As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in January 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.
I think I’ve made it plenty clear that I love museums and make it a priority to visit them whenever I travel. While Florence as a whole felt like a gigantic museum, the Uffizi was a must-see for me while in the Tuscan capital. I debated splitting this into two posts and ultimately decided not to, so be warned — this one’s a long one.
Galleria degli Uffizi
I had been wanting to visit this museum for years due to the high concentration of Italian Renaissance masters in its collection, but I had had no previous warning as to how beautiful the building actually is.
The Uffizi, like so many world-renown museums, did not start as such. The building was originally constructed to house the “Uffizi,” the administrative and legal offices of Florence — uffizi translates as offices in the Florentine dialect.
Commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici, first Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1560, it was designed by Giorgio Vasari. A painter as well as an architect, Vasari is also remembered as the first art historian, having written the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, where he chronicled the lives and works of Italian Renaissance artists. After his death in 1574, the building was ultimately completed by Bernardo Buontalenti.
Vasari was also responsible for what is today known as the Corridoio Vasariano, or Vasarian Corridor. Comissioned by Cosimo I on the occasion of the marriage of his son Francesco, it is a walkway that leads from the Palazzo Vecchio through the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio, all the way to the Palazzo Pitti, so that the Medici could have a direct route from the seat of the city council to their family home without having to walk through the streets. The corridor has been closed for many years, though it is scheduled to open back up in 2021.
Though the original intent of the building was not to serve as a museum — museums in the modern sense did not yet exist — the top floor was used as a gallery by the Medici, and they used it to display their collection of Roman sculptures. Their collection spread across the building little by little, until about 40 to 50 rooms across the entire structure were used to house and display art work owned by the family.
Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the last of the great Medici dynasty, bequeathed most of the art and treasures owned by the family over to the Tuscan State upon her death in 1743, under the condition that they would remain in Florence in perpetuity. Less than twenty years after her death, the Uffizi opened to the public, paving the way for the modern museum to be born. Its opening was organized by Pietro Leopoldo, who was also responsible for the creation of the Galleria dell’Accademia.
Part of this collection was eventually re-organized and spread across different institutions, depending on the subject matter to which they belonged. The Museum of Zoology and Natural History, better known as La Specola, pulled the bulk of its collection from this. Many Renaissance statues moved to the National Museum of the Bargello in the nineteenth century, and many Etruscan pieces were moved to the Archaeological Museum — all of these are still on my to-visit list!
Some details on the collection…
Originally created for the Siena cathedral, this panel shows the Archangel Gabriel greeting a young Virgin Mary and informing her of the forthcoming birth of Christ. The words are rendered in gold leaf and shown flowing out of the angel’s mouth toward Mary, and Mary is shown taken aback by the angel’s sudden appearance, clutching her cloak to her chest.
The Tribuna degli Uffizi was designed by Buontalenti for Francesco de’ Medici in order to display a number of masterpieces that were part of the family collection. The room gained such fame that it became a well-known stop in the typical Grand Tour.
Inspired by the design of ancient coins, both duke and duchess are shown in profile, which was seen as a format that allowed for a faithful likeness without depicting emotion. Considered one of the most important portraits of the Italian Renaissance, and one of Piero della Francesca’s most famous works, it is representative of his relationship with the couple — he was a constant visitor at their court.
Considered Lippi’s most famous piece, it is exceedingly intimate in nature, showing a moment of contemplation and prayer between mother and son. He based Mary’s face on that of Lucrezia Buti, a young nun from Prato with whom Lippi went on to have two children.
Undeniably one of the most famous works held by the Uffizi, the Birth of Venus depicts the goddess as she is escorted to nearby Cyprus directly after her birth. Botticelli took inspiration from Classical works to think up the poses of each figure, from the goddess herself to the Winds that carry her home.
Another look at Venus, Primavera depicts her at the center of a celebration which includes Zephyrus, god of the West Wind, a nymph being transformed into Flora, the goddess of Spring, Cupid, the Three Graces, and Mercury, messenger of the gods.
Agnolo Doni was a Florentine merchant who commissioned works by Raphael and Michelangelo to celebrate his marriage and the birth of his first child, respectively. The circular format was particularly popular at the time for use in religious decorations in private homes. The only panel painting by Michelangelo to survive, it is conceived as a sculpture — which makes sense, as Michelangelo considered this to be the highest form of art — with a pyramidal composition that takes up almost the entire available space.
Fun fact: if you search by image with this Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi by Bronzino, the internet seems to think it’s Erzsébet Báthory, the Hungarian noblewoman who is known as history’s most prolific female serial killer.
Also known as “The Madonna of the Goldfinch,” in reference to the tiny bird held by the young Saint John, this was created by Raphael in the time period that he spent in Florence early in his career. It was apparently broken into several pieces in a landslide in 1547, when the home of the owners was destroyed, and nothing is known of it until it is recorded as being part of the collection of Cardinal Giovan Carlo de’ Medici a hundred years later.
Primarily known as the Madonna with the Long Neck, this work is a prime example of the Mannerist style that became popular in the middle of the 16th century. Francesco Mazzola, known as Parmigianino, died without having completed it.
One of Titian’s most famous works, this is probably what I was looking forward to seeing the most. I’ve read a few interpretations on who “Venus” is supposed to be, but the Uffizi stands by the painting being a representation of a young bride about to be dressed for a traditional Venetian ceremony known as “il toccamano.” It consisted of a young woman touching the hand of the groom to express her consent to marry him after her hand had been asked for.
The dog lying at the foot of the bed is supposed to be a symbol for fidelity in marriage, and the two figures in the background are shown looking through a cassone, which was traditionally a chest which contained a bride’s trousseau. The painting was purchased by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino upon completion, and provided as part of his daughter Vittoria’s dowry upon her marriage into the Medici family. The painting was displayed in the Tribuna degli Uffizi, close to the Medici Venus.
Gentileschi’s depiction of a story I already mentioned here, it depicts Judith, a young Jew from Bethulia, beheading Holofernes, an Assyrian general sent by Nebuchadnezzar to conquer and subdue Israel, thus liberating her people. The painting was so shocking in its gory detail that it was not displayed in the Gallery — and she very nearly was not paid for it at all. Galileo Galilei, a friend of hers, was able to interfere on her behalf and she was paid her due, in the end.
In true Caravaggio fashion, he painted what he saw and nothing more, nothing less for this portrait, part of a spiritual series that includes works today housed in Rome, Milan, and elsewhere in Florence. Case in point — as the model’s nails were dirty, as he was likely a street urchin, now so does Bacchus. The painting belongs to the artist’s early career in Rome, created under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who donated this to Ferdinando I de’ Medici on the occasion of his son’s wedding in 1608.
One last piece of advice — if I were you, I’d make it a point to look out the window while perusing the galleries. Those Medici had some views…