Michelangelo's Masterpieces Walking Tour, Florence

Michelangelo's Masterpieces Walking Tour (Self Guided), Florence

Michelangelo spent over 20 years of his life in Florence – the birthplace of the Renaissance – during which time he created some of the most beautiful masterpieces the city had ever seen. The most famous of them – the David – was larger than life, and brought a larger-than-life image to the artist. No amount of photos or copies of the statue will do it justice, so to see it with your own eyes, start this walking tour with a visit to Galleria dell’Accademia located right next to Piazza di San Marco.

Other precious works by Michelangelo can be admired in the Bargello National Museum (Bacchus, Madonna and Child, Brutus, David-Apollo), Palazzo Vecchio (The Genius of Victory), the Uffizi Gallery (Doni Tondo, or "Holy Family"), the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (The Deposition). Meanwhile, the most interesting pieces on display at Casa Buonarroti – once the master’s own property – are two of the earliest sculptures: Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs, the first of which he is thought to have carved when he was 15 and the latter around the age of 17.

In between all these museums and galleries, make sure to stop by the several churches on the itinerary. In 1530, at age 55, Michelangelo is said to have holed up in a tiny secret room under the Medici Chapel of the Basilica di San Lorenzo, to escape the wrath of the then-Pope. The Medici family were, in fact, responsible for much of the sculptor’s early education, some of his major commissions in Florence, and ultimately, his exile from the city as an elderly man. His ashes had to be brought from Rome to Basilica di Santa Croce, where you can pay him proper homage.

Take this self-guided walk to admire Michelangelo's artistic mastership in Florence as well as the beautiful church where he was laid to rest with other famous Italians such as Galileo and Machiavelli.
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Michelangelo's Masterpieces Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Michelangelo's Masterpieces Walking Tour
Guide Location: Italy » Florence (See other walking tours in Florence)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.0 Km or 2.5 Miles
Author: greghasleft
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Galleria dell'Accademia
  • Basilica di San Lorenzo
  • Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
  • Casa Buonarroti
  • Basilica di Santa Croce
  • Bargello National Museum / Palazzo del Popolo
  • Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace)
  • Uffizi Gallery
  • Basilica di Santo Spirito
Galleria dell'Accademia

1) Galleria dell'Accademia (must see)

Smaller and more specialized than the Uffizi, this gallery adjoins the Accademia di Belle Arti (or Academy of Fine Arts of Florence), but despite the name has no other connection with it. It is best known as the home of Michelangelo's sculpture "David", but also has other sculptures by Michelangelo and a large collection of paintings by Florentine artists (Uccello, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and others), mostly from the period 1300–1600, as well as plaster sculptures by Bartolini, Pampaloni and Giambologna, to name a few.

A room is dedicated to a series of gold-ground polyptychs taken from various churches in and around Florence, while the 2nd floor has a really interesting display of fabrics from the 13th-14th centuries and amazing tapestry from the same period. The musical section is also tremendous, with strings by Casini, Amati and Stradivari, harpsichords and some rarer items. Every piece has a written explanation and a few have a number where you may punch for information on audio phones.

The real show here is the original David, which is utterly staggering. Leading up to it are a series of other incomplete sculptures by the artist that are beautiful in their own right, and speak volumes about the technical, conceptual and emotional approach to his work (look for the mallet and chisel grooves on the stone). Among these are four Prisoners, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II, and a statue of Saint Matthew, joined by a Pietà discovered in the Barberini chapel in Palestrina. David itself has often been reproduced, in plaster and imitation marble fiberglass, signifying an attempt to lend an atmosphere of culture even in some unlikely settings such as beach resorts, gambling casinos and model railroads.

A good time to go during high season is on Tuesdays and Thursdays when the Galleria is open late (until 10pm) and lines are relatively short. Consider pre-booking otherwise. You'll have to take your online booking to a doorway just opposite and a little down the street to turn the booking into your tickets (ask the guards to direct you).

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 8:15am-6:50pm (Oct-May); Wed, Fri-Sun: 8:15am-6:50pm; Tue, Thu: 8:15am-10pm (Jun-Sep)
Basilica di San Lorenzo

2) Basilica di San Lorenzo (must see)

Amidst the hustle-bustle of the Mercato Centrale (Central Market) stands arguably one of the oldest churches in the history of Florence. San Lorenzo is said to date back to the late Roman era and is also the city's largest basilica. Inside, it is as ornate and magnificent as you'd expect for the main worship site and burial ground of the Medici family, although you would not know it by looking at the never-finished façade.

