Landscape and the imagination in Florence

Visions of nature and depictions of nature were the themes selected for a day of study of landscape  paintings in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. A selection of works  illustrate  artists’ use of natural elements for cultural representations.

The Gallery visit was guided by Susan Ashley, Colorado College, and Nancy Thompson, St. Olaf College, with contributions from Andrea Kann and Mary Trull.

Notes compiled by Angela Ziskowski, Andrea Kann, and Marty St. Clair, Coe College

Links to images appear throughout. Suggested readings appear at bottom of page.

The Uffizi Gallery

For a virtual visit , please use the  Google Art Project, which provides the option of “seeing” the paintings virtually in the gallery by clicking on the small person icon.

  • Guided questions to pose, for all to contemplate while viewing the works:
    • What elements of the painting reveal how people IMAGINED nature at the time this work was created?  What are elements that particularly resonate today?
    • How do artists represent nature—why do they do this in a particular way?
    • What was the perception of nature in art then versus today:  tamed, untamed?
    • Tracing a chronological development:  Moving through rooms on the top floor of the Museum, the history of Italian painting.  Contextual note:  This tracing of artistic development over time is a modernist conception, one that possibly limits our understanding because the  the works removed from their original locations and contexts.
    • In the Medieval period, people saw themselves separate from nature
    • 13th-15th c Annunciation scenes: how are they portrayed, how do they change?
Art Examined
      • Awakened Christ Triumphant Over Death
        • part of Italian Byzantine tradition, minor depiction of landscape
        • in Middle Ages, artists copied paintings, did not deal with nature
  • Madonna Enthroned (3 paintings)—by Giotto, Cimabue, and Duccio.
    • examining the naturalism (or lack thereof) of the wings of the angels
  • Simone Martini Annunciation 1333
    • §  5 reactions of Mary to the angel Gabriel—disquiet, reflection, inquiry, submission, and merit.  There are protocols for representing each stage in artistic depictions.
    • vase of lilies-standard motif in such scenes, representing purity
    • Mary is reading the Book of Hours—She becomes model for aristocratic women of the time
  • Pacino di Buonaguida, Crucifixion with Mary Magdalene and St. Francis.
    • Medieval piece
    • depicted on Mt. lavona, has a vision
    • rock of Golgotha depicted
    • treatment of mountains in scene with St. Francis similar to those of scene with Christ- nature provides parallels of the lives of the two
  • Fra’ Angelico 1420 Scenes from the Lives of Saints and Hermits from Thebes
    • more nature, landscape depicted than we have previously seen
    • What is the role of nature in the life of a hermit?
    • Is nature a sacrifice for holiness or does it enhance one’s connection to the divine?
    • painting does not actually divide nature/built environment much
  • Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi
    • Gentile was working for the Strozzi family
    • one of the first night scenes depicted in painting (in the predella)
    • The primary image of the altarpiece is the Adoration of the Magi.  We see more realism, a very constructed landscape, continuous narration above depicting the procession
  • Domenico Veneziano –St. Lucy Altarpiece
    • painting conforms to Alberti’s 1 point perspective
    • orthogonal lines direct one’s eyes to Madonna’s womb
    • in the center- the horizon line is across the middle
    • Alberti wants an idealized world- we don’t actually see in 1 point perspective
    • Includes a figure or interlocutor (St. John the Baptist) who directs the viewer’s attention to the important events taking place.
    • painting depicts a “sacred conversation”
  • Botticelli’s Annunciation 1480-1490
    • depicts the “submission” stage
    • We see landscape outside the window, takes place in a house
  • Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur 1482
    • painted for a summer home of the Medicis, for Lorenzo di P. Francesco who was a Neoplatonist
    • Botticelli probably attended to the Platonic Academy himself
    • Neoplatonic vision of the world—harmonious whole, connections between all parts and the universe
    • Plato thought there was a perfect absolute form for everything
    • Everything Botticelli paints in this period has multiple layers of meaning and ties into this philosophy
    • We cannot understand the allegorical meanings, like positions, expressions, etc.  Do not have a great grasp of what this painting meant
    • The woman may be Minerva, centaur is cross between beast and man.  Minerva as wisdom is the path to the divine and overcoming animalistic nature
    • other scholars say the painting representing virtue over passion, Medicis over Florence
    •  “Camilla and Satyr”?  a call to chastity?
  • Primavera of Botticelli 1482ish
    • commissioned for Medici wedding, one can read it in a marital context if they wish
    • Venus in Neoplatonic context as the Virgin
    • depicts a constructed, ideal environment
    • oranges represent the coat of arms of the Medici (5 balls)
    • Neoplatonist interpretations: Mercury = reason, Venus = humanity, Graces represent the human soul, Cupid aims arrow of passion at the soul.
    • soul must use earthly beauty to reach the divine.  Venus represents all of this.
    • Feminist interpretation: admonishing a bride (context of painting in bridal chamber)
  • Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo Van der Goes, 1483
    • Flemish painters influencing Italian Renaissance art, working in new medium, oil
    • Demonstrates the ability of Northern painters to portray a realism of particulars
    • piece has great influence on Botticelli’s work
  • Leonardo Da Vinci’s Annunciation 1472
    • this painting, and his depiction of the sky and atmosphere, shows he does not abide by his own instructions in On Painting.
  • Giovanni Bellini, Sacred Allegory
    • Scene is populated with an enigmatic collection of figures (both classical and biblical) deployed across a landscape
    • Meaning remains a mystery
    • Example of Venetian painters and their depiction of landscape (Venetians depicted landscapes sooner than Florentines)

Archaeological Museum:

Use of environmental resources for production and distribution of goods via trade across the Mediterranean

  • Etruscans
    • mysterious origins because we do not have literature of them, have trouble reading their language
    • most remains of the society come from grave goods
    • controlled 12 major hilltop cities in the region. Include Orvieto, Veii, Tarquinia
    • flourished from 9th/8th c BC to 3rd c BC. Heavy influence on Roman culture
    • origins may be native Italic or from the Near East
    • evidence: metalwork, pottery, grave goods, sarcophagi
    • status of women has been studied through the Etruscans because they depict them more frequently in their art
    • tombs include tumuli and rock cut chamber tombs
    • Influence on Roman culture ranges from myth and religion (Romulus and Remus), social institutions, political organization, athletic events
    • Issues of grave robbery and theft: objects have been stolen and illegally transported for generations
    • the Chimaera of Arezzo  (bronze statue from 6th century BC)
    • questions of hybridity: can you create something entirely new or do you take parts of other cultures, styles, etc?



  • Burckhardt, Jacob, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Pt. 4, The Discovery of the World and of Man (parts 1-3) [Several versions available online at Project Gutenberg: HTML | ePub | Kindle] [seeing nature as an object]
  • Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting, Prologue, Books 1-3. [Cambridge Books Online][Various Formats: Amazon]. Open access edition here. [the mathematics of perspective]
  • DaVinci, Leonardo, On Painting (edited by Martin Kemp), 1989. Part IV, The Depiction of Nature, pp 159-191. [the techniques of capturing nature in one dimension]
  • Cosgrove, Denis, “The Geometry of Landscape: Practical and Speculative Arts in Sixteenth-century Venetian Land Territories,” 254-276 in Cosgrove, Denis and S. Daniels, eds., The Iconography of Landscape, 1988. [how mathematics, perspective, and neo-Platonism influenced reclamation plans]
  • David Branagan, “Geology and the Artists of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Mainly Florentine,” in Battista Vai, Gian and Caldwell, W. Glen E., “The Origins of Geology in Italy” GSA Special Paper 411, 2006, pp. 31-42.

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