Sunday, December 16, 2012


Giambologna, Equestrian monument of Cosimo I de' Medici, 1587-94, bronze, piazza della Signoria Florence.

There is only one bronze equestrian sculpture that has survived for us in the present day from antiquity. It is in the centre of capitol hill in Rome and it is of Marcus Aurelius (emperor of Rome 161-180AD). It would have succumbed to the fate of most the others, melted down to make weapons, bells etc. during the barbaric invasions and the subsequent Medieval Christian period, had this Roman emperor not been mistaken for another, the first Christian emperor, Constantine (emperor 306-337). Marcus Aurelius holds his hand out in pacification, maybe he is about to speak to his people, he wears sandals, a tunic and is bareheaded. The bronze was once completely gilded. Equestrian monuments, the horse and rider, were one of the ways for Roman emperors to immortalise themselves in art. It was thus an artistic form very much in the imperial rhetoric and had regal connotations. Its roots are in Greek art. The Greeks would make equestrian votive statues for the gods, in thanks for victories.

Equestrian monument to Marcus Aurelius, 173-76AD, bronze, Capitoline museums Rome

In the Middle Ages, from the 1300s, some equestrian sculptures were commissioned but none comparable to the Marcus Aurelius in grandiosity and monumentality, and they had also a different agenda. They were smaller than their ancient counterpart, in stone or wood and depicted the rider in armour. They were invariably linked to a tomb and most commonly placed above the sarcophagus and located inside a church.

The first two equestrian statues which recall very closely the ancient model where the classical influences outweigh the medieval ones, were by two Florentine sculptors. Only one of these survives today however. Donatello’s Gattamelata in Padua (1447-1453) is still in its original place, the lost work being by Niccolò Baroncelli made during the years 1444-51 of Niccolò d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara which was in Ferrara (destroyed during the revolution of 1796). They both broke from the medieval mould as they were made in bronze and they weren’t for a tomb but were made for outside and over life size. They did, however, still show their riders in armour.

Donatello, Equestrian munument of Gattamelata, 1447-53, bronze, Padua

The next big equestrian sculpture of a similar vein to Donatello’s, again by a Florentine, was by Andrea Verrocchio for one of the condottiere of the Venetian republic, Bartolomeo Colleoni. It is in the campo San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. However, this still had some of the traces of the medieval influences as it is a funeral monument of sorts, considering his body is in the church in the square and he is dressed in armour.

Andrea del Verrocchio, Equestrian monument to Bartolomeo Colleoni, 1483-88, bronze, Venice

The equestrian monument to Cosimo I is the first of this type to be the most similar both visually and in significance, to the classical period. The monument was commissioned after his death by Cosimo’s son Ferdinando to the well known, revered and long standing Medici court sculptor and caster, Giambologna (Jean de Boulogne, Douai 1529-Florence 1608). Giambologna worked on it between the years 1587-1594. Cosimo I is dressed in armour but he is bare headed, as is Gattamelata by Donatello. However, Cosimo I is represented less as a military man and more of a leader of state - in his hand is the baton of command rather than a lance.

The bas-reliefs that decorate the base were completed in 1598 aided by his workshop assistants, and they show key moments in the establishment of the Medici's power: the Florentine Senate paying homage to the young Duke Cosimo, the Triumphal entry of Cosimo into Siena, and the Coronation as Grand Duke.

Giambolgona, The triumphal entry of Cosimo into Siena, bas-relief on the pedestal of the Equestrian monument to Cosimo I de' Medici , 1598, bronze, piazza della Signoria Florence.

Cosimo I made very deliberate connections with the ancient Roman emperors. He adopted the same zodiac sign as augustus, who, like him,  definitively ended the republic to start an authoritarian despotic rule, and he also adopted a similar personal symbol to the first emperor. He renovated the piazza Santa Maria Novella for the chariot race held there every June and this site was more or less the same site as the where the circus had been when Fiorenza was Florentia, the Roman colony. Cosimo I portrays himself as very much the ruler of state and the his mastery of the great horse refers implicitly to his mastery in controlling and organising the territory of which he is the sole ruler.

