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.