Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 8, 2013
Frances Ames-Lewis, ed. Florence Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance.. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 464 pp.; 48 color ills.; 234 b/w ills. Cloth $175.00 (9780521851626)

This excellent volume, one of seven published, forthcoming, or projected in Cambridge University Press’s Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance series, traces the history of painting, sculpture, and architecture in Florence between 1300 and 1600. Organized chronologically, the book divides these centuries into eight sub-periods, each the focus of a separate chapter. Francis Ames-Lewis, Florence’s editor, summarizes the aims of the series and this volume in his introduction: individual authors were charged with describing the major achievements of each period while also reexamining Florentine Renaissance art within a “broader artistic and cultural context” (2) in order to produce, together with the other volumes, a “revisionist history of the arts . . . in Italy during the early modern period” (1). Relying on methodologies employed in recent decades that encompass ever-broadening artistic, intellectual, cultural, political, social, and religious contexts, the picture of Florentine art and architecture that emerges from this book highlights the creativity of the painters, sculptors, and architects working in Florence during the Renaissance while also explaining the ideas and forces that stimulated them and shaped their approaches.

In the opening essay, “Florence, 1300–1600,” the late Francis W. Kent describes major trends in Florence’s social networks, political systems, and economy, often illustrated through lively anecdotes, to provide background and context for subsequent chapters. He also offers hypotheses as to why “the city’s intellectual creativity in a number of different fields arose” (23), first suggesting that participation in Florence’s “enduring, if conflicted and contested, republicanism” (23) bred in Florentines a tendency toward critical analysis, skepticism, a drive to compete, and a “willingness to be experimental” (24), traits that fostered innovation, a theme that many of this volume’s authors address. One can debate whether or not this (or any other) shared psychology brought about Florence’s cultural accomplishments, but, as Kent says, his second explanation cannot be doubted: Florence’s remarkable literacy rate, “an essential precondition of [the city’s] literary and artistic distinction” (13), allowed Florentines to contemplate history and literature and in addition stimulated many of them to draw on earlier texts, often in innovative ways, in their literary and artistic endeavors. Moreover, literacy gave vast numbers of people access to ancient and medieval ideas and offered them the chance to engage with current intellectual and cultural trends. This supports an idea endorsed to one degree or another by all of the volume’s authors: Renaissance Florentines engaged actively with their artistic and architectural environment.

Janet Robson’s essay, “Florence before the Black Death,” is the first of the eight art-historical chapters. It focuses on the ways “various interest groups could express their identities” (36) through art and architecture and examines a number of institutions and the sites under their supervision: the local Church and Florentine state at the Duomo and Palazzo della Signoria; the mendicant orders, especially the Franciscans at Santa Croce and the Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella; lay patrons, who commissioned individually and collectively, often as members of confraternities; and the guilds, the Calimala at the Baptistery and, from 1331, the Arte della Lana at the Cathedral and campanile. Throughout, Robson treats the structure and development of narrative (especially in works by Giotto and his followers), the connection between art and theological doctrine, and the relationship between imagery and devotional practice.

Louise Bourdua, covering the second half of the fourteenth century in “The Arts in Florence after the Black Death,” addresses and, at points, directly contests Millard Meiss’s hypothesis about stylistic and thematic changes and new patterns of patronage after the plague of 1348. Bourdua examines painting and sculpture at the mendicant churches and the Cathedral and campanile, civic spaces and architecture (e.g., the Loggia dei Lanzi and Orsanmichele), late fourteenth-century workshop organization and practice, the role of imagery in charitable foundations, and domestic architecture and decoration. The production of works of art and architecture, Bourdua stresses, in fact increased after the plague, a result of the flood of bequests. And she highlights thematic and stylistic continuities before and after 1348, one example being the crowded spaces painted by Agnolo Gaddi and Andrea and Nardo di Cione, which recall and develop—and in no way reject—Giotto’s compositions (115).

Adrian W. B. Randolph treats the early Quattrocento in “Republican Florence, 1400–1434” and deals extensively with projects administered by committees and completed by artists and their workshops. Countering Burckhardt’s stress on individualism, Randolph emphasizes that nearly all early fifteenth-century commissions involved collective action of some sort. Employing groups of artists, as when the Opera of the Duomo contracted four sculptors to carve statues for the Cathedral façade, ensured or “engineered variety” (127); and the emphatic lifelikeness of the Orsanmichele statues, which Randolph terms “votive realism” (135), brought the images together into an assembly of holy figures whose assertive “physical presence” (135) and collective rhetorical force heightened the sense that patron saints could intervene on behalf of believers. Many works typically not considered corporate, suggests Randolph, should in fact be seen as such: altarpieces, for example, engaged large numbers of people who appealed to the holy figures in them for intervention, thus forming networks akin to those established between clients and patrons in social or political contexts (121). The chapter also considers the city’s network of public and private Marian images, papal commissions, projects administered by families—the Medici, Strozzi, and Brancacci—that resulted in the period’s best known sacristies and chapels, and the influence of antique models.

