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. Most of the new galleries have now been finished, as have the improved café and bookshop, but the so-called Nuovo Uffizi is still a work in progress, so the order in which you see things will not exactly correspond to the account that follows.
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.
Room 2, the first room of paintings, is dominated by three stunning altarpieces of the Maestà (Madonna Enthroned): 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 (Room 7), 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.
Much of Room 8 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. In the centre of the room stand Piero della Francesca's paired and double-sided portraits of Federico da Mentefeltro and Battista Sforza, the duke and duchess of Urbino.
The Pollaiuolo brothers and Botticelli
Filippo 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 Michelangelo
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.
Beyond the octagonal Tribuna, which houses several items from the Medici’s collection of classical sculptures, comes a sequence of rooms devoted to painters of the early Italian Renaissance. Rooms 20 and 21 are particularly strong, with a pair of gorgeous pictures by Antonello da Messina, a perplexing Sacred Allegory by Giovanni Bellini, and a stupendous array of works by Mantegna: a swarthy portrait of Carlo de' Medici, the Madonna delle Cave – which takes its name from the minuscule quarries (cave) in the background and a triptych which is not in fact a real triptych, but rather a trio of exquisite small paintings shackled together.
At the time of writing, the opposite side of the Uffizi from rooms 29–23 was in some disarray, but the new Michelangelo room is now finished. The docus of the room is his Doni Tondo, the only easel painting he came close to completing. Work by various contemporaries of Michelangelo occupy the rest of the wall space. Franciabiagio, del Sarto and Fra' Bartolomeo all feature strongly, alongside Albertinelli's lustruous Visitation.
The Niobe Room and the foreign painters
The majestic Niobe Room, which takes its name from the sculptures of Niobe and her Daughters (Roman copies of Greek originals, unearthed in a vineyard in Rome in 1583), has two bombastic pictures by Rubens: Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry and The Triumphal Entry of Henry IV into Paris. Beyond, near the end of this corridor, Room 45 is currently being used as a sort of parking space for pictures that await a new permanent home: Fra' Angelico's gorgeous Coronation of the Virgin is here, along with Paolo Uccello's The Battle of San Romano and fabulous paintings by Memling.
The lower galleries
Downstairs, you turn left for a new section that's devoted to non-Italian artists from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Dutch and Flemish artists occupy most of the wall space, with no fewer than four Rembrandt portraits on view; Goya, El Greco and Chardin are just a few of the other great foreigners you'll find here. Most of this floor is taken up with galleries that are given over mainly to Italian art from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with a smattering of latter work. Early on you'll pass through the room that's dedicated to Andrea del Sarto, where his sultry Madonna of the Harpies takes pride of place. Two of del Sarto's pupils, Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo, are also given solo rooms, while Pontormo's great protegé, Bronzino, gets even more space: his portraits of Cosimo de' Medici, Eleonora di Toledo, Bartolomeo Panciatichi and his wife Lucrezia Panciatichi are all faintly uncanny in their cool precision. Room 66 is packed with pictures by Raphael, including his youthful self-portrait, the lovely Madonna of the Goldfinch and Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi – as shifty a group of ecclesiastics as was ever gathered in one frame.
After Raphael comes Correggio and then Parmigianino, whose hyper-elegant and bizarre Madonna of the Long Neck is one of the pivotal Mannerist creations. The Venetians are next, with an array of works attributed to Giorgione, and Sebastiano del Piombo's Death of Adonis, which was reduced to tatters by the Mafia bomb which in 1993 destroyed part of the Uffizi and killed five people. Room 83 is entirely given over to one of the mightiest figures in the story of Venetian art, Titian, with no fewer than eleven of his paintings on show. His Flora and A Knight of Malta are stunning, but most eyes tend to swivel towards the provocative Urbino Venus, which was described by Mark Twain as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses”.
Room 88 houses a pair of typically idiosyncratic pictures by Lorenzo Lotto and some deeply acute portraits by Moroni, along with Paolo Veronese's Annunciation and Holy Family with St Barbara. Dramatic images from Salvator Rosa, Luca Giordano and Artemisia Gentileschi make quite an impression in the last rooms, where the presiding genius is Caravaggio.