Italy’s most famous museums are uncomfortably overcrowded, and many are in a worrying state of disrepair. Of course many of us will still funnel ourselves through dingy airless galleries to see so many masterpieces; but we art enthusiasts return again and again to Italy perhaps not so much for the museums as for the pleasure of breathing in that special atmosphere — the atmosphere in which such artistic masterpieces were once created. In Italy, art can still be found in its natural habitat. You may step into a silent church and, in some side chapel, see a cycle of frescoes now 500 or 600 years old which somehow still reflects the scenes you just saw in the streets outside. Or you may stroll through the rooms of a palace of a once-powerful family and wonder at how the power of art, alone, survives — how the artworks which were meant to glorify their patrons are, and always were, simply glorious themselves. Aside from the sheer quantity of masterpieces, the principal appeal of Italy becomes that its art has not all been locked away in museums to fossilise.
That in Italy art still lives out in the open must be part of the reason — in addition to a resentful resignation to mass tourism — why the museums are often left to moulder. Italians themselves like to say that their whole country is really an open-air museum, as if to say, why bother with institutional museums? Well, now they have the best possible answer to that question in the completely renovated Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, in Florence. Housing the most precious statuary from the Cathedral, the Baptistery, and Giotto’s Bell Tower, it has always featured on the tourist trail — and between here and the Museo del Bargello just a few hundred metres away you have the majority of the important sculptures of the early Italian Renaissance — but if you have not visited it since its reopening late last year then you must go again. It has expanded into the building next door — an old theatre — and there is twice the gallery space, so there is much more work on display. Yet best of all is how the work has been displayed.
As soon as you enter you are awe-struck: in the first gallery you are confronted with a full-scale reconstruction, in resin gleaming white with marble dust, of the medieval façade of the Cathedral — it had only ever been completed to the height of its doorways and it was demolished, with post-Renaissance arrogance, to be replaced by something grander and more “advanced” (as it happened, no replacement was built for 300 years). This new reconstruction is based on a careful drawing made in 1587, just before the demolition, which may have been intended as a record for posterity. Thankfully the statues that decorated the façade, made by Arnolfo di Cambio and his studio c.1300-1310, were saved; and here, now, they have been put back in the niches they once would have occupied. However in the highest niches the statues have been replaced by casts, and the originals have been brought down to floor level for our better inspection — a simple, sensible and very satisfactory curatorial decision.
The “Gates of Paradise” by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1426-1452 (©Antonio Quattrone)
This enormous gallery — making the most of the old theatre’s height, which just about matched the height to which the old façade had been decorated — has been named the Salone del Paradiso. Text on the wall explains that, “Following ancient tradition, Christians call the area between a baptistery and its related church a Paradiso (“Paradise”), evoking the joy of those who, after receiving baptism, cross the space to participate in the Eucharist for the first time.” When Michelangelo called Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the Baptistery the “Gates of Paradise” he was therefore making a pun – on the beauty of the doors, and how fitting it was that they should lead out into this joyous space. Ghiberti’s original doors are here too, exhibited directly opposite the façade. And the architects of the museum, Guicciardini and Magni, in collaboration with Adolfo Natalini — all locals, with Florence-based practices — have tactfully suggested the geometric patterns on the Baptistery with a perforated wall. The enormous and intricate reconstruction of the Cathedral’s old façade may be the first thing to strike you, but when you realise that here the whole Paradiso has been recreated as it once was, with Sansovino’s statues too, and the Roman sarcophagi which served as street furniture, it is so much more impressive — immerse yourself, imagine, and you are transported back.
The Salone del Paradiso is the centrepiece of the museum. In an upper-storey gallery running behind that perforated Baptistery wall — from this side the perforations afford views out over the Paradiso — sculptures which once adorned the Bell Tower are displayed. Here, among others, stand Donatello’s three prophets. The “Beardless Prophet” is, according to legend, a portrait of Brunelleschi; and recent restoration has revealed the full, deep, seriousness of the famous face. But the real revelation in this gallery comes from the lesser-known series of reliefs by Andrea Pisano and his workshop begun in 1334 on astrological themes, the Virtues and the Sacraments, and human industry and creativity. They are shown in their original order, and each is given its proper space. They are themselves charmingly inventive; but one stood out for me: Phideas, or The Art of Sculpture shows a sculptor in flowing robes reaching over with his hammer and chisel to perfect a male nude figure. It is touching as the tribute of an artist, so early in the Renaissance, to the model of antiquity and to Man’s God-like imagination; but it is even more touching when you realise how, some 170 years after it was carved, this image must have stuck in the mind of Michelangelo, because clearly it inspired the most recognisable painting of the whole tradition: The Creation of Adam on the Sistine Ceiling.
