I fell in love with Florence at the age of 10 and have travelled widely since, but somehow I always return to this most magical of cities.
Michelangelo in Florence
The Casa Buonarroti is one of those delightful finds—unexpected, fascinating, and rarely crowded—that is usually overlooked by tourists busy squeezing all of Florence's famous sights into a tight schedule.
Considering the number of works by Michelangelo on display in Florence alone, the Casa Buonarroti is more of an homage to the artist and his times. A five-minute walk north of Santa Croce at Via Ghibellina 70, the house was originally bought by Michelangelo in 1508, who later bought the two adjoining houses. On his death, these passed to his nephew, Leonardo, whose son, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, converted the three buildings into a single palazzo.
Michelangelo's House, Florence
Himself a famed man of letters, and heavily involved in the cultural life of Florence, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger employed renowned Florentine artists of the time – such as Empoli, Passignano, Giovanni da San Giovanni, and Jacopo Vignali – to create three sumptuous rooms and a gallery dedicated to the works and memory of his great-uncle. This work took him over thirty years to complete. The family’s last direct descendant, Cosimo, died in 1858, bequeathing the building and its contents to the people of Florence.
Compared to the usual art gallery, The Casa Buonarroti provides a distinct insight into Michelangelo’s genius. It also offers a platform for viewing the evolution of the artist’s craft.
Michelangelo's Unfinished Works
Centaurs and Lapiths
Upstairs, in the first room off the landing, two of Michelangelo’s earliest sculptures hold pride of place. These were carved when he was just 15 or 16 years old, between 1490-92. The influence of Donatello is marked in Madonna della Scala (Madonna of the Steps). At the time Michelangelo was living in the Medici household, with full access to their sculpture garden, where he had ample opportunity to study newly discovered ancient Roman and Greek works.
This knowledge is evident in his Battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths. (Related to the centaurs in that both were descended from the Greek God Apollo and the river nymph Stilbe, Lapiths were a pre-Hellenic tribe living in Thessaly. Valiant warriors, they sent forty ships to aid the Greeks in the Trojan War, and are mentioned in The Iliad.) Already the male torso is dominant in Michelangelo’s statue, twisted in a muscular tension which was to become a recurring theme of his work, as was the use of rough, or unfinished, marble to contrast with the highly finished sculpture.
Michelangelo, Renaissance Man
Other sculptural works displayed include the Torso of A River God (1524), which critics believe was originally intended for the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo. Other original works by Michelangelo on display include a small cartoon, Madonna and Child, as well as numerous paintings and some 250 sketches. The library alone contains over 10,000 volumes, which include many letters by Michelangelo, plus family archives. Along with the original works, these are displayed on a rotating basis.
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Finding Michelangelo in Florence
- The Galleria dell'Accademia houses the original David, as well as the slaves for Julius II's tomb.
- The Museo Nazionale del Bargello includes his famous, and rather tipsy, Bacchus.
- Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, opposite the Duomo, is home to the Florentine Pietà.
- The Uffizi has the Doni Tondo, his only Florentine painting.
- The San Lorenzo / Medici Chapels feature the Medici tombs.
Other Works at the Casa Buonarroti
The Casa Buonarroti also contains paintings and sculptures inspired or influenced by Michelangelo, as well as rare archaeological finds. The Crucifix of Santo Spirito is attributed to Michelangelo, and there are two 16th C paintings based on his lost cartoon Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not; as spoken by Jesus to Mary Magdalene when she recognized Jesus on seeing him after his resurrection. This scene became a major theme in religious art from Medieval times on.) Another item of note is a wooden predella (a platform on which an altar rests) representing scenes from the Life of St. Nicholas, a masterpiece by Giovanni di Francesco, himself a disciple of Domenico Veneziano. Then there is the famed bronze portrait by Daniele di Volterra, based upon Michelangelo’s death mask.
Aside from the works on display, the rooms give an idea of how wealthy Florentines lived at the time. Decorated in the style of the time, the rooms boast frescoed ceilings, exquisite furniture, and objets d’art, culminating to show how wealthy Florentines of the time lived. Also, there are annual exhibitions dedicated to an aspect of the life and art of Michelangelo, or to his legacy, often with loans of precious works from other museums or private collectors.
The Casa Buonarroti is in the Sant’Ambrogio district, a quite unique and vibrant area of Florence, and relatively tourist-free. Just east of the house is the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, a smaller, and far less touristy version of the San Lorenzo food markets. Lunch at one of the tavola calda (a stall selling snacks or meals) is always a bargain, the prices dropping further still in the last hour of trading.
Nearby is the Chiesa Sant’Ambrogio. Dating back to at least 988 AD, it is one of the city’s oldest churches. Although a tad bland in comparison to the other churches in Florence, it is worth a visit to see the chapel to the left of the main altar, the Cappella del Miracolo. The tabernacle is by Mino da Fiesole, completed in 1483, a year before his death. He is buried at the chapel’s entrance, (a slab on the floor marks the spot) while Verrocchio (d1488), lies in the fourth chapel.
The paintings of the Cappella del Miracolo are by Cosimo Rosselli, depicting the miraculous moment in 1230 when, prior to the consecration, the communion wine was turned into blood. It was this chalice, the Florentines believed, which helped save them from the plague in 1340. (Make sure to find the time to visit other miraculous paintings in Florence.) Of more interest, however, is the social commentary of the paintings; as always, Rosselli’s works are filled with his contemporaries, and the painter himself can be seen at the extreme left of the painting wearing, naturally, a black beret.
From here, it is but a short walk back towards the Arno, taking in Sante Croce, or perhaps The Horne Museum. Closer to the Arno is the Museo Galileo. Or, the better to clear the mind of a surfeit of artistic wonders, perhaps a gelato as you wander across the Ponte Vecchio, staring at all the gold on display and dreaming of buying a piece of jewelry or two.
Finding Michelangelo's Museum
© 2013 Anne Harrison