Roger J. Crum examines the years between 1430 and 1470 in “The Florence of Cosimo ‘Il Vecchio’ de’ Medici: Within and Beyond the Walls,” opening his essay by arguing that to understand Florentine art of these years one must consider not only paintings, sculptures, and buildings in Florence, but also those commissioned for locations outside the city. Accordingly, the essay is organized geographically. Crum discusses sites in Florence, beyond the walls, in the contado and Florentine territory (e.g., the tabernacle at the Collegiata in Impruneta), and, in a brief section, in cities farther afield. He then applies his approach to works commissioned by the Medici and their allies. For example, because Luca Pitti was a “social and political patron of Arezzo,” people quite possibly “recognized that connection to the territory when encountering Luca’s palace” (198). Members of the viewing public, Crum suggests, brought their own quite diverse concerns to images and structures and added to them layers of significance not necessarily evoked in obvious and immediate ways.

The next chapter, by Caroline Elam, “Art and Cultural Identity in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Florence,” examines the myths that have grown up around Lorenzo and his era, and reviews the projects Lorenzo oversaw in the city and countryside, both his private commissions (mostly sculptural) and the public ones that he guided from behind the scenes, like the decorations for the Sala dei Gigli in the Palazzo della Signoria, whose republican imagery, she points out, communicated a message contradicted by the political reality of Lorenzo’s time. Elam traces the entire arc of Lorenzo’s cultural program, concluding the chapter with an account of the “almost frantic” (239) building campaign of his later years, when he turned his attention to ecclesiastical foundations outside Florence (e.g., San Gallo), villas (at Poggio a Caiano), and the city’s festive life. Sandwiched between discussions of Lorenzo’s early and late projects is a consideration of the altarpieces, chapels, palaces (including their decorations), and portraits commissioned by other families from ca. 1470–1490.

Jill Burke’s “Republican Florence and the Arts, 1494–1513” opens with a discussion of how Savonarola’s ideas about imagery affected the style and content of artistic production. Her second focus is the complex of political images connected to the new republican government led by Piero Soderini. With Michelangelo’s David—placed in front of the Palazzo della Signoria in 1504, probably with Soderini’s approval—and, for the palace’s Sala del Gran Consiglio, Fra Bartolomeo’s altarpiece and the battle murals designed by Michelangelo and Leonardo, Soderini attempted to assert the strength of the republic against its detractors. The fact that many of these works remained incomplete provided contemporary Florentines with a “concrete reminder of the uncertainties of the age” (283). Yet these same images, which highlight the artist’s creative process, reveal, and perhaps even helped prompt, a new “appreciation of artistic skill for its own sake” (283).

William E. Wallace’s “Florence under the Medici Pontificates, 1513–1537” focuses on Florence during the pontificates of Leo X and Clement VII and the short-lived Last Republic (1527–30). Wallace outlines how the Medici popes transformed Florentine spaces, often with the assistance of the ambitious Michelangelo, while attempting to maintain the “appearance of continuity” (291). Their major projects at San Lorenzo, including Michelangelo’s designs for its façade, the New Sacristy, and the Laurentian Library, are central in his discussion. Wallace’s examination of painting, which flourished in these years, focuses on works made for, among many locations, the atrium of Santissima Annunziata (Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, Franciabigio, and Rosso Fiorentino), the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano, the Capponi Chapel at Santa Felicita (Pontormo), and the Borgherini bedroom (Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto, and others). Stressing the increasingly unusual iconography of images often called Mannerist (316), Wallace concludes that these years marked the beginning of “an era that valued artistic originality” (308) and saw the enhancement of the artist’s status (328).

Elizabeth Pilliod’s “Cosimo I and the Arts” outlines Duke Cosimo’s use of art as personal and familial propaganda. Portraiture is of course one focus of this chapter, along with the work done at Cosimo’s estates, especially his villa at Castello, and Eleonora da Toledo’s chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria. Pilliod’s iconographic analysis of the chapel and the villa stresses the connection to ideas about the “generative power of water” (337), which possibly emerged from discussions at the Accademia degli Humidi. Cellini’s Perseus, Pontormo’s now-lost frescoes for the choir of San Lorenzo, Francesco Salviati’s frescoes in the Sala dell’Udienza, and the Joseph tapestries for the Sala dei Duecento, the latter two in the Palazzo della Signoria, all communicated Cosimo’s power through their iconography and presence in locations that had been foci of earlier Medici and also republican patronage. The chapter treats private, non-Medici commissions, but Cosimo is the dominating personality, and Pilliod concludes with a consideration of his later, larger, more complex projects, which Giorgio Vasari and Vincenzo Borghini supervised and planned, often in consultation with Cosimo: the paintings for the Sala del Gran Consiglio, showing Florence’s history culminating in the person of Duke Cosimo; the reconfiguration of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella; the paintings on the interior of Brunelleschi’s dome (finished by Federico Zuccaro); and the Uffizi palace.

Ending by reconsidering buildings constructed or decorated in the early Renaissance, Florence allows readers to trace the development of sites—the mendicant churches, Orsanmichele, the Palazzo della Signoria—that appear repeatedly throughout the volume. Similarly, numerous themes—the political uses of art, Medici patronage, the nature of chapel decoration, artistic innovation, narrative, and domestic decoration—recur, allowing one to follow their evolution. The book is generously illustrated with black-and-white images in the chapters, which make for easy consultation, and with colors plates in sections distributed throughout the text. The uniformly high quality of the essays should make this volume the new standard history of Florentine art and architecture.

Amy R. Bloch
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University at Albany, State University of New York

Please send comments about this review to