on August 10, 2008
The Uffizi is one of the world’s greatest repositaries of art, no question. The jackdaw collection of the Medicis whose offices (‘uffizi’) these were, it is particularly rich on medieval works and is THE place to see the explosion that happened here in Florence, known as the Renaissance. Perspective and realism were signs of renaissance art, vigorous signs of movement, the incorporation of Greek and Roman mythology, breaking away from the static, formal, posed figures so characteristic of Byzantine (and Sienese) iconography. While it ranks up there in the pantheon of the world’s greatest art galleries along with St Petersburg’s Hermitage, London’s National Gallery, and the Louvre of Paris, the Uffizi does not make it easy to visit. The National Gallery is free to enter; automatic ticket machines make visiting the Louvre easy. The Uffizi is characterised by an interminable queue snaking down the colonnades. I was shocked by their backwards approach to the internet. Whereas in, say, Padova you can pay for your tickets on line to be collected once there, and book specific timed slots – with, it has to be said, discounts for being so helpfully organised – the Uffizi offers no such service. There are booking agencies who can do this for you, but they add a surcharge to the price you pay. The best way to avoid the massive queues of people turning up on spec, is to pay a visit to the gallery the day before you attend to visit. There is a separate box office for advance reservations, and while there is still a queue, it is much shorter. Here you reserve a timed slot for entrance – I went for 9:45 the next day, reasoning that the crowds might be thinner earlier in the morning. This costs €13.00, and allows you to bypass the general unticketted queue. I wanted to dump my bag in the cloakroom, but they would not let me. I also wanted to hire an audioguide – however, they require either a passport or a driver’s licence as security. Not having either on me I bought the official guidebook for €10. This has details on a good number of the works of art you will see, though nowhere near all of them. To do that you would have to lug around a tome the size of the Encyclopaedia Britannica! It also accompanies them with pictures, which means that it makes for a handy souvenir too. Entering, you climb up to the second floor. There are toilets here just before the ticket check. I’d advise you to use them – once your ticket has been checked you cannot retrace your steps through to them, and instead have to follow the corridor all the way around to the far side of the courtyard. Essentially the museum is this one long checkerboard-floored corridor overlooking the courtyard of the Uffizi on three sides. This corridor is lined with statues and portraits but the great works are in the rooms off it. The shorter southern corridor gives great views north up the courtyard to the Palazzo Vecchio and south over the Arno and Oltarno district. The church of San Miniato al Monte can be seen perched in isolation above the greenery. You can also see the zig-zagging tiled roof of the Corridor Vasariano as it tacks down and across the Ponte Vecchio. There are too many works for me to go into any great detail about what you will see here. I will just alight on what were for me some of the highlights. You start off in the late 13th century, and those who have read more of my writing will know that Giotto is always a favourite of mine. His ‘Ognissanti Madonna’ gazes back shrewdly; her asymmetric throne suggests this work was meant to be viewed from an angle. The amount of religious gilt on display lessons as you get into the 15th century. Uccello’s ‘Battle of San Romano’ is the first famous work – though the image I am familiar with comes from a different panel held in London’s National Gallery. Uccello depicts a battle scene crammed with stormtrooper-like knights fully encased in black armour and the rounded arses of horses.I had to stop at Fra Filippo Lippi’s ‘Madonna with Child and Two Angels’. A grinning jackanapes of an angel tries to steal attention. However, there is something about the Madonna that held my gaze. This demure blonde-tressed Mary is exquisitely beautiful. The scene is given additional piquancy by the story behind it. The model was a nun, one Lucrezia Buti; she later bore the son of the friar Fra Lippi, a true intermingling of sacred and profane love. (I later bought a painted reproduction of this piece, which even now hangs in my flat). Lippi himself appears in his ‘Coronation of the Virgin’. He looks out at the viewer, looking somewhat bored of the whole thing.By contrast, Botticelli’s self-portrait crops up in his ‘Adoration of the Magi’.He seems a handsome swine. The same painting features prominent members of the Medici family and their circle as the wise kings and their retinue. Boticelli is responsible for the two most famous works in the entire collection. You know when you are in the right room; the crowds in here are thicker than anywhere else in the gallery. First is his ‘Primavera’. From left to right you see Mercury, the dancing Three Graces, a blindfolded Cupid, Venus, a Gwynneth-Paltrow-esque Flora, and the nymph Chloris being captured by the smurf-blue Zephyrus. Lighter in hue is ‘The Birth Of Venus’. The contemplative and demure Goddess of Beauty sails to the land on a clam shell; an attendant waits to cover her nakednes with a robe. Both are everything you would hope. Further complicated allegory by the same artist occurs in ‘Calumny’.You then pass a couple of Leonardo da Vinci’s works – note the sfumato blurring of the background scenery. You can still see this effect from any high point in Tuscany. Then you reach the Tribune. This is an original octagonal room in scarlet. The lanterned cupola is patterened with mother-of-pearl discs. The room is most famous for being the home of the classical ‘Medici Venus’ statue, the pride of the collection even back in the days of Cosimo III. Otherwise the walls are thick with family portraits – Bronzino’s ‘Eleonora di Toledo’ in a striking white, black and gold dress is absolutely the best of the bunch.While there are several works from Germany and the Low Countries, one of the few works to originate in England appears in room 22 – Hans Holbein’s ‘Portrait of Sir Richard Southwell’. Holbein was Henry VIII’s court painter, and this depiction of a chinless worthy in three-quarter profile is astonishingly photographic. Its presence here is due to the Medicis ‘requesting’ it from the Duke of Arundel. Rosso Fiorentino’s ‘Madonna with Child and Saints’ is the ghastly antithesis to the Fra Lippi work I so admired. It even had to be repainted once because his saints resembled devils. Even re-done these saints look like clowns with their big black eyes, or goths with running mascara. After doubling back into the third corridor I found there was less to engage my attention. Maybe this is because I find the darker 17th and 18th works less appealing, or maybe it was just fatigue setting in – there is an awful lot to see. Even the acid-bright colours of Michelangelo’s ‘Doni Tondo’ did not partiularly grab my attention. Titian’s famous ‘Venus of Urbino’ was on tour in Tokyo during my visit. Tintoretto’s Leda being nuzzled suggestively by the swan is worth an examination (a duck in a cage? Whatever next?). Vasari provides an ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ that helps to bely his hack reputation. I did enjoy the Canalettos (there are more of his Venetian canal scenes on display here than in the city of his birth). But then, I always do. Finally by the exit is a cafeteria with an external terrace. This terrace is actually the roof of the Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza di Signoria. From here you get a great close-up view of the Palazzo Vecchio. Touring the Uffizi can be a slog. There are some seats in the main galleries, but they are frequently already occupied – there is not really any such thing as a quiet time to visit. The cushioned benches also seem to be placed just too far away from the paintings for you to get a good view. The paucity of toilet facilities is also an issue. But you do see some of the most ground-breaking and famous works from five centuries. My advice would be to buy your tickets from the box office a day or two in advance, wear comfortable shoes, make sure you are adequately fed and watered before embarking, and bring passport or driver’s licence should you wish to hire an audio guide.
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