The Galleria dell’Accademia and its masterpieces

The Galleria dell’Accademia and its masterpieces

galleria dell'accademia cassone adimari
galleria dell'accademia cassone adimari

Famous worldwide for being the home of the David by Michelangelo, an absolute masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, few know that the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence was originally created to house the paintings of the great Florentine masters.In this article, we will guide you through the works that, along with the sculpture by Buonarroti, you simply must see: here is what to view at the Galleria dell’Accademia.

The David by Michelangelo (1501-1504)

If history had followed its expected course, today we would not have the David that everyone knows. The work was entrusted to Michelangelo in 1501 by the Arte della Lana and the Opera del Duomo of Florence, after two other artists before him – Agostino di Duccio and Rossellino – had begun and then abandoned the task. The problem was the quality of the marble, which was judged too difficult to work with.
Michelangelo, then twenty-six years old, worked for 3 years on the imposing sculpture, completing it in 1504.
A committee composed of the most important artists of the time (including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, and il Perugino) decided that the initial location – probably a spur of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore – was not suitable for such a masterpiece and thus a more worthy position was sought. It was therefore determined that the colossal biblical hero should be placed at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, as an emblem of the strength and independence of the Florentines.

david michelangelo
David, Michelangelo

In the mid-19th century, the sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini (after whom the gallery’s collection of plaster casts is named today) was the first to advance the idea of moving the David to protect it from damage caused by atmospheric and human agents. A few years later, the architect Emilio De Fabris was charged with designing and creating the Tribuna dell’ Accademia, which he conceived to give the greatest possible emphasis – in terms of space and natural lighting – to the David. It is here that visitors can still today admire it in all its majestic perfection: Michelangelo revolutionizes the image of the young shepherd to make him a young man, unarmed and without the iconic head of Goliath. Nude but not defenseless, as demonstrated by his physical robustness, David reveals in his stance, facial expression, and the plasticity of his volumes a new-found pride and confidence. Represented in the moment before the clash, David is not yet a victor but is waiting: everything, from the concentration of his gaze to the tension in his muscles, anticipates the preparation for the battle. And this is the original interpretation offered by Michelangelo.

The Prigioni by Michelangelo (1519-1534)

The four unfinished sculptures of the Prigioni, created by Michelangelo between 1519 and 1534 for the tomb of Pope Giulio II, were never placed in their intended location. The project for the funeral monument was significantly reduced, so much so that, upon the artist’s death, only six of the originally commissioned sixteen or twenty statues had been completed. Two of these are now at the Louvre in Paris, while four are kept in the Galleria dell’Accademia, to which they were transferred in 1909. Before then, having become the property of Cosimo I de’ Medici, they were placed in the Grotta del Buontalenti at Boboli, which today displays concrete copies.

The Prigioni (prisoners, slaves) represent one of the greatest examples of Michelangelo’s non-finito: sculptures in which human forms seem to emerge and come to life from the marble block, yet remain trapped in various stages of incompleteness.
The subjects of Florentine interest are:

  • the Prigione che si ridesta: the slage appears to struggle to free himself from the marble that imprisons him. The marked musculature and the body’s movements express his effort to conquer the material. The surfaces, worked with chisels and scrapers, add dynamism to the marble, creating an almost painterly effect that enhances the contrasts of light;
  • the Prigione giovane: the slightly bent legs reveal the effort made, the raised left arm covers the face while the other, stretched behind, suggests the presence of an invisible chain; 
  • the Atlante: so named because of the position reminiscent of the classical statuary titan, condemned by Zeus to support the heavens. Here too are visible the marks of the tools used by Michelangelo to emphasize the powerful figure still partially trapped in the original marble block, with only the face slightly sketched, emerging from the upper corner;
  • the Prigione Barbuto: the most finished of the series, distinguished by its elaborated beard and anatomical detail that highlights Michelangelo’s mastery in the study of the human body, his attention to musculature, and expressive tension.
prigioni michelangelo galleria dell'accademia
Prigioni, Michelangelo

The model of the Ratto delle Sabine by Giambologna (1579-1580)

In the Sala del Colosso, the model of the Ratto delle Sabine by Giambologna (born Jean de Boulogne) stands out not only for its artistic quality but also as an absolute rarity. It is, in fact, the life-size preparatory model that the artist used to realize the analogous marble subject, today displayed under the Loggia dei Lanzi, also in Florence.
The execution technique – an unfired clay, left to dry slowly with straw and baked flour, as recommended by Vasari – made such preliminary 16th century studies extremely fragile. We should therefore consider ourselves fortunate that today we can admire both the finished sculpture – one of the artist’s most famous works – and its predecessor.

