- Laurie Seban
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Updated: Nov 2, 2022
If there was only one museum to associate with the Italian Renaissance, it would be the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
And if there are two names to remember with the Uffizi, it would be Medici and Vasari. Cosimo Medici made his fortune in Florence at the turn of the 15th century, and his family dominated the city’s politics and culture for the next 3 centuries. As one of the largest banking families in Europe, they patronized most of the philosophers and artists that created our idea of the Renaissance, and the Uffizi now contains their fabled collection of art.
The building itself is just one of the many buildings across Florence that the Medici funded.
Giorgio Vasari originally designed offices (Uffizi) for the Medici family in 1560, as two separate buildings joined by a western corridor that overlooks the Arno River. Like other Renaissance buildings, the stately colonnade of white and gray sandstone on the ground floor becomes increasingly refined: pedimented windows on the second floor, with a smaller set of paned windows on the third floor.
Today, the Uffizi hosts a treasure trove of 14th-18th century masterpieces from Italy and Europe, and statues of Cosimo and his grandson Lorenzo greet visitors at the original entrance.
Some of their artists (and friends) greet you as you walk through the courtyard into the museum, including Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Giotto, Michelangelo, and Raphael, as well as other famous Florentines, like Dante Aligheri, Galileo, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Petrarch.
Vasari is also everywhere, at the Uffizi and in Florence. In addition to the Uffizi, he designed the tomb of Michelangelo, painted the interior dome of the Duomo, and has multiple paintings in the Uffizi. He is also considered to be the first Renaissance art historian and biographer. His Lives of the Artists, first published in 1549, collected the stories of the individual artists who dominated Italian art from the 1300s to the 1600s. The book provides detailed descriptions of each artists major commissions, along with contemporary gossip; Fra Lippis’s amorous adventures, Castagno’s murderous jealousy, Michelangelo’s divine genius. As you walk through the galleries, you can hear his voice re-telling those stories for each generation of new visitors.
The Uffizi opens at 8:15—unheard of for museums!—but necessary to accommodate the crowds. Go as early as you can, preferably at the opening so you can see the works without looking over the heads (and cell phones) of everyone. This is especially important in the summer, as the temperature rises dramatically in the afternoon.
There are no museum guides or maps. But here, the route is pretty clear, and it’s best to follow the arrows. The following guide highlights key works in most (not all) of the rooms. As much as possible, the room numbers are noted. You can pay for an audio tour as well (you will see hundreds of people walking, stopping, and starting, oblivious to the people around them).
Kids can look for: angels wings--what are they made of? In the Renaissance, artists had all kinds of ideas as to what helped angels fly. Most of the wings were multi-colored, mimicking exotic birds like peacocks and parrots. Kids (and adults) might also notice that early 14th century angels looked much more like adults; it’s only until you get to Raphael and the 16th century that they begin to look childlike, and eventually, cherubic.
Vasari’s Lives begins in Florence, and In many ways, the Renaissance did begin there. As communities across Europe began to urbanize in the 13th century, market trade and therefore merchants proliferated, creating a bustling middle class (no longer servants, not yet nobility). As trade networks expanded across Europe and eventually across the oceans, European populations and economies continued to grow.
The enormous wealth generated from expanding global trade is seen early in Florence, which by the mid 1300’s, had over 100,000 citizens. By then, over 80 banks (and even more bankers) made fortunes on the trade of silk, wool and other goods. Boys had access to public education, while craft guilds trained apprentices to serve new patrons and businesses.
A building boom resulted, and most of the major sites of Florence were built during this period. Churches, convents and cathedrals were built, along with palaces to house the wealthy. And of course, decoration for interiors of all those buildings was necessary. For the first time, artists were working not just for the Church, but for educated private patrons.
The inspiration for all these new productions was Classicism, the period of the ancient Greeks and Romans (roughly 500 BCE-300 CE). Beginning in the 1300’s, Dante Aligheri translated classical texts into common Italian vernacular (instead of Latin) which opened up literacy to a much larger swath of the population. Petrarch (another Florentine!) wrote letters to what he called the “Ancients;” in all his writings, he very clearly equated Christian spirituality with classical thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Virgil, Vitruvius.
These ideas gave birth to the Renaissance: Classical (mainly Greek) ideals of naturalism, especially in the depiction of the human body, with an emphasis on classical (mainly Roman) architecture. The Medici were key to this effort. Beginning with Cosimo, they sponsored not just artists and architects, but philosophers and poets to celebrate classicism, or what they called humanism. Vasari was one of the first to look back at the beginning of this movement and specifically use the term Renaissance, which means “re-birth.”
After paying, you will climb to the 2nd floor, past the Roman statuary, to begin your tour in the southeastern corridor. The corridor itself is filled with Greek and Roman statuary. While some are original and some are copies, all are a testament to the “rebirth” of Classicism in the Renaissance. As you move in and out of the corridor, look for a copy of the Greek Doryphoros, or Spear-Bearer. This standing male nude was the first Greek statue to show the contrappasto pose, with more weight on the back foot as the front foot shifts forward. It may not seem like much, but it is a key indicator of the shift towards naturalism (really looking at how a body moves) seen in the Greek world, later copied by Romans, and then early Renaissance artists.
The ceiling is painted with images of the people, events and ideas that created the Renaissance. And looking down from above, you’ll find centuries of Medici portraits peering down as you peruse their collection. Ironically, the last Medici died in 1737, so it’s only through their art that they live on. In fact, the last Medici, Anna Maria Luisa, donated her estate to Florence with the provision that it always remain in Florence. Any tourist visiting the collections of the Uffizi, Bargello, San Marco, San Lorenzo and other Florentine sites has her to thank for the wealth of material to visit.
Room A4, your first stop, shows typical Church works of the trecento, or 13th century. Cimabue’s massive Madonna and Child triptych depicts Mary/Madonna as the throne of Christ, as Christ himself holds up his hand in blessing. They are surrounded by a crown of angels on either side, as two men below look upward and the two saints look downward in awe.
