Housed inside Palazzo degli Uffizi, built between 1560 and 1580 as a government office building, this world-class art museum safeguards the Medici family's private art collection. It was bequeathed to the city in 1743 on the condition that it never leaves Florence.
An ongoing and vastly overdue €65 million refurbishment and redevelopment project will see the addition of a new exit loggia designed by Japanese architect Arato Isozaki and the doubling of exhibition space. In true Italian fashion no one, including architect Antonio Godoli, will commit to a final completion date (originally 2013), but until the so-called Nuovi Uffizi project is finished you can expect some rooms to be temporarily closed and the contents of others changed.
The world-famous collection spans the gamut of art history from ancient Greek sculpture to 18th-century Venetian paintings, arranged in chronological order by school. But its core is the masterpiece-rich Renaissance collection.
Visits are best kept to three or four hours max. 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 room to the left of the staircase (Room 2) highlights 13th-century Sienese art and is designed like a medieval chapel (look up to admire those great wooden ceiling trusses) to reflect its fabulous contents: three large altarpieces from Florentine churches by Tuscan masters 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 Madonna and child among angels and saints.
The next room stays in Siena but moves into the 14th century. The highlight is Simone Martini's shimmering Annunciation (1333), painted with Lippo Memmi and setting the Madonna in a sea of gold. Also of note is the Madonna with Child and Saints triptych (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 the next room demonstrate: savour the realism of San Reminio Pietà (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 Battle of San Romano 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 Coronation of the Virgin (1439–47) and don't miss his later 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 – ooze energy.
The spectacular Sala del Botticelli, numbered 10 to 14 but in fact one large hall, is one of the Uffizi's most popular rooms and is always packed. Of the 15 works by the Renaissance master, Birth of Venus (c 1485), Primavera (Spring; c 1482), the deeply spiritual Cestello Annunciation (1489–90), the Adoration of the Magi (1475) featuring the artist's self-portrait (look for the blonde-haired guy, extreme right, dressed in yellow) and The 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 Adoration of the Magi (1481–82), drawn in red earth pigment, and his Annunciation (c 1475–80).
High Renaissance to Mannerism
In the third corridor, Michelangelo dazzles with the Doni Tondo, a depiction of the Holy Family that steals the High Renaissance show in room 25. 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.
Raphael (1483–1520) and Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530) rub shoulders in room 26, where Raphael's charming Madonna of the Goldfinch (1505–06) holds centre stage.
Previous works by Tuscan masters can be compared with the greater naturalism inherent in the work of their Venetian counterparts in room 28, where 11 Titians are displayed. Masterpieces include the sensual nude Venus of Urbino (1538), the seductive Flora (1515) and the striking portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino (1536–37).