Any archaeology lovers out there? Yes, I know, you mostly come to Florence to see Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo’s paintings, but the Florentine art collections offer much more than that! Did you know that the little-known Archaeological Museum of Florence guards one of the most important collections of Etruscan bronze statuary in Italy? If you are an archaeology lover, or you came to Florence for longer, this is definitely a place for you to discover! What are the highlights of the collection on display at the Archaeological Museum of Florence? Let us discover it together!
The history of the Archaeological Museum of Florence
The Archaeological Museum of Florence was established in 1870 by the King of Italy Victor Emanuel II with the name of Etruscan Museum. With time it merged various collections of antiquities preserved in the city. Today it puts on display some of the Etruscan, Greek and Roman statues that in the past were part of the Medici family’s collections of antiquities. It also features an extremely rich and important collection of Egyptian antiquities which reached Florence during the 19th century.
The Museum is located in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, few steps from the Florentine Cathedral.
Archaeology during the 19th century
The collection of the museum is really vast. Some of the most important treasures, which used to belong to the Medici family, were excavated already during the Renaissance period. Some others were found during the 19th century, when the interest for archaeology was growing. In fact, the 19th century put the bases for the development of scientific approach to archaeology.
After the “archaeological fever”, caused in the 18th century by the spectacular discoveries in Pompei and Herculaneum, during the 19th century the interest in scientific investigation of ancient civilizations started to become more methodical.
The archaeologists started to apply the knowledge about the geological stratigraphy to their excavations. One of the first examples of a stratigraphic analysis of archaeological investigations were John Frere‘s publications from 1797 describing discoveries of some remains dating back to the Stone Age in Hoxne in England. With the passing of time stratigraphy became a basic method applied by archaeologists to date their findings and to reconstruct the course of event related to every sight.
5 masterpieces at the Archaeological Museum of Florence
In the museum you can admire some of the true masterpieces of Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Egyptian art and craft. These are the most important objects on display:
1. François’s crater
Around 1844 in the area of Chiusi Alessandro François, Italian archaeologist and erudite, excavated an astonishing object: an ancient Greek vase dating back to beginnings of the 6th century BC. This finding surprised the Tuscan public and because the object was discovered on a property belonging to the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, it wasn’t immediatedly sold to a private collection.
What is Francois’s crater?
The vase is an Attic volute crater decorated in the black-figure style large 66 cm in height. François’s crater is one-of-a-kind from many points of view. First of all the vase is signed by its authors. In fact, we know that it was made by Ergotimos, the potter, and decorated by Kleitias, the painter. Kleitias was an renowned vase painter, documented in Athens between 570 and 560 BC. Other vases decorated by him are today preserved in the most important museums around the globe, like the beautiful terracotta stand with the heads of Gorgons kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York.
The decoration of the vase
François’s vase is unique also because of its particularly vast decorative programme. Kleitias decorated it with 270 figures distributed in six friezes. The main scene at the centre of the crater represents gods’ procession for the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. You will notice there centaur Chiron, who opens the pageant. Peleus receives his guests and Thetis, according to the strict division in gender roles of the Greek society, waits for them inside the house.
Peleus and Thetis are the parents of Achilles, the great hero of the Trojan war. Thus, the other episodes depicted on the vase represent the events related to this famous battle, described by Homer in his Iliad. On the vase you will see Achilles ambushing Troilus and the funerary games organized in honour of Patroclus, Achilles’s friend killed at Troy. The number of mythological scenes represented on the vase is impressive!
The history of the vase
The history of the vase is quite complex. It was produced in Athens and used in Greece initially. At some point, it broke and it had to be repaired. The repaired vase was then sent to Etruria, probably as a precious gift. It was found in 1844 smashed into many pieces. Carefully restored it was put on display at the Florentine Archaeological Museum.
On 9 September 1900 a guardian from the museum hit the vase with a wooden footstool and smashed it into pieces. The further restorations brought it back to its integrity.
