Florence: Museo Horne

Interior of one of the rooms in the Museo Horne.

I ended my most recent trip to Florence with a visit to the Museo Horne. I had never been to this museum before and had never even passed by it. After my visit I had to conclude that I had definitely missed something all these years. The Museo Horne is a very pleasant and quiet museum, a genuine breath of fresh air after the hustle and bustle of the Uffizi. After buying a ticket the visitor is taken on a tour by an employee of the museum. This employee is in the first place a custodian, but he or she is usually more than happy to provide information about the collection and answer any question that visitors might have. I myself had tons of questions, which were all answered with patiently and diligently. Because there were very few other people in the museum, I basically had a private guide. This made my visit to the Museo Horne extra special.


The museum is named after Herbert Percy Horne (1864-1916). Horne, who was English, was in many respects a polymath. He worked as an architect, wrote poetry, collected works of art and dabbled in art history. He was most of all considered an authority with regard to the Renaissance. Together with the architect Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1851-1942) Horne was responsible for the art magazine The Century Guild Hobby Horse. That is how he got into contact with celebrities in the world of art and culture such as Oscar Wilde and John Ruskin. In September and October of 1889 Horne made his first trip to Italy. The country made a deep impression on him, and his second trip took place in 1894. In 1905 Horne took the decision to emigrate to Italy, where he settled in Florence. It was there, in 1908, that he wrote an influential monography about the Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510).

Kitchen in the Palazzo Corsi.

In 1911 Horne bought the Palazzo Corsi. The history of the palazzo went back all the way to the thirteenth century, but the present palazzo was built between 1495 and 1502 for the Corsi brothers, members of the Arte della Seta, the guild of the silk merchants. The architect of the Palazzo Corsi was very likely Simone del Pollaiuolo (1457-1508), nicknamed “Il Cronaca”. The palazzo remained the property of the Corsi family for three centuries, but when Horne bought it in 1911, it had already seen several new owners. Moreover, Cronaca’s palazzo had been renovated quite a few times in the more than 400 years of its existence. Horne now devised a plan to turn the Palazzo Corsi into a genuine Renaissance palace again. Between 1912 and 1915 more recent elements were removed and Renaissance elements were added, even if these were originally from other buildings (the guide pointed to a number of door frames, which were clearly too large for the doorways).

When all the restorations and renovations were completed, the process of providing the palazzo with the proper décor started. Horne wanted to give it an interior with objects from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, filling it with both artworks and utensils. The owner himself, by the way, lived elsewhere in Florence. Unfortunately the versatile art historian and art collector fell seriously ill in 1916. Horne had never married and had no children. Although during his lifetime he had had several mistresses, there are historians who suggest that Horne had been a (closeted) homosexual. As evidence they point to affectionate correspondence with the aforementioned Oscar Wilde, a writer who – it need hardly be mentioned – ended up in prison because of his homosexuality. Of course it is equally plausible that Horne’s one true love was art. On 12 April 1916 he had a clause added to his testament that stipulated that the palazzo and its entire inventory were to go to the Italian state after his death. Two days later he died of tuberculosis, just 52 years old.

After Horne’s death a foundation was established to administer the palazzo and the collection. Thanks to the efforts of this Fondazione Horne the Museo Horne was opened to the public in 1921. It is now time to take stock of the imposing collection of the museum, which among other things consists of paintings, statues, utensils and books. Below I will discuss a number of highlights.

Saint Stephen – Giotto.


By far the most famous and certainly the most beautiful work in the collection is a panel painting of Saint Stephen by Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266-1337). A large banner featuring this work adorns the façade of the Palazzo Corsi. For me this Giotto was the main reason to visit the Museo Horne. The museum dates its most prized possession to 1330-1335, but in academic publications we also find a dating of 1320-1325.[1] It is generally assumed that the panel was once part of the polyptych that stood in the church of Santa Croce in Florence. The polyptych was composed of five parts. The central part with the Madonna and Child is currently in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Those who want to see the side panels featuring Saints John the Evangelist and Lawrence must travel to the Musée Jacquemart-André in Chaalis (above Paris). The fourth part is the Saint Stephen of the Museo Horne and the fifth panel has not survived. Unfortunately we do not know which saint was depicted on this panel.

On Giotto’s panel Saint Stephen is wearing a beautiful robe. Of course he is instantly recognisable by the two stones on his head, a reference to his martyrdom. Stephen was accused of blasphemy by some Jews frequenting a local synagogue, “For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us” (Acts 6:14). Stephen was taken prisoner and brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court of law. Stephen’s defence speech caused even more outrage, and he was driven out of the city to be stoned to death. The future apostle Paul – then a Pharisee intent on persecuting Christians and still calling himself Saul – was a witness to Stephen’s death by stoning, and according to Acts 8:1 he approved of the murder of the martyr. As Giotto’s Saint Stephen is looking to the right, his place was probably to the left of the Madonna and Child, together with Saint John (who also has his eyes facing right). It follows that Saint Lawrence and the unknown saint who has vanished belong on the right side of the polyptych.

