Florence: A Portrait

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Nestled in the Apennines, cradle of the Renaissance, home of Dante, Michelangelo, and the Medici, Florence is unlike any other city in its extraordinary mingling of great art and literature, natural splendor, and remarkable history. Intimate and grand, learned and engaging, Michael Levey's Florence renders the city in all of its madness and magnificence.

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Editorial Reviews

Dan Hofstadter
Michael Levey, the eminent British art historian, is among the most learned and eloquent of [Florence's] adoptive citizens. . . [He] is never less than highly companionable. -- Wall Street Journal
George Steiner
Levey's portrayal [of Florence] is that of an eminent art historian elegantly at home in painting, sculpture, and architecture. . . [A] loving, erudite tour. -- New Yorker
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Starting with the early Renaissance and continuing into the 19th century, Levey has amassed an admirable trove of material about one of the world's most beguiling cities. Levey, former director of London's National Gallery and author of Early Renaissance, understandably focuses on art and architectural history, adding periodic updates on the political goings-on during each of the periods covered. The chapter on early-14th century Florence, for instance, describes the striking buildings of the time (including many towers used as prisons) and the city's increasing organization into various districts before moving on to greater detail on certain important works of art, such as Andrea Orcagna's Orsanmichele tabernacle and Andrea Pisano's bronze doors. Some of the writing about art becomes numbing, not because of Levey's style but because in an attempt to reflect the volume of art produced in Florence, he covers so much of it. There's little about the daily life of normal Florentines here, and sometimes too much space is dedicated to events like the return of the Medici Pope Leo X. An entire chapter is devoted to "Triumphal Entries and Fatal Exits," which, following more strictly chronological chapters on the Florence of Lorenzo de' Medici and of Savonarola, seems an awkward attempt to cover certain works he is loathe to leave out. If at times the detail overwhelms the big picture, the 150 illustrations (50 in color) and Levey's excellent artistic counsel make this a worthy guide for anyone seriously seeking Florence. (Sept.)
Library Journal
"It is deliberately not purely an historical account, nor is it offered as an outline of Florentine art through the ages, and still less is it a guide-book." Well, what is it, then? Written by a past director of the National Gallery in London, this book is almost a personal tour of Florence, providing unusual insights and detail. Written for "the intelligent, interested, general reader" in a scholarly yet sometimes cumbersome style, it meanders through history and art providing the reader with an intimate view of Florentine personalities and environs. As a general overview of Florence's history with an art twist, this source would be an interesting addition to both academic and public libraries, but it is not an essential purchase.Jennifer L.S. Moldwin, Detroit Inst. of Arts Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
Levey, former director of London's National Gallery and a prolific art historian, explores the long history of the fabled city-state of Florence.

Said to have been founded by Julius Caesar, Florence was originally a republic based on the Roman model, made wealthy by the clothmaking trade and Mediterranean commerce. The symbol of Florence, the lily and the lion, denoted a yoking of grace and strength, qualities that would in fact enable the city to survive such calamities as fire, flood, and plague—events vividly described in the author's narrative. During the Renaissance, fervent religious devotion and brilliant artistry, dedicated to such enduring themes as the city's patron saint, John the Baptist, and the Madonna and Child, coexisted with eruptions of violence and long-standing family vendettas, a civil war between the city's Guelph and Ghibelline factions, and the struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy. Along with the constant maneuvering for power among the city's great families (most notably the Medicis), Levey presents Florence's great achievements in the arts: He believes that the city's visual arts—its architecture, sculpture, and painting—reveal its soul better than any words. Levey pays homage to the great names of Florentine art, including Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Raphael, Fra Angelico, and Giotto, as well as to such great children of Florence as Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, and Galileo. Florence's importance extended into modern times: In 1865, the city was named the capital of a united and revitalized Italy. Levey points out that present-day Florence would still be recognizable to its citizens of the past, and he asserts that one still senses there the contending elements of piety, an appetite for worldly prestige, and a consciousness of the next world, which have been constants in Florence's long history.

A fine achievement. Exceptionally detailed reporting about a fascinating city.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674306585
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 7.36 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Levey was Director of the National Gallery, London, from 1973 to 1986. His many books include Early Renaissance, The World of Ottoman Art, and Giambattista Tiepolo.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Selective Chronology
Prologue: Seriously Seeking Florence 1
1 'St. John's Sheep-fold': The City Emergent 17
2 Fire, Flood, Plague, War and Art: The City Renascent 39
3 The City and Its Citizens in Perspective 77
4 Public Competition among the Artists 116
5 Artists in Collaboration 154
6 'To Florence and God the wrong was done' 162
7 The Republic under First Medici Sway 186
8 Lorenzo de' Medici and 'the most beautiful city' 211
9 'The Troubles of Italy' 236
10 Triumphal Entries and Fatal Exits 283
11 'A young man on a marvellous horse' 322
12 The Princely City 353
13 Putting on the Style 391
14 The Enlightened City and the New Troubles of Italy 432
Epilogue: Florence as Cradle and Capital 459
Medici Family Tree 475
Books for Further Reading 477
Index 487
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