Massive wooden altarpieces were meant to overwhelm viewers with the glory of Christ. They usually featured images of Mary and the Christ child, often accompanied by saints and angels. Most are hinged, made of two or three panels. Double panels (diptychs) or triple panels (triptychs) were normally folded, and only opened during services to reveal the wondrous images inside. The medium was tempera, or pigment mixed with egg yolk, which results in opaque, semi-glossy pigments.
Madonna and Child Enthroned by Cimabue (c. 1280-90) and Giotto (c. 1300-1305)
There was no attempt to make the subjects look realistic; they were intended to represent the extraordinary, otherworldly nature of the Biblical characters. Mary is usually shown with a blue robe because the lapis used to make the blue pigment was the second most expensive paint (gilt, or gold, being the most expensive). Subjects were in hieratic scale (the most important figures the largest). Gilt backgrounds added to the splendid nature of the works, but also to the flatness of the scene. There is no sense of space, or dimension.
Giotto was the first to change that. According to Vasari, Giotto was a shepherd boy discovered by Cimabue as he was drawing sheep on a rock in the hills above Florence. Vasari also recounts that Giotto once painted a fly on the nose of Cimabue’s Madonna; it was so real that Cimabue tried to swat it away! True or not, you can see how he was hailed as a genius, and the first Renaissance artist in his Madonna and Child Enthroned. While Mother and Child are still the largest, Giotto is also much more naturalistic: his figures seem to have three dimensions (Mary’s legs are actually supporting the baby). There is some movement or interaction between the figures, and more expression on their faces. Most importantly, you see a real sense of space, in the steps leading up to the throne, and the depth of the pointed arch that frames them. It would be a century before other artists begin to use these innovations of interaction, motion, and emotion.
To your left, Room A5 shows more of the typical altarpieces which were all part of the traditional religious production. Simone Martini’s Annunciation is a masterpiece of the earlier Gothic style, with its elongated vertical figures set into a Gothic style façade of pointed arches. An elegant angel Gabriel, wings and robes soaring upwards, tells Mary she will give birth to the son of God. Mary, elegant in her robes and throne, regally shrugs as the words of the Holy Spirit shoot towards her body.
There are four elements that are always part of the iconography of the annunciation: Gabriel, Mary, the Holy Spirit, and white lilies, present as a reminder of Mary’s purity and her body as a vessel for the sacred Christ-child (symbolized by the golden stamen).
Simone Martini, Annunciation (c. 1333)
Room A9 displays some of the new innovations of other Renaissance artists. By the 1400’s (in Italian, the quattrocento), an increasingly wealthy and educated middle class was patronizing an increasingly skilled stable of artists. Rather than anonymous craftsmen, these are educated artists, each with a unique style, who proudly sign their work. There are new types of works, too: artists like Piero della Francesca were commissioned to paint portraits of patrons in addition to religious works.
Della Francesca’s double Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino (c. 1473-75) is meant to be a commemoration of the marriage of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza. But it is also a commemoration of the wealth, seen in the details of their expensive clothing and accessories. There is a growing sense of naturalism: you can see the individual features of husband and wife, including the scars of Montefeltro (who had lost much of his nose in battle). The landscape behind the couple represents their vast holdings, and you can see the beginnings of aerial perspective: as things recede into the distance, they grow lighter.
This particular portrait is also displayed free standing, so you can also see the back side of the portrait, which shows the couple in a wagon, accompanied by the Christian virtues, now seen as classical goddesses. Classicism was clearly equated with Christianity by all of the Humanist thinkers at this time. The “ancients” pure pursuit of knowledge was seen as a parallel to the pursuit of the “divine” but contemporary theologians, philosophers, writers, and artists.
By the 1400's, Biblical scenes take place in the palazzos that were becoming ubiquitous in Itialian cities. Domenico Veneziano’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with St. Francis, John the Baptist, St. Zenobius, and St. Lucy shows the mother and child in an apse with graceful arches and marble inlay framing St. John (in bearskin), proudly pointing to his cousin, St. Francis, Zenobius and St. Lucy, who was martyred when her eyes were gouged out (she carries them before her in a platter). Here too, you can see Veneziano’s use of orthogonals as the line of each figure’s feet leads to Mary and Christ.
Unfortunately, Veneziano was talented enough to draw the envy of another artist, Andrea Castagno. Vasari tells us that when both were working on a commission at San Lorenzo, Castagno bludgeoned his rival to death, only confessing to the murder on his deathbed.
Veneziano, Madonna and Child Enthroned (c. 1445) & Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with Two Angels(c. 1460-1465)
.Fra Lippi painted a close-up of a similar scene, a rocky landscape just outside the window. He was a painter-priest known for his love of women, seen in the delicate graceful lines of his figures.. There is a real sense of intimacy in his Madonna and Child with Two Angels, as Mary leans towards her child as he toys with her neckline, two angels holding him up (one proudly looks at the viewer). Lippi, one of the first artists in the Medici circle, was a confidante of Cosimo, who apparently tried to keep him confined to his palazzo so he wouldn’t be so distracted by Florentine women, but to no avail.
In both of these (and other works), you might also notice a clear line of diagonals, which denote a new interest in linear perspective. Linear perspective was the invention of Filippo Brunelleschi, who also happened to build the Duomo which towers above Florence (you can’t see his work in the Uffizi, but you can see his portrait outside the Uffizi). Brunelleschi was too busy building many of the palazzos and churches of Florence to use the organized linear perspective he developed, but his system of implied lines which recede into a vanishing point was employed by almost all Italian artists after.
Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano (c. 1450)
Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano is a study in orthogonals. Vasari bemoaned that he neglected every aspect of his life and profession in favor of detailed studies iperspective, and died penniless. This, his most well known painting, depicts a Florentine victory over Milan just 5 years earlier, with soldiers, horses and lances intertwined. Yet even the dead die along orthogonals. And the countryside that recedes into the distance is marked with fields that also obediently fall into linear perspective.
Pass through A10, in which Piero Pollaiuolo’s Virtues reign. Charity, Faith, Temperance, Prudence, Faith and Justice are each seated with the symbols of their attributes. Those are the same virtues seen on della Francesca’s panels, now off their carts and dominating the room.