The equestrian monument was a huge success and Giambologna’s workshop was commissioned not long after a second one of Ferdinando I, which still stands today in the piazza Santissima Annunziata. It was finished after the death of Giambologna, by Pietra Tacca, who inherited his master’s workshop after his death.
Giambologna and Pietro Tacca, Equestrian monument to Ferdinando I de' Medici, 1602-08, bronze, piazza Santissima Annunziata Florence.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Gucci cafe on the ground floor
The brand Gucci turned 90 last year. They celebrated by inaugurating the Gucci museum in Florence. The location -  The medieval fourteenth century palazzo della Mercanzia (the court house for business cases).
Palazzo della Mercanzia
This large splendid building is located in the piazza della Signoria behind the bronze equestrian sculpture of Grand duke Cosimo I. The building’s origins are eluded to by the series of terracotta coat of arms on the facade, they are of the city’s 21 guild corporations (the original stone coats of arms are on display inside the building on the ground floor).

Giglio ( the Florentine lily)  on shield located on the ground floor of  Palazzo Mercanzia

 The building was once where the elected 6 non Florentine judges, along with 6 local judges from the major guilds, would meet to adjudicate on cases related to business affairs in the mercantile republic of Florence. Inside the main room were seven fabulous large paintings by Piero del Pollaiuolo and Botticelli depicting the personifications of the seven virtues, currently housed in the Uffizi gallery. 

Botticelli, Fortitude, tempura on wood, 1970, Uffizi gallery.

Piero del Pollaiolo, Charity, tempura on wood, 1470s, Uffizi gallery
Gucci has taken over the whole building, three floors. They renovated the interior and created a museum which narrates the history of the brand. The museum is divided into thematic rooms inspired by the brand’s iconic motifs and symbols. Also, there is a contemporary art space on the first floor where an art piece on rotation from the Pinault foundation will be on display. Francois Pinault is one of the largest collectors of contemporary art in the world.  He is the head of the company PPR (Printemps-Pinault-Redoute), owner of the Gucci Group, amongst many other luxury goods companies such as Yves Saint Laurent. Adjacent, a room will feature video and film installations as well as landmark films that Gucci has helped to restore through its collaboration with Martin Scosese’s Film Foundation. On the ground floor, there is a bookshop (in collaboration with Rizzoli publishing house), a restaurant and cafe. The idea to create a museum and Gucci space was conceived by the current creative director of Gucci, Frida Giannini, originally from Rome. She has held the creative director position over the whole house of Gucci since 2006.

Frida Giannini
Headhunted from Fendi, Giannini arrived at Gucci and designed handbags under Tom Ford, the creative director at the time. In 2011 Giannini designed the Fiat 500 for Gucci in collaboration with Lapo Elkin (of the family Agnelli, owners of Fiat). 

As mentioned above, Gucci is a huge company owned by a corporation but it was started by Guccio Gucci and began very much as a family business. In 1921 Guccio opened the first shop in Florence selling leather goods and luxury luggage in via della vigna nuova. Prior to this he had worked at the Savoy in London and saw a need for sturdy but stylish luggage for the affluent international clientele. He returned to his native Florence and combined the sophistication of the English traditional with the unsurpassable the Florentine leather artisanal tradition. In 1938 he opened a shop in Rome and his sons, Aldo, Vasco, Ugo and Ridolfo and joined the business. During the second world war when confronting a leather shortage, he developed woven hemp printed with small interconnected brown diamonds, this the first Gucci signature.

 In 1951, the shop in Milan was inaugurated and it is around this time that the red-green-red web design became a hallmark of the company.

In 1953, Gucci went international with the opening of the Manhatten shop.  They rented a space in the Savoy-Plaza Hotel and it was managed by Aldo. He concocted a romantic tale that they had come from an illustrious line of noble saddle makers and began incorporating equestrian themes. The Gucci loafer was born with the metal horse bit.

  In the 1960s the GG logo on the hemp and on buckles on bags and luggage was used.

Jealousy and rivalry began to destroy the family and the company, and there was scandal after scandal from the 1970s onwards. Paolo, Aldo’s son, reported his father for tax evasion and his father went to prison in Florida. Paolo then tried to get rid of Maurizio, his cousin (Ridolfo’s son), who had come to work with Aldo in America and had taken control of the company. Maurizio, tired of his scheming family, found an investor for the family business and here begins the end of Gucci as a family run empire and the beginning of Gucci the brand and international company. In the 1980s Gucci went almost bankrupt and Maurizio, in debt, sold all of his shares and was, in the 1990s, shot in a plot organised by his ex-wife. In 1990 Tom Ford began to work at Gucci in Milan in women’s fashion when the brand was in hardship both monetarily and creatively. In 1994 he was promoted to creative director and revamped, modernised and sexed up the fashion and accessories. Gucci took off. From near bankruptcy when Ford joined. The company was valued at $4.3 billion in 1999 and $10 billion in 2004 when he left.

