Raphael and Giorgione at the Palazzo Pitti

October 15, 2010

Lunette of the Pitti and Boboli Gardens by Giusto Utens

This is a slightly enhanced version of my post for La Vite รจ Bella. It is reproduced here with the addition of a video resource and some extra commentary. The Palazzo Pitti was easily the place in Florence which gave me the creeps more than anything else.

These later, pseudo royal Medici represent something I found very distasteful. That being said, the Palatine Gallery contained within the palace complex houses some exquisite works. Some I will describe below, others will also be presented in an upcoming guest post for Tuscany Arts.

Firstly, I would like to preface my article with a clip from Brian Sewell's Grand Tour, a 2005 series for UK Channel 5 which re-created the tours made by aristocrats of the 18th Century onwards.  Brian Sewell is an infamous art critic in the UK. In his old age, he presents as a curious fellow. I found it particularly amusing to discover that Brian Sewell's sauntering and mildly creepy manner was cited by Johnny Depp as the inspiration for his portrayal of the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

As much as Sewell's style is most definitely not mine, I must agree with his statement that the Palazzo Pitti is "an ugly, heavily rusticated prison of a palace."  That being said, he still manages to convey some useful information. In addition, the Palatine Gallery located within is a treasure for Renaissance and Baroque art fans in particular. I visited it twice myself - once with student blogger Gianna, and a second time on my own so as to spend some more quality time with Raphael, Giorgione and Caravaggio.

3PP has been up for almost a year now, yet one thing I have never had the chance to explore are my  responses to seeing artworks in situ. This is primarily as I am located in Australia, and do not get to see the Renaissance and Baroque works I have spent so many years studying. As a result, I tend to write about the history and symbolism in these works. But today is a special treat! During a recent trip to Florence, Gianna and I decided it would be an interesting idea to visit a gallery together and then do a post swap. She would be able to share her amazing reflective experiences at my blog, and I would have the unique chance of talking about seeing a Renaissance master in person, something which I have not done before.

The Palazzo Pitti

I came to art history through my study of literature and history first. I knew about the Medici and Dante long before I knew about Raphael and Botticelli. Although I went onto pursue a career as a health professional, I have always been fascinated by the history of art, in particular how use of subject matter and symbols can reveal so much about the artists and the patron. In travelling to Florence, I must admit a significant deal of trepidation - how could these works measure up to the highly idealised view of them I have had in my mind for over 20 years?

I am still reeling from what I saw in Florence. The mystical fog that was 'Renaissance' to me was very much shattered. I think this is a pitfall of studying these works for so long without ever having the privilege of visiting them. However, I won't dwell on this too much, it is something I will be better able to deal with in my future writing. For now I would like to focus on one curious palace doorway.

The Palazzo Medici, later owned by the Riccardi family

Gianna and I visited the Palatine Gallery on Friday October 1st. The Palatine Gallery is of course located at the Palazzo Pitti, the stately palace of the Medici Dukes. As a student of history and lover of antiquity, these later Medici have always rubbed me the wrong way. Gone is the humility of Cosimo The Elder, the burning love of knowledge and literature of Lorenzo The Magnificent. These Medici were no longer just bankers and wealthy patrons, they were Pseudo royalty, thrust into greatness by favour of the Medici Pope Clement VII, who granted the Medici the title of  Duke, starting with Alessandro de' Medici in 1530.

By the time of Cosimo I de' Medici (whom Italians refer to as Cosimo Primo), the Medici Dukedom was in full swing, and the immense wealth of this once humble family went into acquiring and glorifying the Pitti Palace into the Ducal Residence. The result of this was a degree of opulence that was to later inspire the building of the Palace of Versailles.

Unlike Cosimo the Elder, whom when building the original Palazzo Medici deliberately had it's designers scale back the scope and grandeur of the building, these later Medici went out of their way to show their superior wealth, not only in relation to their peers, but their Medici ancestors as well. They started the trend of over sized palace windows, simply because they wanted the windows of their palace to be larger than the main door of the original Palazzo Medici. They even had the infamous Vasari corridor built, to allow them to travel from the Uffizi (the offices of Medici business ventures) and The Pitti Palace, simply so they would avoid having to mix with the rabble in the street(and the likely due to fear of attack). Interestingly, the corridor now contains a gallery of artists self portraits - which is something I'll be posting about later.

 The Vasari Corridor travels along the top of the Ponte Vecchio.

Going on a tour of the palace today, you will get to see a throne room, which served this purpose during the later phase of the palace's occupation. The original throne room was located in The Sala di Giove (The Hall of Jupiter). This hall's ceiling was decorated by Pietro da Cortona, and shows Jupiter crowning the Prince, a direct reference to the Medici Duke receiving their power from God, or in this case, the Pope, whom happened to be a relative of his.

