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Where to go to avoid the crowds in Florence and Rome
Published by: Dr Nick Gordon | May 4th, 2018
Italy is home to nearly 4000 museums and galleries, 240 archaeological areas and 48 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Yet three sites – the Colosseum, the archaeological site of Pompeii and the Uffizi galleries – account for more than 10% of all annual site visits.
That’s about 12 million visits per year, and each of these places has seen a significant increase in visitors over the past year. No wonder they are crowded!
So here I offer you some suggestions of where to go in Florence and Rome, Italy’s two most visited cities, to avoid the crowds and to explore the country’s phenomenal cultural heritage. These suggestions are far from exhaustive, and of course they’re subjective, too, influenced by my own passion for Italy’s history and its exceptional artistic heritage.
Rest assured that in following posts, we’ll explore other parts of Italy, and investigate what lies behind some of the recent developments in Italian tourism – such as the installation of turnstiles at major entry points to Venice.
National Archaeology Museum, Florence
In Florence, let’s start with the National Archaeological Museum of Florence. It has one of Italy’s best collections of Etruscan antiquities, including the Chimera of Arezzo and the Aule Metele (or Orator). These are two of the finest pieces of Etruscan bronze casting in existence.
The collection began with the Medici Grand Dukes in the 16th century, as they cherry-picked some of their new duchy’s best Etruscan and Roman antiquities. This was a way of showing that their Tuscan conquest was actually the reunification of a proud, ancient state. We even see this reflected in their official title, “Magnus Dux Etruriae”: they were Grand Dukes of Etruria, not merely ‘Tuscany’.
The museum today tells a slightly different story, and one of its strengths is how it shows the interaction between Etruscan, Greek, and Latin civilisations in the pre-Roman era. Among the collections of Greek and Roman antiquities is the Francois Vase, a 6th-century BCE Attic vase. It has over 250 painted figures from various myths and legends, and was signed by both the potter and the painter.
Like many objects in the museum, the Francois Vase was found in an Etruscan grave, and had either been imported as a status symbol or was part of a symbolic exchange of gifts between Greeks and Etruscans.
The museum also has a surprisingly strong collection of Egyptian antiquities – including one of the oldest intact Egyptian chariots to have been unearthed. It’s in Florence because the Grand Dukes co-sponsored the expedition of Champollion and Ippolito Rosellini. The other half of what they brought back is in the Louvre.
The National Archaeological Museum is in the north part of Florence’s centro storico, alongside the Church of the Santissima Annunziata. There’s plenty to see in this area, including the recently renovated Foundling Hospital Museum (Museo degli Innocenti), which is a must for those interested in social history.
There is also the Museum of San Marco, a convent that was home to Fra Angelico, whose paintings are preserved inside, and Savonarola, the radical preacher who convinced Florentines, including Botticelli, to burn their books and paintings.
Tucked away in a corner of the Oltrarno, this museum is fantastic if you love Renaissance art and its history. The museum is mostly filled with works collected by Stefano Bardini in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Bardini was one of Italy’s leading art dealers – he lived and worked in the same circle as Duveen and Bernard Berenson – and played a major role in promoting medieval and Renaissance Tuscan art to wealthy foreigners, to whom he sold many a work that can now be seen in Germany, the UK and the USA.
Like his peers, Bardini was not beyond ‘massaging’ an attribution to drive up a price. Indeed, we are pretty sure his restoration workshop also produced some very faithful fakes to supply the growing market – one of these has even been detected in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art! This aspect of Bardini’s enterprising life is not mentioned in the museum, which focuses more on his role as a collector, restorer and curator.
Part of Bardini’s success lay in the modernisation of central Florence that was taking place in the 19th century. Buildings were being destroyed and collections dispersed, and Bardini is credited with actively rescuing works and encouraging others to preserve the city’s historic centre.
The collection itself is wonderful and reflects these efforts at preservation: sculptures from churches that no longer exist, Renaissance ceramics by the Della Robbia family, medieval and Renaissance paintings and furniture. It has a particularly good collection of cassoni – painted chests that were usually cut up and sold as individual paintings to wealthy buyers (and are often displayed in galleries as panel paintings, rather than as part of a piece of furniture). Even the ceilings are salvaged 17th-century Venetian and Florentine woodwork.
While in the area, pop up the road to the workshop of Alessandro Dari, the official papal jeweller whose small sculptures and jewellery recall the genius of Renaissance goldsmiths such as Benvenuto Cellini.
If the weather is good, you may also want to head up the hill to visit San Miniato al Monte, a Romanesque church that has just celebrated its 1000th anniversary, or visit the Bardini Gardens.
Although it is one of the best collections of Renaissance sculpture in Florence and just around the corner from the Palazzo Vecchio, the Bargello does not attract great numbers of visitors. For lovers of Renaissance sculpture, however, it is a far more rewarding experience than the Accademia, in which thousands of people are crammed each day for a glimpse of Michelangelo’s David.