The extreme dynamism of the serpentine movement of the two intertwined bodies, soaring upward, is perfectly balanced by the bent man, added to ensure greater stability to the marble version, who supports the composition. In his Riposo the playwright and art critic Raffaele Borghini reports that the sculptural group was created by Giambologna without any commission, to demonstrate his artistic ability. It is always Borghini who first suggests the name of the work, initially untitled, which recalls the famous episode of Roman history.

ratto delle sabine giambologna galleria dell'accademia
Ratto delle Sabine, Giambologna

Venere e Cupido by Pontormo (1532-1533)

“[…] his dearest friend Michelangelo made a cartoon of a naked Venere with a Cupido kissing her, to have it painted by Pontormo and placed in the middle of one of his rooms […]. Having thus received this cartoon, Iacopo brought it to perfection at his leisure, in a manner that is known to the whole world so that I need not praise it otherwise.” These are the words with which Vasari, in his Vite, describes the Venere e Cupido by Jacopo Carucci, known as Pontormo. The painting, created between 1532 and 1533 for Bartolomeo Bettini (a Florentine merchant and banker friend of Michelangelo) from a preparatory drawing by Michelangelo, openly recalls his style.
Venere is lying naked on her side in a pose reminiscent of the statue of Notte in the Sagrestia Nuova di San Lorenzo. Cupido, in the form of a winged cherub, is intent on kissing her, while various objects are visible all around: a puppet, a quiver with an arrow, flowers, and masks.
Symbols of the transience of passions, they align with the metaphorical meaning of the work: the opposition between spiritual love, represented by Venere, and earthly and sensual love by Cupido who tries – but fails – to tempt the goddess into temptation. As happened in other cases, such as Venere di Urbino by Tiziano, nudity has not always been well-received. Thus, Venere by Pontormo was immediately covered with painted drapery that covered her body from the breast to mid-thigh. If today we can admire it in its original form, it is thanks to the restorer Ulisse Forni, who in 1852 restored it perfectly.

venere e cupido pontormo galleria dell'accademia
Venere e Cupido, Pontormo

Il cassone Adimari (Dance scene) by Lo Scheggia (1450)

A panel over 3 meters long and 88.5 cm high allows us to immerse ourselves in 15th century Florence. It is the so-called cassone Adimari, which arrived at the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1826.
Initially, it was thought to be the painted side of a ceremonial cassone made for the wedding of Boccaccio Adimari with Elisa Ricasoli, which took place in 1420.
Later studies suggest that it is more likely a spalliera (a decorative backdrop) dated around 1450, depicting not a marriage but a dance among young aristocrats. In the background is Florence of that era, made recognizable by the Battistero visible on the left.
The author has been identified as Giovanni di Ser Giovanni, known as Lo Scheggia, the brother of the more famous Masaccio.
The panel fascinates both for its beauty and refinement (observe, for example, the garments of the young people at the festival) and for its rare representation of the city.

cassone adimari galleria dell'accedmia
Cassone Adimari, lo Scheggia

Madonna con Bambino, San Giovannino e due angeli by Botticelli (1468)

A student of Verrocchio and Filippo Lippi, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli, is world-famous especially for his two large-format paintings, Venere and Primavera, preserved at the Galleria degli Uffizi. However, the Accademia also keeps one of his early works. The panel of the Madonna con Bambino, San Giovannino e due angeli confirms the stylistic proximity to his teachers but introduces compositional elements that will become typical of his mature work, starting with the iconographic model.
The Vergine, as well as San Giovanni Battista behind her, is absorbed in contemplation of the Bambino, who instead looks away. One of the angels supports the Bambino, while the other looks towards the viewer. The grace of the scene is embellished by the clothing, faithful to the fashion of the time and executed with great technical skill by Botticelli.

madonna con bambino botticelli galleria dell'accademia
Madonna con Bambino, San Giovannino e due angeli, Sandro Botticelli

L’albero della vita by Pacino di Buonaguida (1310-1315)

Among the works to see at the Accademia of Florence, this is certainly one of the richest and most complex. The subject is inspired by the Lignum Vitae by San Bonaventura da Bagnoregio, in which the theme of the Tree of Life of Paradise and the cross of Christ merge.
The reading of the work, presumably made by Pacino Buonaguida in the early decades of the 14th century, proceeds from left to right and from bottom to top.

albero della vita galleria dell'accademia
Albero della vita, Pacino di Buonaguida

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At the bottom center of the painting, from the cave with San Bonaventura, the tree from which twelve branches sprout, six on each side, emerges. From each branch hang four medallions (except for the last branch at the top right, where there are three). The circles depict episodes from the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Adoration of the Magi, and beyond. Christ crucified appears instead at the center, on the main trunk, surmounted by a pelican that tears its breast to feed its young, a symbol of Christian love.
At the top, beyond the branches, the Virgin and Christ crowned are visible. Below them, four rows of angels, saints, and blessed.
At the base of the work, on the sides of the cave, Genesis and the expulsion from Paradise are painted. In the upper band, between Adam and Eve and the first row of medallions, four saints are depicted: on the left Moses and San Francesco (recognizable from the typical iconography), and on the right San Giovanni and Santa Chiara. The original location of the panel was indeed at the convent delle Clarisse of Monticelli (a Franciscan nuns’ order promoted by Santa Chiara), just outside Florence. During the Napoleonic rule, the painting was moved to the Accademia.

If time allows, do not miss other works from the excellent collection of the Galleria. We recommend, among others, the Deposizione di Cristo dalla Croce by Filippino Lippi and Perugino, the Deposizione di Cristo by Agnolo Bronzino, and finally the l’Annunciazione e Santi by Lorenzo Monaco.
Also remarkable is the collection of sculptures that includes the important archive of plaster models by Lorenzo Bartolini (Gipsoteca Bartolini), and the vast repertoire of musical instruments collected between the 17th and 19th centuries.
The David by Michelangelo is undoubtedly the most famous work of the museum, but it is certainly in excellent company.

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