Exploring the 8 Top-Rated Museums in Florence: A Visitor's Guide
As you might expect, the museums in Florence have among their collections the world's finest assemblage of Italian art of the Renaissance period, between about 1300 and 1500. After all, the Renaissance was born in Florence, forever changing the direction of Western art, and its greatest artists thrived under the patronage of the Medici and other wealthy families. So as you discover the highlights of these collections, expect to see plenty of Donatello, Ghiberti, della Robbia, and Botticelli, as well as two of the most famous of all Michelangelo's sculptures. But Florence's great art museums are not limited to the Florentine Renaissance; look for works by the great Venetians, Tintoretto and Titian, as well as one of Raphael's finest portraits and paintings by Rembrandt, Velasquez, and Van Dyck. And it's not all art: look in Florence's museums for treasures as diverse as Egyptian mummies, historic fashions, an ancient chariot, and the Medici's jewelry. It's no wonder museums are high among Florence's top tourist attractions.
1 Uffizi Gallery
Conveniently arranged by periods, the Uffizi Gallery for all its size (it ranks as one of Europe's largest art museums) is a good way to get an overview of the tremendous changes the Renaissance brought in the way artists perceived and portrayed the world. This chronological arrangement allows you to quickly sense the change of styles from the static, flat Byzantine representations of other-worldly madonnas and saints to more realistic and human portrayals, as well as works that include portraits, allegorical themes, even landscapes mixed with religious subjects. Seeing several contemporary artists' works together gives you the context for the Uffizi's famous block-busters, like Botticelli's Birth of Venus.
2 Galleria dell'Accademia (Academy Gallery)
Founded in 1784 as a school for artists, the Accademia today holds an outstanding collection of works by Michelangelo. It is one of these, his David, that makes this museum well worth the long lines, even though copies of the sculpture seem to be everywhere in the city. Beyond Michelangelo, the other galleries contain important works of Florentine artists from the 13th to the 16th century.
The Accademia is the one place where you can follow Michelangelo's creative process as a sculptor. In the Galleria del David you'll find the four unfinished figures of the slaves that Michelangelo planned for the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome. He worked on six statues between 1519 and 1536 but never completed them (the other two are in the Louvre in Paris). Also unfinished is the figure of St. Matthew, sculpted by Michelangelo in 1505-1506 and intended as one of 12 apostles for Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. You may notice that the block of marble is flatter than those of the slaves -- the statue was intended to stand against a wall and be viewed only from the front.
Michelangelo's David was brought to the Accademia in 1873 from its original setting in the Piazza della Signoria to protect him from the weather, and after an attack in 1991, placed behind glass. Begun when Michelangelo was 26, David was so perfect in its noble posture and expression, combining the tension of the coming battle with tranquility, that it was praised even by his contemporaries. David became the symbol of the irrepressible spirit of liberty in Florence.
Highlights of the 15th-century works in the Sale Fiorentine are the Adimari Chest, with a grand wedding procession on the front, and a Madonna by Sandro Botticelli, from around 1470. The Sale Bizantine houses the oldest works of the collection, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, including the important Crucifixion scene by Pacino di Bonaguida, Tree of Life (ca. 1310).
Address: Via Ricasoli 58, Florence
3 Galleria Palatina
It's not just the multiple works of Italian masters such as Titian, Tintoretto, Botticelli, Rubens and Raphael that put the Palatine Gallery on the art map, or even the combination of these with works by Van Dyck and Velasquez. Three other collections in the Pitti Palace include the Galleria d'Arte Moderna (Gallery of Modern Art), the Costume Museum, and the treasury, filled with gold and silver jewelry and other Medici treasures.
4 Bargello Palace National Museum
Begun in 1859, Italy's first national museum outside the Vatican contains important works by 14th- to 16th-century Tuscan artists, particularly Donatello, the della Robbias, and Michelangelo. Four of his masterpieces are the focus of the rooms off the courtyard: a marble Brutus (ca. 1540); a relief of Madonna and Child with the young John the Baptist, a tondo carved about 1504; David (ca. 1531), also known as Little Apollo; and Michelangelo's first large sculpture Drunken Bacchus, (1497-1499). Here, too, you'll see Benvenuto Cellini's model of Perseus, his marble statue Narcissus, and his small bronze sculptures. As you climb the stairs notice the bronze animals from a Medici villa.
