by Shannon Gilmore

If you have ever been a tourist quickly passing through Florence, your everlasting impression of the city probably resembles something like a blurred montage of Renaissance masterpieces, as you race from one site to the other, hitting the “blockbuster” works listed for you in your Top Ten or Rick Steves guidebooks. Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and Brunelleschi’s dome are the images that you take with you when you leave the birthplace of the Renaissance. However, living in Florence, even for a few months, is a much different experience.

As a resident or student studying abroad in Florence, you get to know the masterpieces personally. The state museums of Florence offer many special events that enliven the galleries and hallways of the more traditional museums, such as the Uffizi Gallery, the Accademia Gallery, the Bargello Museum, and the Pitti Palace. One particular initiative is Art Tuesdays, which is geared, not at tourists, but at those living in the city. Every month, one Tuesday evening is set aside for those who work and go to class during the day, as the state museums stay open late, until 11 pm, and are free to the public. In this way, those living in Florence can escape the tourist-ridden crowds and enjoy an evening amongst the greats of art history. The events also offer special concerts and lectures on these evenings, so as to enhance one’s typical museum experience.

Not only do you have the chance to immerse yourself in the artwork displayed in these museums, you also have the opportunity to explore the museums’ structures themselves. In Florence, the majority of the museums harbor their own history, outside of the collections they house. The Palazzo Vecchio, for example, offers special tours that enable visitors to cut into the building’s rich layers of history and discover its more hidden aspects, from the foundations where the ruins of a Roman theater lies to the secret passageways snaking throughout the edifice that were once used by the Medici dukes. In some museums, you seem to be transported back in time, as art is explored through the discipline of theater. In the Palazzo Vecchio, you can choose the grandfather of art history, Giorgio Vasari, to guide you through the palace’s rooms. Similarly, the Uffizi Gallery’s Vasari Corridor has recently been transformed to a stage set where characters from Florentine history make special appearances. In these ways, the museums exploit the buildings themselves, providing the public with more authentic historical experiences.

However, you have only scratched the surface of the city’s art if you solely concentrate on the “big-name” monuments and museums. To understand the multifarious nature of the Florentine art scene, you need only take a tour of the museums dedicated to the acquisitions of famous collectors. One can only imagine the attraction that Florence held for collectors, beginning with the Medici family and continuing with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century art dealers. The Medicean collections are mainly found in the large state museums, but also pop up in unlikely places, such as the La Specola Museum, which contains an extraordinary collection related to natural history and zoology. Meanwhile, the majority of the later collectors’ heritage is now on display in house-museums, which attempt to recreate the interior of Renaissance palaces.

Other museums in the city are exploring new ways in which to introduce the visitor to the objects displayed. One such innovator is the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation, a twenty-first century museum contained within a Renaissance palace. The Strozzi offers creative temporary exhibits that encourage one’s direct participation in the art and the ideas presented. Each exhibit has an interactive space where visitors can take part in various activities, which, in the past, have included creating artwork, performing scientific experiments, and leaving written messages so as to forge a dialogue with future visitors. Another interactive museum is the year-old Galileo Museum, which recently inaugurated an area devoted to introducing visitors to the science of Galileo and his peers through the use of modern technology, such as touch-screens and working models. As is evident with these two examples, there is a recent trend in Florence toward taking an up-to-date approach to historic objects and art.

The museums are not the only entities moving toward the future. The city’s artistic heritage has provided a nurturing environment for contemporary artists as well. The best example of this phenomenon is the Oltrarno neighborhood, which, historically, overflowed with artisans’ and craftsmens’ workshops. And today, not much has changed, as the streets are still dominated by artists’ studios and galleries, as well as shops offering handmade crafts. The Oltrarno area is not the only home to contemporary art. There are also several contemporary art centers throughout the city, such as the EX3 Centre for Contemporary Art, the Stazione Leopolda, and the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation’s CCC Strozzina, all of which boast installations and temporary exhibits of today’s artists. The city also works to support their up-and-coming artists. For example, the annual Contemporary Art Day promotes special contemporary art exhibits and opens select artists’ studios to visitors, so as to introduce the public to emerging Florentine artists.

As a resident of Florence, even a temporary one, you will discover that the Florentine art scene is much more than just Renaissance masterpieces, for it offers many lesser-known, diverse facets, from exploring ancient ruins beneath the city to perusing the many contemporary art galleries. When you live here, you will find those blurred snapshots gradually sharpening and multiplying.


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