This canvas by Giuseppe Zocchi shows an iconic view of Florence, looking across the south bank of the city’s Arno River — a skyline that remains relatively unchanged today.
Commissioned to record the city’s monuments, Zocchi positions the viewer between two of Florence’s most historic structures: the Porta San Niccolò — a fortified gate ( c. 1324) referenced in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks — and the basilica of San Miniato al Monte, one of the highest points in the city.
At the centre of the work, the 95 metre-high Palazzo Vecchio looms above surrounding buildings. Built to serve as the seat of Florence’s political power, the building was originally called the Palazzo della Signoria, but became known as the ‘Old Palace’ in 1540 when Florence’s then-ruler, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, moved his official seat across the Arno to the Palazzo Pitti. By Zocchi’s day, the structure had become a symbol of the city’s political shifts; the once-dominant Medici family had fallen into obscurity and, in 1705, the grand ducal treasury was virtually bankrupt.
Despite this, the foreground of Zocchi’s work remains a hive of activity. Traditional ‘Renaioli’ boats — used to scour the Arno’s bed for sand, stones, and precious metal — glide into view, the canvas capturing the water’s reflective surface in a way that an earlier preparatory sketch on paper could not.
‘Masterfully painted, the view is endowed with a feeling of movement and transience” comments Christie’s specialist Emma Kronman. ‘Indeed, critic Antonio Morasi rapturously described the painting’s “crystalline splendour”, noting the “lucid atmosphere" (“atmosfera lucida”) and “transparent clouds like puffs of cotton wool” (“poche e trasparenti nubi e battuffoli come d’ovatta”).’
To the right of the Palazzo Vecchio, the rectangular roof of the Orsanmichele rises into view. Originally built in the 14th century as a grain market, the building was soon converted into a chapel for some of Florence’s most prominent guilds. By the end of the century, it was adorned with works by artists including Andrea di Cione, Donatello, Ghiberti and Verrocchio.
Other Florentine luminaries are found in the tombs of Santa Croce. Next to the Orsanmichele — and to the right of Giotto’s famous Campanile, or bell tower, the monumental church is the burial place of artists including Gentile da Fabriano and Michelangelo as well as visionaries like Galileo Galilei and Niccolò Macchiavelli.
The far right of the picture provides a record of one of comparatively few Florentine buildings to have disappeared — the tower of the Zecchia Vecchia, the city’s old mint, originally constructed in the 1380s.