Pitti Palace: the Modern Art Collection
Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Hey, it's museum day!
I managed a quick visit to the imposing Pitti Palace a few weeks ago, right before they shut the museums down again for Covid. I had never been and didn't know what to expect, so I was impressed by the richness and extent of their collection. The "palace" itself was first built in the 1450s and was bought by the powerful Medici family a century later to become their home. The Medici were generous patrons of the arts, starting in the 15th century with Cosimo "Il Vecchio" [the Elder] and continued under Cosimo 1 [the first Grand Duke, who ruled roughly 100 years after his "elder"], and lasting until the last of the Medici line, Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, who died in 1743. She didn't have any children so bequeathed her family's immense art collection to the City of Florence, insuring the city's cultural heritage for posterity. Grazie, Anna Maria Luisa!
We began on the top floor, billed as "the Modern Art Gallery." I was confused. Surely they didn't have a collection of Picassos and Klimts! Instead, I found rooms full of monumental paintings in the French Neoclassical style (influenced by the rise of Napoleon, who actually "ruled" over Tuscany for the six years that he controlled most of Europe), and a marvelous collection of paintings akin to the French Impressionistic school.
The floor below had an astounding collection of works from the Renaissance and Mannerist periods, but I'll save that for another post. First, let's see the top floor!
This painting depicts the arrival of the French King Charles VIII into Florence in 1494 during a desperate power-grab. Florence had been in disarray since the death of Lorenzo de' Medici in 1492, so Charles arrived without much opposition. The "fire & brimstone" preacher, Savanarola, even welcomed him, thinking the new king would usher in a new era of Christian purity. He was wrong, and was burned at the stake a few years later (see below...).
After terrorizing the city for a year with his sermons about the fires of hell, Savanarola "encouraged" residents to burn all of their "sinful" items in a massive bonfire ("the Bonfire of the Vanities"), including fine clothing, tapestries, and especially paintings with Pagan themes. But Savanarola went a step too far and was himself hung and then burnt at the stake in 1497.
The 19th century ushered in the revolutionary Modernist movement in art, where the old themes of religion, nobility and Classicism gave way to a gritty realism and more day-to-day subjects, still rendered in heroic style. Here below, for example, you have a dramatic scene of a woman and her children being rescued from a raging river.
There were also massive battle scenes, like this one, covering a whole wall:
The Battle of San Martino took place in 1859 a few miles south of Lake Garda. It was part of the struggle to unify and create a new Italian state, and this battle was fought (and won) against Austria. The Florentine painter, Carlo Ademollo, used to accompany the troops into battle so saw the action firsthand!
Gone are the endless Madonnas of the Middle Ages; here we have a scene from the Bible when Pontius Pilate presents Jesus (saying "behold the man" in Latin) to a hostile crowd shortly before his crucifixion.
There are some fabulous portraits in a range of styles. On the left is the dashing Marshal Luigi Carafa di Noja from 1812 (in Neoclassical style by Vincenzo Camuccini), while on the right we have a portrait of Florentine sculptor Emilio Zocchi from 1868 (by Raffaello Sorbi). You can clearly see the shift from idealism to realism.
That shift is driven home forcefully with works like the sculpture below, depicting two drunks (entitled "parasites") in a newly urbanized Rome. Far from glorifying a heroic past, this work turned its sights to the gutter and was received with controversy in 1877. (I'm curious about the pointy hat!)
This next one goes even farther: a brutal painting depicting a brutal subject. We're far beyond heroics now, and find death (and even art!) to be desolate and unforgiving.
From there we moved from the dramatic to the intimate: portraits and humorous statuettes from the late 19th century...
19th century Tinder. She's definitely "swiping right" on this one! (AND they're doing their farm labor barefoot!)
When we saw this next one my friend said "the girl in white is definitely scrolling her Instagram!" ;-)
Here are a few beautiful and touching depictions of daily life, reminiscent of French Impressionism: "Stella e Piero" by Vittorio Matteo Corcos, 1889; "Mezzogiorno" [noon] by Plinio Nomellini; and "In Birreria" [at the brewery] by Riccardi Nobili from 1885.
Then there are these two curious pieces: the one on the left depicts a Parisian prostitute displaying her wares, and the one on the right a scene from the Old Testament ("Chaste Joseph escaping Potiphar's wife in Egypt").
I was surprised to see this: a painting of old Riomaggiore, in the Cinque Terre! Now the houses are all painted in bright colors but originally they would have been in plain stone.
And last but certainty not least: creepy floating-head coffee table...
And this fabulous assortment, which looks like "still life at a garage sale" :-)
That's it for now! Please let me know what you think in the comments (you have to log in with your email at the top), share this with your friends, and/or (100% optional!!!) tip your guide (click here).
I'll be back next week with another post so see you then! 😊