Inside the Bargello you’ll find Brunelleschi’s and Ghiberti’s competition panels for the doors of Florence’s Baptistery (“the feud that sparked the Renaissance”), Donatello’s erotically charged David from the courtyard of the Medici Palace, and Donatello’s St George, originally from the façade of Orsanmichele, whose face inspired Michelangelo’s David.
These are just some of the sculptures in the main gallery, beneath which you will find 16th-century masterpieces, including Michelangelo’s Drunk Bacchus and Giambologna’s Mercury, a life-size bronze sculpture whose weight is distributed so perfectly that only the ball of one foot is connected to the pedestal.
Across the courtyard are galleries of decorative arts from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, such as cabinets of glazed ceramics, ivory sculptures from Italy and France, silverware and small bronze sculptures for domestic spaces. Few galleries give such a strong sense of how the movers and shakers of the Renaissance decorated their palaces!
To see inside an early Renaissance palace, visit the Palazzo Davanzati. The 14th-century palace was saved from modernisation in the 19th century, partly through Bardini’s advocacy, and is one of Europe’s best examples of merchant-class domestic architecture and interior decoration.
For more Renaissance sculpture, visit the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Its collection includes the original doors from the baptistery, including Ghiberti’s monumental Gates of Paradise, the choir stalls from the cathedral by Luca della Robbia and Donatello, a haunting wooden sculpture of Mary Magdalene by Donatello, and a late Pietà by Michelangelo.
The Museo dell’Opera used to be very quiet, with only 70,000 visitors each year. It reopened in 2016 after extensive renovations, and now attracts more than that each month. It is open most days until 7.30pm, so I recommend that you schedule your visit in the early evening when the crowds have thinned out.
History of Science in Florence
Florence might not immediately come to mind when you think of the history of science. But science was an integral part of the Renaissance approach to knowledge – just think of the way Leonardo da Vinci moved so easily between engineering, mathematics, physics, chemistry, painting and sculpture. While he was the genius par excellence, he was not alone, and the city has a long history of promoting the sciences and protecting their practitioners.
Just around the corner from the Uffizi is the Galileo Museum, which contains the scientific collections of the Medici Grand Dukes – some of whom were practicing alchemists and gentleman scientists themselves.
Of particular interest is the cartographic and navigation collection, in which you can trace the development of modern map-making and navigation that enabled the European age of exploration. What’s not said directly here, however, is that modern cartography was born in Florence, with the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography in the 15th century. The Florentine cartographer Toscanelli made the world map Christopher Colombus took in 1492, and Columbus was followed by Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine who has two continents named after him.
The collection continues from here to Galileo, who lived under the protection of the Medici Grand Dukes. It includes a couple of Galileo’s telescopes (and some ghoulish ‘relics’ taken from his corpse), but more significantly it shows you the range of experiments Galileo undertook to explain physical phenomena empirically.
If you have a particular interest in medical sciences and zoology, follow up a visit to the Galileo Museum with La Specola. The building, which has been open to the public as a museum since the 1700s, houses an eclectic collection, including an exceptional range of 17th-century wax models. Wax anatomical models were a Florentine speciality and they reveal much about early scientific understandings of anatomy.
Some of these displays are not for the faint-hearted, including the biological and zoomorphic specimens preserved and displayed in bell jars and the wax models of the stages of birth. Others are a source of surprise, such as a stuffed hippopotamus: it was a Medici pet that used to live over the road in the Boboli Gardens.
Florence’s newest museum
Florence’s reputation as the centre of Renaissance culture has overshadowed its more recent art and history. The city’s collection of modern art, which was established in 1966, for example, only found a home a few years ago at the Museo del Novecento, which is worth a visit if you have a keen interest in modern Italian art.
It is partly for this reason that Roberto Casamonti, the founder of Tornabuoni Galleries – one of the world’s leading modern and contemporary art dealers – decided to open his private collection in his hometown.
In many ways, he is a continuation of the role Florentines have played as connoisseurs and trendsetters, from Lorenzo the Magnificent, to Stefano Bardini and even the first modern fashion show, which took place in Florence’s Torrigiani Gardens.
The Casamonti Collection opened in March 2018 and has been the talk of the town. The collection is excellent, including many of the great names of European and Italian modern art, but it also carefully brings out the range of styles and ideas Italian artists have pursued.
Unlike some galleries of modern art, it is neither the usual work by the usual suspects, nor is it too personal a collection to be broadly interesting. It also has the added value of being inside a beautiful 16th-century palace, in the heart of Florence.
Palazzo Massimo, Rome
Only 500 metres from Termini railway station is one of Rome’s best collections of antiquities. Unlike the Capitoline Museums, which are almost entirely given over to sculpture, Palazzo Massimo showcases the range of arts in the Roman world.
Among its highlights are the ‘garden room’ frescoes from Livia’s Villa at Prima Porta. These wonderful paintings were excavated from a semi-subterranean dining room and show an earthly paradise beyond the trompe l’oeil picket fence: birds, insects, flowers, shrubs and trees surround you on all sides, and the colours are brilliantly preserved.
