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Salvatore La Spina

December 21, 2015

The Nativity in Florence

What's more the Christmas nativity scene? here is an exclusive tour of the works not to be missed in Florence

The theme of the birth of Jesus (the Nativity) is probably among the most represented in the history of Italian art. The first artistic works that represent the Nativity date back to the III century AD and were found in the Priscilla catacombs in Rome. Florence houses numerous works with scenes of the Nativity: in the Uffizi Gallery, for example, there are masterpieces such as The Adoration of the Shepherds by Leonardo, the Tondo Doni by Michelangelo and The Adoration of the Magi by Filippino Lippi.

Here, we have decided to mention some works by non-Florentine artists starting from the Adoration of the Magi (or Pala Strozzi) by Gentile da Fabriano. Painted in 1423 for the banker Palla Strozzi, the work represents the entire journey of the three wise men from the East. The narrative begins in three lunettes where you can observe the three Magi who, having seen the comet, set out for Jerusalem and enter the city. The procession then reappears throughout the lower half of the painting. On the left we see the stables with the ox and the donkey, Saint Joseph, the Madonna with the Child and two servants. In front of the Child are the three Magi. Their clothes are sumptuous, with arabesque gold brocades and precious studded belts. Behind them are two characters: the man with the falcon is the commissioner Palla Strozzi with his son Lorenzo next to him. Completely new and unusual for Florence, so much so as to generate quite a stir, is the tone of the parade, which looks more like an elegant aristocrats’ hunting party than a religious scene.

Another painting to have caused an uproar, as well as influence the Florentine painting of its time, is the great Portinari Polyptych. It was painted in Bruges by Hugo van der Goes for Tommaso Portinari, head of the local Medici Bank. The triptych arrived in Pisa by ship and then arrived in Florence via the Arno River, where it was placed in the Church of Sant’Egidio in 1483. The triptych has two doors where, once opened, the commissioner and his sons Antonio and Pigello are depicted on the left overlooked by Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Thomas, while his wife Maria di Francesco Baroncelli and their daughter Margherita are depicted on the right-hand door with Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Margaret of Antioch. The centre of the painting is dominated by the adoration of the shepherds in which the Child who is completely nude and the strong realism with which Mary, Joseph and the group of shepherds on the right have been depicted stands out. The vases of flowers and the sheaf of wheat in the foreground symbolise the purity, the incarnation and the passion of Jesus.

Of a completely different genre and surrounded by an atmosphere of surreal beauty is the Adoration of the Child by Correggio. Dating from around 1526 the work was donated by Francesco I Gonzaga to Cosimo II in 1617 and was immediately placed in the Uffizi Tribune. The painting is among the most moving in the Uffizi because of the tenderness of the relationship between the mother and her son surrounded by the golden light of a sunset.

Held in the Galleria Palatina in Palazzo Pitti, there is the monumental Tondo Bartolini by Filippo Lippi. Dating to 1452-1453, according to tradition, the painting was commissioned by Leonardo Bartolini. The round format, one of first of the early Renaissance period, was an inspiration to other artists in the late XV century. The Child is on his mother’s knee. The Virgin’s hairstyle is very elegant with fine braided veils, adorned with thin strings of pearls. The dress is rich and majestic. The Virgin and the Child are holding a pomegranate, the symbol of fertility and kingship. In the background are the scenes related to the birth of Mary: the Meeting at the Golden Gate of Joachim and Anna and the birth of the Virgin. The choice of scenes recalls a theme that was much discussed in the XV century, the “immaculate” conception of Mary.

Crossing the Ponte Santa Trinita, inside of the church of the same name is housed the Adoration of the Shepherds by Domenico del Ghirlandaio. Completed between 1483 and 1485, the painting was inserted into the splendid cycle of frescoes commissioned by the banker Francesco Sassetti to decorate the family chapel. In the background of the painting you can see two cities that can be identified as Jerusalem and Rome. The central scene depicts an ancient sarcophagus, a symbol of Christianity that triumphs over paganism. The work is considered to be one of the most important by Domenico Ghirlandaio because of the strong colours and the portraits, as well as for his ability to rework the Nordic school style introduced to Florence by the Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes.

 Housed inside the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, just reopened after years of restoration, is the Madonna of the Nativity by Arnolfo di Cambio, dating from the early XIV century. The sculpture, from the ancient façade of Santa Maria del Fiore, can be admired today in the reconstruction of the façade inside the Museum. Mary is relaxed, leaning on her elbow, according to the traditional iconography revived also in those years by Giotto, wearing a cape with very realistic folds and she has a melancholy look. The Madonna was probably originally surrounded by a group in relief depicting the adoration of the shepherds, unfortunately lost when the work was demolished by Bernardino Poccetti. 

We conclude our trip with the Adoration of the Shepherds by Alesso Baldovinetti, dated to 1460 and held in the Chiostro dei Voti in the Santissima Annunziata church. The Adoration of the Shepherds was the first fresco to decorate the cloister and, despite its lack of conservation, we can still see the careful attention to natural detail. In the foreground, on the right, there are the stables with the Child in the centre flanked by Mary in prayer, a sleeping Joseph, the ox and the donkey. On the right are two shepherds who are arriving, while another two on the left are receiving the Angel’s announcement. As we leave the Chiostrino dei Voti we cannot help but think of how many other masterpieces are housed in Florence that have the Nativity of Jesus as their theme...

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