi and many of the figures portrayed in the fresco are wealthy people of the time including members of the Medici family.

Cosimo de’ Medici did inhabit the palace until 1540 and several other members of the Medici palace lived in the palace until 1659. The Medici family was able to remain a political dynasty in Florence for an immense period. While they were unforgiving rulers, we can thank them for commissioning hundreds of masterpieces and keeping art in the city of Florence.

Botticelli Primavera

7) Primavera by Sandro Botticelli (1477-1482) – in the Uffizi Gallery

The painting Primavera by Sandro Botticelli was likely commissioned by the Medici family. Primavera can be found in the Uffizi Gallery museum along with several other paintings by Botticelli.

The Primavera, also called the Allegory of Spring, includes several allegorical meanings. Flora, the elegant woman scattering her flowers over the world, turns into Spring. The goddess Venus in the middle represents benevolence and goodwill, which protects men.

On the left the three Graces dance and Mercury dissipates the clouds. This painting is particularly beautiful to me because of the naturalistic setting including the variety of flowers and the skillful use of the color. The whole scene is so elegant and poetic and it has fascinated and intrigued people from all over the world.

8) The Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini (1545 – 1554) – in the Piazza Signoria

There are so many amazing statues in the Piazza della Signora but this one definitely stands out and it is one of the most famous statues in the Piazza. Cosimo I of the Medici family commissioned the statute after he had just been named Grand Duke. It was completed from 1545 to 1554. Perseus with the head of Medusa is a bronze sculpture by Cellini. I think the realism and goriness of the statue make it particularly interesting to look at. 

It depicts Perseus as he stands on Medusa’s body and holds her head up in the air. In the scene, he has just beheaded her with his sword, and triumphantly lifts up her head, holding it by her hair. The statue is also placed on a high pedestal and you are forced to look up at Perseus as he looks down toward the ground.

At first it appears like guts are spilling from Medusa’s body but upon closer examination one realizes these are actually serpents. 

Judith and Holofernes

9) Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (1614-1620) – in the Uffizi Gallery

Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian painter and was considered one of the most accomplished painters of the 1600s. Female painters were not easily accepted during that time. Her rise to fame, as a female artist is an extraordinary feat in itself. She was actually the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arti del Disegno in Florence.

Today her work is considered one of the most progressive of her generation. Much of her inspiration seems to come from strong female characters including warriors as well as women who have suffered and were victims. She particularly seems to have like the Judith story in which Judith beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes.

Due to its violence, the work was confined to a “dark corner” in the Pitti Palace and only after Cosimo II’s death was Artemisia even paid for her work.

10) The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna (1579–1583) - in the Piazza Signoria

This is one of my favorite statues to this day. However, that puts off some people due to the imagery and violence depicted in the statue. However, what makes it so tremendous is that it was carved from a single block of stone by the Flemish artist Giambologna. It is surely one of the finest works in the history of sculpture in part due to the technical expertise required as well as the creative imagery. It combines the classical nude forms of Greek sculpture with the dynamism of mannerism. If you get a chance to visit the Piazza Signoria be sure to walk around the scultpture in its entirety. It provides a completely different view from each angle. There is also a copy of the statue in the Accademia.

The statue is meant to represent a Roman mythological event in which the Roman army invaded a town and killed all of the men, taking the women for their own. The amount of emotion and action captured in a single block of marble is tremendous.

© Emily Mead February 2015
emilymead8 at

The Rape of Sabine women

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