The other day I had a wonderful lunch at the Gucci caffe and loved the whole experience; the service, the meal and the location. The menu has a good selection of first, second and salad dishes. The table cloths are with classic diamond design and the sugar is in the shape of G (loved this touch). We had a mixed mushroom and pumpkin soup with barley, spaghettini alla botarga, maccheroni with black cabbage pesto and crispy bacon, and spelt pasta with mixed mushrooms, peeled tomatoes and marjorum herb. We sat outside and, being November, the piazza della Signoria seemed all ours with very few people walking around, it was perfect. As yet, there is no heating outside but there are plans to add it soon, I was told by the waitstaff.

Maccheroni with black cabbage pesto, crispy bacon and croutons

The museum is open daily 10am-8pm, the ticket is 6euro (half of the ticket proceedings go to the city of Florence to restore the major monuments). The caffe, restaurant and bookshop is open daily 10am-11pm.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Mercury, Benvenuto Cellini, bronze 1550s, Bargello Museum, Florence
During the renaissance, bronze sculptures cost a lot of money and few patrons could afford such expenditure in commissioning substantial bronze works for their private collections. Bronze cost about ten times as much as marble, and marble cost a lot. Bronze artefacts were associated particularly with antiquity. The Greeks had worked primarily in bronze, and elite renaissance society loved to emulate the ancients.

Athlete Crowning Himself, Greek, bronze, 300-100 BC, Getty Museum LA
In the high renaissance, small statuettes would be very much in vogue as collectors’ items. The ancient Romans made marble copies of the superb bronze Greek original statuary and then melted down the bronze statues, using the metal for weapons and other more practical things. This helps explain why there are very few original Greek statues and so many copies of them. Due to the high tensile strength of bronze, statues of this material don’t need as much support base as the same statue in marble or stone. Knowing this, you can often guess when an ancient marble statue was a copy of a bronze. The marble statue will often have a tree trunk next to the leg of the figure which is purely structural; without it, it wouldn’t stand. What bronze statues did survive were often melted down during the medieval period to make church bells and canons. 

The Discus Thrower, Roman copy of Greek bronze, Hellenistic period
Cosimo de Medici (known as Cosimo the Elder), in the first half of the 1400s, commissioned his favourite sculptor, Donatello, to cast a bronze David from the Old Testament. It was the first free standing nude bronze since antiquity.

David, Donatello, bronze, 1440s, Bargello museum, Florence
It is often referred to as the first renaissance statue as, in many ways, it shows that the Middle Ages were a thing of the past. But how is bronze cast? It is commonly known how marble is carved, with different shaped chisels and hand drills, but bronze casting is something of a mystery to many. Understanding how it is done renders the works of art even more fascinating. 

In the renaissance, as in Antiquity, the artists used the lost wax technique. In the Middle Ages this technique wasn’t entirely lost, but such artefacts were rarely commissioned due to expense and a lack of demand due to the lack of a sophisticated market. There is the direct method and the indirect method of the lost wax technique.

THE DIRECT LOST WAX TECHNIQUE: the sculptor first moulds the desired sculpture shape out of clay. This is called the core. He then covers the whole core with a thin layer of wax and makes all the small details of the sculpture on the wax. Then he attaches wax rods (called sprues) perpendicular to the wax surface covering the core.  These will be the chanels from which the air and gasses will escape during the casting process. Iron or bronze pins (chaplets) are also inserted into the wax and the core and remain sticking out. Another layer of clay is then placed over the entire wax covering. The whole structure is then baked and the wax melts. The chaplets are necessary to hold the two clay shells together when the wax melts. A mould has now been created. The whole structure is then banked up with earth or sand to hold it steady and help the mould resist the pressure created when the molten metal is poured in. The mould should also be hot when the metal is poured so that it won’t crack and that the metal won’t cool too quickly and not fill all the mould.

