Sarah Dunant

Cool Stone In Great Heat

I understand that the next words will be painful for everyone living in England so forgive me in advance, but for much of the last two weeks Florence has been in the midst of a broiling heat wave. There have been days when it is simply too hot to move, too hot even for art.  With one exception:  the exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi.

For years now the Strozzi has been one of the most innovative exhibition spaces in Italy. While the Uffizi and the Accademia pull their tourist hordes on pilgrimage for a glimpse of Botticelli’s Venus or David’s genitalia, the more discerning visitor heads for the Strozzi.  In the courtyard of this exquisite renaissance palace – we have diary entries telling of its construction in the 1490’s – you can regularly enjoy some of the most witty and spatially challenging examples of contemporary art (check out the tree elevating from the earth in the photo here).

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But it is the larger exhibition space upstairs that offers the real wonder.  Until August it is home to one of the most exciting shows on early renaissance sculpture you will ever see. Bringing together masterpieces from museums all over the world it tells the story of the birth of renaissance sculpture in Florence during the first half of the 15th century.

Here you can witness how artists like Andrea Pisano, Jacopo di Quercia, and the great Donatello along with many others absorbed the influences of classical work and the gothic to create their own unique Christian humanist vision. In some cases you can even follow the moment of inspiration and transition. For instance, when in 1401 the Florentine government set a competition to find an artist to design the brass reliefs for the doors on the North side of the Baptistery, they asked the finalists, Ghilberti and Brunelleschi, to produce their version of The Sacrifice of Isaac panel to help them choose.  The two panels are here for you to study. Look closely and you will notice how Ghiberti modeled the twisted torso of young Isaac on the fragment of a famous Roman sculpture of warrior. While Brunelleschi took another equally well known Roman sculpture of a young boy absorbed in removing a thorn from his foot and gave exactly the same pose to a servant attending the scene. From the statues themselves to the brass panels:  the artistic journey is gathered here for you to see.

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Then there is the room devoted to the irresistible soft/stone flesh of babies. This is the story of how sprits and winged cupids of Greek and Roman art transformed themselves into playful Renaissance Putti, and how that same mischief invaded images of the Christ child, creating meltingly lovely marble, stone and terracotta statues of a joyful Mary holding a plump, vivacious child.   By the middle of the 15th century this was one of the most reproduced and best selling images in Florence, an early fashion sensation for a growing middle class who wanted to mix devotion and decoration in their new homes.

Like many exhibitions at the Strozzi, The Springtime of the Renaissance works on different levels. You can choose to be simply be stunned by beauty or dig a little deeper into the politics of this remarkable little Italian state that so punched above her weight in the 15th century.  But perhaps the thing that really marks this out as a Strozzi experience is the interactivity.

The general director, James Bradburne, has long been on a mission to bring new, younger audiences into art.  He understands that when confronted by the tactile wonder of marble or stone, one’s fingers are itching to touch as well as look.  There is a story going on throughout the exhibition about the power and importance of our sense of touch.  And, in two small rooms off the main galleries, you get a chance to get your hands on some objects;  a few lovely little bronze figures from history and some larger plaster casts of well known works, all lying there waiting for your fingertips. For just a moment you can experience the same thrill of those early renaissance collectors as they were sat cradling their exquisite objects  and enjoying the sensuality of touch.

“Close your eyes and see with your fingers” – the sign on the wall exhorts.  “Then go out and look again.”

When the weather gets too hot to think, there is always something in the Strozzi to dazzle your senses and get your mind moving again.

The springtime of the Renaissance is on at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence until August 18th.


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