Museo del Bargello: tips and must-see works

Museo del Bargello: tips and must-see works

museo del bargello
museo del bargello

Among the many credits we owe to Dante Alighieri, there is at least one indirect and rather curious one that perhaps not everyone is aware of: the restoration of Florence’s Bargello Palace. It was in this historic building, one of the oldest in the city, that Dante’s portrait by Giotto was rediscovered in 1840, previously mentioned by Vasari in his Vite
The finding of the fresco, still visible today albeit in poor condition, spurred the renovation and transformation of the palace, which on June 22, 1865, became the first Italian National Museum dedicated to the arts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Today, the Museo del Bargello holds one of the world’s most significant collections of sculpture and decorative arts, a result of merging the Medici collection with private donations from convents and other museums, including the Uffizi. Touring all 16 rooms takes about 2 hours: in this guide, we’ve highlighted some of the masterpieces that have marked the history of Florence – and beyond – that we recommend you don’t miss.

The Michelangelo hall and the sculptures of the Sixteenth century

Originally constructed in the 13th century as the palace of the Captain of the People, from 1574 until the second half of the 19th century, the Museo del Bargello served as the headquarters of the Captain of Justice (known as the Bargello). Its rooms were modified and divided to accommodate the prison cells and various magistrates’ offices. The current Michelangelo Hall underwent similar changes but was later restored to its original grand volume, which we still see today.
Located on the ground floor, this large hall is named for the sixteenth-century sculptures and those by Michelangelo on display, heralding and emblematic of that prosperous artistic period that we continue to admire even today.

The Bacco by Michelangelo Buonarroti

It’s surprising to think that a work by Michelangelo might not be appreciated, yet that’s exactly what happened with his Bacco (1496-1497), commissioned by Cardinal Raffaello Sansoni Riario for the Chancellery Palace in Rome and quickly passed on to the banker Jacopo Galli. 
It was Michelangelo’s first engagement with monumental sculpture (207 cm tall), and to accomplish this, he depicted Dionysus as a naked adolescent: in his raised right hand, a cup of wine, and in his left – lowered along his body – a bunch of grapes that a small satyr behind him attempts to nibble.
Michelangelo’s skill in representing the human body and his knowledge of classical sculpture is already evident, but what truly distinguishes this marble statue is its pose. The youth appears precariously balanced, unstable as his torso leans while one leg is raised: a posture quite unusual for the subject, with no known Greek or Roman precedents.
We do not know if it was this invention by Michelangelo or some other aspect that disappointed the cardinal, but it is certainly what earned the piece its popular title of the Bacco ubriaco. A drunkenness seemingly confirmed by the distant gaze, lost in the void, of the god.

The Bacco has been part of the Medici collections since 1572: initially displayed at the Uffizi, it was moved to the Bargello at the end of the nineteenth century where it is exhibited alongside other works by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).
After dwelling on each of these, we recommend turning your attention to another sculpture where balance is key: the Mercurio volante by Giambologna.

Bacco michelangelo
Bacco, Michelangelo

The Mercurio volante by Jean de Boulogne (known as Giambologna)

The Flemish-born Jean de Boulogne (1529-1608), known as Giambologna, spent much of his life in Florence, where he established a thriving workshop that attracted international artists and prestigious commissions.
Among Giambologna’s main admirers were the Medici family, for whom the Mercurio alato, a bronze sculpture, was created in 1580. Intended for the Medici residence in Rome, where it completed a fountain for two centuries, the Mercurio alato was brought back to Florence by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorraine, who wanted it placed at the Uffizi. In 1870 it was moved, along with other works, to the Museo del Bargello, where it continues to amaze tourists and connoisseurs from around the world.
Dynamic and graceful, Giambologna’s messenger of the gods is presented as a youth with elegant forms and a bold pose. The body is thrust towards the viewer, the face turned elsewhere. The right arm is extended with the index finger pointed upwards, echoing the leg stretched into the void, while the entire left side acts as a counterbalance. A wondrous and daring composition, crowned by what is probably the most spectacular detail of the work: the bronze pivot shaped like Zephyr’s breath that supports the entire sculpture. Carried by the wind, the Mercurio alato truly seems on the verge of taking flight, leaving all earthly gravity behind.
Originally, this entirely bronze sculpture was accompanied by a wooden caduceus with wax serpents twined around it. 

Wax, a material common to the sketches and preparatory models of the era. In the same hall, one can see another such model, this time by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), depicting Perseo con la testa di Medusa, which likely preceded the similar bronze version, also on display here. Both served as prototypes for the sculpture now in the Loggia dei Lanzi, in Piazza della Signoria.
Proof that the mythological theme, and above all that of Medusa, which years later Caravaggio also tackled, enjoyed a long and fruitful revival.

mercurio volante giambologna
Mercurio volante, Giambologna

The Donatello’s Hall and Fifteenth-century sculpture

Continuing the tour, after ascending the grand staircase leading to the upper loggia, one enters the 14th-century Hall of Donatello. 
Here are displayed the masterpieces of Donatello and 15th-century sculpture, from Ghiberti to Brunelleschi to Luca della Robbia. It was here that, at the end of the 19th century, the first major exhibition dedicated to the Florentine master was arranged.
It is from Donatello, the father of Renaissance sculpture, that we recommend beginning your exploration of this area of the museum.