Room A11 is dominated by Fra Lippi’s most famous student, Sandro Botticelli. His work is characterized by the same delicate tracery; you can see how the figures share the same artistic DNA with Lippi. Botticelli, however draws out the line, creating distinctive elongated figures. Botticelli was a favorite of the Medici, and the Uffizi holds more of his works than any other museum, so enjoy.
Botticelli, Primavera (c. 1482)
The two works that dominate the double rooms are Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus, both painted for the Medici family. Primavera was painted first, and highlights Botticelli’s skill in depicting complex classical symbolism. It’s still not known exactly what it is meant to represent, but one clearly sees Primavera as the goddess of spring, scattering flowers. On one side, Mercury with his caduceus examines the oranges in the grove (oranges are symbol of the Medici), while the Three Graces dance. On the other side, the wind god Zephyr catches hold of Chloris, a wood nymph. All this takes place on a carpet of flowers, each one a specific species native to Florence. Look closely at the canvas, as the beauty of Botticelli really is in the details: the depth of greenery in the foreground, the outlining of each leaf and flower, and the which gives a golden sheen to each strand of Primavera’s hair.
The next room features more. In Madonna of the Pomegranate, each figure has a different expression, a contrast to the melancholy of the mother and child. A pomegranate is held by the Christ-child, a classical symbol of fertility, but also a symbol of Christ’s blood, and his role as the king of heaven (see how the tiny crown at the stem of the pomegranate is highlighted). The elaborate round frame features lilies as a symbol of Mary.
The frame is equally elaborate on the Madonna Magnificat, but this time it features pomegranates in addition to the lilies. Mother and child look at each other as Madonna, in the act of being crowned by angels, is writing the phrase “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (My soul doth magnify the Lord).
Botticelli, Madonna Magnificat (1481)
The Birth of Venus was painted 8 years later—and one of the first painted on canvas (instead of wood). Venus the goddess of love, borne from seafoam, gracefully coasts to shore, with an attendant waiting to robe her. The role of the Medici is referenced here as well: note the orange trees once again. And the awkward posing of Zephyr and Chloris is actually based on a carving of the same subject owned by the Medici.
Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1485)
Next to Birth is a small Portrait of a Young Boy. Although the boy is unknown, the figure in the medallion is not. It’s a bust of Cosimo Medici, Botticelli’s primary patron (another statement of the power of the Medici). In fact, the Uffizi contains the most Botticellis in the world. Look for his simple Annunciation, with Mary bowing before Gabriel. This work is another lesson in perspective: you can see the floor tiles leading into the far distance, dominated by yet another orange tree.
Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man, Annunciation, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints
Botticelli's Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints is crowded with figures jostling to get closer to Christ, who seems a little alarmed at the mob surrounding him! The crowd includes four angels carrying the instrumentsof the Passion (Christ's death: nails, sponge Botticelli himself was no stranger to religious frenzy; in his later years, he was a follower of the priest Savonarola, who drew large crowds with sermons railing against religious and political corruption. It's not known whether Botticelli took part in Savonarola's 1497 Bonfire of the Vanities, in which Florentines burned books, cosmetics, and other "instruments of vice," and it's rumored that Botticelli burned many of his early works as not religious enough. Fortunately, the artist was not burned at the stake like Savonarola!
The next room, A14, contains oil paintings, a new invention from Northern Europe. The technique spread into Italy by way of Northern artists being commissioned by Medici agents and members of the Medici family. Pigment mixed with linseed oil allowed for more subtle shading and nuance than conventional tempera (pigment mixed with egg yolk).
Hugo Van der Goes could add much more detail using oils in his Portinari Altarpiece, or Adoration of the Shepherds. The key to recognizing Northern works is to remember that the North was where the telescope, the microscope, and the magnifying glass were invented. Clear vision, even more than the eye can naturally take in, is what was sought by Northern painters, and what gives them a distinctive linear realistic quality.
The altarpiece is such an enormous work, it’s as if the viewer looks through a window to watch the shepherds and a host of angels witness the Nativity, or birth of Christ. On the left panel, Mary and a pregnant Mary on her donkey make their way to Bethlehem. In the central panel, shepherds throw up their arms in celebration and angels announce the arrival of Christ, while angels, shepherds, and kings kneel before the tiny e tiny baby.
Hugo van der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1477-1478)
This work is said to have some of the most detailed iconography of the time period. The shoe behind the angels signifies the sacred space which Christ inhabits. The column is carved with a harp, symbol of the House of David. Ivy leaves on the vase remind the viewer of grape leaves and wine (symbolizing Christ's blood) used in the Christian mass or communion, while the sheaves of wheat signify the bread. Each of the flowers also have religious significance: the lilies a symbol of Mary’s purity, the color of irises a reminder of Christ’s passion, purity, and royalty. Columbine is a traditional symbol of sorrow, while violets represent humility.
On the two side panels, members of the Portinari family also witness the event. Tommaso Portinari was the head of the Medici bank in Bruges (Dante’s Beatrice was a Portinari, too) and typical of large works like this, paid for the glory of not just of Christ, but his own family as well.
This altarpiece was shipped back to Florence by Porinari, to be placed in the church of his family. It represents not just a window into a new reality, but also a window into the future, as more Italian artists adopted the medium and techniques of oil painting.
Van der Weyden, Christ Being Laid in the Sepulchre (1460-63)
Rogier Van der Weyden’s Christ Being Laid in the Sepulchre takes place in a much lonelier, rocky landscape, three crosses in the background. The gruesome realism of Christ’s wounds and stiffening body is a contrast to the rich attire of Nicodemus holding the body (another portrait of Cosimo), and Joseph of Aramathea. Oil paints allow a microscopic`` vision of the dirty bare feet, weave of the cloth, and flowers scattered outside the tomb. Yet the agonized expressions of each figure are front and center.
Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi (1471)
This room also contains one last Botticelli: his Adoration of the Magi is much more detailed than his other religious works, probably designed with help from the Medici themselves. Madonna and Child sit resplendent on a Turkish carpet surrounded by saints and angels. The requisite lilies and oranges are present along with a host of other luxury details. The painting is meant to recall the splendor of annual Medici parades, with portraits of both Cosimo, sons Piero and Giovanni and grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano as participants. Can you guess which one is Lorenzo the Magnificent? Note the gleaming armor of the young men on your left. And Botticelli himself?--the furthest figure on our right looks back at us, wondering at our reaction to his painting.
The next room, the Math Room (A17) is filled with niches, meant to set off a collection of exquisite classical works of ivory, porphyry and marble. Busts, figures and fragments all seem to be in an intimate conversation. Some of them even look up at the elaborately painted ceiling which celebrates the role of mathematics in the sciences, and especially military sciences. You’ll find portraits of Archimedes, Euclid, Ptolemy, Pythogoras, and of course, the Medici and their accomplishments.
Peek into the Tribunal next door to see a dome lined with seashells. Don’t let the line fool you—there is no masterpiece in this room. The room itself is meant to be the masterpiece, a three-dimensional treasure chest of the wonders of the world. The world is represented in all its elements: Earth as the marble mosaic floor patterned in a flower, red velvet curtains with a golden fringe to represent fire, water symbolized by the thousands of shells set into the dome, and Air through the open lantern which crowns the room, and also serves as a sundial. The sundial passes over a series of statues are surrounded by paintings stacked four high in the room. Look for the sleeping cupids taking a break from the crowds. And if there is a line, try looking through the side doors instead.
The last rooms in this corridor (A17-21) feature quattrocento works from outside Florence: Siena, Emilia Romana, Lombardy, and Venice. There are late Gothic altarpieces from Siena as well as a striking sketch of the Lamentation, a close-up of Christ’s followers as they take Him from the Cross, by the early Venetian master Giovanni Bellini. Some mystery surrounds the purpose of the sketch, and there is also an air of mystery in his Sacred Allegory, with figures arrayed in a classical patio. Who are the children playing in the patio with the Christ-child?. The two saints in loincloths are standing at attention, while Mary sits quietly on a bench. Where is it set, and who are the figures embracing in the background?
The corridor running along the Arno River displays many more of the classical statuary collected by the Medici and used by Renaissance artists.
. Some are Greek originals, but most are later Roman or even later Italian copies. There are no major masterpieces, but you can see the interest in naturalism with the contrappasto pose, detailed anatomy, and range of emotional expressions. You‘ll also see the Vasari Corridor connecting the Ufiizi to the Ponte Vecchio. This was created by the architect so that the Medici could pass across the bridge to their Pitti Palace unseen by every Florentine
Versions of the slayed Marsyas beckon you down the next corridor, which features the works of the High Renaissance. Marsyas is famous for challenging the god Apollo to a duel in music; in the end, he lost his life and his hide.
More statues line the hallway, but look up and you’ll see an elaborated series of ceiling paintings featuring all the figures of 15th-17th century Florence, each organized by their study group: philosophy, theology, politics, art, mathematics, etc.
Ghirlandaio, the teacher of Michelangelo, is featured in A25. Madonna Enthroned with Saints Dionysius the Areopagite, Dominic, Clement, Thomas Aquinas and Angels displays Mary as the throne of Christ, resplendent in a Classical patio on a newly imported Turkish carpet. Behind them is yet another orange orchard ripe with fruit, with lilies also included as a symbol of Mary’s purity. The saints surrounding the duo are all named in an inscription on the arch above Mary's head; they are in a traditional "sacred conversation," a collection of saints from different time periods gathered together as an illustration of religious philosophy. St. Thomas Aquinas, on Mary's left (holding the book), was responsible for the synthesis of Greek philosophy with Church teachings (represented by Pope Clement on Mary's right).
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (1480-8) Adoration of the Magi (1497)
Ghirlandaio's tondo (round) painting of the Adoration of the Magi is even more crowded with figures, from the three kings in the foreground, to the crowds of people witnessing the spectacle on either side, and back to the others milling about beneath the Roman ruins. The ruins are meant to be a reminder of the Classical heritage, but also its fall with the rise of Christianity. Ghirlandaio looked closely at the works of Northern European artists like Hugo Van der Goes, and managed to create an incredibly detailed composition while still using the traditional Italian medium of tempera painting.
Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Child (1463) (c. 1478) Adoration of the Magi (1496)
Other mid century masters are shown in the following rooms (27-32). Filippino Lippi, son of Fra Lippi and student of Botticelli, continues the same graceful line and subtly rounded forms of his master in a quiet Adoration of the Child, with Mary kneeling over her Son (c. 1478). His Adoration of the Magi (1496), though, is so crowded with the people that they all seem to be wrestling for face time! The crowd includes another Medici ((
Pietro Perugino's Pieta shows Mary mourning her dead Son, suspended rigidly on her lap, with John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea attending her. Perugino was one of the first to use oils, which allowed the painter to build up nuance and expression in multiple layers of paint. Like other Italian artists of his epoch, his subjects are shown in classical settings, crisply outlined in a crystalline light.. That changes in the next rooms. Perugino, Pieta (1483)
In A33, Roman busts of all the great Classical thinkers—Sophocles with his banged up nose, Plato, Artistotle, and others guide you towards the High Renaissance masters. They're a reminder of how much "the Ancients," as they were called, informed Renaissance artists--in setting, style and philosophy.
Da Vinci, in Room A35, is traditionally considered the beginning of the High Renaissance—what does that mean? Compare his Annunciation to that of Van der Goes or Veneziano and you can see the difference.
Da Vinci, Annunciation (1472)
First is the use of oils. Da Vinci, known for his experiments and studies in aeronautics, military engineering, biology, anatomy and geography, was one of the first Italian artist to experiment with oils. Using thin glazes of oil paint, he created a fantastical geographic setting with perfectly pruned trees as a setting for one of the most famous scenes in Christian art. The angel Gabriel kneels on a flower strewn lawn, and leans forward to tell Mary she will soon give birth to the Son of God (and the Holy Spirit shoots towards her stomach) Mary draws back. That interaction between the figures, along with the expression on the two faces is something already seen with Giotto and others. But Da Vinci amplifies that effect, and uses a smoky glaze (sfumato) that adds to the weight of the atmosphere. Thus, the crisp clear even light of the early Renaissance gives way to figures that are made of light and shadow instead of line. The Italian term for that is chiaroscuro, which means “drawn with light.”
