This is the most important museum anywhere for Renaissance sculpture—and often inexplicably quieter than other museums in the city. In a far cry from its original use as the city’s prison, torture chamber, and execution site, the Bargello now stands as a three-story art museum containing some of the best works of Michelangelo, Donatello, and Ghiberti, as well as of their most successful Mannerist successor, Giambologna.
In the ground-floor Michelangelo room, you’ll witness the variety of his craft, from the whimsical 1497 “Bacchus” ★★ to the severe, unfinished “Brutus” of 1540. “Bacchus,” created when Michelangelo was just 22, really looks like he’s drunk, leaning back a little too far, his head off kilter, with a cupid about to bump him over. Nearby is Giambologna’s twisting “Mercury” ★, who looks like he’s about to take off from the ground, propelled by the breath of Zephyr.
Upstairs an enormous vaulted hall is filled, among other beauties, with some of Donatello’s most accomplished sculptures, including his original “Marzocco” (from outside the Palazzo Vecchio, and “St. George” ★ from a niche on the outside of Orsanmichele. Notable among them is his “David” ★★ (which might correctly be named “Mercury”), done in 1440, the first freestanding nude sculpture since Roman times. The classical detail of these sculptures, as well as their naturalistic poses and reflective mood, is the essence of the Renaissance style.
On the back wall are the contest entries submitted by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi for the commission to do the Baptistery doors in 1401. Both had the “Sacrifice of Isaac” as their biblical theme, and both displayed an innovative use of perspective. Ghiberti won the contest, perhaps because his scene was more thematically unified. Brunelleschi could have ended up a footnote in the art history books, but instead he gave up the chisel and turned his attentions to architecture instead, which turned out to be a wise move.