Originally, I was terrified to go on the AHA Northern Italy trip, having no prior knowledge of history of art whatsoever. My anxieties were dissolved and replaced with pure excitement before the plane to Venice even took off. For me, as a Classicist, however, I came into my own on the last journey of the trip, reading the Aeneid as we arrived in Rome. The AHA tutors allowed me to ask questions about Early Christianity, the fall of the Republic and even as far back as the origins of the Eternal City. That was not only a total change from the history covered so far which began in the 1300s, fascinatingly new to me, but also a new facet of classical antiquity which unfurled like a new scroll before my eyes.
One visit on our second day, uniting my new-found love of medieval art and life-long passion for Roman culture, was to a church called San Clemente. Clambering down into the depths of time from the 1100s (pretty old, we thought) to the 6th century (older than anything we had yet seen that wasn’t actually ancient) finally into the alleys and houses of the city in the 50s and 60s CE. By this time I had passed by a little emotion and began sobbing when I heard that this was a house where St Peter may well have preached and converted, despite fostering no particular Christian beliefs myself. Though exhausted emotionally and physically, Group B felt that that was the most spiritual place on the whole trip. Bare in mind we visited every church in Venice, Florence, Rome, and the Vatican City. Every single one.
That little room, floored with herringbone bricks and with a broken pipe from the Cloaca Maxima viaduct in the corner, I hope, will be an everlasting memory of Rome for me henceforth, bringing together Roman life and worship from 50CE to 1700s, from Mithras to Jesus Christ.
And I bought Rainbow Mentos, which is always nice.
After arriving in Florence by train on Saturday evening, we set about exploring the new city early the next morning. Cars become a novelty after the turquoise canals of Venice, and it took a while to get used to stony streets again.
In Venice we went on several ‘Church crawls’ and focused predominantly on the religious aspects of Venetian painting. By contrast, in there seems to be a heady mixture of religion and politics pervading the art and architecture of Florence. This was obvious early on the first morning, when we found ourselves in front of Botticelli’s Venus, and his Primavera, on our trip to the Uffizi. Mythology began to infiltrate our study of art for the first time and this culminated in a colourful and imaginative session on mythology one evening, with everyone allocated a god or goddess (the birthday girl, Emma, being Hera of course). We began raiding each other’s wardrobes and the shops of Florence for costumes. The most memorable, I think, was cupid, resplendent in a toga fashioned out of a dressing gown, and a bow and arrow purchased from the Disney store.
The Medici coat of arms, brandished in nearly every church and on nearly every monument is also testament to the nature of the Florentine Republic, essentially governed by this powerful family. In contrast to Venice, the influence of the Medici seems almost to rival that of the Church. In line with this, there are references to the political and literary geniuses that also make up Florence’s incredible history: Dante’s house is a short stroll from the Duomo, and Galileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli all lie in the landmark Santa Croce church.
Another tangible difference between Florence and Venice I think, is the importance of sculpture to the Florentine Renaissance. Two works stood out to me from all others – that of Magdalene Penitent by Donatello, and, of course, David by Michelangelo. After a short background talk on the life of Mary Magdalene, seven of us sat in silent awe for several minutes, confronted with the harrowing, earthly beauty of the wooden sculpture. When compared to the idealised, hyperbolic marbles and bronzes that inhabit the Bargello, The Magdalene hit an emotional, human note.
David came the following day. Walking up an aisle lined with Michelangelo’s series Slaves, we reached a
light dome under which he was stood. Witnessing the sculpture first hand confirms that books can only teach you so much. The physical nature of sculpture is something to be experienced, and can communicate so much with the beholder. The scale of the body and shine of the marble, with contoured, sinuous lines highlighting idealised muscles, the sculpture almost palpitates – with veins, bones and sinews visible underneath the stone hands and neck. Made after the Medici were (temporarily) exiled from Florence, this work epitomises how Florentines used biblical themes to symbolise political values in their art. Whether religious or not, the adding of a political to a Christian message makes the piece ever-relevant, as the values it embodies remain essential to the secular societies of today – freedom, defiance and strength in the face of a greater oppressive power.
