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Meeting Michelangelo

Diane Spencer takes an enlightening tour of Florence and learns to look more closely at the city's art and culture. Follow in her footsteps by entering the TESBritish Institute competition to win a week-long stay at Easter

He groans. "Another book on Michelangelo has landed on my desk. Should I scream now, or read it, then have a nervous breakdown?" Our lecturer, Marcello Bellini, is emphasising, with Latin verve, the pressures on an art historian. He has devoted a lifetime to studying the works of fellow Florentines. We have only a week - just enough to whet the appetite.

My partner and I are visiting Tuscany's principal city on a short course run by the British Institute of Florence, founded in 1917 to develop cultural links between the UK and Italy. Every year more than 2,000 Italians aged from five upwards learn English at the institute; it provides training courses for 300 teachers of English and Italian and a plethora of short and longer courses in art history and Italian culture for students around the world. The institute has links with universities in the UK and the US and recently joined forces with the University of Bristol to offer undergraduate courses.

The short courses, such as the one I'm on, called simply Art in Florence, are sensibly divided between daily lectures and guided tours of galleries, churches and museums to give students practice as well as theory. This arrangement also leaves time to visit places not on the itinerary - arbitrary opening times permitting - and to sample other aspects of Florentine culture: food, drink and markets.

Even this relatively leisurely pace leaves my head spinning with images: which artist painted that madonna? Can I sort out my Masaccios from my Giottos? A course such as this one is much more than a glorified sightseeing tour: not only do you learn to see more in the pictures, sculptures or architecture, but they are also explained in their historical and political context. The lectures help you to develop lines of thought, and understand how to interpret and describe what you see.

This may sound rather formal, if not pretentious; but it's not. The lectures are structured, but informal, with lots of time for questions and answers. The tours focus on a few pictures, sculptures, or buildings to illustrate the work of a particular artist, after which there is usually time to linger to absorb even more, unless you are sated. Then it's time for a prosecco.

Lecturer Emma Rose Barber is skilled in helping us learn to look, to formulate our views of a painting or sculpture. "Is his expression serene or troubled?" she asks of Michelangelo's iconic, larger than life David.

From the usual angle in the Galleria dell'Accademia, where scaffolding is going up for his controversial cleaning, David looks passive, but the other side of his face seems anxious. Will he survive his encounter with Goliath?

In contrast, Donatello's David in the Bargello museum, sculpted 40 years before Michelangelo's to adorn Cosimo de Medici's palace, appears insouciant and effete. Donatello's masterpiece was commissioned for a private home; Michelangelo's for a public square.

We learn about the importance of commissions and patrons, the use of perspective in early Renaissance art, the changing styles in painting, and why a particular picture was revolutionary - Fra Lippo Lippi's Madonna and Child, for example, with the likeness of his mistress painted against a background of multiple scenes and perspectives.

Dr Bellini inspires us with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Michelangelo and the Medicis, especially Anna-Maria Ludovica, who died in 1743, the last of the line. Childless and alone in the massive Pitti Palace, she left all the family treasures to the state of Tuscany so the Hapsburgs couldn't get at them. Our expert is perceptibly angry that the only monument to her generosity is a small statue tucked behind the church of San Lorenzo, with its extravagant chapels devoted to the Medicis.

Our lectures take place in the Harold Acton library in the 16th-century Palazzo Lanfredini, one of the institute's two centres, just a stone's throw from the famous Ponte Vecchio. This is especially convenient for us, as we are staying in the institute's Foresteria apartment on the floor above. So, after lunch on the wide roof terrace overlooking the river Arno, sampling local food and wine bought from the market, it is no more than a stroll down the marble staircase for our next dose of culture.

Florence is a delight, especially seen from the vantage of the terrace, where you can gaze across the city to the Tuscan hills beyond. At first, the Renaissance architecture, with its rusticated stonework palaces and small windows, seems forbidding. But narrow streets soon give way to squares, the stunning baptistry and duomo and river banks.

Fortunately, the Florentines have been spared the ravages of modern development, apart from the unlovely station and its surroundings. The city is manageable: most of the famous sites are in walking distance. Mercifully some of the central area is closed to traffic, except bicycles, where visitors can savour designer shops and the huge central market.

The Art in Florence course costs (Euro 420 (pound;294). For details, email: info@britishinstitute.itRyanair:

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