From the Fleur de Lys to the David, from the Commune to the Republic.
Adopting a totally new approach to the topic, Civic Art in Florence from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance focuses on works of art from the communal and republican eras originally commissioned to adorn the public buildings of Florence – the buildings that housed the magistracies tasked with running the city, the halls of the various Arti, or guilds, and the city walls.
The exhibition covers such themes as civic heraldry, religion and the city, representative public buildings such as the Palazzo dei Priori, the Palazzo del Podestà and the church of Orsanmichele, and the political parties that lorded it over the city (the House of Anjou, the Arti, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines), illustrating the figurative themes they chose and offering visitors a new key to understanding the numerous works of art themselves by underscoring the importance of images in the propaganda and communication strategy of the groups which ruled the city in the era of the Commune and the Republic before the rise of the Medici family changed the city for good from both a political and an aesthetic standpoint.
The exhibits bear witness to a complex figurative vocabulary rich in allegory, where the dividing line between the sacred and the secular is often hard to detect. For instance, in the Palazzo dei Priori, known today as Palazzo Vecchio, one was just as likely to encounter depictions of St. Christopher and of the Wheel of Fortune as one was of the mythological hero Hercules, who appeared on the city's official seal, or of the biblical King David whose statue by Michelangelo, which was to become an emblem of Republican Florence, brings the exhibition to an ideal close.
Religious subjects have withstood the ravages of time rather better than secular images, as we can see from the numerous depictions of the Madonna in Majesty, of patron saints, and of such New Testament stories as the Incredulity of St. Thomas, a reflection on the administration of justice and the ascertainment of the truth (Giovanni Toscani, Galleria dell’Accademia; detached fresco in the Palazzo dei Vicari, Scarperia).
A selection of rare Renaissance drawings (Andrea del Sarto, Studies for Male Figures Hanging by a Foot, Gabinetto Disegno e Stampe degli Uffizi) illustrates the so-called Pittura Infamante, or Defamatory Painting, which consisted in commissioning murals in public places to depict, often in gruesome detail, either events or individuals viewed with hostility by the city of Florence.
Images boding well, on the other hand, were set up in the market place, Donatello's statue of Abundance famously perching atop a column in the Mercato Vecchio. While the original has now been lost, we are familiar with the statue from copies produced in later centuries (Musée des Beaux- Arts, Dijon; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis). Also the decoration of the city gates and the heraldry adorning the city walls provided the city fathers with another opportunity to celebrate Florence and its allies.
The exhibition devotes special attention to the Arti, the driving force behind the economic boom which Florence enjoyed in the era of the Commune and the true political power in the city at the time. Membership of one of the guilds was a precondition for playing an active role in Florentine political life, and indeed the Priori delle Arti, or guildmasters, governed the city from Palazzo Vecchio.
For the first time in two centuries, visitors will be able to admire in a single venue the entire collection of panels depicting the guilds' patron saints. These originally adorned the pillars of Orsanmichele, a church resulting from the gradual transformation of the old grain market into a place of worship and entrusted to the patronage of the Arti, who turned it into a veritable treasure-chest of art.
The exhibition also provides an opportunity to explore the surrounding city by illustrating the buildings for which the exhibits were originally commissioned, thus encouraging visitors to familiarise with – and where possible, also to visit – places largely unknown or ignored by tourists and Florentines alike.