The molten bronze, an alloy of circa 90% copper and 10% tin, is poured into the mould where the wax was, explaining why the technique is called the lost wax technique. The gasses and air escape through the sprues and vents so as not to create air bubbles. The bronze is heated to about 800 degrees celsius (1350-1450 fahrenheit). When the bronze has cooled, the outside clay is chipped off revealing the bronze, which is of course as thick as the wax covering over the core was. Bronze alloy expands before it sets which means that it takes all of the details that were incised onto the wax and picked up by the inner part of the outer clay covering. The clay core is most often scraped out to avoid interior corrosion. The bronze is rough and needs to be finished, which is called chasing. Finally a patina is applied to the chased surface in order to achieve the desired colour. Small statues were directly sculptured in wax, so that when it is invested (covered) with clay and the wax melts, the interior is completely hollow, so the bronze statuette is solid. The limitation of the direct method is that the sculpture is a one off original. There is no possibility for multiple copies to be made as the core and the wax which made the actual detailed statue is ruined during the construction.

Indirect lost wax technique
THE INDIRECT LOST WAX TECHNIQUE: By the end of the 1400s, the indirect lost wax technique was developed. This enabled copies to be made of the bronze object or statue and it involves a few more steps than the direct method. A second model in wax is required, the so called intermodel, from the original model made by the sculptor. The sculptor takes the original bronze work, or the wax model (in the case of a small object or statuette) and divides the surface mentally into different parts. He then places plaster of Paris (gypsum plaster) or clay over the wax or bronze in the designated segmented areas. It is like a jigsaw puzzle around a 3D. This system is called piece moulding. When the pieces harden and are taken off the surface, the wax or bronze object is saved for further use. The pieces are reassembled and securely bound together and the now empty mould is filled with molten wax to cast the desired intermodel . The wax intermodel will not stick to the piece mould if the plaster is dampened before filling it. After the intermodel is freed from the piece mould, the wax rods which form the sprues are attached. From here, the process proceeds as the direct method. Another option is not to make the core out of solid wax but make the wax a line layer over the piece mould and then to fill the rest of space with clay to make the core. The result will be a hollow bronze object

This was an extremely dangerous process which the artisans performed without all the advanced equipment of today. It also required precision and a huge working knowledge of metals. Armed with the knowledge of the technical process it makes the bronze statues and artefacts all the more precious.

Monday, November 5, 2012


Masaccio, Tribute Money, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco
The Brancacci chapel represents a turning point in art history, and thus is reflective of a change in society. It was studied and admired by all the great artists who lived in or passed through Florence almost immediately after it was frescoed in the second decade of the 1400s, and there are many deliberate nods to many of the figures depicted by the great, and very young, Masaccio on the chapel walls which appear in other works of art.

Andrea del Sarto, Baptism of the Multitude, 1917, Chiostro dello Scalzo, fresco.

Masaccio, Baptism of the Neophytes, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco.
In 1424 Felice Brancacci commissioned an established artist nicknamed Masolino to fresco his family side chapel in the Carmelite church, Santa Maria del Carmine, with scenes from the life of St Peter.

Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine church
The chapel narrates the fall of Adam and Eve and redemption through St Peter, the first pope and one of the twelve apostles of Christ. This choice of subject matter was personal as it had been the name sake of his ancestor, Piero di Piuvicchese, who in 1367 founded the chapel and had left money in his will for the decoration. Felice Brancacci was a wealthy silk merchant and was very much a member of the powerful and wealthy mercantile society of one of the greatest Italian city-states, the Florentine republic.

The chosen artist, Masolino, had trained in the International Gothic style, the leading artistic style of the day and, upon receiving the prestigious and time consuming commission, called upon another artist for the job so as to divide the work load between them. Work share was not an uncommon practice and one explanation for Masolino’s decision to collaborate with another could be that he already had other commissions lined up and he was concerned about his work load. This much younger artist, with whom Masolino decided to collaborate, was nicknamed Masaccio. Both Masaccio and Masolino were named Tommaso and their nicknames were derived from its abbreviation, Maso. Their similarities stopped here however as their styles differed considerably. The scenes of the chapel were divided up more or less equally between the two artisans and, for the most part, they each worked wholly on individual parts rather than interchangeably working on the project as by the same hand. They would work on the chapel until 1427 and then would both leave it unfinished and go to Rome. Masaccio died shortly after in the eternal city at the age of 27.

