“Italian museums are astounding. They could put on five years’ worth of exhibitions in New York with what Florence’s Uffizi has in the basement” (Beppe Severgnini, La Bella Figura).
This quote has stuck with me since I read this book a few weeks ago, and it was the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw this prompt. Florence is anything but lacking in art. There is a museum literally everywhere you turn. You couldn’t escape them if you tried, and all of them are filled with masterpieces just waiting for you to go look at them. It’s an overwhelming amount of art, which is an incredible problem to have.
I was lucky enough this semester to be able to take a class called Renaissance Art. Why was this lucky? Because every class but the midterm and the final meets at a museum in Florence. Without this class, I don’t think I would have made it to half of the museums that we’re visiting, and I definitely wouldn’t know what to look for. It is incredible to see all of these Renaissance masterpieces and learn about the history behind them and their creators. My favorite so far was actually not the Uffizi, although going there is certainly an experience. My favorite was going to the San Marco museum, which is in a convent. It’s not that the pieces there felt more real, but the pieces in the convent are for the most part exactly where they were when the convent was in use, which really helps you see how these pieces fit into everyday life.
The convent, which was built by the Medici (as most important things in Florence were at the time), was meant to be a way to show of the wealth and power of the family, and that is exactly what it did. It still does, to this day. You can’t walk around and see all of the frescoes and not wonder at the cost. Especially since the Medici did not spare any money in terms of acquiring the costly pigments for blue or the use of gold foil. One of the biggest frescoes is in the room Cosimo had built for himself–a room he did not use and only had built for the sake of being able to say that it existed.
There are fewer barriers in the convent than at the Uffizi, both in terms of less people crowding around and less separation between yourself and the art on the wall. Nothing is really taken out of context, so you get a better feeling about the effect the piece had in the time it was made. You walk up the stairs, and right in front of you is a huge Annunciation in expensive pigments. Excluding the effect of time on the preservation, you are experiencing the piece exactly as those visiting the convent would have.
One of my favorite parts of the convent, however, are the giant books. I had known beforehand that books used to be bigger and expensive because of how hard it was to make them, but I don’t think I truly understood the typical size of a hymnal until I stood in front of the collection in San Marco. These giants are half of my height, and looked like they weighed about the same. Looking at them just gave me such a visual picture of what life was like when people lived in the convent, and had books that had to be chained to the table to prevent them from being stolen. That, combined with the general atmosphere of the convent museum as a whole, was just such an eye-opening experience in terms of perspective. It is so much different seeing an altarpiece in the place it was created for than hanging on the wall behind protective glass.