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Florence: In the Oltrarno

Palazzo Pitti & Giardino Boboli (Pitti Palace & Boboli Gardens)

The ticket office for the painting gallery -- the main, and for many visitors, most interesting of the Pitti museums -- is off Ammannati's excellent interior courtyard of gold-tinged rusticated rock grafted onto the three classical orders.

Galleria Palatina -- If the Uffizi represents mainly the earlier masterpieces collected by the Medici, the Pitti Palace's painting gallery continues the story with the High Renaissance and later eras, a collection gathered by the Medici, and later the Grand Dukes of Lorraine. The works are still displayed in the old-world fashion, which hung paintings according to aesthetics -- how well, say, the Raphael matched the drapes -- rather than that boring academic chronological order. In the first long Galleria delle Statue (Hall of Statues) are Peter Paul Rubens's Risen Christ,, and a 19th-century tabletop inlaid in pietre dure -- an exquisite example of the famous Florentine mosaic craft. The next five rooms made up the Medici's main apartments, frescoed by Pietro da Cortona in the 17th-century baroque style -- they're home to the bulk of the paintings.

The Sala di Venere (Venus Room) is named after the neoclassical Venus, which Napoleon had Canova sculpt in 1810 to replace the Medici Venus the emperor had appropriated for his Paris digs. Four masterpieces by the famed early-16th-century Venetian painter Titian hang on the walls. Art historians still argue whether The Concert was wholly painted by Titian in his early 20s or by Giorgione, in whose circle he moved. However, most now attribute at most the fop on the left to Giorgione and give the rest of the canvas to Titian. There are no such doubts about Titian's Portrait of Julius II, a copy of the physiologically penetrating work by Raphael in London's National Gallery (the version in the Uffizi is a copy Raphael himself made), or the Portrait of a Lady (La Bella). Titian painted the Portrait of Pietro Aretino for the writer/thinker himself, but Aretino didn't understand the innovative styling and accused Titian of not having completed the work. The painter, in a huff, gave it to Cosimo I as a gift. The room also contains Rubens's Return from the Hayfields, famous for its classically harmonious landscape.

The Sala di Apollo (Apollo Room) has another masterful early Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman by Titian as well as his sensual, luminously gold Mary Magdalene, the first in a number of takes on the subject the painter was to make throughout his career. There are several works by Andrea del Sarto, whose late Holy Family and especially Deposition display the daring chromatic experiments and highly refined spatial compositions that were to influence his students Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino as they went about mastering Mannerism.

The Sala di Marte (Mars Room) is dominated by Rubens, including the enormous Consequences of War, which an aged Rubens painted for his friend Sustermans at a time when both were worried that their Dutch homeland was on the brink of battle. Rubens's The Four Philosophers is a much more lighthearted work, in which he painted himself at the far left, next to his seated brother Filippo.

The star of the Sala di Giove (Jupiter Room) is Raphael's La Velata, one of the crowning achievements of his short career and a summation of what he had learned about color, light, naturalism, and mood. It's probably a portrait of his Roman mistress called La Fornarina, a baker's daughter who sat for many of his Madonnas.

Raphael is the focus of the Sala di Saturno (Saturn Room), where the transparent colors of his Madonnas and probing portraits show the strong influence of both Leonardo da Vinci (the Portrait of Maddalena Strozzi Doni owes much to the Mona Lisa) and Raphael's old master Perugino, whose Deposition and a Mary Magdalene hang here as well. The Sala dell'Iliade (Illiad Room) has another Raphael portrait, this time of a Pregnant Woman, along with some more Titian masterpieces. Don't miss Mary Magdalene and Judith, two paintings by one of the only female artists of the late Renaissance era, Artemisia Gentileschi, who often turned to themes of strong biblical women.

From here, you enter a series of smaller rooms with smaller paintings. The Sala dell'Educazione di Giove (Room of Jupiter's Education) has two famous works: one a 1608 Sleeping Cupid that Caravaggio painted while living in exile from Rome (avoiding murder charges) on the island of Malta; and the other Cristofano Allori's Judith with the Head of Holofernes [ST], a Freudian field day where the artist depicted himself in the severed head, his lover as Judith holding it, and her mother as the maid looking on.

