A Brief History of the Bargello in Florence
What is the Bargello?
The Bargello is a fortress-like palace that houses an astounding collection of sculpture, as well as tapestry, metalwork and ornaments.
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This museum houses one of the largest and most iconic collections of Italian Renaissance art in the world. Located here in Florence’s historic Palazzo del Bargello – a magnificent 13th-century fortress – the building is proof of the power wielded by the city state of Florence in the Early Modern period. The collection here is equal in importance to that of the famous Uffizi Gallery down the road; however, where the Uffizi excels in its assembled paintings, the Bargello triumphs in the medium of sculpture.
The palazzo dates all the way back to 1255, when it was constructed as the headquarters of the Capitano del Popolo – a non-Florentine responsible for balancing the authority of the then ruling noble families of the Florentine city state. Thereafter, it was used as a government building, first to house Florence’s podestà (or mayor) and then as the city’s prison and police headquarters (or Bargello). Used as a prison for the duration of the 18th century, the building has witnessed countless executions, as well as military sieges, fires and plots. Despite its chequered history, however, the palazzo was converted into a museum during the 19th century, which is how it’s still used today. It’s now a centre for the preservation of masterpieces of Italian sculpture and the ornamental arts, as well as architecture.
The layout flows from a huge entrance hall into a courtyard, and then up an open staircase into the loggia. The hall and courtyard are famously ornamented with the heraldic arms of Florentine officials of the 13th and 14th centuries. Upon walking into the courtyard, you’ll notice a magnificent range of High Renaissance sculptures, including works by Giambologna, Baccio Bandinelli and Bartolomeo Ammannati. The adjoining hall on the ground floor houses Michelangelo’s world-famous David-Apollo, his tondo of the Madonna and Child, and his Brutus, the only bust Michelangelo ever sculpted. The room also contains his Bacchus, made on Michelangelo’s first visit to Rome for Cardinal Raffaele Riario. However, the cardinal, who had provided the young sculptor with the ancient block of marble, was dissatisfied with the work, so sold it to his associate, the Florentine banker Jacopo Galli.
In addition to these masterpieces, in the aptly named Donatello Room up the stairs, you can view the master’s famous bronze statue of David, considered to be the very first free-standing nude sculpture of the Renaissance period. The Bargello collection also houses a much earlier marble version of this subject, which Donatello carved 30 years before when he was only 22. The difference between the two is astounding. The androgyny, confidence and eroticism of Donatello’s later work shows the mastery of his medium that the sculptor had acquired.
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