With so many artists flocking to see paintings of the Renaissance masters in Florence, it was only a matter of time before they stayed a little longer and stepped out into the open to paint views of the city before they left. Far less popular than views of the canals of Venice, and lacking a Canaletto to market them to tourists, you have to look a bit harder to find these marvellous landscapes.
Gaspar van Wittel’s undated View of Florence from San Niccolò Weir from the late seventeenth century is among the earliest. This looks west from Varlungo along the north bank of the River Arno, with the centre of the city and the dome to the right.
With the rise in oil sketching en plein air during the late eighteenth century, it was only a matter of time before a landscape painter broke away from the Roman campagna and travelled north.
Camille Corot painted this oil sketch View of Florence from the Boboli Gardens in 1835, on one of his return trips to Italy, when he visited Venice and Florence. These gardens are on the south bank of the river, and afford this fine view to the north of the Duomo on the opposite bank, and the Tuscan hills in the background.
The American landscape painter Thomas Cole visited Italy during his Grand Tour of Europe in 1842, so I suspect that the claimed date of 1837 for his View of Florence may not be accurate. His vantage point appears to be in the Giardino Bardini, on the south bank, looking north over the Ponte Vecchio, Duomo and other major buildings in the central city on the opposite bank.
Carl Gustav Carus seems to have painted this View of Florence (1841) from the window of his accommodation when visiting the city. The dome of the Duomo appears slightly exaggerated in height.
Twenty years later, in November 1861, the aspiring landscape painter John Brett visited Florence for the first time, but it was another year before he left England to paint what must be a unique view of the city, and one of very few Pre-Raphaelite landscape masterworks.
Florence from Bellosguardo (1863) was probably started in January 1863, painted without the aid of significant preparatory studies, and entirely from the motif. His viewpoint at Bellosguardo is slightly over a kilometre to the south-west of the centre. Even with Brett’s apparent eye for fine detail at a distance, much of it must have been painted with the aid of a telescope, and it has been suggested that he may also have used a camera lucida and/or photographs. Regardless of how he managed to paint such great detail, it is a triumph of painting, both technically and artistically, and it came as a shock when it was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1863.
Thankfully for Brett, the painting was purchased in May of that year by the National Gallery, and he was acclaimed in the press as ‘head of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape school’, although by that time he was probably the last of its practitioners. Brett had also intended the painting as homage to the poet Robert Browning, who lived in Florence at the time, and had provided great support to the artist.
My Terrace, Florence (1865) shows the terrace of the Florentine painter Odoardo Borrani’s home, against the city’s unmistakeable skyline.
Telemaco Signorini was another local artist, who studied drawing from life at the Florence Academy of Fine Arts. In 1855 he started meeting with the Macchiaioli, and travelled to Venice, where he met Lord Leighton. After military service and a period in Paris he returned to Florence to paint en plein air, and was appointed Professor at the Florence Academy in 1892.
Karl Kaufmann’s undated and unusual view of central Florence shows the Ponte Santa Trinita crossing the River Arno, from the east. This bridge was built using stone from a quarry at the Bobolino Gardens by Bartolomeo Ammannati in 1567-69, and its ornamental statues of the seasons were added in 1608 to mark the marriage of Cosimo de’ Medici to Maria Magdalena of Austria.
When visiting the city in 1880, the British landscape artist Hercules Brabazon Brabazon painted this oil sketch of Florence.
In about 1885-87, Odoardo Borrani returned to the Pazzi family’s history with this view of The Pazzi Chapel, Cloister of Santa Croce in Florence, a contrastingly peaceful scene compared to his earlier accounts of their downfall following their conspiracy to overthrow the de’ Medicis in 1478.
With William Merritt Chase and other young American artists, Frank Duveneck visited Florence when he was training in Europe. Duveneck had already met and taught the American Elizabeth Boott in Paris when he travelled to Florence. She had been born in Boston but raised in the Villa Castellani (c 1887) overlooking the square of Bellosguardo, near where Brett had painted his view of the city.
This villa has achieved literary fame in two of Henry James’ novels, Portrait of a Lady in which it is Gilbert Osmond’s residence, and The Golden Bowl in which Adam and Maggie Verver were modelled on Elizabeth Boott and her father Francis, a classical composer. Duveneck married Boott in 1886, but she tragically died just two years later from pneumonia.
Via Calimala from 1889 is another of Telemaco Signorini’s vivacious street scenes of the city.
My last painting may come as something of a surprise: although only in the background, the city of Florence features in at least one Nabi painting.
While he was one of the Nabis, Paul Sérusier remained close friends with artists he had worked alongside when he had been in Pont-Aven, who were largely followers of Gauguin. Among them was Émile Bernard, who by 1893 had allied himself with Symbolists such as Odilon Redon, and travelled to Italy and the Middle East. Sérusier must have accompanied Bernard at least as far as Florence, to paint this Portrait of Emile Bernard in Florence (1893). There again is that unmistakable red brick dome which Brunelleschi had designed almost half a millenium earlier.