The large 14th-century hall at the top shows works of Donatello, among them his St. George (1416), an early marble David, a later bronze one made in 1430, and St. John as a Child. Be sure to look for Brunelleschi's and Ghiberti's models for the competition for the north portal of the baptistery. Along with a room of ivory carvings, there's a collection of majolica and a room filled with enamels and gold work, for which Florence was famous in the Renaissance. The top floor has one of the museum's highlights: two rooms of glazed terracotta by Andrea and Giovanni della Robbia. Along with the works of several masters, what distinguishes the Bargello is its attention to decorative arts and three-dimensional art.
Address: Via del Proconsolo 4, Florence
5 Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral Museum)
Priceless works of art given to Florence's cathedral are housed in the adjoining museum, along with originals of the more vulnerable works, such as Ghiberti's bronze door panels, brought indoors for safekeeping. Some of the city's greatest masterpieces are here: Michelangelo's last Pietà, early-15th-century marble galleries by Luca della Robbia and Donatello, his St. John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, silk and gold needlework, and the silver altar of the baptistery. Although the themes here are almost entirely religious, the different media and craftsmanship give the collection tremendous variety.
6 Museo Archeologico (Archeological Museum)
The most important archeological museum in northern Italy was based on the extensive collections of Etruscan artifacts made by the Medici family. Other Medici and later collections added Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities. Although the entire museum is filled with treasures, it is the Etruscan exhibits that really shine, highlighted by one of the finest known examples of Etruscan art, the bronze Chimera of Arezzo. This creature with the body of a lion, the head of a ram, and a serpent's tail was found in 1553 and immediately snapped up by Medici Duke Cosimo I. It is shown along with ancient pieces that include the Minerva of Arezzo, other bronzes, the Ramta Uzenai marble sarcophagus from Tarquinia, decorated pottery, and Etruscan paintings.
Along with the Etruscan works are Greek and Roman bronzes, the most important of which are the Greek Idolino from the fifth century BC and the Horse's Head, a Greek bronze from the Roman period. Other museum highlights are Etruscan and medieval coins as well as gold and silver work. The Egyptian collection includes statues, ceramics, reliefs, sarcophagi, mummies, and utensils from various Egyptian dynasties, including a very well-preserved wooden chariot from the time of Ramses I, 14th-century BC.
Address: Piazza SS Annunziata, Florence
7 Spedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents)
The Hospital of the Innocents was among the first Renaissance buildings in Florence. It was designed by architect Filippo Brunelleschi, who built the dome of the cathedral as a foundling hospital. Until 1875, mothers who wanted to leave their new-born babes anonymously in the care of the orphanage could put them in the "ruota," a revolving wooden cylinder at the end of the portico. The Spedale is famous for its loggia, an arcade of columns with frescoes under the arches and in the lunettes above the doors, but even better known for the ten glazed terracotta medallions of infants in swaddling clothes created by Andrea della Robbia around 1463. Although the collections also include other frescoes and masterpieces by several Renaissance artists including Adoration of the Magi by Ghirlandaio and Madonna and Child by Botticelli, those galleries are not always open.
Address: Piazza SS Annunziata, Florence
8 Casa Buonarroti (Michelangelo House)
Once owned but not occupied by Michelangelo, this 16th-century house was made into a museum of Michelangelo's works and times by his heirs. It contains Michelangelo's bas relief sculptures of Madonna della Scala -- his earliest work, completed at the age of 16 -- and his Battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths, sculpted when he was 17. The wooden crucifix from Santo Spirito, is perhaps Michelangelo's earliest work for a church, completed in 1494. The collection also includes the wooden model for the façade of San Lorenzo and more than 200 of his drawings and sketches, which are displayed on a rotating basis.
Address: Via Ghibellina 70, Florence