top of page


#237:  A TREASURE OF FLORENCE.  Perhaps the most difficult thing to convey about the Renaissance art of northern Italy is simply how much there is of it—what a crowded time it was.  (You get both quality and quantity.)  Venice, with its distinctive history as a republic, its canals and Byzantine influences, its conscious distance from the rest of Italy, is always and everywhere itself; but perhaps in this insistent individuality it might cede to Florence as being the essential city of the Italian Renaissance.  It’s easier, and not entirely misleading, to connect Florence with everything that was going on everywhere around it; and if it’s hardly an exaggeration to say you could spend years in Venice without exhausting what there is to see, Florence has not only its own, almost indescribable abundance, but it leads out to the towns and cities north and south of it with a kind of intellectual and aesthetic consistency.  Venice, perhaps, concentrates; Florence disperses.

        The city itself of course, can hardly be contained in summary.  Go into the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, after your first dumbfounding sight of it coming from some back lane off the piazza, and you will see the work of Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Uccello, Verrochio, Agnolo Gaddi, Vasari, a host of less famous masters, and (let us not forget) Domenico di Michelino’s portrait of Dante, holding a book open to the first lines of the Commedia, with the cathedral and the city behind him, as well as the gates of hell and the mountain of Purgatory.  The cathedral is where the fabled rivalry of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti led to two peerless masterworks, the first being that massive dome, for which reason the cathedral is always referred to as “Il Duomo,” best viewed from the upper floors of the Bibilioteca delle Oblate. The second would be the east doors to the Baptistery of Saint John, now called the Gates of Paradise, with the bronze and gilded bas reliefs by Ghiberti, this mastery of the form not to be equaled again until the audacities of Rodin’s Gates of Hell, cast in the 1920s.  Just as Michelangelo’s David was moved into the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873 to prevent damage, Ghiberti’s gates were moved indoors to the Opera del Duomo in 1966, after the great flood, and now, after 27 years’ work of restoration, can be seen in their original bright splendor.

      Keep going in the Duomo museum, and you will come to one of those masterworks that operate not on the tragic, the titanic, the awe-inspiring, but utterly on charm and magic: the cantoria of Luca della Robbia.  The cantoria was a choir loft, and both Luca’s and the similar one by Donatello are no longer in place, having been deemed too constrictive for use, so we now can see them close up—Luca’s indeed are hung just above eye level.  The ten panels show children, singing, dancing, playing instruments, in marble as opposed to Luca’s later work in glazed ceramics; and they are some of the most cheering and grace-giving children in art history.  A couple of the boys have the suggestion of wings; but, if we take them as children rather than angels, they are children in the seraphic and self-forgetting moment of making music, completely absorbed and emotionally stilled.  They are attentively and individually rendered, both as individuals and as a group; hardly ever again would children be seen with such joy and such utter lack of sentimentality or salacity.  Here is concentration, in the singers’ faces; here is rhythm, in the angle and kick of the choral dancers’ bodies.  Donatello’s figures are heavier, more adult, more antic; Luca’s children are softer, more Arcadian.  It is Luca’s first known work, and of such quality that Vasari would include him as one of the originating figures of the Renaissance.  Someone once described Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream as all of the flowers of poetry and none of the thorns; Luca’s cantoria brings us that same euphoric feeling, as if we’ve woken up in a garden, bright with blossom.



      Ross King’s The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts that Illuminated the Renaissance (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2021), is a biography of one   Vespasiano da Bisticci, and, through him, a nimble and entertaining history of the Florentine Renaissance as mirrored through its book trade.  It captures the energy and euphoria of the time: you see a constant traffic of lords, bishops and wealthy merchants, all of whom seem to be preoccupied with nothing so much as learning, philosophy, theology, poetry, and, of course, amassing their various wowsers of personal libraries.  (Included in the crowd, one of Vespasiano’s mentors, is no other than Poggio Bracciolini, wandering in from his starring role in Stephen Greenblatt’s great book The Swerve.)  It was a glory confined to the rich and privileged few, but, amidst the daily street scenes of poverty, conniving and brutal war, some men at least did not waste their privilege.

      Ironies can, of course, intrude, make of them what you will.  An estimated five million manuscripts were produced in Italy in the fifteenth century, which is exactly half of the first American print run of the final Harry Potter book.  In the pivotal middle chapters, the arrival of the printing press signals vast, unimagined change. It is greeted largely with pleasure, and an entire absence of Luddite-style riots.  Still, there are mutterings in the background: Angelo Poliziano, the Medici’s librarian, observes, “Now the most stupid ideas can, in a moment, be transferred into a thousand volumes and spread abroad.”  This is five hundred years before the internet.

     Privilege was male, of course, and the horrors of the wars and politics is hardly more grim than King’s brief summary of the place of women: aut mas aut murus, the saying went, marriage or the walls of the convent.  Subjugation, segregation, subordination were the norm for women.  No chatting at the windows, going out only to church, your value totted up in dowry, widows only to go “heavily veiled.”  The convent life comes not to seem so bad.

     Still, the dominant air of the book is of the time that Vespasiano came to call “this golden age,” and we come to want to give that phrase its due.  Literacy in Florence was flourishing, even among women; civic pride was pronounced.  Vespasiano, from a poor family, came to be the advisor of ambassadors and popes, and in an honorable trade.  King reminds us of still how much of the vocabulary of books and bookmaking echoes the Latin of the time, and the Florentine community of the learned and men of gifts is full of names we still recognize; names, to borrow Lowell’s phrase  “so trumpet-like as both to waken attention and to warrant it.”

     And, perhaps best of all, King is generous in anecdote.  My favorite: Pliny the Elder was curious to witness the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, and invited his nephew, Pliny the Younger, to accompany him; the nephew declined because he was eager to finish reading the works of Livy.  The Elder got too close to the event and was asphyxiated by the poisonous fumes; the Younger survived to read for another thirty years.  Chalk one up for the bookworms.  




Make A Joyful Noise: Renaissance Art and Music at Florence Cathedral, by Gary M. Radke, published by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 2015, includes much on the Luca cantoria, with, happily, lots and lots of pictures.  The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece (High Mueum of Art, Atlanta, 2007) gives a good, if sometimes very technical, account of the work’s creation and restoration; the illustrations here are also plentiful and excellent.  In both cases the works are photographed from different angles, capturing the depth of the relief, surprising us that we are looking at two or more views of what our eye had at first taken as a flat surface.

     Brunelleschi’s Dome, by Ross King (Penguin, 2000) and The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance, by Paul Robert Walker, are both popular books on the competition to construct the Santa Maria dome.   In addition to The Bookseller of Florence, The Vespasiano Memoirs, his own brief biographies of the eminent of his day, are in print in English from the University of Toronto Press, 1997.



Recent Posts

See All


#239:  LIKE A SMALL BIRD SEALED OFF FROM DAYLIGHT.  Reading about Louise Gluck, you hit these words repeatedly: trauma, depression, illness, dark.  Her first collection was described as “hard, artful,


#238: SENDAK IN BLACK AND WHITE.  We speak of early or mid-career Picassos; late Celan or Yeats; later Beethoven, early or later Sondheim.  Maurice Sendak published his first illustrations as far back


#236: FINDING THE CHINESE POETS—II.   Translating the classic Chinese poetry into the idiom of contemporary English tends to disguise its relative antiquity.  Unless you’re looking at dates, it’s easy


bottom of page