There is very little primary source documentation regarding the chapel, the nature of the collaborative relationship and how they decided to divide the work is unknown. Art historians have deduced the hand of each artisan through stylistic analysis. The chapel is a stunning example for a comparative study of the two great artists during the first half of the quattrocento; Masolino is the exponent of the established leading style, International Gothic, as mentioned above, and Masaccio, the first to paint in the new style, which would supersede the former, the renaissance style. If we compare the scenes of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise by Masaccio and the Temptation of Eve by Masolino, located at the top of the piers at the entrance to the chapel before the narrative scenes of St Peter on the inner chapel walls, we can sum up the characteristics of each style.

Masolino, Temptation of Adam and Eve, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco.

Masaccio, Expulsion from the garden of Eden, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco
Masolino expressed all the detached elegance that the international gothic style is known for, as well as the flowing graceful line of the bodies and the wonderful attention to detail of nature, seen here with the tree leaves. The international gothic style was a European style and visually expressed the refined elegance and elite nature of the courts and the lifestyle that the aristocracy led. The sense of detached aloofness of Adam and Eve reflects the elitist nature of court etiquette, the inclusion of the natural element reflected the life of the country villa and hunting, the preciousness in the execution and the grace in the figures embodies the overall sense of superiority and sense of self importance of the ruling classes. Lastly, there is no background, the scene exists in an isolated world.

Opposite is something quite different. Masaccio’s Adam has lost all his composure and he is so ashamed that he has lost the power of speech and he hides his head in his hands. Eve howls like an animal at the consequence of their actions, leaving all good etiquette of bon ton behaviour behind in Eden. Their bodies are drawn with a keen eye for the realistic rendering of the human anatomy in the physical description of their silhouette and in the realistic portrayal of their step.

There is a detached sense of refinement and isolation of scene in Masolino - the figures seem to exist in an isolated world, heightened by the black background. This is juxtaposed with the Masaccio fresco opposite, where Adam and Eve are part of the physical world, making shadows on the ground created by their real forms. Indeed, this is one of the first examples of shadow depiction in the history of art. They exist in the real, everyday world, the here and now.

Masaccio is referred to as being the first renaissance painter. Details of his personal life and training are virtually unknown. However, it is assumed that he knew Filippo Brunelleschi (the first renaissance architect and inventor of mathematical perspective) and they could even have collaborated on the Trinity fresco in Santa Maria Novella, as he was the first painter to use special perspective and realistically render the three dimensional world on the flat surface.

Masaccio painted what Donatello had already begun to do in sculpture, depicting the here and now of the real world, the maimed in the streets and the contemporary street scenes, just as Donatello was able to superbly portray the psychological presence of his subjects and thus creating a sense of immediacy and realism.

Masaccio, St Peter healing the sick with his shadow, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco.
Donatello, bust of Niccolo da Uzzano, 1430s, polychrome clay, Bargello National sculpture museum Florence. 
Masaccio documented the world around him. Today, we take photos of what we think is important and for the first time since antiquity, art was favouring the depiction of what was around - the good, the bad and the ugly - because man was the central focus now. Figures would no longer be depicted in an abstract isolated world as Masolino had done with his Adam and Eve, they would be placed in an existing tangible environment. Life on earth had suddenly become important again, and man's achievements in this life alone were now being celebrated as feats in their own right, rather than in relation to God. The individual was something that was being discussed and valued once again. All of this being now important, it of course needed to be visually recorded, and this new thought process and way of placing oneself in the world is echoed in art. Art imitates life.

For Masaccio, the human action is the central focus, as can be seen in the Tribute Money (see top) with Christ's action and gesture, the realistic attention to life, not just nature, as can be seen with the water dripping from the hair in the baptism of the neophytes (see above), or the sensational rendering of the baby’s anatomy in the Distribution of alms and death of Ananias.

Masaccio, The Distribution of Alms and the Death of Ananias, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


The bar at Brac with tables outside on the terrace
I recently had lunch at Brac, located between the Uffizi gallery and Santa Croce in via dei Vagellai 18r. It was something I'd been putting off for a while as, even though I had poked my head in and been really impressed by the lovely relaxing atmosphere that they've created, a vegetarian and vegan menu doesn’t really excite me too much.

