THE HISTORY OF THE ACCADEMIA GALLERY
The Accademia Gallery is located in the historic centre of Florence, in the northern part of Via Ricasoli, at the confluence with Piazza San Marco.
Inside, it houses the wealthiest collection of Michelangelo‘s works, including seven in total, among which the famous David stands out, and the most extensive collection of medieval panel paintings with a gold background worldwide.
Every year, it is visited by over one million and two hundred thousand people. Along with the Academy of Fine Arts, it occupies a vast complex that extends from Via Battisti to Via Degli Alfani, from Piazza Santissima Annunziata to Via Ricasoli.
THE FIRST SETTLEMENT OUTSIDE THE CITY WALLS: THE HOSPITAL OF SAN MATTEO
In the medieval era, around the early 1300s, in this area known as Cafaggio, which was outside the city walls until it was incorporated into the expansion of the second communal circle of 1280, also known as Arnolfo‘s circle, stood the ancient monastery of the Sisters of San Niccolò in Cafaggio.
It occupied the corner between Via dei Ciliegi (now Via Alfani) and Via del Cococomero (now Via Ricasoli).
Soon, in 1391, on the opposite side of Via del Cococomero, on the corner of the current Piazza San Marco, a hospital named San Matteo di Cafaggio was built for men and women. It was commissioned by the banker Guglielmo (Lemmo) di Vinci di Graziano Balducci, who wanted to donate a hospital to the community.
The construction of the building was entrusted in 1385 to Romolo di Bandino and Sandro del Vinta, “masters of stone and wood,” whom he asked to erect a corner loggia on the square, following the example of the Bonifazio hospital in Via San Gallo. In 1388, after various events, the banker Lemmo entrusted the same masters with renovating the monastery of the Sisters of San Niccolò, instructing them to reuse the existing structures of the old monastery.
In 1410, the San Matteo Hospital was practically put into service. This urban layout, with its corresponding purpose, remained virtually unchanged until Grand Duke Leopold I of Lorraine arrived. The perspective map of Florence in 1584 by the Florentine cartographer Stefano Bonsignori (Nova Pulcherrimae Civitatis Florentine Topographia) accurately shows the urban layout and the buildings that were erected in the Cafaggio area at that time.
TRANSFORMATIONS DESIRED BY GRAND DUKE LEOPOLDO I OF TUSCANY
With the advent of Grand Duke Leopold I of Lorraine, an enlightened sovereign of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and a great reformer of the 18th century, significant changes began in this part of the city.
It was desired to establish a citadel of the arts to promote the cultural development of the grand ducal State and the economic growth with the flourishing of Tuscan artistic manufactures.
In 1784, the grand duke issued a decree known as “motuproprio,” stipulating that all existing drawing schools in Florence, including the ancient Academy of the Arts of Design founded in 1563 by Cosimo de’ Medici and attended by the greatest artists of the time such as Vasari, Bronzino, Ammannati, Sansovino, Giambologna, and Cellini, would be unified into a single Academy that would acquire the more modern classical name of The Academy of Fine Arts, “all the schools belonging to Design, and the Academy that will preside over them.”
Furthermore, a gallery was decided to be created alongside it to house the ancient paintings being acquired. Through these works, young students would enrich their artistic education by studying, observing, and reproducing the original or imitated works of Italian masters from the Renaissance and beyond.
Studies at the Academy were free and open to all those who applied, and the teaching subjects were established: painting, sculpture, colour composition, nude figure drawing, copperplate engraving, architecture, and “garottes” (later modified to ornamental design).
The new organization of the Academy in 1783 was established inside the former Hospital of the Convent of San Matteo, on the corner of the current Piazza San Marco, whose functional and distributional conversion was entrusted to architect Gaspare Mattia Paoletti, a professor of architecture at the Academy, and his collaborators Bernardo Fallani and Giuseppe Paoletti.
