Museum Memory by Stephen Barker

Stephen Barker, Heritage Advisor, Author, Guided Tour leader

In December 2018, I decided to fly to Florence (Firenze), on a whim (remember those days of spontaneity?). A relationship had ended at the beginning of the year and with England’s winter now well established, I was in need of a change of scene and lucky enough to be able to travel alone to seek out the remnants of Tuscan warmth and a little culture.

I knew that there would be many cultural highlights in Florence, not least amongst them, visiting the world renowned Uffizi Gallery. Much has been written about the Uffizi, but for the uninitiated, its galleries contain one of the world’s most important collections of paintings. Besides Florentine and Italian art, it also includes a large number of foreign works and Classical sculpture. It’s greatest treasure is the unique collection of Florentine Renaissance painting, a vital part of the city’s contribution to European art. These works date from between about 1300 and 1500, setting the path for the whole of Western art that followed. The collections of paintings include some absolute masterpieces: Giotto, Simone Martini, Piero della Francesca, Beato Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Mantegna, Correggio, Leonardo, Raffaello, Michelangelo and Caravaggio, in addition to many precious works by European painters (mainly German, Dutch and Flemish). Moreover, the gallery boasts an invaluable collection of ancient statues and busts from the Medici family, which adorn the corridors and consists of ancient Roman copies of lost Greek sculptures.

I landed at Firenze airport in beautiful evening sunshine, an instant antidote to the earlier Heathrow drizzle, booked into the hotel and the following morning was up at dawn with the street cleaners, the homeless and the hungover to take first place in the Uffizi queue. An elderly woman joined me soon after, eyeing suspiciously and we were joined thereafter by a multitude of the eager, the bleary-eyed and the sullen. As if in preparation for what was to come, or perhaps the early hour, those queuing talked in hushed, reverential tones.

I passed the time accompanied by a charming American woman from Maryland with a gentle smile. This was her first trip away from the States since the death of her husband several months earlier. She told me that the grieving process had only just begun and that, in the way that one can sometimes share one’s inner thoughts easily with a stranger, told me she had been persuaded to take the trip by friends in spite of many misgivings and now abhorred the loneliness of her beautiful hotel room. I was encouraging, though didn’t mention that I had lost my spouse ten years earlier. She cheered slightly as the queue was ushered forward into the gallery’s darkened inner sanctum.

I was to spend four hours in the Uffizi, much of the time spent in a blissful daze. There were many highlights, though I shall describe only one – the painting The Duke and Duchess of Urbino Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza by the early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, This particular artwork is a diptych, framed on two hinged wooden panels that may be closed like a book. The duke was a leader of mercenaries, a skillful strategist and a great patron who turned the city of Urbino into a refined and renowned cultural center. He lost his right eye during a tournament, thus the certain representation of that specific side of his profile. His nose, visible on the picture, was also broken in a tournament. It is believed that he commissioned this painting as a memorial of his wife after her death, hence that pale colour representing a death mask on her face.

The strategical staging of these figures reflects the couple’s power. They are poised high above the landscape in the background, as if they are on top of some tower. Thus, they have a bird’s eye view over their sprawling domain, speaking not only to Urbino’s hilltop position, but also to the pair’s high status. The Duchess Battista Sforza is luxuriously dressed and has a noticeably high forehead, which was fashionable at that time. However, Piero does something original, peculiar with this convention by succeeding to lock Federigo into an eternal conversation with his dead wife, a cool yet poignant, unending partnership. Separated by mortality into two panels, they are at the same time unfinished without one another. Piero della Francesca achieved one of the great feats of art; rendering the memory of the couple eternal.

Having purposely sought out the painting, I was transfixed, something beyond the presence of the well-known piece holding my attention. Its radiance and vibrant colour took away the breath, I was gripped by the power of the immortal representation, a testament to love and grief for eternity. I was not alone.

The sad looking woman on the left of the photograph I took, occupied the position close to the diptych when I had arrived. She stood motionless and apparently impassive, remaining there when I returned some ten minutes later. I never knew how she was engaging with the image, but it was in a profound way.

Museums and galleries have the power to enable us to reflect, to engender contemplation and to gain at least a modicum of an understanding of universal human experience through time, reminding us, as did CS Lewis when referring to the power of books: ‘We read to know we are not alone’. All art forms have that capacity, whispering to us that not only that we are ‘not alone’, but that our feelings have been shared universally throughout time. Our pain has never been and never will be unique, whatever our egotistical feelings may be. It takes time to come to this realisation, but when we do, there is comfort to be gained. I have certainly found it to be the case.

On a personal level, the painting of the Duke and Duchess was a reminder of the universal power of love, or as the poet Philip Larkin in his work An Arundel Tomb describes when describing the medieval effigy of a couple in stone:

‘Time has transfigured them into   

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be   

Their final blazon, and to prove   

Our almost-instinct almost true:   

What will survive of us is love.’

As I left the Uffizi, raised seemingly a hair’s breadth above the pavement, the American woman from Maryland waved cheerfully from across the piazza – she was smiling.

VarnikaDesigns initiated the ‘Museum Memories Project’ on April 15, 2020. In this Oral History documentation project, individuals are requested to send in 5 memories of 1 museum they have visited anywhere in the world in their lifetime (more than 1 entry will be required for multiple museums). These memories could be in the form of max 10 photographs, doodles, sketches, poetry, illustrations, along with a write up.

The entry should be emailed to:

Copyright for the images and text will be co shared between the project and the individual participants. They cannot be reused without prior permission.

Follow Museum Memories Project on Instagram for more memories. Follow us on Youtube for interviews with experts from the museum and conservation fields.


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