In seeking for those specimens of architecture most worthy of attention in Florence, the arcade styled Loggia dei Lanzi, is an object of peculiar interest, from its singular beauty and magnificence. It was usual in the early periods of this republic, and the practice was one in which they followed the ancients, to provide a space close to the government house, or seat of power, where the whole body of the people might meet in one great assembly, to take their share in public affairs, to which they were summoned by the tolling of the great bell of the city.
The space originally allotted by the architect of the Palazzo Vecchio for this purpose, was guarded by a noble railing, but offered no shelter from the weather; to obviate which inconvenience, in the year 1355, the Loggia dei Lanzi was built in one angle of the square. The erection of this edifice naturally excited great interest; and the object accordingly was pursued with that zeal and emulation, which then so peculiarly characterized this people. At the conclusion of many debates, and keen discussions, the design presented by Orcagna, an artist celebrated for his singular attainments in the three sister arts, architecture, sculpture, and painting, was preferred.
The building presents a magnificent colonnade, or open gallery, consisting of only three pillars, and three arches; but these are large, spacious, and noble. Five steps run along the front on which the platform is raised, with fine effect, giving a certain air of grandeur to the whole. The columns rise out of a short and highly ornamented plinth, on flat clustered pilasters, great and small being bound together, in one vast massive shaft of thirty-five feet in height, terminating in a rich and beautiful capital of the Corinthian order. The shaft proceeds from a curved base, embellished by the arms of the re-public, a lion sitting on its haunches. Much elegance and lightness of effect is produced, from the capitals being employed to support a frieze and projecting cornice of elegant proportions, which, rising with an open parapet above the arches, gives a fine square form to the whole building. Between the arches, sculptured in alto relievo, and of fine marble, are the seven Cardinal and Christian Virtues. Statues also line and fill the plinth, from which the columns rise.
One of the chief beauties of the colonnade, and that which most especially excited the admiration of the con-temporaries of Orcagna, is the construction of the roof, which, deviating from the practice then in use, of forming the circles into four equal divisions, is composed of half circles, according to the purest Grecian style. This edifice is a superb combination of Greek and Gothic architecture.
The square in which the Loggia is situated, is crowded with statues; a host so numerous, that it might almost be termed disorderly. They are of every disproportion-ate size and bulk; a gigantic Neptune, a vast and heavy Hercules, a David, large as Goliath, a Perseus delicately slender, a puny Judith, &c. &c. Many among them, however, are fine, and well deserving of particular attention; while the whole command that notice which is due to the works of distinguished masters.
Two noble shaggy lions, antiques brought from Rome, in the year 1788, the size of life, executed in white marble, stand on either side of the porch, as if guarding the entrance; and lining the walls of the arcade are six statues, also antiques, representing Sabine priestesses, of a colossal size, magnificent in attitude and drapery.
In front, under each arch of the colonnade, stand three separate groups, by celebrated masters of the thirteenth century. The first is the Rape of the Sabine; by John of Bologna. This group, which was the last he ever executed, is composed of three figures. A bold and spirited youth is represented as forcibly tearing a beautiful female from the arms of her father, a feeble old man; he is beaten down, and kneels on the ground, clinging to the ravisher, and endeavouring to rise. The youth, whose figure is formed in the finest proportions, full of strength and manly vigour, not only lifts the young female from the ground, but holds her high in his arms, starting from the grasp of the old man, while she is struggling with uplifted hands, as if to break from his hold.
All this is finely told, and constitutes a group of great merit, which, especially when beheld in a front view, is very fine.
There is, however, a fault in the composition of the work, which is to be regretted, as essentially injuring its beauty. The figures are not well balanced, but rise perpendicularly, one over the other, in a manner that reminds you of an exhibition of strength in a circus; so that, viewing it from a distance, you can hardly conceive how such a group can stand.
The original idea conceived by the artist was to describe the three periods of human existence, youth, manhood, and old age; but he was persuaded to change his intention, and to style the group the Rape of a Sabine.
The base is richly adorned with a basso relievo, finely executed, by the same artist, explaining the subject, and telling the tale of the Rape of the Sabines.
The second, a beautiful statue in bronze, with the Medusa, is the Perseus of Benvenuto Cellini. He is represented as having just cut off the head of Medusa, which, streaming with blood, he holds up in triumph; his foot is firmly planted on the mangled body of the fallen sorceress; while his right hand, still vigorously grasping the sword, is in a retracted position, ready to strike again, as if the act were hardly done, the danger not yet over. The head with the winged helm is noble, and the countenance princely. The posture is fine, the action full of animation and life, the forms powerful, and free from all affectation of science, in knobs, joints, and muscles. The whole is gracefully simple, and executed with such elegance and beauty of proportion, that, although it is fully seven feet high, it has the effect of a light youthful figure, not exceeding the usual size.
So truly do I admire the Perseus, that I feel unwilling to point out any of its faults; it must, however, be remarked, that the head and body of Medusa are represented streaming with blood, with a revolting exaggeration, which is neither true to nature or good taste; that the fallen body of the sorceress is too much mangled, and uncouthly bundled up below the feet of Perseus; as also that, instead of being thrown on the naked rock, it lies on a velvet cushion.
The third group is that of Judith and Holofernes, by Donotello. This artist possesses a high reputation, but on the present occasion he has totally failed. The subject is one into which the utmost skill could not infuse interest, but yet might exhibit grandeur or science. Both, however, are wanting, and the work is almost contemptible. Judith is a diminutive creature, represented as cutting off the head of Holofernes, which he lays as coolly and quietly on her lap, as if the story told had been that of Sampson and Dalilah.