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  • Writer's pictureClementine de la Poer Beresford, MA

A Brief History of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence

What is the Galleria dell’Accademia?

The Galleria dell’Accademia is a gallery of Renaissance sculpture and paintings that’s home to Michelangelo’s celebrated statue of David.

Galleria dell’Accademia

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Galleria dell’Accademia History

As you traverse the Hall of Prisoners in the Galleria dell’Accademia and pass beside Michelangelo’s four powerful unfinished male nudes, before you – as if emerging from them in a great crescendo of rendered marble – is a masterpiece of Renaissance art. Michelangelo’s David stands four metres tall, flooded in natural light from the skylight above that was specifically created for the sculpture in the late 19th century by Emilio de Fabris.

The sculpture was brought to the Accademia in 1873 for conservation purposes, but before this it had stood since its unveiling in 1504 in the Piazza della Signoria. Although the Vestry Board of the Opera del Duomo had commissioned it for the roofline of the city’s cathedral, upon seeing the graceful figure they deemed it too perfect to be placed almost 80 metres high, where it could be little appreciated. Its home would be Florence’s political heart, the square beside the centre of government, the Palazzo Vecchio.

David would represent the republican ideals of freedom that Florence was founded on and the city’s readiness to defend itself against external threat. Michelangelo sculpted the moment before David’s victory, rather than afterwards, as previous Florentine artists including Donatello had done. David wears an expression of intense concentration as he looks out across the horizon, searching for any glimpse of his foe. Armed with a rock and slingshot cast almost invisibly over his shoulder, David’s victory comes from his skill rather than brute force. His body, in contrast to his facial expression, stands relaxed and at ease, one leg holding his weight and the other stretched out forward in a classical pose known as contrapposto. Positioned near the Palazzo Vecchio, David replaced Donatello’s earlier rendering of the subject, commissioned by the now exiled Medici family. The message was clear: should they come back, Florence was ready and waiting.

Today, Michelangelo’s David is the Accademia’s principal draw. Yet, founded in 1784 by Pietro Leopoldo, Grand Duke of Tuscany, the gallery also houses many other great treasures that ought not to be missed. Other works by Michelangelo, including a statue of Saint Matthew, are on display, together with the Palestrina Pietà, depicting the body of Christ held up by two figures, which was originally attributed to Michelangelo but is now thought to be by another sculptor, possibly Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Hall of Colossus houses Giambologna’s plaster cast model for his marble sculpture, the Rape of the Sabine Women, on display in the Loggia dei Lanzi. The cast, which depicts three nude figures in a serpentine composition, was designed to be looked at from a range of viewpoints, with the observer encouraged to move around it.

Joining Michelangelo and Giambologna are some of Florence’s greatest painters. Giotto, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Fra’ Bartolomeo and Andrea del Sarto come together to afford insight into the development of Florentine art from the 13th to the 17th centuries, through the Gothic, Renaissance and Counter-Reformation movements. The works of art were taken from the convents and monasteries which were suppressed at the end of the 18th century by Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Lorraine and in the early 19th century by Napoleon. The Accademia is also known for its collection of rare musical instruments, many of which once filled the Medici courts with melodious tunes. On display is Antonio Stradivari’s red spruce and maple wood violin made for the Medici family, as well as a number of pieces by Bartolomeo Cristofori, who is famous for inventing the piano.

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