Carpaccio di avocado at Brac
However, I ate those words when they served me my carpaccio di avocado, misticanza, pomodoro, sesame, cedano, mandorla e succo di limone, which was absolutely delicious. It was basically half an avocado with sesame seeds sprinkled on top, seated on a bed a mixed green leafy salad with a blended paste of celery, tomatoes and almonds. My friend ordered a pasta chitarra aglio, olio e pomodori secchi (chitarra pasta with sundried tomatoes, oil and garlic). We ate at the bar as all the tables had been reserved, but it was, however, comfortable and nice.

Pasta chitarra aglio, olio e pomodori secchi at Brac
To access the tables for a seated lunch from where we were and where the kitchen is located, there is a small open roofed wooden floored terrace, with comfy armchairs and little coffee tables – an ideal place for some personal R&R or a tête à tête with a mate. As my friend said upon entering Brac, here it seems like you are not in Florence at all! 

It is open 10am-10pm, Monday – Saturday.

Ora d'Aria Restaurant
In the last few days I have also tried the chic restaurant Ora d’Aria, located behind the Uffizi in via Georgofili. The direct translation of the name is ‘Air Hour’ and this is the expression used for the time allocated each day to prisoners in gaol when the are permitted to walk around in the allocated outside zone. This explains the empty birdcage at the entrance, with the door open, as if the bird has flown the coup. 

The decor is lovely, crisp and white, but not sterile. The menu is not overwhelmingly large and is centred upon typically Italian fare such as tripe, baccalà and suckling pig, though served in a modern context with nouvelle cuisine parameters. The assortment of breads was interesting also, and the service was good. 

Suckling pig with garlic, lavender and black cabbage
I enjoyed it very much, and though I must admit I am a real lover of the more familiar and intimate restaurants, and typically shy away from nouvelle cuisine as it is often a bit too precious for my taste,  this was a nice experience. For a starter, I chose the braised tripe and baccalà with chickpea purée and celeriac, and as a main course, the soft crispy suckling pig, with garlic, lavender and black cabbage sautéed with black mustard. 

Open Monday – Saturday, via dei Georgofili, tel.0552001699.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Ceiling of the BNL bank in via Cavour 59, once part of the casino of Don Carlo de Medici. The ceiling decoration is  from one of the two rooms dedicated to this brother, Grand duke Cosimo II.
In Florence a palazzo is the urban dwelling (what in Venice is referred to as a Ca’) mixing business and domestic spaces and a villa is located outside of the city’s walls in the country. A casino, however, is an urban villa. It is a space where entertainment, entertaining, hobbies and more intimate meetings may take place, usually with a garden and the piano nobile (the most important level, usually on the first floor in a palazzo, is on the ground floor as no business takes place in a casino). They are typically located on the outer perimeter of the city closer to the city’s walls than in the heart of the centre.

The Medici casino is located in the area of San Marco, just beyond the eponymous piazza, which was a stone’s throw away from the city’s limits. The land of the Medici casino was first acquired by Ottaviano de’ Medici during the reign of Cosimo I de Medici, the first Grand duke of Tuscany, in the middle of the 1500s. Ottaviano, in need of cash, conceded the land and buildings to Cosimo I, who in turn, gave it to his first born son and heir, Francesco. It is with Francesco that the history of the Medici casino of San Marco really begins to become interesting, and the building starts to take the form that we see today.

Casino di San Marco as seen from via Cavour

Close up of the window by Bernardo Buontalenti
Francesco, so different from his father, the master political statesman, was disinterested in ruling the Granduchy that his father had created, and he left that task to a body of advisors and administrators, which would have made his father turn in his grave if he had known. Francesco was much more taken with trying to discover the formula to understanding all knowledge, and was one of the most well known alchemic princes in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century. He surrounded himself with some of the greatest herbalists, scientists, experimentalists, pharmacists, glass makers and stone cutters of his day and provided all that they needed in the Casino di San Marco, which he had built by his friend and trusted architect the ingenius Bernardo Buontalenti in the years 1570-74, in order for them to conduct experiments and further their research in the world around us. 

