Myths, Saints, Pagan Gods and Holy Stories – “The Cinquecento in Florence” Exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi

From 21 September 2017 to 21 January 2018 Palazzo Strozzi hosts the exhibition The Cinquecento in Florence. From Michelangelo and Pontormo to Giambologna”curated by Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali. We were all rather impatient to see the show and I have to say that my own expectations towards this exhibition were really high. Nothing strange in it, if we consider that during the sixteenth century the Florentine artistic stage was dominated by such artists as Andrea del Sarto, Angolo Bronzino or Jacopo Pontormo. Moreover, the present exhibition is the third show dedicated to sixteenth-century Florence and organized by Palazzo Strozzi in recent years. In 2010 we admired an exposition dedicated to Bronzino, in 2014 the one focused on Rosso Fiorentino and Jacopo Pontormo. This time, the exhibit wanted to offer a wider view on the culture and the art in sixteenth-century Florence and to put the artistic production of the period into a wider social and religious context. Did it reach this aim and satisfy our expectations? Undoubtedly, I found myself at the end of the show much earlier than I anticipated, however, it is definitely a very pleasant exhibition, which gives an insight into some of the artistic problems the sixteenth-century artists dealt with.

Andrea del Sarto, Lamentation over the dead Christ, 1523-1524, Florence, Palatine Gallery.
Andrea del Sarto, Lamentation over the dead Christ, 1523-1524, Florence, Palatine Gallery.

At the very beginning of the show the curators wanted to underline the importance of Michelangelo and Andrea del Sarto’s legacy. In the first room one finds Michelangelo’s bozzetto for a River god and Andrea’s Lamentation over the dead Christ. In the painting the artist focused on an ongoing debate, i.e. the nature of the sacraments and, in particular, on the question about the essence of the Eucharist. In 1523, the Reformation was still very young, but Luther’s position on transubstantiation caused an immediate answer from the Catholic circles. In few words, the Catholics believe that during every mass the bread and the wine put on the altar change their nature and become real body and blood of Christ. The reformers strongly opposed this belief and interpreted the Eucharist as symbolic remembrance of the Last Supper. The answer from the Catholic church was to promote the doctrine of transubstantiation with a great zeal and the painting became one of the mediums of this theological propaganda. If you look at Andrea’s painting, you will notice that the composition focuses the attention of the viewer on Christ’s body and that below the scene there is a chalice with a host. It is a direct reference to the doctrine of transubstantiation and this subject will be further developed by Andrea’s pupils: Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino and the painting exposed in the next room prove the centrality of this subject.


Agnolo Bronzino, Deposition of Christ, 1543-1545, Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie.
Agnolo Bronzino, Deposition of Christ, 1543-1545, Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie.

Here, the curators created a suggestive space where they put next to each other three unique masterpieces: Rosso Fiorentino’s Deposition from the Cross from Volterra (1521), Pontormo’s Santa Felicita Deposition (1525–1528) and Bronzino’s Deposition of Christ from Besançon (c. 1543–1545). The opportunity to look at these works together is truly unique and spectacular. The centrality of the subject of the Eucharist, which is Christ’s real body offered during each mass, becomes clear with no need of additional explanation. This unique confrontation between the three giants of the sixteenth-century painting allows us to see the difference between them. We can notice Rosso’s particular treatment of human body which becomes almost bizarre, skinny and very expressive. Bronzino’s composition proves great influence of Classical sculpture on the painter’s style. Christ dead body seams made of marble and the entire composition is highly influenced the bas-reliefs form the Roman sarcophagi.

The three altarpieces, together with the paintings exhibited in the other rooms recall another important change occurred at that time. Catholic’s reaction to the reformation was to convoke an ecumenical council in Trent. The council met for twenty-five sessions between 1545 and 1563, eighteen years of meetings and discussion, which completely changed the approach of the Roman Catholic church to liturgy and devotional practices. One of the most tangible effects of the reforms introduced by the council was a profound re-shaping of the spatial organization of the churches. Until then, in every single church the space where the believers gathered to pray was completely divided from the space, where the priests celebrated the mass. The separation was both visual and physical as the holy areas were divided from the rest of the church by high rood screens. These high, wall-like screens used to completely cover the view on the altar and for the theologians gathered in Trent, it had to change. In order to convince the believers, that during every mass bread and wine transformed into blood and body of Christ, the celebration had to be visible to the crowds. Almost all at once, the rood screens were removed from the Catholic churches. In Florence it was Giorgio Vasari who took care for the re-shaping of the most important sacred spaces, such as Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce. He not only removed the rood screens but he also projected the new side altars, each with a big altarpiece in the middle. The commissions for the paintings for these new side chapels kept busy the painters in Florence for the years to come and some of them are exposed on the show like, for example, Vasari’s Crucifixion from the Carmine church displayed in room three.