Going through the Pitti with Gianna on this day, I think we were both overwhelmed by the opulence of this place. I definitely was, and each room I went through I found myself less in awe of these later Medici. We discussed the Pitti as a precursor to Versailles, and the tremendous negative effect that had on French society. Despite the amazing art on display, I have to admit the Pitti Palace is not a place of awe and wonder to me - but more so an ugly reminder of the tremendously corrupting influence of wealth.

Going through the Palatine Gallery however, you will get to points where you are confronted with works that will stop your reverie on wealth and power, and make you appreciate the art itself. It was two paintings in the Sala di Giove which did these for me. The first was La Donna Velata (Woman with a veil) by Raphael. One of the most famous portraits of the Renaissance, there it sits in the Medici throne room. I found this immensely poignant as this portrait is believed to be Margerita Luti, Raphael's lover, who was the daughter of a baker of Siena. This is why a later portrait of the same woman is called La Fornarina, or little baker girl.

How wonderful I thought, to have the Medici Dukes prancing about under a portrait of a bakers daughter! Incidentally, I also think that the previously described incident where Gianna was accosted by a drunk guide at the Bandini Museum is related to this point. This person described Simonetta Vespucci as working in a bakery, of which there is no evidence. Evidently this drunk museum attendant is getting Simonetta and Margerita mixed up.

La Donna Velata, in its current position, sits on the left side of a doorway in the Sala di Giove. What struck me with wonder was how on the other side of this doorway was a work by my other Renaissance favourite, the enigmatic Giorgione. There are some paintings in the Uffizi that are tentatively 'attributed' to Giorgione, and the attribution to this particular work, The Three Ages, is also strongly contested.

As I  have been discovering, Giorgione is a mystery, but not as much of a mystery as people like to hype him up as. This mystery is more a result of a combination of a lack of  documented evidence, and some overactive imaginations filling the gaps.

Just as many other artists produced works with a mixture of religious and worldy symbolism, Giorgione was no different. It is easy to get swept away by the description we have of Giorgione by Vasari, the poet and lute player, who was in love with antiquity and charmed Leonardo da Vinci with his wit when they met. Vasari's meddlesome storytelling is really starting to grate on me as I find it is almost always his anecdotes that have resulted in the hazy perception we have of Renaissance artists. I'm starting to become more enamoured of the reality evidenced by facts of the day - the 1500s was still a time ruled by a type of spirituality that is extremely difficult for a modern viewer to grasp.

Hence, just like Botticelli's Venus is an allusion to The Sacred Virgin of Pagan and Christian Lore, Giorgione's Three Ages also starts to make sense as a work which can be acceptably viewed in a sacred sense as well. For more info on this, I refer you to this post by Dr. Frank DeStefano. I was delighted to be able to report to Frank that the sheet of paper held by the youth in this painting clearly did not indicate it was sheet music, as the philosophical reading of the painting indicates. It is equally difficult to say it is scripture either - like most of Giorgione's amazing symbolism I believe the ambiguity is quite deliberate, and hence allow the 'sacred and profane' readings to safely coexist.

I would like to thank Gianna for an enjoyable morning at the Palazzo Pitti. It was definitely an eye opening experience.


Dr. F said...


I enjoyed the Sewell clip and I agree with you and him about the over the top nature of the Pitti, but how in the midst of all this great art could he say that religion ruined everything when it was the inspiration for most of the art?

Is he really an advocate of child molestation, or is that the British sense of humor?


Unknown said...

I think what Sewell was getting at is the loss of the original design of the room. Well I hope that's what he was getting at... it's hard to say with him! His comments about male sexuality have got him in enough strife elsewhere, though elsewhere is where that discussion belongs...

Also as Gianna and I saw with the Bartolini Tondo, earlier Renaissance art was not as out of fashion as Sewell indicated. That tondo has quite a significant presence in the collection, and has since the latter half of the 18th Century.

This is of course after the era of the Medici, but in line with the Grand Tourist period Sewell's documentaries are referencing.

Kind Regards

Alberti's Window said...

Ha! That's interesting about Sewell and Depp's character. Very amusing. Thanks for posting that video, too.

There is a building on my university's campus which has rustication like the Palazzo Medici (only on the ground level). I've been thinking about that building (and the Palazzo Medici, and the Palazzo Pitti) since reading your initial post on Gianna's blog. In my mind I've tossed around some parallels between academic authority/superiority and the Medici, which is visually solidified by the architectural similarity of the two buildings. :)

Unknown said...

Great point M! I don't think it was mere coincidence that the architectural style seen in Universities in Western Europe was derived from these earlier buildings of prominent people.

Universities emerged as not just centres of learning, but institutions for the wealthy and privileged, and sadly some still retain this exclusivity to this day.

Your comment about the rusticated style also reminded me of the King's Grand Palace in Bangkok Thailand. On the grounds of the traditional palatial buildings is an European style rusticated building that just looks so ridiculously out of place next to the amazing traditional Thai Architecture.

At the time it was built however, was thought of as remarkably modern and special!

Kind Regards

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