“Penitent Mary Magdalene” by Donatello, 1453-55 (©Antonio Quattrone)
Up another floor there are architectural models for replacement façades, including a submission by Buontalenti, the Medici court architect who supervised the demolition of the old façade; but the design attributed to Giambologna seemed far more elegant to me. And each of these flamboyantly classicising proposals can be compared to the resurrected gothic façade, visible again through the perforated wall.
Behind, there is a gallery dedicated to the mechanics of the building of the Cathedral. The methods of scaffolding are explained, and even how the timber for it was logged from a forest in the Casentino valley and floated down the Arno to Florence. A video is dedicated to Brunelleschi’s immense contribution; and the museum’s architects were inspired to build a mezzanine from which we may look down on a model of the great man’s dome, and out through a skylight to the real thing looming right above us.
Donatello’s Penitent Mary Magdalene, carved c.1455 out of poplar wood, takes pride of place in a gallery of more intimate devotional paintings and sculptures. She was always the highlight of the old museum, as you found her so unexpectedly around a corner in a room full of reliquaries. Now displayed among works of similar intent, she stands out even more. My eye is drawn to her neck, or, more accurately, to her throat, where the skin has caved in behind her clavicle and you see the pain of hunger. She is shrivelled, and short, but she stares right through you; she is the image of absolute piety and she is frightening to meet. The experience is visceral, beyond reality.
“Pietà” by Michelangelo, 1547-55 (©Antonio Quattrone)
Those reliquaries are now in a separate gallery and, with the space to consider them on their own terms, their fantastic craftsmanship will more easily be admired. Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietà, of 1547-55, has been rescued from the alcove halfway up the stairs and given a large gallery to itself, with beautifully dramatic lighting. It deserves no less; but perhaps the drama of the sculpture is such that it needs no emphasis — the awkwardness of its previous placement in that alcove only proved how dominant, and even triumphant, the vigour of Michelangelo’s working was.
There are the singing galleries by Donatello and Luca della Robbia, vestments embroidered to designs by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, and so much more. Now we see them better for what they are. The museum covers every phase of work on the Cathedral complex, including the pompous additions of the later Medici rulers and the building of the neo-gothic façade at the end of the 19th century, making plain how the works always went on. Wall text in a gallery named “Saints and Soldiers” explains how the decoration of the church buildings had been contrived to suggest “a bond between Christian holiness and civic virtue — between the community of believers and that constituted by the city’s inhabitants”. This museum makes that bond more apparent, showing us how the construction of the Cathedral, as much as the Christian message, brought the Florentines together and focused their efforts — the church is a monument to them, and their city, as well as a monument to God. And this museum makes a further bond all the more apparent: that between religion, civic virtue, and art. Over the centuries, many of the greatest names in the history of art competed for and collaborated on decorations for the Cathedral complex. They approached their work with such faith and such local pride; and now, with all their works set out so clearly for us, we may begin to wonder how much the whole spirit of the Italian Renaissance in art was formed and driven on by this ever-evolving building.
The site of the museum is not neutral: works on the Cathedral were always conducted from this corner of the Piazza del Duomo, and many masterpieces — including Michelangelo’s David — were carved right here. This museum is proud of where it stands, and what it stands for. There are those critics who would prefer their museums more sterile — and who would perhaps regret the essential linking of art with religion. But there are many more who will be grateful for this renovation. The museum’s director, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, is an American art historian and priest who has spent most of his life in Florence. He speaks Italian with a Florentine accent, and mannerisms. He knows what art in Italy should mean, and how it still lives; and by approaching this renovation with such responsible understanding and such clear enthusiasm — he set out exactly where the artworks should go, “to the centimetre”, while letting the architects “create the beautiful spaces, perfectly interpreting and at times improving my ideas” — he has not just brought so many great artworks back to light, he has brought the very project of the Duomo back to life.