Da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi (1482)
Da Vinci reportedly only finished 15 paintings in his lifetime! But the vast body of sketches and studies give a sense of his constant exploration and experimentation with the world around him. In his sketch of the Adoration, one can see his thought process through the layers of work. Some areas are sketched out in siena, while others are fully developed. There are clusters of conversations, a whole range of expressions and gestures—and not one outlined figure among them! Da Vinci’s genius was to suggest, but never define his figures.
The last painting in this room is the earliest: a Baptism of Christ by Andrea Verrochio, Da Vinci's first teacher. Look carefully at the two angels on the right to see if you can recognize which one was done by Da Vinci, an apprentice of the artist. According to Vasari, Verrochio sent Da Vinci off with the statement that the pupil had already surpassed the master.
Andrea Verrochio, Baptism of Christ (1472-76)
Michelangelo, Holy Family (1507)
And then room 25, the Michelangelo room. "Divine Michelangelo," as Vasari called him, was worshipped even while alive (though tormented by the Pope and critiqued by Da Vinci). He started as an apprentice to Ghirlandaio, but soon left to sculpt in the Medici garden. And his few paintings do have the muscular weight of marble statuary. In his Holy Family, you can just see how he translated those bodies into stone, with his characteristic energy and expression. The line of wrestling male nudes in the background speak to his assiduous study of cadavers as a means of understanding physical anatomy. All of Michelangelo’s figures, male and female, are based on his assiduous study of the male body. Look at the rippling muscles of Mary’s arms and abdomen, and you can decide for yourself.
A generation younger than Michelangelo and Da Vinci, Raphael carefully studied both of their works, and paid tribute to their genius. I’m not so sure Michelangelo would be happy to be in the same room as Raphael—he refused to let the younger artist see his Sistine Chapel because he was afraid of being sabotaged. When Raphael did succeed in sneaking in to view the chapel, Michelangelo was enraged. Raphael, however, was impressed, and paid homage to Michelangelo’s genius in several quotes of the Sistine figures. His brooding Portrait of St. John the Baptist clearly borrows from Michelangelo in the theme and pose.
Raphael, Portrait of St. John the Baptist (1517-18)
Raphael’s range of Madonna and Childs all use the pyramidal composition initiated by Da Vinci. The figures also form a knot of interaction: in Madonna of the Goldfinch, see how Mary looks down and holds baby John the Baptist (still in an animal skin), who holds out a goldfinch for Christ to touch. And Raphael bathes his figures in a sunny chiaroscuro that suffuses them with light and joy. No artist conveys family intimacy better than Raphael—look at how Christ’s foot rests gently on his mothers.
Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch (1505-06)
It’s no wonder Raphael was sought as a portraitist, and you can see several more in the same room. Comparing the earlier portraits of the Montefeltros to that of Raphael, you can see how Raphael incorporated the innovations of Da Vinci, down to the 3/4 pose of the Mona Lisa. A large output for someone who died at the age of 35.
And just as you leave the room, Portia by Fra Bartolommeo (1495) seems to be stepping out of her frame to lead you out of the room. Portia was the wife of the Roman assassin Brutus. After his suicide, she followed his lead by swallowing live coals; you can see them smoldering at her feet.
The influence of classicism is clearly on display in the Niobe Room. Niobe was a Greek queen with 7 sons. One day, she boasted that she was a better mother than who had only 2 children. But those 2 children were Apollo and Artemis! Enraged at the insult to their mother, they set out to kill each of Niobe's children. The Queen’s hubris and the subsequent tragedy was a longstanding subject in the ancient world; the statues here were discovered in Rome in the 16th century, and designated as the children of Niobe when they were installed at the Medici Villa. Each one attempts to escape the fate of the gods.
Peter Paul Rubens Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry (1627)
At each end of the room, Peter Paul Rubens Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry and Triumphal Entry of Henry IV into Paris were both commissioned by his wife, Catherine de Medici. Catherine first commissioned a cycle of 24 paintings from Rubens on her life (now in the Louvre); the second cycle heroizing her husband was not completed. Both are typical portraits of Baroque leaders at the time, meant to heroize and even mythologize the ruler, with dramatic diagonals, swirling colors, rippling muscles, and divine attendants. Henry’s victory over Catholic forces consolidated his power in France, and he is shown here as a heroic soldier spurring his forces on to victory as a heavenly host aids from above. In the second, that same heavenly host heralds his arrival into Paris, in a golden chariot surrounded by a throng of soldiers and citizens.
Next in room A40 is a single sculpture—the Hermaphrodite. A pristine nude sleeps in a pool of light as the visitors crowd around. The original Hermaphrodite was the offspring of Hermes, the god of war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of Love, and born with male and female genitalia. The Roman sculpture here is a copy of the original Greek statue, now in the Louvre.
Hermaphrodite, Roman copy of Greek original 2nd century CE
Room 20 continues the Renaissance into Northern Europe, with paintings by Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Durer. As seen in the earlier Northern works, there is much more attention to extreme details—clear vision was sought rather than emotional naturalism, which is why they often don’t look as realistic to us today.
Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve greets the viewer as they walk in. The Biblical founders of humanity are naked in a grove, their muddied bodies against the dark Garden of Eden. Adam looks warily at Eve, who holds out the apple with a challenging glance as the serpent watches on. Eve’s face may not look terribly realistic, but look at the stance of both figures—they mirror the naturalism of the Italian masters. Right next to them is another Adam and Eve, almost lifesize, by Hans Baldung Grien.
Eternally facing the image of the original sin are portraits of Martin Luther and his wife, friends of Cranach. Luther was a key figure in the Protestant Reformation (and founder of the Lutheran church), which was a protest against the excesses of the Catholic Church. There is no mistaking the direct simplicity of his gaze, a stark contrast to the splendor and pomposity of the Medici portraits outside this room.
