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The Florentine Renaissance

Florence, Italy
Contains mature topics

Learn why Florence was ground zero for the Renaissance, with its wealthy patrons and the creative genius we’ll see exemplified in Michelangelo’s David, Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome, Ghiberti’s baptistery doors, and the Uffizi’s stunning Renaissance paintings.

Complete Video Script

Hi. I’m Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time we look at the city that pulled Europe out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world…Florence.

Fifteenth century Florence was the home of the Renaissance and birthplace of our modern Western world. Within a few hundred yards of where I’m standing you can enjoy the greatest art created during that exciting age.

And we’ll do just that: gaze into the eyes of Michelangelo’s David, enjoy Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, delve into the 3D wonders of Ghiberti’s glorious bronze gates, appreciate Fra Angelico’s serene beauty, and climb the dome that kicked off the Renaissance. And beyond the art, Florence knows how to embrace life. We’ll cross the Arno to where Florentine artisans live work….and eat very well…[oh, beautiful]… But first, a little background.

After the fall of ancient Rome, Europe wallowed in centuries of relative darkness. There was little learning, commerce, or travel. Then, in about 1400, here in Florence, there was a Renaissance. This exciting rebirth of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome swept from here all across Europe.

In architecture, the Renaissance brought a return to the balanced domes, columns and arches of the ancient world. In painting, it revived realism and emotion. Artists rediscovered the wonder of nature and the human body. Portraying beautiful people in harmonious surroundings, they expressed the optimism and confidence of this new age.

The suddenly perky Western civilization made up for lost centuries with huge gains in economics, science, and art. Florence was the center of it all — and for good reason. This was where capitalism was replacing feudalism. Being the middleman of trade between west and east, the city had money and it knew what to do with it.

Wealthy merchant and banking families — like the Medici who ruled Florence for generations — showed their civic pride by commissioning splendid art. And Florence — recognizing and paying creative genius like no one else — unleashed an explosion of innovation.

The Renaissance was an age of humanism. A time of confidence: when people worked hard, business was respectable, and excellence was rewarded. The Church no longer put a ceiling on learning and the great pre-Christian thinkers — like Plato and Aristotle — were back in vogue.

In about 1400, with the advent of Renaissance, man — now alert — begins to stand on his own, moving out of the shadow of the church. This David by the early Renaissance Florentine sculptor Donatello is one of the first freestanding male nudes sculpted in Europe in a thousand years. It’s art for art’s sake adorning not a church but a rich man’s courtyard. While the formal subject is still Biblical — David slaying the giant — Goliath’s severed head is at David’s feet — truth be told, it’s a classical nude…a celebration of the human body. A generation before this would have been shocking — but with the Renaissance, it’s art.

Florence was long an economic powerhouse. Rather than its church, it’s the city hall — once the palace of the Medici family — that towers over the main square. Michelangelo’s David originally stood here — this is a copy.

The original David is the centerpiece of the nearby Accademia Gallery, which feels like a temple to humanism. At its altar… one very impressive human.

The shepherd boy, David, sizes up the giant… thoughtful and self assured, he seems to be thinking, “I can take him.” The statue was an apt symbol, inspiring Florentines to tackle their Goliaths….

When you look at David, you’re looking at Renaissance man.

Artists now made their point using realism. They did this by merging art and science. For instance, Michelangelo actually dissected human corpses to better understand anatomy. This humanism was not anti-religion. Now, people realized that the best way to glorify God was not to bow down in church all day long, but to recognize their talents and to use them.

Artists like Michelangelo even exaggerated realism to make their point: notice David’s large and overdeveloped right hand. This is symbolic of the hand of God. It was God that powered David to slay the giant… and Florentines liked to think God’s favor enabled them to rise above rival neighboring city-states.

The nave-like hall leading to David is lined with Michelangelo’s unfinished prisoners — struggling to break out of the marble. Michelangelo believed these figures were divinely created within the rock. He was simply chiseling away the excess. Here we see the Renaissance love of the body as Michelangelo reveals these compelling figures. While these statues are called unfinished…perhaps Michelangelo was satisfied he’d set them free…and he moved on to other challenges.

Now that the old center of Florence is essentially traffic free, the city itself is more enjoyable than ever. Early in the morning the service trucks make their deliveries. Then the people happily take back the streets. The city is easy to navigate and its sights are close together. Everything in this episode is within a 15-minute walk. And without the noise and distraction of cars, the architecture is easier to appreciate.

The Renaissance lasted roughly two centuries. The High Renaissance or 1500s is well known for the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. But the first half of the Renaissance, the 1400s is often overlooked.

While the main structure of the Florence Cathedral are medieval, its remarkable dome and much of the art decorating its façade, baptistry and bell tower define this first century of the Renaissance.

The Duomo — that’s Italian for cathedral — is huge — the largest anywhere when finished in the 15th century and still in the top 20. The church’s claim to fame is its dome — the first of the Renaissance and the first great dome built in Europe in over a thousand years. The church was built in Gothic times but rather than being capped by another spire, it was left with a gaping hole waiting for technology to catch up with the city's vision. In 1420, Filippo Brunelleschi won the job and built the dome that kicked off the architectural Renaissance.

Brunelleschi's dome — which inspired those that follow from the Vatican to the US Capitol — showed how art and science could be combined to make beauty. And today, it rewards those who climb to the top with a grand Florence view.

While the Duomo's architecture and statues are impressive, the baptistery, across from the Cathedral, is centuries older. The Baptistery is separate because in medieval times you couldn’t enter the church until you were baptized. Its interior glitters with Byzantine-style mosaics created in the 13th century, long before the Renaissance. These vivid scenes, bringing countless Bible stories to life, inspired the medieval faithful.