One of the most powerful families in the history of Florence, the Medici family commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi to redesign the San Lorenzo with modern Renaissance-style elements, while an elaborate marble façade was left to Michelangelo to complete. Unfortunately, the untimely death of Brunelleschi and Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici led to the project being abandoned much to the humiliation of Michelangelo who did, however, design and build the internal façade, seen from the nave looking back toward the entrances.

Remarkable all throughout, the interiors follow a Renaissance style with white and grey columns and beautiful marble decoration in front of the altar that marks the grave of the first Medici ruler. Along the central nave are the two bronze pulpits by Donatello (his very last works), whose tomb can be found in the crypt along with that of Cosimo I de' Medici. The complex also includes the New Sacristy with Michelangelo's incredible Medici tombs depicting day and night, dusk and dawn, and the 17th-century Chapel of the Princes, also absolutely gorgeous with its huge dome and fresco arrangement.

There is so much to see that time will fly by as you look at the stunning frescos, the delightful dome with its lovely artwork, or explore all the cloisters, small gardens, and the Laurentian Library – another Michelangelo creation. The serenity here is wonderful by itself, and a nice respite from the other, more popular tourist destinations in Florence.

Different sections have different doors, and you must show your Florence Card or pay for each individually. The Chapel of the Princes and the New Sacristy (Michaelangelo tombs) are closed after 1:30pm.
The market area around San Lorenzo is very nice, so you might want to have a drink/meal on the piazza in front of the Central Market.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 10am-5pm; Sun: 1:30-5pm
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

3) Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (must see)

It would be a colossal mistake to go to the Duomo and not explore this museum. Due to the abundance of wonderful attractions in Florence, it gets less attention, but there are quite a few things to like here, including the relative lack of crowds, reasonable size and hours of operation, large open spaces with exhibits spaced out (so that one's viewing is not distracted), and a broad range of artifacts from the very old to the very new. Surprisingly modern inside, it's also one of the very few air-conditioned museums in Florence, which is a plus if you visit during the summer months.

As many of the items that you see around the Duomo are actually copies, the originals are housed in this museum for safekeeping. The most astounding item is, perhaps, the time-machine-like recreation of the Duomo's ancient facade, displayed in original scale and well-supplied with many astounding fine details (the original huge gold door is particularly unforgettable).

Other original masterworks that once adorned the Duomo, such as its baptistry and bell tower, are presented in brightly illuminated displays with a good sequence where one can check each closely. Fortunately, a number of long benches were thoughtfully placed so that visitors can sit down and feast the eyes without becoming dizzy, as happens outside when trying to take it all it at once.

The whole museum can be easily covered in about two hours but, of course, art lovers may want to leave a little more room. Descriptions are in Italian and English so that you can be your own tour guide.

Michelangelo's pietà displayed here ("The Deposition", also called "The Lamentation over the Dead Christ") is quite different from the pietà in St. Peter's in Rome but just as beautiful and very well presented in a simple room that helps to really focus on the art. The last sculpture that the master worked on (six days before his death) depicts Jesus' body being lowered from the cross into the arms of Mary his mother and Mary Magdalene by Nicodemus (whose face under the hood is considered to be a self-portrait). Never completed because Michelangelo carved it away until there was insufficient stone, the sculpture has an abstract quality, in keeping with 20th-century concepts.

Don't forget to go up the rooftop terrace for a front-row seat to the Duomo!

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am–7pm
Casa Buonarroti

4) Casa Buonarroti

A short distance from Piazza Santa Croce but away from its crowds, Casa Buonarroti is a haven of peace. Once the property of Michelangelo, the building was inherited by his nephew, Lionardo, after his death; however, it was Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, the artist's great-nephew, who converted it into a place of memory and celebration of the Renaissance genius.

No photos are allowed, but visitors can spend as much time as they want in very close proximity to two of Michelangelo's earliest sculptures, as well as to his wooden model for the planned marble façade of San Lorenzo – intended as a "mirror for architecture and sculpture for all Italy", but which has eventually been taken away from him, stirring bitter complaints.

Also of interest is a collection of more than two hundred of the master's restored drawings, letters and sketches, as well as the several personal possessions (shoes, canes, a sword, chairs), and a portrait of himself he is said to have owned. Subsequent generations added to the collections, which now also include numerous paintings depicting important events in Michelangelo's life.

Housed here are the two main pieces of Michelangelo's earlier works – "Madonna of the Stairs" and the "Battle of the Centaurs", the first of which he is thought to have carved when he was 15 and the latter around the age of 17. While "Madonna of the Stairs" is an obvious homage to Donatello's reliefs, the "Battle of the Centaurs" marked a significant departure from the techniques established by earlier masters, the many dynamically-carved human figures leading Michelangelo to his "own personal revolution". Having regarded this latter sculpture as the best of his early works, he kept it for the rest of his life, though he destroyed or abandoned many of his other pieces.