Another is a portrait of the artist’s father by Albrecht Durer. Durer was like Da Vinci, a true Renaissance man: trained as a goldsmith, he built his success as a printer, making engravings and woodprints for a growing art market. In all his works he synthesizes the details of the Northern Renaissance with the naturalism, nuance and emotion of the High Italian Renaissance.
In his Adoration of the Magi (1504), the three magi (kings) each have a three dimensional quality learned from Durer’s study of Italian paintings, but the composition itself is crowded with details of figures and textures, much more typical of the northern style. The luxurious furs and accessories of the Magi reflect Durer’s own wealth and acclaim as an artist. Other details, like the moths on the log next to Mary, have more subtle symbolism.
Durer, The Adoration of the Magi (c.1504)
There are 2 stops left in this corridor. The original Laocoon was discovered during the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome. It is a Hellenistic masterpiece of twisting emotion and drama. Laocoon was a blind Trojan priest who foresaw that the horse left by the Greeks would be the end of Troy. The Greek gods sent sea serpents to strangle Laocoon and his sons so that the Trojan Horse would succeed. The sculpture captures the death throes of the Trojans as they turn to escape the strangling snakes, and this copy by Baccio Bandinelli in 1525 expertly replicates the original. The original is by an unknown artist—but some theorize it might have been done by Michelangelo himself, who would be all too pleased to have his work mistaken for an ancient!
If you're in Florence, you probably know why a boar would be watching Laocoon's death unfold. The boar is mascot of Florence, seen on magnets, keychains, stuffies, and the centerpiece of pasta cinghale!
The final stop in this corridor is the café—and not to be missed! First, the full restaurant is a welcome respite from the crowds, and the shakerato (iced coffee in a martini glass) or affogato (ice cream with coffee) is a pleasure after the heat of the galleries. But mainly, it shouldn’t be missed for its unparalleled views of Florence, including the Duomo, Piazza Vecchio, Orsanmichele, and San Lorenzo.
To continue to the galleries on the 1st floor, return to the stairway between the Da Vinci and Michelangelo rooms. Downstairs are the later 15th-16th century masterpieces from Italy, including Caravaggio, Gentilischi and Titian.
Descend in the late 16th century Mannerist works (D2-8), by artists who could expertly render any human figure, and thus did so in their own personal manner—hence the term Mannerism. In the first room (D2) Andrea del Sarto quotes from Michelangelo’s larger than life forms. But his sculpted figures also have the softness of Raphael. His Madonna and Child with St. Francis and St John the Evangelist is thought to be a portrait of the artist (as St. Francis) and his wife.
Del Sarto, Madonna and Child with St. Francis and St John the Evangelist
Most of the Mannerists in these rooms exhibit some degree of stylization or exaggeration in their paintings. Jacopo Pontormo’s Expulsion From Paradise is an almost expressionist study of panic as Adam and Eve flee the wrath of God, while Rosso Fiorentino’s Madonna shows Christ with what looks like mascara running down his face! You might think it is an artist’s error—but see how perfectly the artists shows two angels with parrot wings that seem to be sharing a secret at her feet! All throughout the rooms, you’ll notice heightened expressions and popsicle colors.
Room D8 shows the most famous example of Mannerism, Francesco Parmagianino’s Madonna and Child, Angels and Prophet, or Madonna of the Long Neck. Mannerists pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in religious paintings, mixing technical perfection with slight perversion. In this case, the shading and ovals of each face are absolute perfection. Look for the subtle reflection of Christ's Crucifixion in the urn held by the angel. But the impossibly long neck of the Madonna, matched by the distorted form of the Christ-child, give a slighly unnerving impression. Even St. Jerome with his scroll is not sure what to think. The artist died before completing the work, which is why only the feet of St. Francis stand beside him.
Parmagianino, Madonna of the Long Neck (1540)
The same oval faces with perfect complexions appear in the artist’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, but look how hairy St. John has become! The traditional symbolism of St. John the Baptist wearing fur (because he lived in the wilderness) is twisted into a growth that spreads across his body. The hair of the angels and Christ seems similarly agitated. And John seems to lunge at his cousin, while Mary looks on in amusement.
Parmagianino, Virgin with Child, St. John the Baptist, Magdalene, Zachariah 1531-33
In contrast, Correggio shows more PG rated family scenes, but they too, have a twist. In the Adoration of the Christ Child, it’s Mary who sets aside her shoes to worship her Child. It's rare that one sees Mary enjoying an intimate tranquil moment with her baby, away from the typical crowds of religious figures. And in Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a dramatic diagonal leads the viewer from St. Francis to Mary, Christ, and Joseph who is thoughtfully handing his Son dates to eat.
Correggio Adoration of the Christ Child (1518-20) Rest on the Flight into Egypt with St. Francis (1520)
As you cross to the other side of the corridor, you’ll enter a room with a rotating collection of artist self-portraits. They range from the wildly contemporary to others of art historical importance.
A Self-Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola, mentored by Michelangelo and court painter to Philip of Spain, can be found. In her Self-Portrait, Marie Vigee-Lebrun, one of the first women to enter the French Academy (and court paintress to Marie Antoinette) looks out mid-brushstroke, while Angelica Kauffman, the first female to enter the British Royal Academy of Arts sits regally with a wooden panel.
Agnolo Bronzino is featured in room D13. There are a few religious works, but he is most well known for his portraits, which have an almost photorealistic quality—
but the faces are so perfectly oval, the bodies so perfectly attenuated, you also get the feeling they could be photoshopped!
Bronzino, Portrait of , Bianca de Medici, Eleanora and son , Giovanni
The next room, or Hall of Dynasties (D14) consists of Medici portraits by some of the most famous artists of their time, including more by Bronzino. Some might seem familiar; there are a few replicas that line the corridors of the Uffizi galleries.
