One thing is certain: there is no shortage of reasons to visit Italy, nor things to see and do while you’re there. Whether you’re obsessed with café culture or Roman archaeology, you’ll find plenty to see and do. Do you like fancy fashion, amazing food, or charming seaside villages? You’ll find all of that and more. In fact, the trick will more likely be finding enough time to see and enjoy everything! That was my dilemma. With only a few short days in Rome and Florence, my mission was to pay my respects to some of the leading men of the Renaissance.
The Renaissance Begins
By most accounts, the Renaissance period began in earnest at the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral. The Florentine Romanesque building is an architectural wonder in its own right. It was built nearly 300 years earlier, and is one of the city’s oldest buildings.
In 1401, the young artist Lorenzo Ghiberti won a commission to design new doors for the Baptistery. The most famous are the East Doors, which Michelangelo himself called “the Gates of Paradise.” They were completed around 1452, and feature ten panels illustrating scenes from the Old Testament. Ghiberti used recently-discovered principles of depth and perspective, which made the doors unique and revolutionary. They would serve as inspiration for the masters of the High Renaissance, and are still studied by art students and historians today.
Along with the Florence Cathedral, Baptistery, and Bell Tower, the Gates of Paradise draw thousands of visitors each year. Though the doors visible from the street are replicas – the originals are being restored at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo – the effect is no less stunning. It seems perfectly permissible to stop here and pay our respects to Ghiberti. You’ll find him among the 24 busts adorning the door. He and his father Bartolomeo are the balding chaps near the center.
A Gallery for the Master
Not far away, a literal giant of the Renaissance stands tall at the unassuming Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze. Despite adjoining the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence, the two are not related. Instead, this small museum was established in 1784 by the Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo. It’s purpose was to showcase the genius of one man.
Here, we pay our first respects to Michelangelo as we marvel at the absolute perfection of David. It’s hard to believe he was once a block of marble that other sculptors turned away. They claimed it was too small to yield a good figure, but Michelangelo saw what was trapped within the stone. Over several years, he removed every piece that didn’t belong. It sounds so simple, yet the result is breathtaking.
Many stop to admire David at the Piazza della Signoria, where he stood for many years. This is the original, though. It was moved into the Galleria in 1873, in part to protect the treasured statue from the elements. The museum also features a series of unfinished pieces called The Prisoners. These unfinished statues reveal some of the Master’s methods. Each figure appears to be struggling to free itself from the rock, much as David must have before completed.
The Medici & Franciscans
The only Michelangelo painting still in Florence is not far away at the Uffizi Gallery. Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, these heavy hitters of the Renaissance have made Uffizi the second most visited museum in Italy. (Not surprisingly, the Vatican Museum is number one.) Much of what is on display will never be seen elsewhere, thanks to the Medici Family Pact. Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the last heir of the dynasty, bequeathed the family’s collection of art and treasures to the the State. There was one condition: it all had to stay in place, and never leave Tuscany.
Before we leave Florence, though, there is one more stop: We pay our final respects to Michelangelo at the Basilica di Santa Croce. This is the largest Franciscan church in the world, said to be founded by St. Francis himself. It is another architectural marvel in a city filled with them. It is also the final resting place of Michelangelo, as well as Galileo, Dante, Rossini and Machiavelli.
The Renaissance in Rome
When in Rome… Do as the tourists and head straight for the Vatican. We’re going to see more from Renaissance masters, and many others through contemporary times. A tour is well worth it just to get past the long lines and get your bearings. Most tours include the central works of the Renaissance: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and the Raphael Rooms. Neither can be adequately described or even photographed; even if it could, photography is not allowed in the Chapel. (However, the Vatican Museum has an extraordinary interactive online version.)
It is worth getting to the Vatican as early as possible, and skipping straight to the Sistine Chapel. You can start your day enjoying the quiet tranquility of this most holy place before it’s filled to capacity. Gaze in awe at the remarkable beauty, from the mosaic floor to the famous ceiling. Try your hardest to take it all in, for its like is not to be seen anywhere on this earth, and you will too soon depart. Ponder the history this room has hosted. Imagine Michelangelo, flat on his back on self-made scaffolding. Drips of paint splatter his eyes and face as he dabs at work which we mere mortals marvel at centuries after his passing.
Before Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to complete the Sistine Chapel, he employed a young rival of the Master’s to fresco the pope’s private library. Known today as the Stanze della Segnatura, it was the first of several rooms Raphael was to paint. In this room is what many believe to be his greatest masterpiece, The School of Athens. Painting at the same time that Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel, Raphael paid tribute to his contemporaries by including their likenesses cast in the roles of great philosophers. Leonardo da Vinci is cast as Plato, Michelangelo as Heraclitus, perhaps Donatello as Plotinus, and himself as Ptolemy. Sadly, Raphael died at the young age of 37, before his work at the Vatican was completed.
Our final stop is at the Pantheon. Dating back more than 2000 years since its original construction, the site has been a Roman Catholic church since the 7th century. During the Renassance, it became a tomb as well. Among the Italian greats interred here (such as King Victor Emmanuel II), we find the “bones and ashes” of Raphael. Upon the sarcophagus is the inscription “Here lies Raphael, by whom the mother of all things feared to be overcome while he was living, and while he was dying, herself to die.”
Barring the resting place of the greatest mind of the Renaissance – Leonardo da Vinci’s tomb lies in France – we’ve been able to see the birth and great achievements of the age, and pay our respects at the tombs of the greats. All in just a few days in Rome and Florence.
Have you been to Rome or Florence to see the works of the Renaissance masters? Who are your favorite artists, and where have you gone to see them? Let us know in the Comments!
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