In the basement – effectively a walk-in strongbox – you’ll find an exceptional collection of coinage and an excellent collection of Roman jewellery, whose range of styles makes it clear that Imperial Rome was a polyethnic, cosmopolitan capital.
In between are mosaics and wall paintings from excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries, many of which took place during the expansion and modernisation of the city. This includes entire reconstructed wings of Roman palaces, such as the Villa Farnesina, which are a real treat.
The sculpture collection too contains some rare pieces, including the Portinaccio Sarcophagus, which was probably crafted for one of Marcus Aurelius’ generals and is a masterpiece of Roman sculpture, and the Boxer at Rest, a 4th-century BCE Hellenistic sculpture of a tired boxer caught in the moment when he looks up at you and is about to speak.
The Palazzo Massimo is part of the National Museum of Rome, and for an additional couple of euro, you can get a combined ticket that includes the Palazzo Altemps, Crypta Balbi and the Baths of Diocletian, each of which is worth a visit in its own right.
Palazzo Altemps, Rome
The Palazzo Altemps is just behind Piazza Navona, and walking in is like entering a world entirely set apart from the hubbub of commerce and mass tourism crowding Rome’s city centre.
The palace was built in the 15th century by a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, and was renovated in the 16th century. The Renaissance frescoes are beautifully preserved – including a wonderful fresco commemorating the silver service from the wedding of Girolamo Riario to Caterina Sforza.
The palace is a perfect place to display antiquities, and the rooms are not over-stuffed, allowing you to stand back and appreciate the works fully. Highlights include the Suicide of a Gaul, part of the same cycle as the Dying Gaul in the Capitoline Museums, and the Ludovisi Ares, showing the god of war at rest, about which Winckelmann once rhapsodised.
Palazzo Altemps is also very much a living museum, and it regularly hosts very good contemporary exhibitions. These are often inserted carefully into the museum’s permanent display, such as last winter’s exhibition from the Fornasetti Archive, which playfully evoked the continuities between ancient, Renaissance and modern Italian styles.
For more antiquities displayed in a novel way, visit Centrale Montemartini. This museum is the overflow of the Capitoline Museums and the collection is displayed in an abandoned power station on the Via Ostiense, an easy walk from the Garbatella metro station. The machinery has also been lovingly restored and preserved, and the contrast between Roman art and modern industry is delightful.
To see how other Romans lived, take the short train trip to Ostia Antica, the port of ancient Rome. Today it’s an exceptionally well-preserved archaeological site, with the remains of apartment blocks, inns, bakeries, a theatre, public buildings and mosaics. It is like Pompeii, but without the crowds and hawkers.
Museum of the High Middle Ages
This museum is one of the least visited in Rome, perhaps because it is in EUR, a model city centre designed in the Fascist period and completed in the 1950s. It’s a 20-minute metro ride from the city centre and has a phenomenal collection of medieval decorative art, including exquisite Lombard jewellery.
The Lombards ruled Italy for centuries after the final decline of the Roman Empire and their diverse material culture has been a problem for scholars. It reveals various influences – Germanic, Hungarian, Byzantine and Latin – which is indicative of the melting pot of cultures in Italy in the Middle Ages.
One of the highlights of the museum is a late antique room, discovered in a villa near Ostia Antica. The walls and floors of inlaid marble and mosaic are exceptional, although it is thought they weighed too much for the room ever to have been completed!
Giorgio de Chirico’s House and Studio
Up above Piazza di Spagna, at the base of the Spanish steps, is one of Rome’s finest house museums. Giorgio de Chirico is one of Italy’s most influential modern artists, but he also knew how to live well.
According to de Chirico, he moved here because, “They say that Rome is at the centre of the world and that Piazza di Spagna is in the centre of Rome, therefore, my wife and I would indeed be living in the centre of the centre of the world, which would be the apex of centrality, and the apogee of anti-eccentricity.”
Inside you’ll see stylish furnishings from the 50s and 60s – Italy’s “La Dolce Vita” period – surrounded by wall after wall of the modern master’s artwork and pieces from his own collection. The light, colour and style of the apartment is a far cry from the hubbub downstairs on the Spanish Steps.
The area used to be Rome’s intellectual centre, and while here you might also enjoy visiting the Keats-Shelley House and the Goethe House Museum, or enjoy a coffee in Rome’s oldest surviving literary café, AnticoCafé Greco. It was de Chirico’s local, and just near the bathroom is a set of sketches by large-living Sicilian artist Renato Guttuso.
As you can see from this brief and highly personal survey, two of Italy’s most heavily trafficked cities offer a wealth of cultural experiences. Far from the madding crowds, these sites also fill in some of the blanks for the lesser-known but equally fascinating histories of this extraordinary country, and we look forward to introducing you to more of them in subsequent posts.
Dr Nick Gordon
Dr Nick Gordon is a cultural historian and artist, with over 10 years of experience leading tours to Europe. He has strong interests in art, history, philosophy and architecture, from the ancient world to the present. Nick is also a practicing painter and brings this passion to the visual arts. He holds a University Medal and PhD in history from the University of Sydney.