Portrait of Grand Duke Francesco de Medici (bottom right) in the Alchemist's workshop, Giovanni Stradano (aka: Jan Van der Straet), 1570s. This painting was part of the complex decorative cycle in Francesco's Studiolo inside the Palazzo Vecchio.
After his death, the Casino di San Marco was passed to his son of his second marriage and to the beautiful, but deathly unpopular Venetian, Bianca Cappello. Not only had his second marriage to Bianca, his longstanding mistress, been distasteful to most in the Florentine court, it was widely speculated that Don Antonio, their son, was not Francesco’s son at all. After the death of Francesco and Bianca (within one day of each other), Ferdinando, Francesco’s brother, became Grand Duke and Don Antonio was ousted from any question of succession.

The second wife of Grand duke Francesco I, Bianca Cappello, and their son, Don Antonio, by Alessandro Allori
He was compensated with the inheritance of his beloved father’s magical den. Don Antonio de Medici grew up to be a very cultured and erudite man and though he wasn’t interested in practising any of the fine or mechanical arts like his father, he gathered at the Casino a formidable scientific library and art collection. He moved into the casino in 1597 and commissioned a series of renovations. The casino was frequented by a circle of intellectuals and the library was open to scholars.  There was even a little theatre. After Don Antonio’s death in 1621, the casino passed to the Cardinal Carlo, brother of the Grand duke Cosimo II, who died in the same year leaving his mother, Cristina of Lorraine, and his wife, Maria Maddalena of Austria, as regents of the Grand duchy until his eldest son, eleven year old Ferdinando, was able to take the reins of rule.

Cardinal Carlo, who had probably entertained the idea of being regent of the Grand Duchy, or at least playing a major role in the administration until his nephew came of age, embarked upon a series of decorative renovations on the ground floor rooms. He commissioned some of the best artists of the early 1600s in Tuscany to fresco the elaborate and exquisitely depicted ceiling program which exalted the male line thus far of the Medici Grand dukes.

The central section of the ceiling of the room dedicateed to the first Grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I. He is crowned with the laurel wreath and surrounded by Valour and Fame.
The central section of the room dedicated to the Grand Duke Francesco I.

One of the three central panels of the room dedicated to Grand duke Ferdinando I - Neptune, in reference to his role in the development of the Livorno port.
The central section dedicated to Grand duke Cosimo II.
One room was dedicated to each grand duke (Cosimo I, Francesco and Ferdinando) and two rooms were dedicated to the recently departed, Cosimo II. In the middle of the ceiling there was a portrait of the ruler and surrounding this, this there was a running decoration of scenes depicting the feats and achievements during their reign, as well as personifications of their virtues and character. The main artists working at the casino for cardinal during the early years of the 1620s were; Matteo Rosselli, Michelangelo Cinganelli, Fabrizio Boschi and Anastasio Fontebuoni, just to name a few.

Abundance from the room dedicated to Grand duke Francesco I.
At the same time, the widowed Maria Maddalena of Austria, was renovating her preferred villa, called Poggio Imperiale, a stone’s throw from the city’s walls and a very short carriage ride from the grand ducal residence (Palazzo Pitti). She commissioned a decorative series dedicated to the great women of influence throughout history on the ceilings of the ground floor rooms; saints, queens from antiquity and heroines from the Old Testament dedicated to the rearing of children, to religion and to the state, as allegories and added weight to her current situation. Matteo Rosselli (a collaborator at the casino di San Marco) and his workshop undertook the commission from the Grand duchess.

Detail of the ceiling in the main room of Poggio Imperiale with the coat of arms of Maria Maddalena of Austria.
Poggio Imperiale

These two contemporaneous decorative cycles have been closed to public view for a very long time.The Poggio Imperiale villa has been a high school for decades, however, in a few weeks, there will be tours in Italian on Saturday mornings only, something absolutely worth while doing as it is a wonderful experience.

The casino of San Marco has been the seat of the court of Appeals for decades, however this is soon to change, as in April it will move out to the Florentine suburb of Novoli (Florence west), where it will be joined by all the other different judicial departments which have been traditionally housed in different structures spread over the city. They will all be housed under the same roof in the same enormous structure, Palazzo di Guistizia, which has been in construction since 2000. The fate of the casino di San Marco has yet to be decided. One of the five rooms (one of the two dedicated to his brother, Cosimo II) commissioned by Cardinal Carlo can be seen by everybody however. This room happens to be part of the building that was rented out to one of the branches of the BNL bank. So pop your head inside the next time that you find yourself walking down the via cavour, as who knows what the fate will be now of this fabulous building with the most fascinating history.