On arrival in Florence, the LVI History of Art group, accompanied by Mrs McMahon and Dr Wickson, were met with glorious sunshine and a sense that spring, if not summer had arrived early. Yet a treat even more special was in store and, as soon as we had checked in at the equally sunny Hotel California, we were on our way to our first visit. We could not have received a warmer welcome if we’d tried as our port of call was the top floor café-bar of the newly opened Museo degli Innocenti where the acclaimed author of historical fiction, Sarah Dunant, would be waiting for us. Dr Wickson had arranged this personal meeting which was particularly special because the girls had been reading Sarah’s earliest Art History based novel The Birth of Venus which is set in 15th century Florence as a means of bringing the context of the Early Renaissance to life. We were truly fortunate to have been able to talk to Sarah about her work in which she evokes the heady mix of artistic ferment and political tension that characterised the period through her meticulously researched mode of story-telling and we were lucky enough to discuss issues such as female education, the world of the noble families and the disparity between artistic training for men and women. The location of the museum’s bar gave us an extraordinary close up view of the Florentine roof tops crowned with the ribbed cupola of Brunelleschi’s enormous Cathedral dome, creating a perfect introduction to the city which reveals its stories through every brick, painted panel and edifice. Before leaving we stopped to consider the untold stories of the orphans who would have been posted through the rotating slot of the Ospedale degli Innocenti by mothers silenced either by families or by the conditions which prevented them from bringing up their babies.

On Saturday, more stories of Florence’s past were told through the bodies of the sculpted figures we witnessed in the Bargello (one of Italy’s most important collections of sculpture housed in a former prison). We contrasted the form of Donatello’s St George with his later David in order to understand how the triumphant male body could articulate differing representations of Florentine strength dependent on variations in patronage and location. Next, the monuments, plaques and tombs located in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce told us much, not only about Florence but also about Italy, and we gazed upon the resting place of those heroes who had secured their legacy through the telling of stories via words, deeds and pictures. Yet it was in the Pazzi Chapel that the language of architecture spoke so eloquently in the telling of the story of the relationship Florence shared with Rome, whilst the spiritual atmosphere of serenity concealed the real story of the Pazzi family and their murderous animosity towards their rivals, the Medici. After lunch – which continues to be taken extremely seriously in Italy – intensive study took place in the Brancacci Chapel. Detailed notes were taken whilst observing the multifarious ways in which Masaccio retold the life of St Peter, using the technique of simultaneous narrative to coherently present three episodes from the same story in one unified space and once again we observed the crucial role of the human body in making story clear and easy to follow. We then moved on to Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican church strongly associated with the Tornabuoni family who commissioned Ghirlandaio to collapse the narrative cycles of the Lives of the Virgin and John the Baptist with episodes from the biographies of the Florentine noble women of which Giovanna Tornabuoni was the most tragically famous due to her death in childbirth after providing the family with a male heir.

On Sunday, we made an early start and visited the Medici Palace, its vast over-hanging cornice, concealed Classical inner courtyard and precious chapel decorated by Benozzo Gozzoli revealing an unfolding story of stylistic evolution as Florence wished to amplify the message that she was ‘daughter and creature of Rome’ during her expansion during the 15th century. We then moved on to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in order to focus on Ghiberti’s Baptistery Doors which simultaneously narrated the Old and New Testament stories that prefigured the birth and death of Christ whilst revealing Ghiberti’s personal story as an artist who demanded to be known as both an intellectual and master of his own fortune. We also witnessed Donatello’s Mary Magdalene at first hand, exploring how technique amplified her biography as a sinner and a penitent racked with remorse. A busy schedule was rounded off by a full afternoon in the Uffizi, which although currently undergoing re-design, retains its chronological tracing of stylistic development through its extraordinary collection – the highlight for us being Botticelli’s Primavera which is located in the newly hung Botticelli room. In this poetic image lacking in apparent narrative yet interwoven with Neo-Platonic borrowing from Ovid and other antique sources, the symbolism relates to the marriage of Pierfrancesco di Medici and Semaramide d’Arpino – the knowledge of their story greatly enhancing the interpretation of the coded messages in the flower strewn scene.

We finished our study trip with supper at the Trattoria San Lorenzo which is located immediately in front of the vast church that houses the tombs of the Medici family and we felt amazed at the way in which the city of Florence acts as its own narrator: its structures, sculpted bodies and paintings speaking to us, whispering only a feint glimmer of further stories waiting to be told.

Dr Penelope Wickson