The Cloisters of Florence Part I
What constitutes good travel? In my opinion it is having a wide spectrum of experiences that plant seeds of memories that you take back home with you. Good travel involves laughter, joy, uncertainty, and introspection.
The city in Europe that I feel most “at home” in would be Florence. As a visual artist I was heavily influenced by the artists of the Renaissance and there is something reassuring about knowing I’m walking in their footsteps. I also lead a lot of tour groups through the cultural of wonderland of Florentine treasures during the high, hectic tourist packed months in the summer and it is difficult to find respite from the crowds and heat. During these high tourist season times it becomes really important for me to find a few moments of peace and tranquility. Somewhere to gather my thoughts and maybe jot some things down in my sketchbook.
This is why I love Cloisters…
What are Cloisters?
Cloisters are descendants of the Roman atrium. Think open air, centralized spaces found in the homes of the wealthy. There are lots of good examples of this in Pompeii with homes that form the shape of a rectangle with an open sky in the center. This would allow the collection of rainwater.
Further down the boot in Rome we find the House of Vestals in the forum where the virgins lived around their open courtyard. This design format found its way into the burgeoning religious orders of the Franciscans, Dominicans and Benedictines in the monasteries and abbeys. Cloisters provided a covered walkway to the chapel from the sleeping quarters and represented a protected space. In the cloister you are safe and you are protected from the outside world of wars, plagues and sin.
The Cloisters of Santa Croce
The Basilica of Santa Croce sits on the east side of the historic center of Florence. Within the church proper are buried many of Italy’s most prominent figures such as Michelangelo, Rossini, and Machiavelli. Legend has it that the church was founded by St. Francis himself. Not sure if that is true but the current building began in 1294 and paid for by many of Florence’s wealthiest families.
The church itself is worth an extended visit. You can see the various tombs in the main sanctuary and then work your way into the various other sections of the complex. There are some very nice works of art found throughout that stretch over many centuries. One highlight that you should pass on your way to the cloisters is the Last Supper by Gaddi.
Gaddi’s Last Supper
Although he is not an artist that a lot of people know Taddeo Gaddi’s painting of Christ’s last meal has an engaging presence. Look past the poor condition of the fresco as it badly needs restoring but instead focus on the massiveness of the scale nearly taking up the whole wall. The colors are intense and rich with the figure of Christ in the center with a confident gesture and pose. Judas the betrayer is on the opposite side of the table and reaches out to Christ which is perhaps him foreshadowing his need for forgiveness.
Gaddi was a pupil of Giotto and noted early biographer Vasari stated that he “surpassed his master in his use of color”. Above the Last Supper is a huge scene of the Crucifixion in which Christ looks as if he is a tree.
To the Cloisters
The inner cloister by designed by Brunelleschi (who also designed the great Duomo in the center of the city) has an elegant gray and white loggia and is a haven of peace and tranquility. Look for the monument to Florence Nightingale.
Take some time to linger here and find some quiet time. Hopefully you are here on a sunlit day.
Inside of the museum look for the 14th century Crucifix by Cimabue. This powerful image of Christ is intense and it provokes a visceral response from the viewer. Highly influential this image took a humanistic turn and made an impact upon many of the artists who saw it. The Byzantine style of the Crucifix was static while Cimabue’s representation was dynamic with strong diagonals. Future artists such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Velasquez were captivated by the image.
Cimabue’s masterpiece along with the entire church complex were devastated by the 1966 floods of Florence. It has been saved after a long and intensive restoration effort.
First in a Series
I’m looking forward to writing about many of the other cloisters found within the city of Florence and I hope that you take a few moments to escape in the calm that these spaces provide.