Giambologna, Mercury, ca. 1585, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Giambologna, Mercury, ca. 1585, Vienna,
Kunsthistorisches Museum.

If the Counter-Reformation was one of the most significant of the sixteenth-century affairs, it does not mean that the religious art completely dominated the artistic scene. At the same time, the secular culture continued to produce some truly magnificent works of art that we can admire on the show. The room four is fully dedicated to the art of portraiture, which continued to be always more popular not only among the aristocracy but also between the merchant families. When in this room, do not miss Giambologna’s Mercury, a little bronze statue from around 1585 that arrived for the show from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Giambologna’s mastery manifests itself in the verticality and the lightness of the form that immediately suggest vertical movement of the figure. It perfectly expresses the qualities of Mercury, who was the messenger of the gods. He flew, travelled, moved around and was difficult to catch up with. In fact, Mercury was patron of merchants, communication, thieves and travellers and the speed of his flight is one of the characteristics most strongly related to him. Mercury introduces us to the room six, my favourite one, entirely dedicated to myths, pagan gods and mythological figures. How is it possible that in this particular religious climate pagan myths were still popular? During the sixteenth century the myths and the pagan heroes functioned as allegories of virtues, and vices. Their stories contained allegories of human life and told the truths on our existence. On the show one will see, for example, Alessandro Allori’s Venus and Cupid, Ammanati’s bronze statue of Hercules and Antaeus and Zucchi’s Cupid and Psyche. The myth of Cupid and Psyche, which today seems a romantic love story, in reality talks about transformative force of love and about human maturity. The story comes from Metamorphoses by Apuleius and tells the story of Psyche, beautiful, young girl surrounded by many admirers. Her popularity aroused the jealousy of Venus who sent her son, Cupid, to revenge on her and to make her fall in love with something hideous. Cupid fell in love with Psyche and disobeyed his mother. He took Psyche far from her family and offered her a beautiful house full of gold, ivory and silver. Psyche spent her days alone and Cupid visited her every night. There was but one rule: Psyche could not look at her lover. This particular relationship functioned until Psyche went home to see

Jacopo Zucchi, Cupid and Psyche, 1589, Rome, Galleria Borghese.
Jacopo Zucchi, Cupid and Psyche, 1589, Rome, Galleria Borghese.

her family. Her sisters, moved by jealousy, made her suspicious and on her return, during the first night with Cupid, Psyche took a lamp and looked at her lover. She discovered Cupid’s beauty but he woke up and fled away. Psyche fell under the power of Venus and to meet Cupid again she had to accomplish various tasks set for her by the goddess. She had to collect the
black water spewed by the source of the rivers Styx and Cocytus and to descend to the underworld to obtain a dose of the beauty of Proserpina. Only after these various trials, helped by Jupiter, Cupid and Psyche reunited and got married. Psyche’s trials represent the process of her spiritual growth and improvement and during the sixteenth century the moral meaning of this myth would be clear to everybody.

After this room, you will see two more, dedicated to the late sixteenth-century art. Do not miss Allori’s painting San Fiacre’s Miracles, which comes from the Santo Spirito Basilica. The exhibition ends a bit earlier than we expect it to finish, but the experience of seeing all these masterpieces gathered together is definitely worth the visit.

Useful information:
The Cinquecento in Florence. From Michelangelo and Pontormo to Giambologna”

21 September 2017 – 21 January 2018, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

Open every day (including holidays) from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and every Thursday until 11:00 pm.

Tickets: €12 – full price, €9,50 – over 65 and under 26, €4 – children 6-18 years old, free – children up to 5 years of age

More information on the Palazzo Strozzi website!