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I’ve spent a lot of time in Florence over the past few years, and I’m increasingly tired with the city’s old-school approach to its culture and history. Florence abounds with the images and stories of great men: Dante, Botticelli, Lorenzo ‘The Magnificent’ de’ Medici, Michelangelo, Galileo. The ‘Renaissance Man’ is alive and well here. You’d never notice that for decades historians have criticized that narrative. The artisans, women, social networks and global connections of Florence have offered new subjects for scrutiny, and tales of the city’s role in the flowering of ‘western civilization’ are thoroughly suspected.

In most of the city’s museums and galleries visitors will struggle to find many alternatives to the ‘great men’ school of history. The typical tour takes in the work of the city’s star artists but pays little attention to their social context, their patrons, or the numerous members of the artists’ workshops (without whom the stars could not have functioned).

You may think that the queues outside the Uffizi Gallery – and its 1.5 million visitors a year – indicate that the audience doesn’t particularly mind. But despite the fact that Italy has more world heritage sites than any other country, its own citizens are relatively disengaged from their cultural environment. In 2006, only 27% of Italians aged 25-64 visited a historical monument, museum, art gallery or heritage site. The EU average is 42%.

The museums of Florence are, in one sense, a product of the Renaissance themselves, for at their core lies the collection of the city’s then rulers, the Medici family, bequeathed to the city in 1743. But it was in the nineteenth century, in the run-up to Italian unification, that a self-conscious process of glorification of the great Italians of the past really picked up pace in Florence’s museums. Between 1842 and 1856 the Uffizi Gallery was adorned with a series of statues of ‘great men’. Around the same time, the church of Santa Croce, already a burial place for illustrious local families, became a national and international pantheon of ‘great men’: its monuments commemorate Galileo, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Rossini, Dante. And the theme has never gone away. Even today’s marketing strategists decided to rebrand the city’s Science History Museum, recently reopened, as the Museo Galileo. In the description of the building of Florence’s cathedral in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Brunelleschi’s ‘architectural genius’ takes credit for its dome with no mention of what must have been hundreds of workmen, assistants and the like.

To be fair, even if they wanted to make changes, the major museums would be ham-strung by a lack of resources. Since autumn 2010, Italy’s culture budget has been cut by almost €100m a year, and by EU standards it was not high in the first place. Spending has had to be concentrated on the most urgent conservation priorities, leaving limited scope for adventures in re-interpretation.

That said, two of Florence’s smaller museums are beginning to show how it may be possible to break out of the ‘great men’ schema. Casa Buonarroti was conceived in the early seventeenth century by Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, nephew of the artist, as a tribute to Michelangelo and his genius. Among its rooms are a study eulogising the ‘great men’ of Florence and a gallery doing likewise for Michelangelo himself. On the death of Michelangelo’s last direct descendant in 1858, just prior to Italian unification, Casa Buonarroti passed to the city of Florence.

Casa Buonarroti has a problem, however. It holds only two major works by the artist: the Madonna of the Steps (c. 1490) and the Battle of the Centaurs (1490-92). Most are elsewhere. And so since the 1980s it has concentrated instead on ‘presenting itself as the museum of the Buonarroti family’. In a rather postmodern way, Casa Buonarroti has become a museum about a museum, a museum about the process of commemorating a great man.

Casa di Dante likewise faces the challenge of a framework that many now see as a problematic way of exploring the past, although it was founded much later. On the 600th anniversary of the poet’s birth, 1865, it was decided to purchase the house for the newly-established Italian nation-state. It opened as a museum a century later, in 1965. The Dante museum was in an even more difficult position than Casa Buonarroti. It held no original artefacts, papers or manuscripts associated with the poet, but that was perhaps just as well, for during a closure for restoration work between 2002 and 2005 its contents were largely destroyed in a warehouse fire. The museum now presents itself as a ‘place of memory’, with the aim of ‘spreading knowledge about the life and work of Dante to a large and diverse public’.

Dante is famed as one of the three founders of Italian vernacular literature. His work – and especially the Divine Comedy – is widely taught in Italian schools and remains fundamental to Italian culture. But rather than focus on the detail of the literature, this museum offers, rather surprisingly, a social history of medieval Florence. There are descriptive panels on the medieval guilds of Florence, on daily life, an explanation of why Florentine banking was so important, a room discussing the wars that form the backdrop to Dante’s poetry.