The transformations planned and directed by Paoletti and his collaborators mainly involved the filling-in of the 14th-century loggia on Via del Cococomero, now Via Ricasoli (the restoration of the 14th-century loggia as it appears today would have to wait until 1931), the construction of an additional building above it to accommodate the figure drawing, copperplate engraving, painting, and ornamental design schools, the adaptation of the original spaces intended for the hospitals for men and women into exhibition galleries, and the necessary functional transformations to include services and accommodations for the Academy’s directors, as well as the provision of spaces to establish artists’ studios scattered throughout the city.
In the two galleries completed as early as 1784, the extensive artistic production of the school was soon displayed.
Grand Duke Leopold, I then turned his attention to the adjacent Convent of the Nuns of San Niccolò, the ancient monastery of San Niccolo di Cafaggio, located at the beginning of Via del Cococomero, on the corner of Via del Ciliegio (now Via Alfani), acquiring the entire complex on 7 May 1787, for the sum of 5,315 lire. He entrusted the architect Bernardo Fallani with transforming and adapting it.
In 1796, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones) was established inside the former convent of the Nuns, relocating from its original location at the Uffizi, and later, in 1857, the music school, now the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory, was established as well, following a renovation project for the section of the building at the corner of the two streets carried out by architect Francesco Mazzei.
The 19th-century planimetric representations show the two contiguous and united building complexes under the Institute of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. In this way, the Grand Duke‘s idea of transforming a strategic area of the city into a great workshop of culture and art was realized, to the point that by the end of the 18th century, the operation could be considered complete.
In the Gallery desired by the Grand Duke to support academic studies, plaster casts and moulds were placed in the former men’s ward of the Hospital of San Matteo.
Among these were the Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna (a plaster copy of the marble group exhibited in the Loggia dei Lanzi) and the Allegory of Florence Dominating Pisa (now displayed in Palazzo Vecchio), as well as various drawings and models. In the women’s ward, the paintings were displayed.
With the suppression of religious institutions and convents throughout the Florentine territory, first by the Grand Duke of Lorraine in the late 18th century and later by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century, new works, mostly of religious subject matter, executed by the significant masters working in Florence and its surroundings from the second half of the 13th century to the end of the 16th century, came to enrich the collection of paintings.
These include the Maestà by Cimabue and Giotto, the Sant’Anna Metterza by Masaccio and Masolino, the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano, the Baptism of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci, and the Supper at Emmaus by Pontormo. In particular, the collection of panel paintings with a gold background is unique worldwide for its numerous examples.
THE GALLERY OF THE UNITY OF ITALY
After the Unification of Italy, the Gallery was enriched with many modern works, which led to its recognition as the Ancient and Modern Gallery. It formed the first museum of contemporary art in the emerging Italian State.
In 1872, after several decades of careful and diligent observation by three study commissions specifically created to assess the State of preservation of the marble, a historic event took place that would shape the future life of the Gallery.
Based on the alarming results provided by the experts, the Municipality of Florence decided to transfer Michelangelo‘s marble block of David from the staircase of Palazzo Vecchio, where its physical integrity was at risk due to the long and continuous exposure to the external environment, to Via Ricasoli inside the Accademia Gallery.
For this occasion, a rectangular platform connected to a semicircular exedra was specially built, located at the end of the hall of ancient paintings (now the Corridor of the Prisoners), with a skylight at the top for the natural lighting of the magnificent artwork.
In 1882, another acute episode occurred for the Accademia Gallery—the inauguration of the Michelangelo Museum on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of the great master. It featured the exhibition of casts of his significant works, such as the Medici Tombs, Moses, the Vatican Pietà, the Rondanini Pietà, the Christ of the Minerva, and the Prisoners, which surrounded the recently placed original statue of David within the Gallery, inside the De Fabris Tribune.