In his portrait of Cosimo I's Spanish born wife, Eleanora of Toledo and Son, Bronzino pays attention to all the accessories of wealth and power: a magnificent Spanish brocade dress with a golden belt, pearl necklace, and pearl hairnet. So much attention has been paid to her outfit that her body was actually exhumed to see if she was buried in it! (she was not, though she was buried with the pearl hairnet). Eleanora married Cosimo I in 1539, and managed the estates (including the Pitti Palace) and Florence in her husband’s absence, all while raising 11+ children. Sadly, she died at the age of 40.
Here, she is shown with her son Giovanni, with other family members in the surrounding paintings.
Nearby is a Portrait of Bianca de Medici, the beloved daughter of Cosimo (Eleanora's step-daughter) , who died at the age of 5. The portrait is based on her death mask; Bronzino brings her back to life with an exquisite exactitude. Her devoted father is shown in the cameo necklace she wears.
And next door are some of Bianca's forebears: Vasari’s own brooding portrait of Lorenzo de Medici, shadowed by Pontormo's study of Cosimo, the founder of the Medici line.
The next rooms (D16-17) are a survey of 17th century artists across Europe. You’ll see France represented with the Portrait of Gabriella D’Estrees, the mistress of Henry IV, and her sister. The strange pose is meant to be an indication of her pregnancy. A Landscape with Mines has such incredible detail, it could only be done by a Northern painter. While the twisting bodies in The Fall of The Rebel Angels could only have been done by an Italian artist.
D18 returns to Venice with a few small paintings by the Venetian master Giorgione. A follower of the Bellini brothers, you can see the subtle shading on the faces of his portraits, as well as similar air of mystery in his landscapes. He achieved this by carefully building up thin layers of oil glaze. The Trial of Moses by Fire refers to an obscure Hebrew story of the Egyptian pharaoh testing the baby Moses. At this early date, before 19th century excavations of Egyptian tombs, Giorgione dresses the Egyptian pharaoh in the clothing of a Turkish sultan!
Giorgione, Trial of Moses by Fire (1502-05)
D20, the El Greco room, features one by the Spanish-Greek master: St. John the Evangelist and St. Francis. Both saints elongated bodies tower above the viewer—the Mannerist tendency towards exaggeration is definitely present here. El Greco was born in Crete, but studied in Italy (he spent 4 years in Venice studying Giorgione) before spending most of his career in Spain. A devout Catholic, most of his paintings have a religious fervor bordering on the expressionistic, and take place in a rocky abandoned landscape similar to Toledo, where he lived.
Room D22 continues the Venetian masters with the greatest of them all—Titian. Titian was court painter to Francois I of France, Philip IV of Spain, and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. His portraits, built up with hundreds of glazes, are unsurpassed: the Uffizi has several, including one of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino.
But Titian is best known for his nudes, especially the Venus of Urbino (1538). Rather than being Venus the Goddess of Love, placed clearly in the Classical era, this Venus is serenely lunging on a sumptuous Venetian bed, one hand holding a bouquet of roses (a symbol of love and constancy), the other in a venus pudica pose. The servants behind her pull out a wedding dress; the idea of betrothal is furthered by the young dog (fido=fidelity) sleeping at the foot of the bed. The first in a long line of female nudes put on display—first for the patron, then for the millions of viewers.
Venus is accompanied by Portrait of Lady (La Fornarina) by Sebastiano Del Piomobo, and Titan's own Flora. Both have the luscious skin tones and youthful blush of Venus (though they are clothed!).
The Veronese Corridor (D26) showcases Veronese, an artist who depicted such sumptuous displays of wealth in his religious works that he was called before the Inquisition! No one has more perfectly rendered (and foreshortened) a body better in his Holy Family with Saints Barbara and John.
Veronese, Holy Family with Saints ( )
His Annunciation takes place in a Venetian palazzo amidst billowing clouds (the Holy Spirit as it enters Mary), while his Martyrdom of Justina takes place in a more sumptuous setting.
But the sparkling Venetian air and beauty of Justina cannot save her from being put to death by Roman soldiers. Inexplicably, those soldiers look Middle Eastern (with turbans) rather than Roman--perhaps because of trade ties (and conflcts) Venice had at the time.
Veronese, Martyrdom of Justina
The Corridor following the Arno takes you through another sculpture gallery. If you are tired at this point in the visit, look for Farnese Hercules, a 2nd century Roman statue of the athlete at rest on his lion skin, just as weary as you after all of his labors. You can see the golden apples of Hesperides are still in his hand.
D28 features Annibale Carracci, known for his naturalistic style. Venus with a Satyr and Two Cupids recalls the eroticism of the earlier Mannerists—just look at the lascivious little Cupid poking out his tongue in the right corner! The subject might not look very natural, but Carracci beautifully renders the light hitting the (somewhat distorted) back of Venus, as well as the texture and details of her falling drapery.
The 17th century marks a consolidation, and a shift. The effects of natural light become a primary focus for artists across Europe, but in very different ways. In Italy, religious wars and the Lutheran Reformation lead to an examination of religious values for the Vatican, which dominated Italian culture. Italian artists focused on religious scenes which emphasized the spiritual drama of the Church, often in shocking ways.
D29 features the dramatic work of Caravaggio and all his followers, or carravaggisti—this includes Artemesia Gentilischi. Caravaggio was a rebel in many ways; a gambler and schemer, he favored those as his models for his religious works, which could cause trouble with the Church. Even more troublesome was the realism he brought to his religious works; one Madonna was famously rejected because her toenails were dirty. He often provides a visual surprise for the viewer. In the Sacrifice of Isaac, it is the look of extreme horror on the face of young Isaac as his father prepares to slit his throat, in contrast to the blind faith of the sheep, which looks on. Look at the angel, too: he is not idealized, but one more of Caravaggio’s models taken from the street. Caravaggio’s flair for the dramatic was also reflected in his style. He often used a dramatic streaking light contrasted against the darkness, called tenebrism. This style is so distinctive, his immediate followers who used the same technique were called the Caravaggisti.