While here, you can buy a combo ticket including admission to the Santa Croce complex.

Opening Hours:
Mon, Wed-Sun: 10am–5pm (Mar–Oct); 10am–4:30pm (Nov–Feb)
Closed on Tuesdays and on Jan 1st, Easter Sunday, Aug 15th, Dec 25th
Basilica di Santa Croce

5) Basilica di Santa Croce (must see)

One of the most famous and the largest Franciscan churches in the world, Basilica di Santa Croce was built between the 13th and 14th century, flaunting a rich Gothic style of architecture. Also known as the Temple of the Italian Glories, it has the final resting places of some of the most illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, the poet Foscolo and the composer Rossini.

Elaborate sculptures decorate the tombs while paintings adorn the altar and walls. Some of the finest artisans, sculptors and painters have left their marks upon the church, which is sure to grip visitors with its grandeur and presence. Artists with work in the church include Giotto, Donatello, Giorgio Vasari, Domenico Veneziano, Antonio Canova, Cimabue, Benedetto da Maiano, Andrea and Luca della Robbia, Desiderio da Settignano, Giovanni da Milano, Maso di Banco, Agnolo and Taddeo Gaddi, Andrea Orcagna, Antonio Rossellino, Santi di Tito, and Henry Moore. Legend even has it that the Santa Croce was founded by Saint Francis himself!

The grounds are quite nice as well, and the grassy inner courtyard, with its columns and statuary, encourages to take time to explore – or spend all day here with a sketchbook! The outside plaza holds multiple events, from concerts by visiting musicians to Florentine "rugby".

Directly against Michelangelo's plans, his dead body was taken from Rome to Florence where Cosimo de' Medici and the artist/biographer Vasari arranged a lavish funeral on March 10, 1564. Since he was not able to employ the artist and honor him in Florence during his life, declared de' Medici, he would honor him in death, and with a proper tomb to match.

The monumental tomb inside the church – which ended up costing a massive sum and took 14 years to complete, due to delays – was commissioned to the same Vasari, who included traditional symbols and imagery relevant to Michelangelo. Next to the artist's bust, there are three intertwined laurel wreaths representing the union of the artistic domains of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which are also depicted below as three muses mourning the loss of the great artist.

Dante's empty sarcophagus was installed here after Florence spent a lot of years trying to get his remains back to the city of his birth. Rejected when he was alive, Dante now rests in his adopted city of Ravenna, despite Florence's posthumous forgiveness and acceptance of the exiled poet. A monument of Dante – erected in 1865 to celebrate the 600 year anniversary of his birth – stands outside in Piazza Santa Croce, named after the basilica that overlooks it.

Don't miss the Leather school behind the church where young interns are learning the trade and where you can buy some fantastic handmade one-offs.
Please remember that shorts have to be below knee and women must have shoulders covered and no midsection exposed. They enforce the shorts rule on the women more than the men.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9:30am-5:30pm; Sun: 2-5:30pm; Last admission: 5pm
Bargello National Museum / Palazzo del Popolo

6) Bargello National Museum / Palazzo del Popolo (must see)

If Florence, in general, is a paradise for architecture buffs and art lovers, then the Bargello museum is even more so. Occupying a medieval fortress, this museum houses some of Italy's most valuable sculptures and other works of art.

Also known as the People's Palace (Palazzo del Popolo), this is one of the oldest structures in the city, dating back to 1255. Throughout its history, the building has served many different roles. Early on, back in the 16th century, it accommodated the so-called Captain of the People, the police chief of Florence, called “bargello”, hence the name of the palace. After that, the Bargello Fortress served as a prison, up until the mid-19th century, upon which it was converted to a museum displaying a large collection of Gothic and Renaissance sculptures.

Among the displayed artifacts here are the works of Donatello, Michelangelo, Verrochio, Brunelleschi, and other greats. Notably, Donatello’s statue of David was the first male nude sculpture ever exhibited since ancient times, thus manifesting a turn in the history of European art. The inner courtyard of the museum is an elegant space crammed with the relief and free-standing sculptures; however, the most famous items are placed in the gallery, off the courtyard, and in the large exhibition space above.

Apart from the Renaissance items, the collection includes rare artifacts from the Byzantine, Roman and Medieval eras. Alongside sculptures, you can find here jewelry pieces of the European Renaissance and Islamic origin, too. For visitors convenience, all the exhibits are accompanied by English descriptions.

