Sculptures and Tombs and Stories, Oh My!

Hello! Today's agenda was not nearly as busy as yesterday's, but the material we covered was just as interesting. Our class visited the Bargello and Cappelle Medicee and I can't wait to tell you all about it.


This museum was primarily dedicated to sculptures and statues, though it boasts a significant number of other miscellaneous treasures as well. All of the sculptures were worthy of admiration, but the most intriguing ones were Donatello's two statues of David (of the Goliath fame).

The First David

Donatello completed his first statue of David in 1408, and it wasn't just carved for aesthetic purposes. During this time period, Florence was in danger of losing its longstanding power and influence. Both Siena and Rome were home to families whose power rivaled that of the Medicis', which was bad news for the Florentians. If these external threats gained too much power, tey could conquer Florence and overthrow the Medicis --the family that essentially controlled the entire city.

Well, we know that Florence and the Medicis retained their power throughout the Renaissance, but this was hardly because people sat back and let the chips fall where they may. No, the Florentians took an active role in keeping their position of power. The Medicis were fans of using artwork to send a message (remember the Botticelli painting?), and they commissioned the statue of David with this intention. The completed statue features a muscular, emotionless David standing above the head of Goliath.

The marble structure is well done to say the least, but Donatello and the Medicis were less concerned with this than the meaning behind it. The statue was a symbol of the strength and might of Florence, announcing to all who viewed it that they could vanquish their foes if they stood with the Fatherland. History remembers Florence as a city of power and wisdom, so it's safe to say that the message was received.

The Second David

Much like Donatello's work in 1408, there is more to his second David than meets the eye. This controversial sculpture was unveiled in roughly 1440 and has almost nothing in common with its predecessor. The new David was the first free-standing bronze statue to appear since classical antiquity, which starkly contrasted the white marble used to construct the first David. The bronze statue is small (relatively to the other marble sculptures, which tower over museum-goers), depicting a slightly effeminate young boy who wears a dreamy expression as he stands lazily over the vanquished Goliath.

This David, unlike the former, is not intimidating at all. In fact, the overwhelming differences between the two statues make it difficult to believe that they both feature the same subject.

Why would a powerhouse like Florence want to utilize such a non-threatening mascot? For that answer we must look to historical context. At this point in time Florence had beaten their political adversary, Siena, in a big way. The latter emerged the loser of a battle that sealed their fate forever for in its wake the victors decreed that Siena could not erect any more new buildings. As if this loss were not enough, Siena was met with another crushing blow in the form of plague soon after. The city was left crippled, and Florence looked all the more glorious by comparison. 

The leaders of Florence did not let this military victory go to their heads, though, and the c.1440 David is proof of this. Florence could not be painted as a villain or an enemy, lest other forces become sympathetic toward Siena and decide to attack. Rather, the city needed to perpetuate the idea that they, like David, were an underdog. The new David was Florence's way of saying "It's Them against Us and we have to defend ourselves." Thus, this childlike statue became an unlikely political tool. 

Cappelle Medicee

You probably know that the Medici family was wealthy, you might even know their net worth, but it's hard to really understand how wealthy they were until you see some of the buildings that they owned, like the Cappelle Medicee. It housed the family's private chapel and several of their tombs that are spread between luxurious rooms. The chapel is covered in varying types of marble designed and installed to create intricate patterns, many of which included the Medici crest. If there are no pictures attached to this post when you read it, then Jacque and I are still muddling through technical difficulties on our end. We will upload them as soon as we can. I could try to explain the room to you without them, but I really don't think I could do it justice. 

The Medici family becomes even more intriguing when you learn that, though they lived like kings, they weren't actually royals at all. They amassed their wealth by way of banking, and it was only after they were considered the most powerful family in the world that the pope --who was also a Medici-- awarded the head of the family the title of Duke. At this point the honor was purely ceremonial; everyone understood that the Medicis had just as much power as any official monarch. 

Still more fascinating were the Medici popes, at least two of whom were guilty of the sin of gluttony, mainly for splendor. Professor Merritt thrilled our eager class with tales of debauchery and hundred-day-long parties that at least two of the Medici popes indulged in. As the papacy was one of the most powerful positions a person could hold throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (and arguably today as well), the Medicis understood the advantages of securing it. Now both their money and religious connections ensured that their legacy would outlive them for centuries to come. So, the Medicis didn't need to play by the rules, they were the people who wrote them! 

As a Catholic myself, I can't even begin to explain how interesting this is to me. The Medici popes weren't great people, and as unfortunate that absolutely was, it makes their family's history --and the Church's-- all the more curious. We still have a few more days in Florence and I'm sure that our class will have the opportunity to learn more about this notorious family. Stay tuned! 

Thanks for reading! 

Your Friendly J Term Blogger,

Kate Koch 

 **Disclaimer** Unless we say otherwise, all of the information in these posts is courtesy of Professor Merritt and not our own personal knowledge. We write the blog after we hear his lectures. If we use another source, we will cite it. Just want to make sure credit is given where it is due! 

The ceiling of the Medici Chapel