Jesus sits at the center of it all, overlooking creation on Judgment Day. He gives the ultimate thumbs up…and thumbs down. On his right, Angel Gabriel blows his trumpet bringing good news to the saved… and on the thumbs down side…well, you don’t want to go there.

Some say the Renaissance began in 1401 over the excitement caused by a city-wide competition to design and build new doors for the Baptistery. Lorenzo Ghiberti won the commsion and spent decades on this project.

These bronze panels, Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise,” were revolutionary in their realism. By utilizing the mathematical laws of perspective, Ghiberti helped give the art world a whole new dimension — depth. He pulled out all the stops to create maximum three-dimensionality: The tiles have lines which converge to a vanishing point. This bench is fore-shortened to extenuate its depth. Elements are added to establish a foreground distinct from the middle and the back ground. The effect? As viewers we become part of the scene.

While the panels, like most of the art you see outside, are copies, the originals of the cathedral's greatest treasures are stored safely out of the elements in the adjacent cathedral museum.

After nearly 150 years of construction, Bruneleschi's dome was up and the Cathedral was nearly complete. Then they began decorating the interior with the finest art of the day.

The cathedral's statues and reliefs showed a realism and emotion unprecedented in European art. The work of Donatello was a ground-breaking example.

This balcony for the choir, captures the exuberance of the age. Dancing and swirling in a real space, oblivious to the columns, Donatello’s happy angels celebrate the freedom and motion of this new age.

Some say Donatello invented the Renaissance style that Michelangelo would perfect half a century later. He was an eccentric, innovative, work-a-holic master who lit up his statues with an inner spirituality or soul.

Donatello's Mary Magdalene — carved out of wood — is provocative… shockingly realistic. The prostitute, rescued from the streets by Jesus, folds her hands in prayer. Her once-beautiful body has been scarred by the fires of her fasting and remorse. While her physical body is neglected and her eyes are hollow, her spirit stands strong.

The museum’s most famous piece — sculpted a generation later — is this Pieta by Michelangelo. The broken body of the crucified Christ is tended by three mourners — his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus. Michelangelo sculpted Jesus taller than life — notice the zig-zag of his body. This accentuates its weight making the theological point of the statue clear — Jesus is dead.

Nicodemus is a self-portrait of the 80 year old Michelangelo. After spending a lifetime bringing statues to life, Michelangelo reflects tenderly upon his savior — looking down thoughtfully at what could be one of his final creations.

Nearby, the Medici family ruled Florence from this grand palace, the Palazzo Vecchio. Their offices — or Uffizi — were next door. Now, these offices hold the finest collection of Italian paintings anywhere — the Uffizi Gallery.

Each day here, and throughout Europe, frustrated tourists who don't study their guidebooks waste precious hours in museum lines. Meanwhile, travelers who made a reservation by phone or purchase the city museum pass — as we did — are allowed right in.

The Uffizi’s collection — displayed on one comfortable floor, takes you on a sweep through Italian art history from the 12th through the 17th century.

Gilded Gothic altarpieces, like this Annunciation by the Sienese master Simone Martini, must have dazzled the faithful in the 1300s. The stars of the Florentine class of 1500 are all here: Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation is exquisite. Michelangelo's Holy Family shows he can do more than carve statues. And Raphael, considered a synthesis of the power of Michelangelo and the grace of Leonardo, captures a delicate moment in his Madonna of the Gold Finch. And the collection follows art after the Renaissance with masterpieces like Parmigianino's slippery Lady with the Long Neck.

For me, the Uffizi — like Florence itself — is all about the thrilling leap from medieval to modern — as happened when Europe moved from Gothic to Renaissance. These altarpieces are Gothic — being pre-Renaissance they simply tell their story through symbolism rather than realism. The gold leaf sky isn’t realistic…but it implies a rich and holy setting. The angels are stacked — like a totem pole. Flanking this cross, panels — like painted pages — tell the story of the crucifixion…but with little sense of depth. Yet artists were trying…To show Jesus’ head leaning out…it actually does.

Giotto, while still Gothic, is often considered the first modern painter. Notice the progress. A more realistic setting places Mary and baby Jesus on a throne occupying a believable space. The kneeling angels in front and peek-a-boo saints behind create an illusion of depth.

If the Renaissance was a foundation of our modern world, a foundation of the Renaissance was Classical art. Sculptors, painters, and poets alike turned to ancient work for inspiration.

Two-thousand-year-old Roman and Greek statues like these decorated gardens of the wealthy.

This ancient art was considered the epitome of beauty. Kings made copies. Napoleon stole his favorite pieces. In the 19th century young aristocrats on the grand tour came here and swooned.

In the Renaissance — as in the ancient world — people saw the glory of God in the beauty, order, and harmony of the human body — God’s greatest creation.

Classical statues clearly inspired Sandro Botticelli. For me, his Birth of Venus is the Uffizi’s purest expression of Renaissance beauty. The goddess of love, born from the foam of a wave, is just waking up.

Botticelli combines the beauty of nature and the human body — the hands, wings, and robe mingle with the wind. With Venus’ flyaway hair, the airy spaciousness of the distant horizon, and the flowers — caught at the peak of their beauty, tumbling in slow motion — the world itself is fresh and newborn.

Botticelli’s Primavera or Springtime shows the Renaissance finally in full bloom. The warm winds blow in causing Flora to sprout flowers from her lips. Meanwhile, the figure of Spring spreads petals from her dress…the Three Graces dance… a blindfolded cupid happily sprays his little arrows, and in the center stands a fertile Venus, the classical goddess of love.

Visiting Florence leaves lovers of art and good living with rich memories. And while much of the great art of the Renaissance remains here, the influence of that cultural explosion — the Florentine Renaissance — reverberates throughout the world and for that, we can be thankful.