The museum houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, such as his Bacchus, Pitti Tondo (or Madonna and Child), Brutus and David-Apollo. Bacchus is depicted with rolling eyes, his staggering body almost teetering off the rocky outcrop on which he stands. With its swollen breast and abdomen, the figure suggested to Giorgio Vasari "both the slenderness of a young man and the fleshiness and roundness of a woman", and its androgynous quality has often been noted. The sense of precariousness resulting from a high center of gravity can be found in a number of later works by the artist, most notably the David and the figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Bacchus was carved when Michelangelo was only 22.

To better plan your visit to Bargello National Museum, check out the museum's website in advance for opening hours, noting that on special occasions it may close rather late. Those brave enough to wander around the eerie, empty medieval building late in the evening, get to enjoy the sculptures all by themselves.
Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace)

7) Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) (must see)

Just like the Duomo complex, Palazzo Pitti and major local art galleries, Palazzo Vecchio, or the Old Palace, is one of the key sites in Florence that is absolutely essential for understanding the history and culture of the city. One of the most impressive town halls in Tuscany, this enormous Romanesque-style palace has been the office of a Florence mayor since 1872. Prior to that (since 1299, when it was built), it has been the seat of Florentine government for centuries. When Cosimo I de' Medici became Grand Duke and moved in with his family in 1540, he decided to enlarge and revamp the Medieval building in Renaissance style.

The solid facade is decorated with shields recounting the city's political history, plus adorned with a series of sculptures among which are the likes of Michelangelo's “David”, “Marzocco” – the heraldic lion, symbol of Florence, Donatello's original “Judith and Holofernes” and “Hercules and Cacus”. A standalone attraction within the palace is the Tower of Arnolfo, access to which costs an additional fee.

Walking through the palace, from the huge Salone dei Cinquecento ("Hall of the Five Hundred" – designed to celebrate the glories and victories of the Duke) to the most intimate quarters, virtually transports one back in time, offering a glimpse into the secluded privacy of the Medici rulers, magnificently decorated as part of the iconographic program designed by Giorgio Vasari. It is hence advisable to take one's time and explore the property without haste, so as to be able to get the historically-intense, artistically-rich experience, quite possibly resulting in a crick-in-the-neck feeling from gazing at the gorgeous ceilings above, one room after another.

There are various add-on tours of the palace available that are fun for kids and don't cost too much extra. Among them, for instance, the 'Secret Paths' tour, lasting about 1h½, delivered by knowledgeable guides and allowing access to the parts of the palace otherwise closed for the public, including the famed "studiolo" with its secret doors, magical objects, and strange, exotic substances.

In the central niche at the south of the large Hall (Salone dei Cinquecento) is Michelangelo's noted marble group The Genius of Victory (1533–1534), originally intended for the tomb of Julius II. The sculpture does not represent a moment of fighting, but rather serves as an allegory of victoriousness. It depicts the winner who dominates the submissive loser with great agility, with one leg that blocks the body of the captive, who is folded and chained. The young man who is the genius is beautiful and elegant, while the dominated man is old and bearded, with a flabby body and a resigned expression. The surfaces are treated expressively to enhance the contrast between the two figures: the young polished to perfection, the old rough and incomplete, still retaining the impression of the heavy stone from which it was made.

Although Dante is not buried in Florence, the city owns one of the poet's death masks that you can see here, between the Apartments of Eleanor and the Halls of Priors. Resting alone in glass, it came to symbolize both Dante's political contribution to the city of Florence and his pivotal role in the development of Italian literature and culture. Out of interest, this is the same mask that makes an appearance in Dan Brown's "Inferno".

If you decide to go on a tour, it is advisable to book directly with the museum by email, stating the preferred date and time, and then wait for confirmation. You will pay upon collecting the tickets on the day of the tour. After it is finished, you can wander freely around the palace at will.
Be aware, though, that since this is an active municipality office, it is quite possible that, on special occasions, the building may be temporarily closed for the public. It is, therefore, recommended to check their website for possible announcements to this effect prior to the visit.

Opening Hours:
[Museum + Archaeological Route] Fri-Wed: 9am-11pm; Thu: 9am-2pm (Apr-Sep); Fri-Wed: 9am-7pm; Thu: 9am-2pm (Oct-Mar)
[Tower + Ronda Walkway] Fri-Wed: 9am-9pm; Thu: 9am-2pm (Apr-Sep); Fri-Wed: 10am-5pm; Thu: 10am-2pm (Oct-Mar)
Uffizi Gallery

8) Uffizi Gallery (must see)

If you were limited to visiting just one Renaissance location in Florence, or the whole world for that matter, the most obvious choice would be the Uffizi Gallery. Housed in the Palazzo degli Uffizi, initially designated as the magistrate office – hence the name "uffizi", erected in the 16th century by Giorgio Vasari for Cosimo Medici, the 1st Duke of Florence, it represented an ideal setting for the Medicis' art collection as well. The gallery has been open to the public since 1765 and, to this date, become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Florence.