At the same time, the Gallery detached itself from the Institute of Fine Arts. It became annexed to the Royal Galleries and Museums, confirming the new direction of the Academy, which focused more on promoting contemporary art (indeed, during that same period, Florence was experiencing one of the most fruitful moments of artistic production thanks to the Macchiaioli Movement) rather than reproducing classical and past subjects according to the prevailing spirit at the time of the establishment of the Leopoldine school.
As a result, the collection of artworks became the subject of preservation, documentation, and a testament to past historical periods primarily. In line with this new approach, a direct entrance to the Gallery was opened on Via Ricasoli for visitors.
NEW ARRIVALS IN 1900 AND THE CONTEMPORARY PERIOD
In 1909, the Accademia Gallery was enriched by the arrival of the Prisoners (also known as Slaves since the 19th century), four powerful sculptures of male nudes by Michelangelo. They were brought indoors as they were at risk of degradation due to prolonged and continuous exposure to the external environment. These four sculptures, part of a series of six statues (the first two are located at the Louvre Museum in Paris), are more significant than life-size, depicted in various poses as prisoners, not wholly freed from the material by the artist and therefore unfinished, were carved by Michelangelo for Pope Julius II’s tomb in Rome.
Until then, they had adorned the Buontalenti Grotto in the Boboli Gardens, placed there by the Grand Duke Cosimo I, to whom they were donated by Leonardo Buonarroti, the great artist’s nephew, after his death. The new arrivals were placed after the vestibule of the entrance on Via Ricasoli in the first Gallery, later named the Gallery of the Prisoners.
They joined the famous group of Saint Matthew, already present in the Accademia, and were accompanied by the Pietà from Palestrina (a marble group dramatically depicting the dead Jesus collapsing on his legs and supported by the Mother), which came from the Chapel of Barberini Palace in Palestrina near Rome, following its acquisition by the Italian State in 1939.
With the new arrivals, the Gallery of ancient paintings acquired an organic value in the artistic life of Michelangelo Buonarroti. It became the most abundant collection of the great master preserved in a museum.
During this period, under the direction of Cosimo Ridolfi, the Accademia Gallery underwent a new transformation, mainly affecting the collection of paintings. Alongside the reorganization of the ancient paintings with their relocation in specifically designated rooms, such as those of the 14th, 15th, and 17th centuries, new exhibition spaces were created in the left wing of the Tribune, now known as the Rooms of the 13th and Early 14th centuries, the Orcagna and his followers, and the School of Giotto, where works by Botticelli and Perugino found better placement.
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Around the 1920s, as part of a general arrangement of the city’s museums and the resulting agreements between the Municipality of Florence and the State, all the paintings of modern subjects were transferred to the Modern Art Gallery of Palazzo Pitti. Another group of works by Florentine school authors was assigned to the Uffizi Gallery.
At the same time, Beato Angelico’s works were directed to the nearby Museum of San Marco, the depository of Angelico’s works.
In the 1930s, the Colosso and Anticolosso rooms were incorporated on the ground floor. They were named so because they housed the plaster cast of an ancient statue, one of the Dioscuri of Monte Cavallo.
They were designated to accommodate large altarpieces from the 16th-century Florentine period. Following these transfers, the Gallery lost any connotation of a modern gallery and became, after this episode, the Accademia Gallery.
Around the 1950s, under the direction of Luisa Becherucci, the reorganization of the ground floor rooms began with the Colossi halls. In the centre of the main entrance, the model of the Rape of the Sabine Women in raw earth, a work by the Flemish sculptor Jean de Boulogne, known as Giambologna, executed around 1582, was placed.
As we have seen, its marble version is still located under the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria. Numerous examples of Florentine painting on panel and canvas from the 15th and 16th centuries, including works by renowned masters such as Paolo Uccello, Botticelli, Perugino, Filippino Lippi, and Ghirlandaio, were displayed on the walls. The two rooms were reorganized again in the 1980s, with the smaller room being designated as the ticket office and bookstore and the works of Pontormo, Bronzino, and Alessandro Allori being moved to the room dedicated to Michelangelo‘s works, replacing the tapestries.