Home to the world's greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art, Florence's premier gallery occupies Palazzo degli Uffizi, a handsome palace built between 1560 and 1580 to house government offices. The collection, which was bequeathed to the city by the Medici family in 1743 on condition that it never leave Florence, contains some of Italy's best-known paintings, including Piero della Francesco's profile portaits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino and Sandro Botticelli's La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus).
The gallery is currently undergoing a €65 million refurbishment (the Nuovi Uffizi project) that will eventually see the addition of a new exit loggia designed by Japanese architect Arato Isozaki and the doubling of exhibition space. A number of revamped rooms have already been opened, but until the project is completed you can expect some halls to be closed and the contents of others changed.
The world-famous collection, which is displayed in chronological order, spans the gamut of art history from ancient Greek sculpture to 18th-century Venetian paintings. But its core is the Renaissance collection.
Visits are best kept to three or four hours maximum. When it all gets too much, head to the rooftop cafe (aka the terraced hanging garden, where the Medici clan listened to music performances on the square below) for fresh air and fabulous views.
Tuscan Masters: 12th to 14th Centuries
The first six rooms on the 2nd floor, which are due to be renovated by spring 2015, are dedicated to pre-Renaissance Tuscan art. The first, Room 2, showcases 13th-century Sienese works, including three large altarpieces from Florentine churches by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Cimabue and Giotto. These clearly reflect the transition from the Gothic to the nascent Renaissance style. Note the overtly naturalistic realism overtones in Giotto's portrayal of the Virgin Mary and saints in the Madonna di Ognissanti .
The next room stays in Siena, but moves into the 14th century. The highlight is Simone Martini's shimmering Annunciazione (1333), painted with Lippo Memmi and setting the Madonna in a sea of gold. Also of note is the Madonna in trono con il Bambino in trono e otto angeli (Madonna with Child and Saints; 1340) by Pietro Lorenzetti, which demonstrates a realism similar to Giotto's; unfortunately both Pietro and his artistic brother Ambrogio died from the plague in Siena in 1348.
Masters in 14th-century Florence paid as much attention to detail as their Sienese counterparts, as works in Room 4 demonstrate: savour the realism of the Pietà di San Remigio (1360–65) by gifted Giotto pupil, Giottino.
A concern for perspective was a hallmark of the early 15th-century Florentine school (Room 7) that pioneered the Renaissance. One panel (the other two are in the Louvre and London's National Gallery) from Paolo Uccello's striking Battaglia di San Romano (Battle of San Romano; 1438) shows the artist's efforts to create perspective with amusing effect as he directs the lances, horses and soldiers to a central disappearing point. The painting celebrates Florence's victory over Siena.
In Room 8, the highlights are Piero della Francesca's famous profile portraits of the crooked-nosed, red-robed Duke and Duchess of Urbino (1465–72) – the former always painted left-side after losing his right eye in a jousting accident and the latter painted a deathly white, reflecting the fact that the portrait was painted posthumously.
Carmelite monk Fra' Filippo Lippi had an unfortunate soft spot for earthly pleasures, scandalously marrying a nun from Prato. Search out his self-portrait as a podgy friar in Incoronazione Maringhi (Coronation of the Virgin; 1439–47) and don't miss his later Madonna con Bambino e due angeli (Madonna and Child with Two Angels; 1460–65), an exquisite work that clearly influenced his pupil, Sandro Botticelli.
Another related pair, brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiolo, fill Room 9, where their seven cardinal and theological values of 15th-century Florence – commissioned for the merchant's tribunal in Piazza della Signoria – radiate energy.
The spectacular Sala del Botticelli, numbered as Rooms 10 to 14, but in fact one large hall, is one of the Uffizi's hot spots and is always packed. Of the 15 works by the Renaissance master, La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus; c 1485), Primavera (Spring; c 1482), the deeply spiritual Annunciazione di Cestello (Cestello Annunciation; 1489–90), the Adorazione dei Magi (Adoration of the Magi; 1475) featuring the artist's self-portrait (look for the blond-haired guy, extreme right, dressed in yellow), and the Madonna del Magnificat (Madonna of the Magnificat; 1483) are the best known, but true aficionados rate his twin set of miniatures depicting a sword-bearing Judith returning from the camp of Holofernes and the discovery of the decapitated Holofernes in his tent (1495–1500) as being among his finest works.
Room 15 displays two early Florentine works by Leonardo da Vinci: the incomplete Adorazione dei Magi (Adoration of the Magi; 1481–82), drawn in red earth pigment; and his Annunciazione (c 1475–80).
High Renaissance to Mannerism
Rooms 25 to 34, home to paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian – including his sensual nude Venere di Urbino (Venus of Urbino; 1538) – are curently closed for restoration. Some of the paintings are temporarily on show in Rooms 43 and 44.
In the third corridor, Michelangelo dazzles with the Doni Tondo, a depiction of the Holy Family that steals the High Renaissance show in Room 35. The composition is unusual – Joseph holding an exuberant Jesus on his muscled mother's shoulder as she twists round to gaze at him, the colours as vibrant as when they were first applied in 1506–08.
Downstairs on the 1st floor, Raphael's charming Madonna del cardellino (Madonna of the Goldfinch; 1505–06) is one of many of the artist's masterpieces on display in Room 66.