The Galleria degli Uffizi, the finest picture gallery in Italy, is housed in what were once government offices (uffizi) built by Vasari for Cosimo I in 1560. After Vasari’s death, work on the building was continued by Buontalenti, who was asked by Francesco I to glaze the upper storey so that it could house his art collection. Each of the succeeding Medici added to the family’s trove of art treasures, which was preserved for public inspection by the last member of the family, Anna Maria Lodovica, whose will specified that it should be left to the people of Florence and never be allowed to leave the city. In the nineteenth century a large proportion of the statuary was transferred to the Bargello, while most of the antiquities went to the Museo Archeologico, leaving the Uffizi as essentially a gallery of paintings supplemented with some classical sculptures. The gallery is in the process of expansion, doubling the number of rooms open to the public in order to show some eight hundred pictures that have been kept in storage; accordingly, some paintings – especially those in the later sections – may not be on show precisely where they appear in the following account.
You can take a lift up to the galleries, but if you take the staircase instead, you’ll pass the entrance to the Uffizi’s prints and drawings section. The bulk of this vast collection is reserved for scholarly scrutiny but samples are often on public show.
The beginnings of the stylistic evolution of that period can be traced in the three altarpieces of the Maestà (Madonna Enthroned) that dominate Room 2: the Madonna Rucellai, Maestà di Santa Trinità and Madonna d’Ognissanti, by Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto respectively. These great works, which dwarf everything around them, show the softening of the hieratic Byzantine style into a more tactile form of representation.
Painters from fourteenth-century Siena fill Room 3, with several pieces by Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini’s glorious Annunciation. In Room 5, devoted to the last flowering of Gothic art, Lorenzo Monaco is represented by an Adoration of the Magi and his greatest masterpiece, The Coronation of the Virgin. Equally arresting is another Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano, a picture spangled with gold and crammed with incidental detail. Opposite is the Thebaid, a beguiling little narrative that depicts monastic life in the Egyptian desert as a sort of holy fairy-tale; though labelled as being by the young Fra’ Angelico, it’s also been attributed to the now-obscure Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina.
Room 7 reveals the sheer diversity of early Renaissance painting. Fra’ Angelico’s gorgeous Coronation of the Virgin takes place against a Gothic-like field of gold, but there’s a very un-Gothic sensibility at work in its individualized depiction of the attendant throng. Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano once hung in Lorenzo il Magnifico’s bedchamber, in company with its two companion pieces now in the Louvre and London’s National Gallery. The Madonna and Child with Sts Francis, John the Baptist, Zenobius and Lucy is one of only twelve extant paintings by Domenico Veneziano, whose greatest pupil, Piero della Francesca, is represented in Room 8 by the paired portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, the duke and duchess of Urbino. Much of this room is given over to Fra’ Filippo Lippi, whose Madonna and Child with Two Angels is one of the gallery’s most popular faces: the model was Lucrezia Buti, a convent novice who became the object of one of his more enduring sexual obsessions. Lucrezia puts in another appearance in Lippi’s crowded Coronation of the Virgin, where she’s the young woman gazing out in the right foreground; Filippo himself, hand on chin, makes eye contact on the left side of the picture. Their liaison produced a son, the aptly named Filippino “Little Philip” Lippi, whose Otto Altarpiece – one of several works by him here – is typical of the more melancholic cast of the younger Lippi’s art.
The Pollaiuolo brothers and Botticelli
Lippi’s great pupil, Botticelli, steals some of the thunder in Room 9 – Fortitude, one of the series of cardinal and theological virtues, is a very early work by him. The rest of the series is by Piero del Pollaiuolo, whose brother Antonio (primarily a sculptor) assisted him in the creation of Sts Vincent, James and Eustace, their finest collaboration.
It’s in the merged rooms 10–14 that the finest of Botticelli’s productions are gathered. The identities of the characters in the Primavera are clear enough: on the right Zephyrus, god of the west wind, chases the nymph Cloris, who is then transfigured into Flora, the pregnant goddess of spring; Venus stands in the centre, to the side of the three Graces, who are targeted by Cupid; on the left Mercury wards off the clouds of winter. What this all means, however, has occupied scholars for decades, but the consensus seems to be that it shows the triumph of Venus, with the Graces as the physical embodiment of her beauty and Flora the symbol of her fruitfulness.
The Birth of Venus is less obscure: it takes as its source the myth that the goddess emerged from the sea after it had been impregnated by the castration of Uranus, an allegory for the creation of beauty through the mingling of the spirit (Uranus) and the physical world.
