Idealism and Realism: Finding the Balance in Florentine Art

Julianna DeMicco shares her thoughts on idealism and realism in art through the pieces she has encountered on her study-abroad journey in Florence, Italy.

Throughout the city of Florence, realism and idealism intersect in both the art and the architecture. From the Piazza della Repubblica, the former site of a Roman forum during the height of the empire, to the churches and basilicas that line each Florentine street, there is a delicate balance between the old and the new. Older buildings retain facades from centuries ago, but high-end fashion stores and cafes take up a few floors of the buildings’ interiors. 

While in Italy, I’ve been thinking about the question of realistic representation compared to stylized idealism in art. Florentine art and the city plan overall suggest a proud Florentine history and culture, and it’s interesting to think about how the city’s values have evolved over time.


From the moment I stepped off the bus near the Stazione di Firenze Santa Maria Novella, I was drawn to the green and white marble arches and geometric sculptured decorations of the Italian Gothic style Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. One day while wandering the city, I took a detour from my route and sought shelter from the Florentine drizzle in the nearby basilica. The vaunted stone ceilings and colorful frescoes created an arena of quiet contemplation separate from the bustling city streets I escaped moments before.

The main portion of the fresco above depicts The Annunciation, and as beautiful as it is, I found it surprisingly inauthentic. In the biblical text, the Virgin Mary is described as being terrified when the angel appears at her door and tells her she is to carry the Son of God. It struck me that in this piece, she doesn’t look at all terrified. She does not even look mildly curious or awestruck. She almost looks bored, though the artist was no doubt aiming for a quiet, resigned sobriety. But this sobriety favors the idealized version of The Annunciation instead of the realism that could humanize the moment.


So I wandered the main chamber of the Basilica for several hours, taking time to consider the crucifix that hangs in the center of the nave. The Crucifix by Giotto illustrates the Passion of Christ and is trimmed with a golden background typical of Byzantine art from the early Christian era. Closer to the Arno River, a collection of galleries in the Uffizi house other pieces of a similar style. Comparatively, many of those pieces share a similar representation of the human form, as well as similar use of color and iconography.

However, the representation of the form is a key difference between the crucifix and other pieces in that same style. Instead of the idealistic representation of form found in many pieces made during that era of art, the crucifix provided a more realistic depiction of the human form. The skin is sallow and pale, the hair limp despite the halo behind it, and the hands, feet, and ribs drip with blood.

Before Giotto, many Byzantine and early Christian depictions of Christ on the cross did not truly portray his agony. Giotto’s crucifix reflects the reality of the situation in the expression on Christ’s face: a mortal man nailed to a cross and sentenced to die for the forgiveness of sins. 

I’ll admit that the depiction shocked me momentarily. The Presbyterian church I grew up in did not have many displays of the Passion of Christ. Hanging between the upper and lower part of the church, we had a carved wooden cross with etched edges and a smooth facade. In short, the cross I knew looked nothing like Giotto’s crucifix with the man frozen eternally on the precipice of death. To me, the piece strikes a happy medium between the idealism of the divine and the realism of the man.  


A replica of Michelangelo’s David in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which replaced the original after it was moved to the Accademia for preservation.

A few days later, I stared up at Michelangelo’s David. Sculpted in the early 1500s, the Renaissance piece was commissioned by the city of Florence for the city’s cathedral, but it was placed in the Piazza della Signoria – two streets from the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno River. The Piazza served as the center of the Florentine government, and the statue came to represent Florence, a city against the Goliath of the Roman Empire.

Now housed in the Galleria d’Accademia (with the above replica in the current piazza), David is a picture of the idealized physical form popular during that era. The statue depicts a tense and battle-ready man, even though we’ve come to view him as a symbol of youthful beauty and strength.

Instead of standing as a symbol of the city’s fierce resistance to the empirical power of Rome, the replica David shows a proud history of Florentine sculpture and a desire to preserve that legacy for years to come. In that sense, the statue encapsulates how Florentine art works in a modern context: it strikes a balance between realism in expression and idealism in form, and gives us insight into art as a reflection of commonly held regional attitudes and art as a global phenomenon.

Julianna DeMicco is a rising senior at Binghamton University. She is currently pursuing a double major in philosophy, politics and law, and English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She is a student leader on her campus and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically those written during the Medieval Era to those written in the Early Renaissance.

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