2. The Chimera of Arezzo
The Etruscan civilization continues to capture our imagination. The Etruscans are often considered mysterious, shady and inscrutable. The fact is that we still know very little about their world. Mainly because we lack literary texts or legal documents, which would allow us to better understand their culture and civilization. Our knowledge of the Etruscan language remains limited because of the little number of longer texts available to us. The few texts we have are mostly religious or legal, and they do not contain great variety of words. This is why the archaeological findings in the Etruscan tombs and temples are so important for us.
Who are the Etruscans?
What we managed to understand about the Etruscans from the archaeological findings is that the Etruscan civilization developed in central Italy from around 9th century BC. The Etruscans dominated the areas of today’s Tuscany, Umbria and North of Latium, but in the height of their growth, during the 6th century BC, they occupied also Campania, Emilia, Romagna and Veneto regions.
The Etruscans were excellent sailors and they dominated the Mediterranean See developing the trade with Greece and Egypt.
The finding of Chimera of Arezzo
The Etruscans were excellent potters and jewellery makers, but we also have some important bronze statues of their manufacture preserved to our times. One of those is the Chimera of Arezzo excavated in 1553 during the engineering works at Porta San Lorentino in Arezzo. At the time Giorgio Vasari was supervising the construction of a new Medicean fortification in the city, when the bronze figure, clearly dating back to the Etruscan period was found.
Who is Chimera?
Chimera is a mythological monster with head of a lion, body of a goat, second goat head sticking out from its back, and tail of a dragon. Chimera was an offspring of Typhon and Echidna and a sibling of other mythological monsters, Cerberus and the Lernaean Hydra. It was killed by the Corinthian hero Bellerophon, who was riding the winged horse Pegasus.
What is Chimera of Arezzo?
The Etruscan statue of Chimera found in Arezzo was probably only one part of a statuary group, which included the monster as well as Bellerophon and Pegasus. The statue dates back to the late 5th or the early 4th century BC. It shows Chimera already wounded, with blood dropping from the goat’s neck. It raises its crest and tries to scare Bellorophon away.
The statue of Chimera is a unique example of Etruscan bronze statuary. It was made as a votive statue in the honour of the Etruscan deity Tinia, equivalent of the Roman Jupiter. In fact, on Chimera’s right front paw there is an inscription in Etruscan tinscvil, which means “donated to the god Tin”.
Where Chimera was made?
There are many discussions on the possible workshop responsible for the creation of the statue. Today the most accredited hypothesis claims that the statue was made by a local workshop in the area of Arezzo or in the surrounding Val di Chiana.
After its discovery the statue of Chimera immediately reached Cosimo I’s collections. It was first placed at the Palazzo Vecchio as a political symbol of Cosimo’s power over the ancient Etruscan territories. Symbolically, the Chimera of Arezzo allowed the Duke to compare the Duchy of Tuscany he created with the ancient Etruscan realms legitimizing his power and reinforcing the idea of the ancient pedigree of his rule.
The Etruscan civilization did not resist against the always more aggressive and pressing spread of the Romans on the Italian peninsula. The weakness of Etruscans resulted from their lack of a central state. During the centuries, the Etruscans developed a network of independent city-states, which were not coordinated politically by a king or a central government. Therefore, single cities became an easy target for the Roman army, which started to occupy the Etruscan territories already in the 5th and the 4th century BC.
After the centuries of battles and of Roman conquers of the Etruscan cities, during the 2nd century BC the gradual process of the romanisation of the Etruscans was already unrestrainable.
The statue of Orator
The Etruscan statue of the Orator, called l’Arringatore in Italian, is probably the most tangible and clear testimony of the Etruscan Romanization. The statue dates back to the end of the 2nd or the beginnings of the 1st century BC.