Within the framework of the ‘great men’ narrative in which they were founded and from which they would find it impossible to escape altogether, both these small museums have found differing strategies with which to interpret the lives of famous Florentines: Casa Buonarroti focusing on the process of family commemoration and Casa di Dante pitching rather more towards social history. It’s quite notable that it is these smaller, private museums that are making the running in interpretation. We can only hope that their larger and better-known counterparts will find the means to catch up.

Catherine Fletcher, Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield, has been researching in Florence this summer. On Monday 23 September she’ll be introducing one of the best-known films about the city, A Room With A View, to launch our new History On Film season at the Showroom Cinema. Further information/booking details here.

Tags : Casa BuonarrotiCasa di DanteFlorencegreat men historyItalyMedicimuseumsmuseums in Florencepublic historyUffizi Gallery
Catherine Fletcher

The author Catherine Fletcher

2 Comments

  1. Hi Catherine,
    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. My profession as a guide allows me to be in direct contact with Florence’s history every day and agree there is much to be taken into consideration when dealing with Florentine museums, interpretation and social history.

    I agree that the Uffizi, for example, has been remiss in the handling of the non-Florentine, non-male artists in its collection. The latest shifting of works has relegated two of the gallery”s most important works by female artists–Lavina Fontana’s “Noli me tangere” and Rosalba Carriera’s “Portrait of Felicita Sartori”–to the deposits, a highly disappointing fact indeed. I also think that “ghettoizing” the foreign artists to the Blue Rooms was an odd choice on the part of the direction.

    The Opera del Duomo Museum is one of the true joys of the city. Of course they are going to headline Brunelleschi and his achievements, it certainly helps sell tickets to this mostly overlooked gem! Once inside, visitors *do* get more of the story, however. An example is the Room of the Campanile, which provides an incredible insight into the theme of work and its importance in burgeoning 14th-c. Florence. As for the artisans who worked on the cupola, I am sure you are familiar with Margaret Haines’ Years of the Cupola, an invaluable digital archive of the Opera’s sources (http://duomo.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/home_eng.HTML).

    Casa Buonarroti and Casa di Dante are both fascinating in the ways that you touch on. I would just add that Casa Buonarroti also houses a work by Artemisia Gentileschi in addition to an entire room dedicated to the illustrious men of Florence–scientists, philosophers, poets, etc. This theme is certainly not of our making…humanism, the new “faith” in the power of man and all of the philosophies that came with it are part of Florence’s history that cannot, and should not, be denied.

    That said, there are several other places in Florence that provide a look into social and perhaps even alternative histories of Florence: The Museum of the Misericordia, Loggia del Bigallo, San Martino dei Buonomini, and the Oratorio dei Bini come to mind for confraternities and their role in the city’s development. The Synagogue of Florence houses a most interesting museum that documents the Jewish presence in the city. Palazzo Davanzati is a great place to discuss daily life in the Renaissance–a good guide or professor would of course incorporate aspects of the lives of all sectors of society from merchants to bankers, servants, women and children, in addition to addressing issues like education, work, sexual relations, the role of food, art, the family and so on. Convents like San Marco are great for art but also as platforms for discussing religious life in medieval and Renaissance Florence.

    Truthfully I cannot imagine any of my guide or professor colleagues giving a tour of Florence that does not fully situate the city’s art and artists in their historical context, including ample information about their patrons and the role of the workshop in Renaissance Florence.

    On the issue of gender, the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (www.advancingwomenartists.org) is affiliated with two tours dedicated to women artists in Florence. One is “A Woman’s World”, in collaboration with Context Travel, which highlights women artists in the Palatine Gallery and the Modern Art Gallery, both in Palazzo Pitti. The other is “Women Artists in the Vasari Corridor”, hosted by The Florentine Press and dedicated exclusively to the 20+ self-portraits by women currently displayed in the corridor. (Full disclosure: I work with the foundation and lead both tours.)

    For those who seek it, an alternative to the “great man” narrative does indeed exist in Florence. Thank you again for the post and for bringing this aspect of the Florentine museum culture into the discourse.

    Sincerely,
    Alexandra Lawrence

  2. Hi Alexandra and thanks very much for some fascinating comments – really glad you took the time to reply! It’s great to have your recommendations of other places to see. I quite agree that the visitor experience is likely to be very different with an expert guide, and it would be fascinating to do some research on how different tours communicate the city’s history. I was thinking very much about what the museums do with the history before you add in the extra layer of discussion that a guided tour provides. My own research is more focused on political and social Renaissance history and I guess we all want to see our personal interests have a higher priority in museum exhibits!

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