There are countless places to begin a tour of art in Florence. In fact, at almost every turn one encounters an overwhelming sense of the Renaissance. The Galleria Degli Uffizi, however, is a great place to start and is amongst the most important artistic collections in the world. It was begun by Francis I de’ Medici, according to the plans of Cosimo I, to house together all the family’s collections on the second floor of the palace. While you will find sculpture and tapestries in the Entrance Hall, Vestibule, and Hall I of the First Gallery, it is almost exclusively paintings. Our Renaissance tour begins in Hall II.
Hall II - Giotto’s Madonna Enthroned
Hall II is dedicated to Giotto and to the Tuscan Primitives - Lucchese, Pisan, Sienese and Florentine schools of the 13th century. The most important works are by Cimabue and Giotto.
Begin your tour in front of Cimabue’s Madonna Enthroned with Angels. This is a wonderful example of Gothic transition (transition to Renaissance) painting of the Sienese school. The Sienese school is characterized by the use of gold and gold leaf in the work. The figures appear almost weightless, flat, and two-dimensional. They seem to float spiritually in the air. Mary does not appear as if she is sitting, but rather suspended where a throne should be. The figure’s toes are pointed downward, further enhancing the effect of weightlessness - they are rising to heaven. You can begin to see the transition in that some parts of this painting are two-dimensional, while others, like the arches, are three-dimensional. The bottom, or earthly portion, is three-dimensional. The top, or spiritual, is two-dimensional.
Now look at Giotto’s Madonna Enthroned with Angels. Though Giotto is seen as pre-Renaissance, he was one of the most important influences to the coming era. Giotto’s work was a major leap into the new world. It broke with tradition and began an new pictorial system. Before Giotto, one painted not for self-expression, but for the greater glory of God. This is evident by the fact we know few names of artists prior to the Renaissance.
In Giotto’s Madonna we see a new sense of space and mass. Mary appears to be carved rather than painted. Her body is folded as if really sitting - you see her knees pushing through the fabric of her robe. The painting also uses light, not line, to show the knee and how the cloth behaves. The light makes the knee look real and heavy as if velvet. For the first time, there is a body underneath the robes with an assertive human figure that has weight. The angels don’t hover, they occupy space. The Madonna looks less like the Queen of Heaven and more like the peasant woman she was. In this painting, Giotto brings heaven down to earth. He shows us the world that is seen, the actual, the visible. We see what is beautiful and sober: humanity in its essence; its mass; its dignity.
Giotto was heavily influenced (as were all Renaissance thinkers) by the teachings of St. Francis. The theology of St. Francis proclaimed all of creation as worthy of God’s praise, not just that which was "holy." Because people, plants, and animals are of God’s beauty, they should be held up as examples of God’s love. St. Francis also taught that the relation among humans is the most holy thing we have. The world human, or God come down to earth, is sacred.
Hall III has some great examples of the Sienese School. Martini’s Annunciation is quite elegant as are the works of Lorenzetti. Hall IV has more works from the Giotto School. Hall VII contains many works of Tuscan painters of the early 15th Century. I especially like the works of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca.
Masaccio brought the inventions of Giotto into a modern configuration. People look more like people and contain realistic weight. Light is used in a more realistic way in that it comes from a specific direction rather than just appearing. If you have time, visit Santa Maria Novella (church) to see The Holy Trinity. It really demonstrates how Masaccio brings together everything about the Renaissance into a world of mathematical order. You will begin to see in his works how the trinity is represented in the painting construction. Many Renaissance paintings contain a triangle of figures. This represents Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - the connection between the material and the holy. It also represents art’s growing understanding and use of math.
Piero della Francesca is interesting because he was more than just a painter. He was also a mathematician. He was not interested in beauty in the traditional sense. He believed that a painting must appear to be three dimensional if it was to be of any artistic value. Francesca used the triangle arrangement as a way to draw the eye up to the center of the picture and to enhance the sense of perspective. To Francesca, mathematics outweighed human empathy because mathematics was proof of truth. Gothic art was about what we know, not what we see. The Renaissance said, what we see is how we know.
Halls X-XIV contain the work of Sandro Botticelli, the artist who represented the highest ideas of the Florence of the Medicis. He created a new sense of beauty in the La Primavera. It represented an elaborate mythological allegory of the burgeoning fertility of the world.
The Birth of Venus, his most famous piece, is allegorically as well as metaphorically about the creation of an ideal human form. In fact, the face of Venus can be seen in other paintings (Botticelli and others) since she was considered "beauty." It was the attempt to arouse both physical love and spiritual meditation. It took its inspiration from the classical Venus pudica statue (in the Medici house) and made something new of it. While the technical concerns of the Renaissance are met - weighty, heavy form; triangles, etc. - they are changed somewhat. We see in Venus not a portrayal of a particular woman, but of the essential ideal of female beauty.
While you are in these halls, notice the difference between Italian Renaissance and Northern Renaissance styles. You will notice that the Northern pieces are painted with much greater precision and detail, while the Italian pieces are more structurally ideal.
The Northern culture was different from Italy. Dukes, not merchants, were in power, therefore the Gothic concepts of nobility and higher powers were still prevalent. There were no remnants from Classical Antiquity in people’s backyards, but there was the grandeur of the Alps. In the North, the walls of churches were not for frescos, but for brilliant stained glass that depicted with complexity the stories of the bible. When painting began in this period, it sought to emulate the glass by including as many details of a story as possible. Many of those details were hidden - disguised symbolism. Often everyday objects functioned on two levels. For example, a vase with a lily represented virginity, or a candle just blown out represented the presence of God. Another prominent artistic form of the North were the miniature forms in the margins of books. As a result of these influences, a Northerner learned that God was in the details.
To the Italians, God was in the whole. God lay in the overall structure represented by proportion and balance. Simplicity, a common theme of St. Francis, is for the same reasons much more important than complex detail.
Hall XV contains some work of Leonardo da Vinci, most notably the Adoration of the Magi. While this work of the young Leonardo remained incomplete, it is considered his first great masterpiece. Leonardo was a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, writer, engineer, poet, musician, and philosopher - a true embodiment of the Renaissance.
Don’t miss Hall XXV. It contains the work of Michelangelo and is very High Renaissance (1500-1600). In painting of this period, the figures really come to life. Light, especially, is used dramatically to give power, majesty, and electricity to the work. Hall XXVI contains work of Raphael. Raphael made the High Renaissance accessible. The tones are warmer, the lines are softer, the pieces are very symmetrical, and the characters more tender. This contrasts with the power in Michelangelo’s work and the mystery and perfection of Leonardo. Of the three great masters, Raphael had more pupils because his style is much more easily communicated.
Hall XXVIII is dedicated to Titian, the greatest Venetian painter. The rest of the Uffizi is dedicated to other artists that take you through the Baroque Era (also very interesting, but not as relevant to Florence). If you have time, my two favorite Baroque artists, Rembrandt (Northern) and Caravaggio (Italian) are in Hall XLIV. Rembrandt is the master of light while Caravaggio (another master of light) is the Renaissance plugged into 220 volts.