Cityscape panorama of Arno river, towers and cathedrals of Florence

A new museum shows the modern side of Florence

In Art & Architecture, City Breaks, Travel Inspiration by Donald Strachan

the modern side of Florence
By Donald Strachan

It’s the city of the Renaissance, visited by millions each year for Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo and the rest of Florence’s historic luminaries.

CiBi Lavagna
IMAGE: DONALD STRACHAN

But Florentines themselves don’t live in the past. There’s a real buzz about the new top floor of Florence’s Mercato Centrale, especially in the evening. Dining is freestyle, informal, a contrast to the city’s sit-down, jacketed-waitstaff image. There’s handmade pasta, seafood, cold-cut counters and even a trippaio, a tripe vendor—lampredotto, a cow’s fourth stomach, is Florence’s authentic street food. When Fiorentina’s football team are playing, you can watch all the action here on the big screen. Nearby, Florence’s new Brewdog nails the industrial look of other bars in the franchise. Brewdog’s uncompromising Scottish craft beers plus guests from all over Europe flow from a dozen taps.

Brewdog Florence museum guide
IMAGE: LOST IN FLORENCE

Across town, CiBi is another restaurant which only opened this year. Here I’ve eaten baccalà (salt cod) mousse with crudités; roast octopus with parsley and potato cream. These ingredients are familiar to a Tuscan palate, certainly. But CiBi’s dishes are fresher and friskier than the hearty stews and game pasta of Florentine traditional cooking.


The City of Michelangelo

Museo Novecento, Florence
IMAGE: DONALD STRACHAN

In fact, there’s more than enough of modern Florence to fill a long weekend. But what about art? This is the city of Michelangelo, remember, and “selling” modern art to visitors who come here for a diet of Renaissance, Renaissance and more Renaissance must be a tough task.

Yet a new museum is turning that assumption on its head. Opened in summer 2014, the Museo Novecento has a permanent collection of painting and sculpture that focuses on some of the 20th century’s most significant movements, including Futurism. Displays cover three floors, whisking you backwards in time from the geometrical sculpture of young Florentines who displayed at the 1988 Venice Biennale through a checklist of the Italian 20th century. It includes Giorgio Morandi and De Chirico, name-checking the Sei di Torino, Rome’s Scuola di Via Cavour, and the avant garde along the way.

The Museo Novecento
IMAGE: DONALD STRACHAN

“It is also an interdisciplinary museum, which continually integrates the visual arts with music, theatre, literature, architecture and so on,” explains museum director Dr. Valentina Gensini. Exhibits cover the genesis of a couple of icons: the Pitti fashion shows and annual Maggio Musicale opera festival. There’s modern exposition, too; iPads scattered around, audio and video reels, and plenty in English. Visitors don’t escape the past entirely—the museum lives inside a former hospital, founded in the 1200s then revamped during the Renaissance by one of architecture’s big cheeses, Michelozzo—but there are precious few nods to the distant past.

A magical short film runs on a loop in the museum’s screening room, a patchwork of clips from a century of cinematography. A few frames from a lost Futurist film of 1916, then the rubble of war and occupation; grainy black-and-white gives way to Technicolor, followed by clips from period classics like “Tea with Mussolini” and “Room with a View”. A musical score, peppered with occasional snatches of dialogue, gives it a shamelessly sentimental feel.

What does this 20-minute movie say about the way we see Florence? “The film does not reflect one idea of Florence. It shows a Florence still bound to its Renaissance identity, or sometimes transformed into a mythical place, or involved in current affairs, as in films of the neorealist genre,” says Dr. Gensini.

Palazzo Strozzi
IMAGE: FREEPENGUIN

The Museo Novecento is not alone in flying a modern flag over the cultural scene. There’s usually a contemporary edge to shows at the Palazzo Strozzi—right now it’s Picasso—and the attached Strozzina. Another recent arrival is the Gucci Museo, inside a palace on Piazza della Signoria. Rooms are stuffed with originals, including Oscar-night dresses and one-off designs made for Princess Grace. Fashion-house founder Guccio Gucci was a Florentine, and this collection places his work at the centre of the city’s artisan traditions. Florence always was a place to shop for leather. It still is.

How do modern collections tempt visitors zeroed in on the Renaissance? “It is the contrast that works,” says Dr. Gensini. “The museum not only demonstrates that great artists and great intellectuals worked in Florence, but this city has had the attention of the art world, nationally and internationally.” That attention did not evaporate when the Renaissance left town.

Donald Strachan is a travel journalist who’s written for National Geographic Traveller and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Check out his latest adventures on his website.He is also co-author of Frommer’s Italy 2015.


The Museums of Michelangelo

MercatoC  Museo Novecento  BrewDog  Palazzo Strozzi

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Donald StrachanA new museum shows the modern side of Florence