Florence was the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and home to countless great names in art, literature, and science. For me, though, one figure towers over them all–Galileo Galilei. He was a man who profoundly changed how we look at the universe, a true genius whose impact is still felt today.
So I and my astronomer wife went searching for him in Florence. Call it a pilgrimage if you want. It certainly felt that way to me.
When we think of Italian art, we tend to think of Ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance, and forget the periods in between. Considering the achievements of those two high points of human civilization, that’s hardly surprising, but the Middle Ages contained the inspiration of Renaissance art, and much of that inspiration came from further east–from the Byzantine Empire.
Byzantium owned parts of Italy until 1071, and left a legacy of beautifully decorated churches and public buildings. These influences endured, and can be found in some of the most famous buildings and art collections of the Renaissance. This interesting article from Oxford University goes into greater depth about specific important influences.
As I mentioned in my last post, I got to explore Florence for a few days, absorbing as much of the Italian Renaissance (and modern pizza) as I could.
So of course I went to the Uffizi Gallery, one of Italy’s most renowned museums. While I knew I would be seeing a treasure trove of Da Vincis and Caravaggios, I didn’t realize that portions of the building itself are a work of art.
Specifically, the ceilings of the upper Eastern Corridor. These are decorated with bright, lively frescoes painted by Alessandro Allori in 1580 and 1581. Each section is a different theme or subject such as military affairs or exploration, and taken together they act as a window into the thoughts and imagination of Florence in the late Renaissance.
My wife was giving a seminar at Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Florence last week and instead of staying home and writing like I probably should have, I decided to tag along. It was my fourth time in Italy and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Four days in Florence didn’t change that.
The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance is a visual overload of beauty, so much so that when I gave a talk yesterday on using setting in writing, I gave Florence as an example of a place that’s impossible to describe without having an intimate knowledge of it. The entire trip I suffered from Stendhal Syndrome, a condition named after the 19th century French author who fell into a swoon from all the beauty he was exposed to in Florence. It was impossible to take it all in.
Last week I blogged about the fantastic Basilica of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy. That’s only one of several fine examples of Late Antique art in the city and only one of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites there.
Another is the Arian Baptistry, built by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great at the end of the 5th century. Theodoric was an Arian Christian, following a creed that believed that Christ was distinct from, and subordinate to, God the Father. This is because Christ did not always exist but was created by God the Father. More orthodox Christians at the time believed that Christ was both human and divine but was one and equal to God the Father. Theodoric had both types of Christians in his kingdom and to avoid trouble, kept them in separate neighborhoods with separate houses of worship
The apse dome of the Basilica of San Vitale shows Christ enthroned, and looking very much like a Byzantine emperor
I’ve been posting a lot lately about my recent trip to Italy. The high point of the trip for me, indeed the travel high point of the year, was visiting Ravenna.
Ravenna has the best collection of Late Antique church art in the world. As the Western Roman Empire crumbled, Ravenna became the refuge for the last emperors and acted as the capital from 402 to 476 AD. Unlike the more exposed city of Rome, Ravenna was protected on all sides by swamps and was also a base for the Roman navy, making it easy to defend. It eventually fell into Germanic hands but became Roman once again when it served as the Exarchate for the Byzantine Empire from 540 to 751 AD. The Exarch was the representative of the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople and ruled over portions of Italy. Ravenna has a rich collection of religious buildings constructed by the Romans, Christian Ostrogoths, and Byzantines.
The museum has a small but choice selection of Renaissance stained glass
Italy is full of medieval treasures. On a recent trip to Bologna, I got to visit the city’s medieval towers and numerous churches. I also made sure to visit the city’s celebrated Museo Civico Medievale. The museum is housed in the Palazzo Ghisilardi-Fava, a noble residence of the late 15th century built on Roman foundations.
Wandering through the museum’s spacious rooms and rambling hallways takes you past some incredible products of the Italian Middle Age and Renaissance, plus samples from other parts of Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Here are a few shots to give you an idea.
On a recent trip to Bologna in northern Italy, I got to admire the city’s famous medieval towers and beautiful churches. The city’s medieval and Renaissance history is everywhere. What is less apparent is that it was a major center for Etruscan civilization. No Etruscan monuments survive in the city itself, so it’s fortunate that the Museo Civico Archeologico has an excellent Etruscan collection. This is thanks to several pioneering archaeologists in the 19th and early 20th century who excavated numerous Etruscan buildings and tombs and carefully preserved their findings.
The Garisenda Tower on the left measures 48 meters high.
The Asinelli Tower soars to 97.2 meters. Both now stand at a slight tilt
Happy 2017 everybody! I spent the last few days of 2016 with my family in Bologna, exploring a part of Italy I had never visited. The most prominent landmarks in the city are a series of tall medieval towers, the tallest of which you can climb to get a beautiful vista of Bologna and the surrounding countryside.
Rich families in Bologna began to build towers in the 12th century, both for defense and to show off their wealth and power. Bologna wasn’t the only city where people did this — Rome had some lovely examples — but Bologna may have had the most towers. Historians estimate that by the 13th century, there may have been as many as 180 of them. Others make a more modest estimate of “only” 80-100.
When I visited the castle in Gorizia, Italy, the part that intrigued me most was the donjon. This cramped room is a grim little place with no window to the outside. It was used for several centuries and over the years bored prisoners decorated the walls and vaulted ceiling with drawings. Religious motifs, sailing ships, people, and a number of abstract shapes caught my attention.