Possible reconstruction of the pentaptych. Stephen: Museo Horne; John the Evangelist: Musée Jacquemart-André; Madonna and Child: National Gallery of Art; missing panel; Lawrence: Musée Jacquemart-André.

The museum possesses several works by contemporaries of Giotto. We for instance see two small panels by Bernardo Daddi (ca. 1290-1348) intended for personal devotion. The panel on the left represents a Madonna and Child with saints, the one on the right a Crucifixion. Also interesting is a triptych by Pietro Lorenzetti (ca. 1280-1348) from Siena. It is quite evident that this work was originally not a triptych. The male figure on the left – identified by the museum as Saint Leonard of Noblat – is practically glued to the female figure in the centre, who is easily identified as Saint Catherine of Alexandria thanks to the spoked wheel she is holding. According to the museum the female figure on the right is Saint Margaret of Antioch. The male saint is looking to the right, the two women to the left. As with Giotto’s Saint Stephen, we are presumably dealing with a pentaptych here that was sawn to pieces. This pentaptych is known as the Monticchiello altarpiece. The presumed central part featuring the Madonna and Child is currently in Pienza. For the fifth panel, which depicts a female saint (presumably Saint Agatha), one must visit the Musée de Tessé in Le Mans.

Small panels by Bernardo Daddi.

Three saints – Pietro Lorenzetti.

Diptych by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi.

Statue of Saint Paul by Vecchietta.

I had a long conversation with the guide about the process of attributing works to certain artists (our conclusion: it is all about studying details and comparing works). This conversation was inspired by a diptych featuring a Madonna and Child on the left and Christ in his tomb on the right. This work is attributed to the brothers-in-law Simone Martini (1284-1344) and Lippo Memmi (died 1356), who were both from Siena. Also from Siena was Lorenzo di Pietro (1410-1480), alternatively known as Vecchietta. The nickname means “old woman”, and I am sure there is a perfectly sexist explanation for it. Vecchietta was not just a painter, but also a sculptor, as we have previously seen in the cathedral of Siena. The Museo Horne possesses one sculpture by him, a beautifully painted statue of Saint Paul the Apostle. The statue dates from ca. 1460.

My exposé about Giotto and Pietro Lorenzetti has made clear that several works in the museum are elements of larger works rather than independent works. This is also the case with the Masaccio in the museum collection. Masaccio (1401-1428) frequently collaborated with Masolino da Panicale (ca. 1383-na 1440), for instance in the Brancacci chapel in Florence. Together the two also painted the so-called Carnesecchi triptych (ca. 1423-1425), which is unfortunately largely lost. The Museo Horne possesses a little piece of the predella, painted by Masaccio, but regretfully heavily damaged. See for yourself; I personally thought the damage was so severe that taking a picture served no purpose at all. Another example of an element of a larger work is a panel from ca. 1475 featuring Queen Vashti from the Book of Esther. The painter was Filippino Lippi (1457-1504) and the larger work was in this case two bridal trunks (cassoni in Italian). These trunks were decorated with a total of six panels featuring scenes from the Book of Esther. The other five panels are now in museums in Canada, France and Rome.

Below Lorenzetti’s pseudo-triptych hangs a tondo by the Florentine painter Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522). This tondo – of Saint Jerome meditating – is in fact an independent work. What is special is that the scene with Saint Jerome was painted over in the eighteenth century with a scene of the Visitation. Herbert Percy Horne bought this Visitation in 1906, expecting to find something far more beautiful underneath the first layers of paint. In 1907 the image of Saint Jerome meditating was rediscovered. The museum dates the mysterious work to ca. 1495-1498. Jerome is holding a rock in his right hand to hit himself on the chest. He is often accompanied by a lion, but the animal is absent here. We do see the lion on a similar work from ca. 1485 by Piero’s near-contemporary Jacopo del Sellaio (ca. 1441-1493), also in the Museo Horne.

Saint Jerome meditating by Piero di Cosimo.

Towards the end of my visit I had an interesting conversation with the guide about one of the oldest works in the collection. This work is a Madonna and Child by an unknown Tuscan painter, probably from Lucca. The work dates from the thirteenth century and stylistically still looks very Byzantine. Both the Madonna and the Christ child have a carved wooden halo. Unfortunately the panel is extremely worn, so that it is now impossible to tell what Christ is holding in his left hand. Is it some kind of staff? A scroll perhaps? Or something else? We could not agree on what it is. Readers who have an idea may leave a comment below.

Madonna and Child, thirteenth century.

Website: Homepage – Museo Horne


[1] Francesca Flores d’Arcais, Giotto, p. 320-325.

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