The displayed here must-see works of art include Sandro Botticelli's “Birth of Venus” and “Adoration of the Magi”, not to mention the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and other eternal greats. The collection is truly magnificent and you can easily spend a whole day without noticing!

While paintings and statues are what most people come here for, the decoration of the rooms, especially the ceilings, are just as spectacular and worthy of attention. With more than 50 opulent rooms to explore, it is actually quite hard to absorb everything in one go, so you might want to take a break and “recharge batteries” at an on-site cafe with a terrace which, among other delights, offers visitors some truly great views unseen anywhere else.

Given the world-class status of the museum, it is perpetually busy and the hours-long queue here is not uncommon, especially during peak season. Those who book their tickets in advance from the official website, have a substantially shorter wait and may get it cheaper, too.

The Uffizi's internal courtyard is so long, narrow and open to the Arno at its far end through a Doric screen that articulates the space without blocking it, that architectural historians treat it as the first regularized streetscape of Europe. Vasari, a painter and architect as well, emphasized its perspective length by adorning it with the matching facades' continuous roof cornices, and unbroken cornices between storeys, as well as the three continuous steps on which the palace-fronts stand. The niches in the piers that alternate with columns of the Loggiato are filled with sculptures of famous artists in the 19th century.

In the first 8 years of the 1500s, Michelangelo not only carved his giant David and the Bruges Madonna but also chiseled seven other sculptures and four smaller statues for an altar. He also accepted commissions to paint, and the one work displayed in the Uffizi, painted in 1504, is the Doni Tondo ("Holy Family"), a round-shaped painting (nearly four feet in diameter) vividly depicting the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, along with St. Joseph. The juxtaposition of bright colors foreshadows the same use of color in Michelangelo's later Sistine Ceiling frescoes.

It is argued that the picture was used by Michelangelo to defend the Maculist point of view, a philosophy of the Dominican order rejecting the idea of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The Maculist view is that the Virgin did not receive her sanctification at birth but at the moment of the incarnation of Christ; thus, the image depicts the moment of Mary's sanctification by showing the Christ Child blessing her. Michelangelo depicts Christ as if he is growing out of Mary's shoulder to take human form, one leg hanging limply and the other not visible at all, therefore making him a part of Mary.

If you decide to go, note that no liquids are allowed onto the premises and the restrooms are available only at entrance and exit.
At your own risk, you may try and go an hour or two before closing just in hopes to get a ticket without queuing. Good luck!

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 8:15am-6:50pm
Closure starts from 6:35pm
The ticket office closes at 6:05pm
Basilica di Santo Spirito

9) Basilica di Santo Spirito

The Santo Spirito is another Florence building credited to the brilliant Renaissance architect – Filippo Brunelleschi. At first glance, with its plain exteriors, it may not look very impressive, but the true beauty and design can be appreciated in the interiors featuring numerous Baroque embellishments and an impressive Baldachin with polychrome marbles over the high-raised altar. The side chapels, in the form of niches all the same size (forty in all), run along the entire perimeter of the space and contain a noteworthy amount of artworks by Renaissance artists such as Sansovino and Rosselli. Some of the pieces that have been restored are fantastic in color and definition.

The two cloisters – accessed for a small fee – have walls decorated with a great number of tombstones and impressive Late Gothic frescoes, as well as a collection of sculptures from the 11th-15th centuries, including two low reliefs by Donatello, a high relief by Jacopo della Quercia (Madonna with Child), and two marble sculptures by Tino da Camaino (1320–22).

In a side chapel is a very special find—a wooden crucifix sculpted by a young Michelangelo before he relocated to Rome. Aged seventeen, he was allowed to make anatomical studies on the corpses coming from the convent's hospital; in exchange, he sculpted the crucifix which was placed over the high altar. Today the crucifix is in the octagonal sacristy that can be reached from the west aisle of the church. Also, don't miss the copies of his Pietà (1549) and Christ (1579).

Be sure to visit the museum, Fondazione Salvatore Romano to the side of the Basilica in the old refectory.

Opening Hours:
Mon, Tue, Thu-Sun: 9am–1pm / 3–7pm

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