“Great” is an overworked adjective in Italy, where so many of the country’s monuments and works of art command the highest praise. In the case of the Galleria degli Uffizi, or Uffizi, it barely does justice to a gallery that holds the world’s finest collection of Renaissance paintings. All the famous names of Italian art are here, not only the Renaissance masters, but also painters from the country’s early medieval, baroque, and Mannerist heyday. So, too, are artists from.farther afield, notably from Holland, Spain, and Germany.
Florence has the Medici family to thank for the Uffizi. The building that houses the collection was designed in 1560 as a suite of offices (uffizi) for Cosimo I, the family’s first grand duke, while the collection itself, accumulated by the family over the centuries, was bequeathed to the city (on condition that it never leave Florence) by Anna Maria Luisa, sister of the last grand duke, Gian Gastone Medici. Sculpture from the collection went to the Bargello; Etruscan and other antique art to the Museo Archeologico; and paintings to the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti.
The gallery spreads across some 45 rooms, and any brief survey can only touch on its absolute highlights. Dedicated visitors may want to make two visits: one to take in the first 15 rooms, home to the works of the Florentine Renaissance, some of the gallery’s best-known paintings, and another to enjoy the works of the other Italian and foreign schools displayed in the remaining 30 rooms. You should be prepared to wait in line at almost any time of the day and in any season, although note that tickets guaranteeing entry at a specific time can be arranged.
An assortment of sculptures and ground-floor frescoes by Andrea del Castagno provide the Uffizi’s prelude, and it is only with three great depictions of the Maesta, or Madonna Enthroned, in Room 3 that the gallery gets into its stride. Italy’s three finest 13th-century artists were responsible for the paintings—Giotto, Cimabue, and Duccio—each of whom pioneered a distinct move away from the stylized and iconic conventions of Byzantine art that had dominated Italian and other art for centuries. Thus Cimabue’s depiction of the saints around the Virgin’s throne improves on those of Duccio: Cimabue’s saints stand in fixed positions, while those of Duccio, a painter more wedded to Byzantine tradition, seem to float haphazardly. Giotto makes the largest leap of all, adding light and shadow to denote the folds of the Madonna’s cloak, one of several realistic and revolutionary departures from the stilted artificiality of the Byzantine approach.
Paintings from Italy’s Gothic masters fill Rooms 3-6, beginning with works from the city of Siena, where painters continued to borrow heavily from the fading conventions of Byzantine art. Finest of all are Simone Martini’s “Annunciation” (1333) and the works by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, two brothers who probably died during the plague epidemic that swept Italy in 1348. Then come exponents of the Internationa! Gothic, a highly detailed and courtly style exemplified by Gentile da Fabriano’s exquisite “Adoration of the Magi” (1423) and Lorenzo Monaco’s “Coronation of the Virgin” (1413).
The first flowering of the Renaissance is seen in Room 7, which presents works by early iconoclasts such as Masaccio, Masolino, and Fra Angelico. The same room also features a painting by one of the least-known of Italian painters, Domenico Veneziano, an artist with only 12 confidently attributed paintings to his name. Nearby hang two well-known paintings by one of Veneziano’s pupils, Piero della Francesca— portraits (1460) of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and his wife, Battista Sforza. Federico was always portrayed in left profile, as here, after a jousting accident disfigured the right side of his face.
You can almost guarantee that Rooms 10-14 will be the Uffizi’s most crowded, for this is the suite given over to the gallery’s most famous paintings: Botticelli’s “Primavera” (1478) and “Birth of Venus” (1485). The latter, the famous woman in a half shell, was the first pagan nude of the Renaissance, and, like the “Primavera” (Spring), drew heavily on classical myth and contemporary humanist scholarship. Venus was impregnated following the castration of Uranus and then rose from the sea, suggesting beauty (Venus) was the result of a union of the physical and spiritual (Uranus). In the myth—and painting—the nymphs Chloris and Zephyr blow the risen Venus to the shore, where she is cloaked by the figure of Hora. The theme of the “Primavera” is more uncertain. Some critics suggest it is an allegory of spring or all four seasons, others that it represents the Triumph of Venus, the attendant Graces representing her beauty, Flora her fecundity.
Leonardo to Michelangelo Room 15 contains two of only a handful of paintings in Florence attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: an “Annunciation” (1475) and the “Adoration of the Magi” (1481), works that rather overshadow paintings by Luca Signorelli and Perugino elsewhere in the room.
The octagonal Tribune, now Room 18, was specially built by the Medici to house their most precious works of art, among which the “Medici Venus,” a first-century b.c. Roman statue, figured large. Widely celebrated as Europe’s most erotic statue—Lord Byron stood before it “dazzled and drunk with beauty”—the figure was the only Florentine statue removed.