Botticelli’s devotional paintings are equally stunning. The Adoration of the Magi is traditionally thought to contain a gallery of Medici portraits: Cosimo il Vecchio as the first king, his sons Giovanni and Piero as the other two kings, Lorenzo the Magnificent on the far left, and his brother Giuliano as the black-haired young man in profile on the right. Only the identification of Cosimo is reasonably certain, along with that of Botticelli himself, on the right in the yellow robe. In later life, influenced by Savonarola’s teaching, Botticelli confined himself to religious subjects and moral fables, and his style became increasingly severe. The transformation is clear when comparing the easy grace of the Madonna of the Magnificat with the angularity and agitation of the Calumny of Apelles.
Not quite every masterpiece in this room is by Botticelli. Set away from the walls is the Adoration of the Shepherds by his Flemish contemporary Hugo van der Goes. Brought to Florence in 1483 by Tommaso Portinari, the Medici agent in Bruges, it provided the city’s artists with their first large-scale demonstration of the realism of Northern European oil painting, and had a great influence on the way the medium was exploited here.
Leonardo to Mantegna
Works in Room 15 trace the formative years of Leonardo da Vinci, whose distinctive touch appears first in the Baptism of Christ by his master Verrocchio: the wistful angel in profile is by the 18-year-old apprentice, as is the misty landscape in the background, and Leonardo also worked heavily on the figure of Christ. A similar terrain of soft-focus mountains and water occupies the far distance in Leonardo’s slightly later Annunciation, in which a diffused light falls on a scene where everything is observed with a scientist’s precision. In contrast to the poise of the Annunciation, the sketch of The Adoration of the Magi – abandoned when Leonardo left Florence for Milan in early 1482 – presents the infant Christ as the eye of a vortex of figures, all drawn into his presence by a force as irresistible as a whirlpool. Most of the rest of the room is given over to Raphael’s teacher, Perugino.
Room 18, the octagonal Tribuna, houses the most important of the Medici’s collection of classical sculpture – in particular, the Medici Venus – but also some fascinating portraits by Bronzino, painted like figures of porcelain, and Andrea del Sarto’s flirtatious Portrait of a Young Woman.
The last section of this wing throws together Renaissance paintings from outside Florence. Signorelli, Perugino and Piero di Cosimo are the principal artists in Room 19, and after them comes a room devoted to Cranach, Dürer and other German artists. A taste of the Uffizi’s remarkable collection of Venetian painting follows, with an impenetrable Sacred Allegory by Giovanni Bellini, and three works attributed to Giorgione. In Room 22, a clutch of Northern European paintings includes some superb portraits by Holbein (notably Sir Richard Southwell and a self-portrait) and Hans Memling. The following room has a trio of Correggio pictures and a clutch of exquisite paintings by Mantegna, including the Madonna delle Cave, which takes its name from the minuscule quarry (cave) in the background.
Michelangelo, Mannerism and Titian
Beyond the stockpile of statues in the short corridor overlooking the Arno, the main attraction in Room 25 is Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, the only easel painting he came close to completing. The adjoining room contains Andrea del Sarto’s sultry Madonna of the Harpies and a number of compositions by Raphael, including his self-portrait, the lovely Madonna of the Goldfinch and Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi. The Michelangelo tondo’s contorted gestures and virulent colours were greatly influential on the Mannerist painters of the sixteenth century, as can be gauged from Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro by Rosso Fiorentino, one of the seminal figures of the movement, whose works hang in Room 27, along with major works by Bronzino and his adoptive father, Pontormo.
Room 28 is dominated by another of the titanic figures of sixteenth-century art, Titian, with ten of his paintings on show. His Flora and A Knight of Malta are stunning, but most eyes tend to swivel towards the Urbino Venus, the most provocative of all Renaissance nudes, described by Mark Twain as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses”. A brief diversion through the painters of the sixteenth-century Emilian school follows, centred on Parmigianino, whose Madonna of the Long Neck is one of the pivotal Mannerist creations. Rooms 31 to 34 feature a miscellany of sixteenth-century artists (look out for the El Greco) and some masterpieces from Venice and the Veneto, including work by Moroni, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese and Lorenzo Lotto.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
The Uffizi’s collection of seventeenth-century art is in rooms 41–45. Room 41 features strong work from Van Dyck and Rubens, whose Portrait of Isabella Brandt is perhaps his finest painting here. The most overwhelming, however, are the huge Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry and The Triumphal Entry of Henry IV into Paris – Henry’s marriage to Marie de’ Medici is the connection with Florence. This pair are displayed in the majestic Neoclassical Niobe Room. In this section of the gallery you should also see some superb works by Rembrandt, Goya, Guercino, Canaletto, Tiepolo and Chardin, but the plan is to move the non-Italian artists to new rooms downstairs some time soon.
At the moment these new galleries are used for temporary exhibitions and as a showcase for Italian art of the seventeenth century. Dramatic images from Salvator Rosa, Luca Giordano and Artemisia Gentileschi make quite an impression, but the presiding genius is Caravaggio, with his bravura Medusa (painted on a shield), the smug little Bacchus, and the throat-grabbing Sacrifice of Isaac.