Museo del Bargello

Top choice in Santa Croce

It was behind the stark walls of Palazzo del Bargello, Florence's earliest public building, that the podestà (governing magistrate) meted out justice from the 13th century until 1502. Today the building safeguards Italy's most comprehensive collection of Tuscan Renaissance sculpture, with some of Michelangelo's best early works and several by Donatello. Michelangelo was just 21 when a cardinal commissioned him to create the drunken grape-adorned Bacchus (1496–97). Unfortunately the cardinal didn't like the result and sold it.

Other Michelangelo works are in the ground-floor Sala di Michelangelo e della Scultura del Cinque Cento (first door on the right after entering the interior courtyard). Look out for the marble bust of Brutus (c 1539), the David/Apollo from 1530–32 and the large, uncompleted roundel of the Madonna and Child with the Infant St John (aka the Tondo Pitti; 1505). After Michelangelo left Florence for the final time in 1534, sculpture was dominated by Baccio Bandinelli (his 1551 Adam and Eve, created for the duomo, is also displayed here) and Benvenuto Cellini (look for his playful 1548–50 marble Ganymede in the same room).

Back in the interior courtyard, an open staircase leads up to the elegant, sculpture-laced loggia (1370) and, to the right, the Salone di Donatello. Here, in the majestic Sala del Consiglio where the city council met, works by Donatello and other early-15th-century sculptors can be admired. Originally on the facade of Chiesa di Orsanmichele and now within a tabernacle at the hall's far end, Donatello's wonderful St George (1416–17) brought a new sense of perspective and movement to Italian sculpture. Also look for the bronze bas-reliefs created for the baptistry doors competition by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti.

Yet it is Donatello's two versions of David, a favourite subject for sculptors, that really fascinate: Donatello fashioned his slender, youthful dressed image in marble in 1408 and his fabled bronze between 1439 and 1443. The latter is extraordinary – the more so when you consider it was the first freestanding naked statue to be sculpted since classical times.

Criminals received their last rites before execution in the palace's 1st-floor Cappella del Podestà, also known as the Mary Magdalene Chapel, where Hell and Heaven are frescoed on the walls, as are stories from the lives of Mary of Egypt, Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist. These remnants of frescoes by Giotto were not discovered until 1840, when the chapel was turned into a storeroom and prison.

The 2nd floor moves into the 16th century with a superb collection of terracotta pieces by the prolific della Robbia family, including some of their best-known works, such as Andrea's Ritratto idealizia di fanciullo (Bust of a Boy; c 1475) and Giovanni's Pietà (1514). Instantly recognisable, Giovanni's works are more elaborate and flamboyant than either father Luca's or cousin Andrea's, using a richer palette of colours.