Religion may always impress – and we have much to thank it for in terms of the culture it has produced – but in Florence, the fusion of religion with a very human and gripping political history makes it a city vibrant with both the divine and the earthly.
As an English student, many of my preconceptions of Florence stemmed from the novel ‘A Room with a View’. Unfortunately the real experience of the city was without the beautiful period costumes (although wandering through churches in near forty degree heat made me somewhat thankful for that!) Looking back over the few days we spent studying art history in Firenze, I decided that the best way to make a record of it was through a sort of Bucket List – my own personal account of the best things I did here.
1) Food. I am a self-proclaimed foodie and one might think that pasta gets boring, but this is far from so. The tutors knew the best places to take us and point out to us for our free time. My favourite night was when we went to the ‘Quattro Leoni’ where friendly waiters gave us prosecco and an adventurous lot of us got exactly the same meal – a delicious plate of pear, cheese and asparagus tortellini.
2)Watching the sunset over the Arno. Coming straight from Venice we felt withdrawal symptoms from the water, so one evening we desperately sought out the one river in Florence. The picturesque scene of the sun setting over the city was accompanied with daiquiris and an assortment of authentic Italian antipasti (food does seem to be a recurring trend of this piece thus far, but the amount of walking we do entirely justifies it I like to think.)
3) Climbing the bell tower. This was an interesting one for me as I am by no means the biggest fan of heights! However, the slight nausea, overexhaustion and screaming pain in my thighs was most definitely worth it. The views at the top were breathtaking, as you could see the entire plan of Florence mapped out in front of you and the landscape stretched out to the rolling green hills in the distance.
4) The art. It might seem somewhat odd to have this as one of the last items on this Florentine bucket list seeming as we are on an art history course, but that is because it is undoubtedly the most exciting and important thing that will feature in your trip to Florence. It is impossible to discuss all the amazing works of art that we were lucky to see as our five days have been jam-packed with all kinds of churches, galleries and frescoes. The tutors were evidently excited about the works that we saw, and this interest was infectious. I will only pick out one of my favourite pieces, but it is only a miniscule representative of the wealth of art that is on offer in Florence. I was particularly moved at Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ in the Uffizi, an expansive art gallery full of famous pieces. I was familiar with ‘Primavera’ so was excited to see it, but nothing can prepare you for the scale and pure beauty of the real deal.
5) My own art, which is not as vain as it initially seems. Although many people who come on the course are adept at drawing and painting, I am by no means one of these people and prefer the critique of art over my abysmal attempts at stick people. However, on the last day we spent in Florence we went to the Bargello gallery which is housed in what used to be a stately home and then a prison before its current use. We were assigned a piece to examine and draw, and I spent a delightful half an hour looking at Michelangelo’s ‘Bacchus’. Whilst it cannot be classed as a masterpiece, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to really deconstruct and analyse the sculpture and understand it on a deeper level.
A gavel raps smartly on a mahogany podium; the crowd snaps to attention, looking up in anticipation. Are we in the midst of a court case perhaps? No: this is the evening sale of Old Master and British Paintings at Sotheby’s, and the only things on trial tonight are the pictures. The saleroom is packed – it’s Old Master Week, when the auction houses sell their very best works from that period, and dealers and collectors from all over the world converge on London to join in on the action. Many of said dealers and collectors are here tonight, competing for the very best of Sotheby’s offerings. A hand lifted here, an eyebrow raised there, and the bids go up in their thousands. As the lots go by, there are a few surprises. A (rather odd-looking in my humble opinion) French portrait of Louis XI, King of France, with no attribution surpasses its estimate of 400,000-600,000 to fetch £735,650. Another portrait with no attribution (this time of King Edward VI), catalogued as ‘Circle of William Scrots’, sails beyond expectations of 500,000-700,000, the bidding ceasing at £1.5 million.