Florence and Art: 5 Things You Didn’t Know


As an artistic center and cultural hub, few cities rival Florence – and for nearly 300 years, it was unmatched in the array of media it produced. Florence examines this astounding work of this period, from 1300 to 1600, within the context of the major political, social, economic, and cultural events of the time.

Florence is home to some of the most iconic pieces of all time, including Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. But here are some facts about Florence that might not be so familiar:


Why all the lions? Anyone who visits Florence will encounter an abundance of sculpted or painted lions, a symbol that carried great significance. Lions were the insignia of empire: Sculpted lions were often set up in nearby subject towns to proclaim Florentine dominion, and they were co-opted by the ruling Medici family in the art they commissioned, including a painting by Francesco Pesellino in the Medici palace itself.

Was it a masterpiece – or was it the money? Lorenzo Ghiberti’s famous bronze panels on the door of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore baptistery are legendary – but they may have come about as a cost-cutting measure. Ghiberti won the commission over Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the cathedral dome, ostensibly because of Ghiberti’s superior skills, But his design also used less metal, yielding a relief thirty-seven percent lighter than Brunelleschi’s effort, and was notably cheaper to make.

What does Mercury mean? The meaning of Botticelli’s panel painting “La Primavera” has long provided fodder for debate, but especially perplexing is why the figure of Mercury appears on the left of the painting. A likely allegorical meaning goes back to Roman times: Mercury was the calendar deity of the late spring. Read from right to left, with Mercury dispelling rainclouds with his caduceus, the painting shows the progress of the season from April to May

What’s with the wings? In the 1490s, winged images suddenly were everywhere in Florentine art. Why? Likely because of the rising influence of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican monk whose preaching in the city spurred a period of religious reform. Wings incorporated into art, especially wings on hinges, became popular because they emphasized a devotional aspect: When open, they allow a proper focus on images without being distracting; when closed, they avoid the risk of images becoming overfamiliar by being on show at all times.

Did we miss a Michelangelo? The sculpture of Hercules and Cacus on Florence’s Piazza della Signoria was sculpted by Bartolommeo Bandinelli in the 1520s. But it was originally quarried for Michelangelo, who made a number of designs for a marble sculpture group that would be symbols of the new republic. But when the republic collapsed and the Medici family returned from exile, they gave the commission to Bandinelli as a reward for his loyalty.

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