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Florence: Birthplace of the Renaissance Part 2

An Insight into Florentine Portraits & Statues


The Medici Bank was the largest in Europe in the 15th Century and the family brought Florence under the family's power allowing for an environment where the arts and humanities flourished.
One of the real beauties of Italian Renaissance art lies inside the churches. I found it impossible to pass by a church in Florence without going in for a sneak peek at the artwork inside. Back in the 1400-1600s the wealthy families of Florence would commission some of the greatest artists of the day to produce works of art for churches and palaces. One example is Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation. This is located in one of one of the largest churches in Florence, San Lorenzo, and was paid for by Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici. Paintings within the church connected the patron directly to that church, and was a public sign of their wealth and status.

Portraits, however, were largely found within the expensive and large palaces of Florence. Fifteenth century Florentines were obsessed with the notion of visibility. Being seen and being visible were very important aspects of the display culture of Florence. It is important to understand that people at the time understood figures, an environment, colours, and shapes differently to us; everything had significance. This was termed the 'Period Eye'. Therefore paintings could be 'read', they had meaning, a message, something the viewer could take away or learn from the painting.

"It is tempting to view portraits as mirrors into the past, as images resembling the reality of life and society. However, this is largely not the case. Paintings are much more indirect, and need to be regarded as a form of communication.
Florentine portraits of the fifteenth century reflected the ideals of a patriarchal society, and were rooted deeply in the belief of an ideal presentation of self. The portrait was popularised by the elites; wealthy merchants and bankers who were able to afford the artwork’s production and place them in a significant space. One was expected to show a face to the public that was an idealised form of their role in society. Men represented heroes, women the submissive epitome of virtue and beauty. These ideals were communicated not only through what the sitter wore, but the very form of the portrait. The identity of the sitter, the character shown, and the extent of individuality depicted was dependent on the expectations of society. The importance that society placed on beauty, display and virtue formed a ‘model’ that portraits conformed to, and were dictated by. It is important that these images are viewed in light of this, as many were not records of a unique person, but rather of an idealised representation of that person…

...Painted portraits, medals, and sculpture busts were all influenced by the humanist concerns of the natural form, with their function being strongly dictated by the male control of women in society. Their belief in the display of female virtue as a characteristic to be highly desired caused the display of wealth and conspicuous consumption to become increasingly evident as they were understood to be signs of virtue. Towards the end of the century an increasing emphasis was placed on the communicative properties of the portrait. Portraits altered to stress the significance of commemoration and memory. Therefore if one was portrayed it was implied that they had a virtuous inner character and was worthy of public commemoration. The function of the portrait began to adapt to the desire for a ‘mirror’ from which the young could learn and develop these virtues. This resulted in an image and representation of women in portraiture that differed strongly from their predecessors of the profile portrait popularised during the early fifteenth century". *

Portraits were also used in the upbringing of children as it was believed that portraits had an effect on the observer. This the was progression of portraiture, and also of statues, as a 'mirror'. This held special significance for women as portraits conveyed qualities such as purity and virtue to younger generations in the hope that they would grow up with these values, having been inspired by viewing the portraits. This was important for young girls who's mother had passed away as they could look upon their mother's portrait in the hope they they would be enriched by her characteristics. Fra Giovanni Dominici also insisted that images of children, or a child version of St John the Baptist, should be used for educational purposes. This way the child would grow up virtuous with strong morals. This is the reason why many portraits of women during the period portray the sitter in such a pure form.


Statues played a similar role to that of portraits, both serving to convey something to the viewer. For statues however this was a more public than that of portraits as they tended to be placed in public spaces as opposed to on the walls of bedrooms or houses. Portraits of women tended to be produced in marble, a material that further embodied the purity of the sitter. Apart from the use of the statues as a 'mirror' they also served to commemorate the sitter. As Alberti stated in 'On Painting' ‘Painting possesses a truly divine power in that not only does it make the absent present…but it also represents the dead to the living many centuries later…Through painting, the faces of the dead go on living for a very long time.’ They acted to preserve the identity and status of a family, and to commemorate the virtues of a women in relation to her family. The advances made in art to allow for expression meant that the sitter was able to look directly upon the viewer. This created a sense of immediacy and directness, almost allowing the development of a relationship. Verrocchio’s bust of a Lady with a Bunch of Flowers in the Bargello museum in Florence conveys great expression through the detail of her face and also with the gentle positioning of the hands. This would have been an ideal portrait for generations to look upon and also served to create the illusion that one was immortal, in a constant state of commemoration.

Another example of the use of statues is the very famous David statue by Michelangelo. Origionally placed in the Palazzo Signoria, it was moved into the Accademia Gallery museum in 1873 for safekeeping, a replica now standing in its place. The original faced away from the city towards Rome, the city where the Medici in the 15th Century had fled after they were exiled. The statue contains political implications, placed in the original setting as a warning to the Medici and as a sign of the triumph of the Republican government. The statue embodied the republican values, ideals the Medici's rule quelled.


Florence is a wonderful city, and is known for its rich history and vibrancy. This short post is by no means meant to give a full or even partial understanding of the complexity of art within Florence, but merely provides an insight into a few of the pieces of artwork found there. Having studied renaissance florentine art and having been to the city myself, I can appreciate the importance of background knowledge when visiting the city. Knowing the basics of the history of Florence will really enrich a trip there. So much of the city will make more sense, and one can appreciate it more, if the basics of how the city was designed and constructed is understood. The city is full of double standards, secrets and double meanings. It is well worth looking into the history before a visit.

If the history isn't something that intrigues you, then another option is to read Dan Brown's Inferno. The book is based in Florence and makes reference to some of the city's other great works of art such as the golden Gates of Paradise at the Florence Baptistry, and Il Duomo (the main cathedral). Also for gamers, in Assassins Creed II the Pazzi conspiracy is featured in the plot of the game. Its a bit of an embellishment on the reality of the event, however the game reproduces some of the buildings in great detail, so at least one could recognise and appreciate the buildings of the city!


  • 'The Preservation of an Ideal', The University of Sheffield, Alman, Jenniffer (2012).

Patricia Lee Rubin, Images and Identity in Fifteenth-century Florence, (Singapore, 2007), p.xii.

Posted by Jen_Ingrid 13:52 Archived in Italy Tagged art church italy florence women david renaissance medici portraiture

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