The San Giorgio by Donatello

Crossing into the room, on the right wall, stands the large statue that once completed one of the fourteen external niches of the Chiesa di San Michele in Orto, also known as Orsanmichele, in Florence. The decoration project of the Oratory intended to celebrate the city’s Guilds through the representation of their patron saints.
The Guild of Armourers and Swordmakers commissioned Donatello (1386-1466) to create a San Giorgio, a warrior saint well suited to their purpose.
Around 1417, Donatello finished the sculpture, marking the end of any connection with the Gothic tradition, to inaugurate a new style, closer to the works of classical antiquity, which he is believed to have studied during his stay in Rome. His San Giorgio is indeed a young hero, majestic in appearance, firm and tense at the same time. The legs spread apart, firmly planted on the ground, with the shield standing near the body, give solidity and assurance to the entire figure; while the upper part of the torso, especially the head slightly rotated and the expression on the face with the furrowed brow and watchful gaze, suggest imminent movement.
It is as if the saint has just spotted danger and is ready to respond, perhaps by wielding the lance or the bronze sword, now lost along with the helmet, which he originally should have been holding in his right hand.

At the base of San Giorgio is yet another testament to Donatello’s revolutionary skill: the marble predella depicting San Giorgio killing the dragon, thus liberating the princess. This is the first example of “stiacciato,” or “flattened,” a sculptural technique that involves an extremely low relief which exploits natural light to give volume and clarity to shapes and faces. In doing so, Donatello resorts – for the first time in the history of sculpture – to Brunelleschi’s perspective, constructing with mathematical precision the space surrounding the main scene.
Donatello’s innovations do not end here, and to see another up close, perhaps the most famous, one needs only to move a few steps towards the center of the room.

san giorgio donatello
San Giorgio, Donatello

The bronze David by Donatello

Donatello created more than one version of David (the marble David from around 1412-1416 is also present here), but the one that certainly cannot be overlooked is probably the work for which the artist is most renowned. We refer to the David, the first full-size bronze nude of the Renaissance.
The dating and origin are uncertain; many researchers place it around 1440, before Donatello’s departure for Padua. There are also multiple interpretations, and the only certain information we have is that it was part of the Medici collections by 1469.
Iconographically, David appears as a beardless youth, wearing only an unusual pointed cap and boots that cover his legs up to the knees. At his feet lies the lifeless head of Goliath. 
The pose faithfully replicates the “contrapposto” of classical sculpture: the outstretched right arm holding the heavy sword used to kill the giant corresponds to the lifted left leg; the right leg stretched out serves as the body’s pivot, balanced by the bent left arm, in whose hand hides the stone used to stun Goliath. 
A chiasmus made particularly sinuous by the elegance of the forms, which do not closely associate with the biblical subject’s iconography, often depicted as heroic and triumphant. The David by Donatello, in fact, is an adolescent who celebrates his victory with calm satisfaction and awareness.

david donatello
David, Donatello

The bronze David by Verrocchio

Near the David by Donatello, there is also another David, created by Andrea Di Francesco known as Andrea Del Verrocchio (1435 – 1488), about thirty years later. 
Commissioned by the Medici family, probably following the artist’s trip to Rome as Vasari reports, the David by Verrocchio recalls the earlier Donatello’s in pose and elegance, even if it does not match the psychological tension.
The bronze sculpture portrays a young man of sturdy appearance: the slim, athletic figure retains all the vitality and energy of the physical effort just completed, as revealed by the prominent veins along the right arm holding the sword. 
The muscles of the chest and waist are perfectly outlined under the doublet, a typically male jacket worn in the Middle Ages, while a light kilt covers the pubic area and part of the legs. The David‘s boastful, almost arrogant air, however, comes from his face: the self-satisfied smile of someone who has overcome a task of immense difficulty. 
A widespread belief is that the face of David bears the features of the young Leonardo Da Vinci, who had started as an apprentice in Verrocchio’s workshop.

david verrocchio
David, Verrocchio

The Marzocco by Donatello

A visit to the Donatello Hall wouldn’t be complete without the legendary Marzocco (circa 1418-1420) by Donatello. A symbol of the city of Florence, the statue was commissioned to Donatello for a significant and official occasion: the visit of Pope Martino V in 1419. The seated lion, with its right paw resting on a shield bearing the image of the lily – the emblem of the City of Florence – was originally placed on the staircase of Santa Maria Novella, which led to the papal apartments. The staircase was later demolished, and in the early 19th century, the Marzocco was displayed in Piazza della Signoria, then moved – in the middle of the century – first to the Uffizi and then to the Bargello.
Less known than other works by Donatello, this sculpture nonetheless demonstrates all the realism the artist was capable of, likely also due to the direct observation Donatello made of the lions in the menagerie next to the Palazzo Vecchio.