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio (c. 1603)
Of all the Carravaggisti, none are more famous than Orazio Gentilischi and his daughter, Artemesia Gentilichi. Orazio taught Artemesia to paint; eventually he hired another teacher. Whatever happened between the two, court papers show that Orazio sued the tutor for raping his daughter. Eventually, after being tortured with thumbscrews, Artemesia was vindicated and the assaulter jailed. After that, she became a successful painter supporting her family (and a far less successful) husband. Is it any wonder that her paintings tend to be those of strong women? Her Judith and Holofernes, which dominates the room, is no exception. It has the same tenebrism, but the two women are firmly in control here, as Judith, a Jewish women whose community is about to be attacked by the army of Holofernes, takes matters into her own hands (literally). She charms Holofernes, drugs him, beheads him, and puts his head on a stake. When his soldiers wake the next morning, they are so terrified they flee. Thus Judith (and her maidservant) save their village.
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1620)
This particular Judith is beheading Holofernes with such effort and gusto that the painting was rejected by the Florentine Academy. It was only through the intervention of her friend Galileo Galilei that she was paid for her work by the Medici family. For years, it has been just one more portrait in the so-called Vasari Corridor of the Uffizi; now it is one of the most sought out paintings in the museum.
The next room (D31) features the same two artists. Visitors surrounded Carravaggio’s Medusa, an image of the snake-headed gorgon whose vision turned creatures to stone. Medusa has just been beheaded, and the blood pours from her neck as she draws in her last breath. Her? The portrait is actually thought to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio himself—you can compare to his other self-portrait in the next room.
But before you leave, one last Gentilischi. Her Portrait of Saint Catherine of Alessandria is also thought to be a self-portrait of this extraordinary artist of her time. Certainly you can see a sense of resolute determination which the artist must have had to overcome a sex scandal, torture by thumbscrew, raise a family, and become an artist in such a male-dominated period!
And in D32, one last Carravaggio—Bacchus. This too is thought to be a self-portrait, done much earlier, before the hard living and violence which led to the artist’s early death at the age of 39. It’s a rather awkward (and pretentious) portrait, but the skill in rendering the light on the crystal, the fruit and the leaves is undeniable.
The next room, Lume de Notte, focuses on the effects of light, especially in the skillful hands of Gerrit von Honthorst, a northern Baroque painter from Holland who studied in Italy and was greatly influenced by Carravaggio. He was so well known for his night scenes, his Italian nickname was Gherardo del Notte, or “Gerrit of the nights.” Like other painters from Northern Europe, Honthorst focused on lively subjects having fun, displaying his technical skill in the way natural light reflects off the surfaces of the armor, silk, velvet, fur, and jewelry of his sitters. In Supper with a Lute Player, candlelight shines on the faces of the diners as they enjoy each other’s company. Even in a religious work like Adoration of the Child, you see genuine enjoyment on the faces of the shepherd children as they gaze upon the Christ-child. And relief—this was one of the paintings that was most damaged in the Uffizi bombing of 1993 (see below), and has been beautifully restored.
The Northern European Baroque was dominated by Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, and Anthony Van Dyck, all shown in D34. As much of Northern Europe broke away from the Vatican, artworks tended to be more secular, and more affordable for a growing middle class. It was at this time that “even a butcher or a baker” had paintings in their homes.
Rembrandt’s early success is typical of the time period. His talent was in using light to show the spiritual transcendence of his subject, whether a Biblical scene or portrait. His Portrait of an Old Rabbi (1665) is in the center of the room, but more interesting is the introspection you find in two of his many self-portraits. Compare how he sees himself as a successful young painter, looking confidently at the viewer, to his later self-portrait, where he looks down, almost in embarrassment, at the financial and family woes he had at the end of his life (at this point, he was bankrupt, and ¾ of his children, as well as his wife, had died).
Rubens, Portrait of a Young Boy, Self-Portrait; Rubens, Self-Portrait
Rembrandt gazes mournfully at the worldly success (and excess) of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck. Ruben’s Self-Portrait is right next to Rembrandt’s, his success a stark contrast to the aged sadness of Rembrandt. As a Catholic growing up in Antwerp in the midst of violent religious wars, Rubens kept his foot on both sides of the divide: Catholic and Protestant beliefs, Italian and Northern styles. Like Titian, he served as court painter AND ambassador to the courts of Belgium, France, Spain and England, and worked for quite a few Italians, too.
Rubens, Judith and Holofernes, Portrait of Isabella Brandt
Ruben’s monumental mythologizing of King Henry IV of France were already seen in the Niobe Room. Even his version of Judith and Holofernes seems more regal than violent. And his Portrait of Isabella Brandt is not so much regal but loving; this portrait of Ruben’s wife was done shortly before she passed away at the age of 35. Of her, Rubens said she was “an excellent companion, completely good, beloved for her virtues…”
Anthony Van Dyck was an apprentice of Rubens (known for his skill at rendering hands) before becoming a court painter himself, to King Charles I of England. His royal portrait here, however, is of Emperor Charles V on Horseback, the Holy Roman Emperor, who created an empire stretching from the Netherlands to Spain and Italy. Like Henry IV, Charles is shown triumphant on a horse, the light gleaming on his armor as a Roman eagle with a laurel in its beak soars overhead.
In the last galleries, you can see the new audience and paintings of Northern Europe. As the middle class grew, so did the art market. Portraits of the middle class, landscapes, genre scenes, and still lifes were affordable art options for virtually every segment of society. While commissions of large scale Biblical scenes, classical scenes, and portraits continued, the centers of power shifted away from Italy, towards England and France. By the time Anna Maria Luisa Medici died in 1737, the financial power of the Medici had waned. But the Uffizi today is a testament to the power of the Medici in defining our ideas of art and culture for over three centuries.
In 2023, look for a newly renovated Vasari Corridor. The Corridor was also designed by Vasari, so that the Medici could travel to their Pitti Palace across the Arno undisturbed by common Florentines. The Corridor can still be seen running along the top of the Ponte Vecchio.
In 1993, a bomb set by the Italian mafia killed 5 people. The intent was to destroy a symbol of Italian culture, and it severely damaged the Uffizi, the Corridor, and over 200 works. The newly renovated corridor will include memorials to victims of Italian terrorism and survey of the restoration to the damaged works.