Apartamenti Reali -- The other wing of the piano nobile is taken up with the Medici's private apartments, which were reopened in 1993 after being restored to their late-19th-century appearance when the kings of the House of Savoy, rulers of the Unified Italy, used the suites as their Florentine home. The over-the-top sumptuous fabrics, decorative arts furnishings, stuccoes, and frescoes reflect the neo-baroque and Victorian tastes of the Savoy kings. Amid the general interior-decorator flamboyance are some thoroughly appropriate baroque canvases, plus some earlier works by Andrea del Sarto and Caravaggio's Portrait of a Knight of Malta. January through May, you can visit the apartments only by guided tour Tuesday and Saturday (and sometimes Thurs) hourly from 9 to 11am and 3 to 5pm (reserve ahead at tel. 055-238-8614; inquire about admission fees).

Galleria d'Arte Moderna -- Modern art isn't what draws most people to the capital of the Renaissance, but the Pitti's collection includes some important works by the 19th-century Tuscan school of art known as the Macchiaioli, who painted a kind of Tuscan Impressionism, concerned with the macchie (marks of color on the canvas and the play of light on the eye). Most of the scenes are of the countryside or peasants working, along with the requisite lot of portraits. Some of the movement's greatest talents are here, including Silvestro Lega, Telemaco Signorini, and Giovanni Fattori, the genius of the group. Don't miss his two white oxen pulling a cart in The Tuscan Maremma.

Galleria del Costume & Museo degli Argenti -- These aren't the most popular of the Pitti's museums, and the Museo degli Argenti has what seems like miles of the most extravagant and often hideous objets d'art and housewares the Medici and Lorraines could put their hands on. If the collections prove anything, it's that as the Medici became richer and more powerful, their taste declined proportionally. Just be thankful their carriage collection has been closed for years. The Costume Gallery is more interesting. The collections concentrate on the 18th to 20th centuries but also display outfits from back to the 16th century. The dress in which Eleonora of Toledo was buried, made famous by Bronzino's intricate depiction of its velvety embroidered silk and in-sewn pearls on his portrait of her in the Uffizi, is usually on display.

Giardino Boboli (Boboli Gardens) -- The statue-filled park behind the Pitti Palace is one of the earliest and finest Renaissance gardens, laid out mostly between 1549 and 1656 with box hedges in geometric patterns, groves of ilex, dozens of statues, and rows of cypress. In 1766, it was opened to the Florentine public, who still come here with their families for Sunday-morning strolls. Just above the entrance through the courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti is an oblong amphitheater modeled on Roman circuses. Today, we see in the middle a granite basin from Rome's Baths of Caracalla and an Egyptian obelisk of Ramses II, but in 1589 this was the setting for the wedding reception of Ferdinando de' Medici's marriage to Christine of Lorraine. For the occasion, the Medici commissioned entertainment from Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini, who decided to set a classical story entirely to music and called it Dafne -- the world's first opera. (Later, they wrote a follow-up hit Erudice, performed here in 1600; it's the first opera whose score has survived.)

Around the park, don't miss the rococo Kaffehaus, with bar service in summer, and, near the top of the park, the Giardino del Cavaliere, the Boboli's prettiest hidden corner -- a tiny walled garden of box hedges with private views over the wooded hills of Florence's outskirts. At the north end of the park, down around the end of the Pitti Palace, are some fake caverns filled with statuary, attempting to invoke some vaguely classical sacred grotto. The most famous, the Grotta Grande, was designed by Giorgio Vasari, Bartolomeo Ammannati, and Bernardo Buontalenti between 1557 and 1593, dripping with phony stalactites and set with replicas of Michelangelo's unfinished Slave statues. (The originals were once placed here before being moved to the Accademia.) All the grottoes are being restored, but you can visit them by appointment by calling tel. 055-218-741. Near the exit to the park is a Florentine postcard fave, the Fontana di Bacco (Bacchus Fountain; 1560), a pudgy dwarf sitting atop a tortoise. It's actually a portrait of Pietro Barbino, Cosimo I's potbellied dwarf court jester.

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