marzocco donatello
Marzocco, Donatello

The Madonna della mela by Luca della Robbia

The Madonna della mela was created between 1442 and 1444 by Luca della Robbia (1399/1400 – 1482), the founder of a dynasty that for three generations knew how to safeguard and perfect the sculptural technique he invented: glazed or enameled terracotta.
Thanks to this original method, the terracotta became waterproof and shiny, and being a simple material, it lent itself to a very vast production, as was that of the Della Robbia, to whom two other rooms in the Museum are dedicated.
The features of the Virgin’s face, with her gaze directed downward as she holds the Child with an apple in hand, accentuate the atmosphere of sweetness and intimacy of the sculpture.The two white and luminous figures stand out against a solid and uniform blue background, enhancing the purity and tenderness of the scene. These stylistic traits were dear to Luca della Robbia and his successors, capable of shaping bodies and compositions with a means never used up until that time.

madonna della mela luca della robbia
Madonna della mela, Luca della Robbia

The Sacrificio di Isacco by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi

The result of one of the most famous competitions of the early Renaissance, and on the same wall as the San Giorgio by Donatello, are two bronze bas-reliefs. There are two panels depicting the same subject, the sacrificio di Isacco, one by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and the other by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455). Both were presented during the 1401 competition held by the Arte di Calimala (the Florentine guild of wool merchants) for the creation of the decorations for the East door of the Baptistery. But which work emerged as the winner?
According to some sources, it was the guild itself that established the format and content, dictating which characters should appear and which moment of the biblical episode should be depicted. 
This would explain why both Brunelleschi and Ghiberti—whose proposals are the only ones that have survived—focus on the moment when Abraham, about to sacrifice his son Isaac in God’s name, is stopped by an angel.

sacrificio di isacco brunelleschi
Sacrificio di Isacco, Brunelleschi

Brunelleschi captures this action in all its drama and tension: Abraham grips Isaac’s neck with his left hand while aiming the dagger at his throat with his right. The angel intervenes just in time, blocking Abraham’s arm and creating a triangulation of gestures that brings more movement to the scene. Ghiberti’s composition, by contrast, is decidedly more orderly and harmonious. Perhaps it was these qualities that convinced the judges to award him the commission for the entire door. Here too, Abraham menacingly bends over his son, but there is no direct contact between the two nor with the angel, who manages to prevent Isaac’s killing by his mere appearance.
While the figure of the father still recalls the S-shaped configuration typical of Gothic style, the boy’s body, on the other hand, refers to classical sculpture, a testament to the humanistic and naturalistic influence that would come to fruition in the following decades with the artists of the High Renaissance.

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The other Halls of the Museo del Bargello

As mentioned at the beginning, the Museo del Bargello is home to some of the most important Renaissance sculptures, as well as a vast array of artifacts such as bronzes, majolica, ivories, tapestries, seals, waxes, enamels, ambers, and furniture from all over the world, now preserved in its various halls. Staying on the subject of sculpture, there is yet another piece that deserves close examination.

The Ritratto di Costanza Bonarelli by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

This 72 cm marble bust of Costanza Bonarelli, accompanied by a tempestuous history, is captured in a portrait of lively realism that possesses all the “freshness and frankness of Bernini’s finest works”, to use the words of Ernst H. Gombrich. 
Between 1636 and 1638, Bernini chose to sculpt the bust of his lover, which was a departure from the conventions of the time both in the choice of a living woman as the subject and in style: her blouse open at the chest, her hair softly gathered, her attentive gaze, and mouth slightly open in an expression of momentary astonishment. A unique sensuality, almost corporeal, that Bernini virtuously brings out of the marble.

And indeed, corporeal was the relationship between Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of one of his assistants, Matteo Bonarelli, at least until Bernini discovered that Costanza was also involved with his brother, Luigi. In a jealous rage, Gian Lorenzo had her face slashed with a razor and attempted to kill his brother.
Protected and favored by Pope Urbano VIII, he faced no consequences for his actions, and even more, he was married to Rome’s most beautiful woman, Caterina Tezio. As the Pope himself wrote – Gian Lorenzo was “born by God’s arrangement to illuminate this century and bring glory to Rome” (and not to be punished).
In the following years, the portrait of Costanza Bonarelli was gifted to Cardinal Giovan Carlo de’ Medici, then displayed at the Uffizi, and eventually at the Bargello – at the heart of the Baroque Sculpture and Medals Hall – where it remains as a testament to the originality and personality of one of the greatest masters of the Roman Baroque.

Our guide ends here, but the Museo del Bargello has many more surprises in store. Therefore, we recommend you prepare well for your visit, allowing ample time for each hall and purchasing tickets and guides in advance: the Renaissance awaits you!

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