The Bargello, formerly used as a barracks and a prison, now serves as an art museum in Florence, Italy.
It is mentioned many times in Dan Brown’s novel Inferno and is also known as the Museo Nazionale del Bargello or the Palazzo del Popolo (Palace of the People).
The word “bargello” appears to derive from the late latin noun bargillus, meaning “castle” or “fortified tower“. Bargello was the title attributed to a military captain, precisely the “Captain of justice”, who from 1554, under Duke Cosimo I, made arrests, conducted interrogations, and carried out death sentences.
The Bargello was used as a prison until 1786, when the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo abolished capital punishment. Consequently, from this time on, the Bargello no longer held executions. The Bargello next served as the headquarters of the Florentine police until 1859. When Pietro Leopoldo II was exiled, the makeshift Governor of Tuscany decided that the Bargello should no longer be a jail, thereby becoming a national museum.
Construction of the palace began in 1255 when Lapo Tedesco, an Italian architect of the XIII century, incorporated the old palace, the tower of Boscoli, the property of an ancient Florentine family, as well as certain houses and towers belonging to the Badia Fiorentina. Subsequently, the palace was merged with a new building on Via dell’Acqua, and in 1295, its arcaded courtyard was created. Between 1340 and 1345, the famous Italian architect Neri di Fioravante added another story to the building.
The Bargello was designed around an open courtyard with an external staircase leading to the second floor. An open well is located in the center of the courtyard.
Incorporated in the side of the building is the tower of Boscoli, also called “Volognana“, which is fifty-seven meters high. The tower, whose basement served for centuries as a cramped prison, was named after Geri da Volognano, one of its first prisoners.
Located at the top of the building is a bell called “the montanina” by the Florentines, whose ring was at one time used to call young people to arms, to announce executions, or to warn of insurrections and riots, which led to a large number of injuries and deaths.
The Bargello opened as a national museum (Museo Nazionale del Bargello) in 1865, displaying the largest Italian collection of Gothic and Renaissance sculptures (14-17th century). Here we find masterpieces by Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Verrocchio, Michelangelo, and Cellini.
Throughout the years the museum has been enriched with splendid collections of bronzes, ceramics, wax, enamel, medals, ivory, amber, tapestries, furniture, textiles, and seals derived from both the Medici collections and private donations.
The Bargello should be on any art lover’s list of museums to visit in Florence. It is a pleasant museum, not terribly crowded, with interesting spaces and a variety of types of works and rooms.
To help you with your next visit, we have compiled a list of the top, most-famous sculptures in the Museum.
You will pass through a courtyard (don’t miss the coats of arms of all the different Podestà on the walls) and can either enter a room on your right (the Michelangelo Room) or climb a set of steep stairs (note the original gate half-way up) at the top of which you will find a large room called the Donatello Room on the right.
Here we find Donatello’s St. George and the Dragon (1417-20), a marble niche holding a sculpture, with a low relief panel underneath.
This is the original of a statue that once stood in a niche on the outside of the Orsanmichele (the city’s granary turned church). The niche in the museum is a reproduction of the rather shallow original space in which George stood.
Below the niche is a relief that, similar to the predella of an altarpiece, tells the story of the saint depicted above: this is the very first example of the stiacciato technique or “squashed relief,” a very-low bas-relief that provides the viewer with an illusion of depth, and is one of the first examples of central-point perspective in sculpture.
Located in the center of this panel is George on horseback in the act of killing a dragon and thus saving the princess on his right, who clasps her hands over her chest in gratitude and amazement. The drama of this moment is amplified by the perspective created by Donatello. The marble is just lightly incised, as if it were a piece of paper.
There are also two David sculptures here by Donatello, and they are a few decades, yet worlds, apart: the Marble David and the Bronze David, the nude figure of the biblical hero David with its helmet and boots, which perhaps dates to as early as the 1430s.
Donatello’s bronze statue is famous for being the first unsupported standing work of bronze cast during the Renaissance and the first freestanding nude male sculpture made since antiquity. It depicts David bearing an enigmatic smile, posed with his foot on Goliath’s severed head just after defeating the giant. The youth is completely naked, apart from wearing a laurel-topped hat and boots, and is holding the sword of Goliath. This funny work has been confounding scholars for quite some time, and there are some inexplicable details like the choice of hat and boots (but no other clothing) that are rather inappropriate for the boy that this figure is supposed to represent.
On display on the back wall of the Donatello Room are the winning panel by Ghiberti and the runner up by Brunelleschi of the door of Baptistry of Florence. In 1401 the city of Florence held a competition for a set of bronze doors to be made for the Baptistry. Artists were asked to submit bronze samples in the quatrefoil panel on the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Old Testament story in which Abraham is ordered to kill his son Isaac as a test of faith. The image had to include the father and son, as well as an altar, a donkey, a hill, two servants, and a tree.
In the Michelangelo Room we find one of Michelangelo’s very early works, Michelangelo’s Bacchus. Since it dates from 1496-7, the artist would have been 21 years old. It’s one of the first works that he accomplished when he went to Rome. He was commissioned by Cardinal Riario, who had a garden full of antique sculptures.
The tipsy god of wine is being held up by a tree trunk and a little satyr, elements that are actually necessary to keep a standing marble figure from breaking at the ankles. One of the most impressive things about this sculpture is the way Michelangelo manages to give marble the appearance of soft flesh so that it matches the drunken, relaxed emotions of Bacchus.
Another important work is Michelangelo’s Pitti Tondo, a marble bas-relief of the Virgin and Child that Michelangelo created for Florentine families circa 1503-5. The tondo or round format is typical of domestic art, and wealthy families often had a painted or gesso tondo in their homes. Michelangelo’s inexperience still shows through as he has trouble accommodating Mary’s head in the frame (it sticks out above), but there is already a monumentality apparent here and a beautiful intimacy between the figures that anticipate his later works.
Those two rooms (Michelangelo and Donatello) contain most of the really important sculptures, but they also contain small areas dedicated to things like fun bronze animals, maiolica, ivory and metal works, jewelry, and ivories.
On the first floor of the Bargello Museum one can find the Cappella del Podestà (or Cappella della Maddalena), an ancient chapel that contains fragmentary frescoes of Giotto’s school dating from 1332 to 1337.
The Chapel was built after 1280 and housed prisoners on death row in their last night in prayer before being taken to the gallows. From here they departed in the morning on their way accompanied by the Battuti de’ Neri, who were part of the Society of Saint Mary of the Cross from the Temple.
The frescoes by Giotto decorating the chapel reflect its function nicely. In fact, they depict mostly stories of penitents and redeemed sinners.
St. Mary Magdalene and St. John the Baptist are painted on the side walls. On the wall at the entrance Hell is represented, while on the bottom we find Paradise, which includes among its elect the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, represented with his Comedy in hand.
This fresco, in which Giotto or his scholars depicted Dante dressed in red, is mentioned by Dan Brown in his novel Inferno:
Langdon quickly scrolled through several other images, all showing Dante in his red cap, red tunic, laurel wreath, and prominent nose. “And to round out your image of Dante, here is a statue from the Piazza di Santa Croce … and, of course, the famous fresco attributed to Giotto in the chapel of the Bargello.”
This post was originally published in June 1, 2014 and has been updated and enriched on November 15, 2017.
Picture by Bargello by sp!ros CC BY-NC 2.0 ; Bargello Museum, David, Donatello by Frans Vandewalle CC BY-NC 2.0 ; Donatello’s St.George by radiowood CC BY-NC 2.0 ; Bacchus by Darren and Brad CC BY-NC 2.0