The birthplace of European renaissance
Weekly Pulse
April 7-13, 2006
Florence is no doubt Italy’s—indeed, Europe’s—most historical city. Each year, it not only attracts millions of tourists, but also houses thousands of young students of arts, mostly West European and North American. For obvious reason: name any leading painter, sculptor, poet or philosopher of Early Renaissance years, he worked in Florence.

For me as well, the second time around in this beautiful place past week, was an occasion to celebrate its splendid past and tour around its monumental artifacts. The last time I had visited the museum Galleria dell’ Accademia a couple of years ago, Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the nude statute of the David, was up for cleaning, and, therefore, close for public. The David stands tall once again, as fresh as it was over 500 years ago—and as popular. For hundreds of art lovers have to queue up for hours to who queue up outside the Galleria each day just to have a glimpse of the world’s greatest statute, which is said to represent a “synthesis of the ideals of the Florentine Renaissance.”

Florence is the birthplace of European Renaissance. The Italian Renaissance followed on the heels of the Middle Ages, and was spawned by the birth of the philosophy of humanism, which emphasized the potential for individual achievement and stipulating that humans were rational beings capable of truth and goodness.

In keeping with the principles of humanism, early Renaissance scholars, such as Italian writer Francesco Petrarch, studied the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans and their Arab-Muslim successors during the Golden Age of Muslims for inspiration and ideology, mixing the philosophies of Greek and Muslim scholars with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Under the influence of the humanists, literature and the arts climbed to new levels of importance.

Though it eventually spread through Europe, Renaissance began in Florence. The city’s economy and its writers, painters, architects, and philosophers all made Florence a model of Renaissance culture. The merchants and political officials supported and commissioned the great artists of the day, thus the products of the Renaissance grew up inside their walls. Florence grew powerful as a wool-trading post, and remained powerful throughout the Renaissance due to the leadership of the Medici family, whose members controlled the city’s financial strength and were generous patrons of the arts.

An essential feature of the Renaissance was the promotion of arts, especially through the introduction of new techniques and styles in sculpturing and painting. During the early Renaissance, painters such as Giotto, and sculptors such as Ghibert experimented with techniques to better portray perspective. Their methods were rapidly perfected and built upon by other artists of the early Renaissance such as Botticelli and Donatello.

However, the apex of artistic talent and production came later, during what is known as the High Renaissance, in the form of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michaelangelo, who are the best known artists of the Renaissance. The Renaissance also saw the invention of printing in Europe and the rise of literature as an important aspect in everyday life. The Italian writers such as Niccolo Machiavelli were able to distribute their works much more easily and cheaply because of the rise of the printed book. It was with the help of newer printing techniques that Machiavelli’s masterpiece The Prince won instant recognition in Europe soon after its publication.

With this brief description of Florence’s contribution to European Renaissance, and the importance that the arts played in process, let’s turn to Michelangelo’s David. This famous work was carved between 1501 and 1504. It is made out of a single block of marble, weighs six tonnes marble, and is five metres high—nearly three times the life-size. The statue portrays the Biblical King David who killed the fierce opponent Goliath by using a simple slingshot. Michelangelo sculpted David as he would have looked before the fight, with a slingshot over his left shoulder, standing tall and focused.

The statue represents one of the greatest achievements of arguably the world’s greatest artist. It is considered a symbol of Republican ideals because it is the image of the small David standing against Goliath. Until the end of the 19th century, the statute stood in front of the palace Palazzo Vecchio, but was moved inside the gallery, Galleria dell’ Accademia, to protect it from the weather. However, a copy of Michelangelo's David is still on display in front of Palazzo Vecchio. Another copy of the David is placed in piazza Signoria, the square where the statute was to be placed initially after completion but was not due to public rioting over its nudity.

The gallery also has some other important works of Michelangelo such as the Four Prisoners. Other statutes on display hail from the 18th and 19th centuries. A whole section at the museum is devoted to musical instruments from the High Renaissance years. Some of Michelangelo’s uncompleted statutes are also on display at the Galleria. However, it is the David that remains a source of attraction for most young students of arts, who sit around it trying to sketch it.

Over the centuries, the David survived attempts to destroy it. It was damaged during riots in 1527 and 1843. In 1991 an Italian painter launched a hammer attack on the statue, smashing off a toe. In the mid-1990s the suggestion that perhaps David was a little bit dirty and could do with a clean engulfed the art restoration community in a bitter 11-year row. In 2003, the decision was made to clean the statue using distilled water. In May 2004, the new-look, cleaner David was unveiled to the public.

In addition to the David, Florence has a lot of other pieces of Renaissance art to offer. One just has to walk around the narrow streets. The city centre is dominated by the splendid piazza del Duomo, and, at its core, the Duomo, the city’s cathedral. Brunelleschi’s massive cupola, an extraordinary feat of the 15th-century engineering, adorns the eastern end of piazza del Duomo. West of the Duomo, the small, curved Baptistery dates back to 1059. Its elaborate bronze doors tell Biblical tales.

On the north side of the Duomo, the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo houses the many treasures once contained in and around the Duomo, including the tools used to build it, the original wood models of the cupola and sculptures deemed too precious and vulnerable to leave outside, such as the Pieta Bandini by Michelangelo. Piazza Signoria is Florence’s main square, among many others, with the 13th-century crenellated Palazzo Vecchio and copy of Michelangelo’s David, along with Donatello’s Marzocco.

Heading towards the river—which cuts across the city—from the piazza Signoria, the piazzale degli Uffizi is home to the greatest museum of Renaissance art in the world, the Uffizi Gallery. Occupying the former offices of the Medici administration, many of Italy’s most celebrated paintings can be seen here.

Uffizi Gallery has a room filled with nothing but Botticellis, including the famous Birth of Venus and the glowing Allegory of Spring, along with stunning works by Michelangelo and Titian. Heading down towards the river from the Uffizi brings one to Ponte Vecchio, which dates back to the 14th century and is one of the most photographed bridges in Europe.