According to Giorgio Vasari, l’Arringatore was found in 1566 by a simple country man in Pila, small locality in the area of Perugia. At the time Perugia was part of the Papal State. If the Medici family wanted to intercept this incredible treasure, they needed to transfer it outside of the Papal borders. What is sure is that the Orator reached Florence and it was displayed at the Pitti Palace and then, from 1588, at the Uffizi.
Orator’s pose and dress
The Orator truly is an evident manifestation of the Roman and the Etruscan worlds that merge. The statue represents an Etruscan man, Aule Meteli, in a pose and a dress of a Roman orator. He wears a tunic and a toga. His feet are protected by a pair of senatorial sandals. He raises his right arm silencing the public. This gesture was vastly used by the orators before they begun their speech. The Romans called it silentium manu facere – to make silence with one’s hand.
The inscription in Etruscan language running along the praetexta, the decorative border of the orator’s toga, identifies the man as an influential member of the Etruscan community, who made career in the Roman municipality. This is how during the 2nd century BC the Etruscan elites Romanized and with the passing of time abandoned also their language and religion, becoming part of the Roman society. The statue of the Orator documents this process.
4. Idolino di Pesaro
In the European culture the Classical art became symbol of absolute beauty and stylistic perfection. It has been put on a pedestal and today it is hard for us to imagine that many objects “worshipped” at our museums, once had practical functions and were used to decorate the everyday environments of ancient houses.
This is the case of the beautiful Idolino di Pesaro, a Roman bronze statue from the 1st century AD, that you can admire at the Archaeological Museum of Florence.
The statue was excavated in 1530 in Pesaro and immediately reached the collections of the Duke of Urbino Francesco Maria della Rovere. The stylistic perfection of the work suggested to the 16th-century erudite public, that it was an original Greek bronze, an extremely rare and unique object.
The truth is that this beautiful work was a lamp holder from the Augustan era. The Idolino used to hold in his left hand a vine branch, that functioned as support for lamps. Our Idolino, in fact, used to illuminate the luxurious banquets organized by a wealthy Roman family.
5. Egyptian collection at the Archaeological Museum of Florence
A very important part of the museum collection is the so-called Egyptian museum. After the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, this is the second most relevant exposition of Egyptian antiquities in Italy.
The origin of this vast gathering dates back to 1828-1829 when the King of France Charles X and Grand Duke of Tuscany Leopold II financed an archaeological expedition to Egypt. The chief archaeologists were Jean-Francois Champollion and Ippolito Rosellini. The aim of the expedition was the study of the hieroglyphs and the deepening of European understanding of Ancient Egypt.
As the result of the expedition 2200 objects were brought back to Europe and divided in two equal parts. The first part ended up at Louvre, while the second reached Florence.
The collection is really vast and it will allow you to understand very well the Egyptian culture and imagination regarding the afterlife. You will find here not only the sarcophagi and the mummies, but also many funerary statues and whole group of objects that were placed together with the mummies inside the Egyptian tombs.
The highlights of the collection
- wooden chariot dating back to the 15th century BC, found in Thebes – perfectly preserved and almost complete
- wooden box with the ushabti figures from the 15th century BC – ushabtis were placed inside the Egyptian tombs as they were intended to act as servants to the deceased and replace him in multiple manual works in the afterlife
- series of Coptic portraits on wood from Fayyum dating back to the 4th century AD
As you can see, the collection of the museum is really vast and if you love archaeology, the Archaeological Museum of Florence is a must for you!
If you want to visit the museum with me, contact me! I will be happy to show you the most important treasures of this unique collection!
Archaeological Museum of Florence
piazza S.S. Annunziata, 9b
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday: 8:30 am -2:00 pm
Thursday, Friday: 1:30 pm – 7:00 pm
Open only on the first Sunday of each month, from 8:30 am to 2:00 pm.
Closed on other Sundays.
adults: 8 euro
EU students 18-25 years old: 2 euro
Children under 18: free
The entrance is free of charge with the ticket to the Uffizi Gallery!