The jewel in Florence's crown, the Uffizi fills the vast U-shaped Palazzo degli Uffizi . Its collection spans the gamut of art history, but its core is the masterpiece-rich Renaissance collection - Botticelli works fill an entire room. Visits are best kept to three or four hours. When it gets too much, head to the rooftop cafe for fresh air and fabulous views.
Cosimo I commissioned Vasari to design and build the gargantuan U-shaped palace in 1560 – a government office building (uffizi means offices) for the city's administrators, judiciary and guilds. Following Vasari's death in 1564, architects Alfonso Parigi and Bernando Buontalenti took over. Buontalenti modified the upper floor of the palace to house the works of art keenly collected by Francesco I, a passion inherited from his father. In 1580 the building was complete. By the time the last of the Medici family died in 1743, the family's private art collection was enormous. Fortunately, it was bequeathed to the City of Florence on the strict proviso that it never leave the city.
Tuscan Masters: 13th Century to 14th Century
Works in the Uffizi are displayed on the 2nd floor in a series of numbered rooms off two dramatically long corridors. Arriving in the Primo Corridoio (First Corridor), 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, painted some 25 years after that of Duccio and Cimabue (c 1306-10).
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 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 the next room demonstrate: savour the depth of realism and extraordinary gold-leaf work of San Remigio Pietà (1360-65) by gifted Giotto pupil, Giottino (otherwise known as Giotto di Stefano).
Rooms 5 and 6 (actually one large room) are dedicated to works of the International Gothic style, with the knockout piece being Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi (1423), originally commissioned by Palla Strozzi for Santa Trìnita.
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 (1436-40), which celebrates Florence's victory over Siena, shows the artist's efforts to create perspective with amusing effect as he directs the lances, horses and soldiers to a central disappearing point.
In Room 8, Piero della Francesca's famous profile portraits (1465) of the crooked-nosed, red-robed Duke and Duchess of Urbino are wholly humanist in spirit: the former painted from the left side as he'd lost his right eye in a jousting accident, and the latter painted a deathly stone-white, reflecting the fact the portrait was painted posthumously.
Carmelite monk Fra' Filippo Lippi had an unfortunate soft spot for earthly pleasures, eloping with a nun from Prato and causing a huge scandal. Search out the artist's self-portrait as a podgy friar in Coronation of the Virgin (1439-47).
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 – burst forth with fantastic energy. More restrained are Piero's Portrait of Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1471).
The only canvas in the theological and cardinal virtues series not to be painted by the Pollaiolos was Fortitude (1470), the first documented work by Botticelli.
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 known for his ethereal figures, Birth of Venus (c 1484), Primavera (Spring; c 1478), the deeply spiritual Cestello Annunciation (1489-90), the Adoration of the Magi (1475; featuring the artist's self-portrait on the extreme right) and The Madonna of the Magnificat (1483) are the best known. 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 (removed for restoration wotrks at the time of writing), and his Annunciation (c 1472).
The Medici clan stashed away their most precious masterpieces in this exquisite octagonal-shaped treasure trove (Room 18), created by Francesco I between 1581 and 1586. Designed to amaze and perfectly restored to its original exquisite state, a small collection of classical statues and paintings adorn its walls, upholstered in crimson silk, and 6000 mother-of-pearl shells painted with crimson varnish encrust the domed ceiling.
Flemish & German Masters
Rooms 20 to 23 house works by Northern Renaissance painters including Abrecht Dürer (Adoration of the Magi; 1504), and Lukas Cranach the Elder (Adam and Eve; 1528).
High Renaissance to Mannerism
Passing through the loggia or Secondo Corridoio (Second Corridor) visitors enjoy wonderful views of Florence before entering the Terzo Corridoio (Third Corridor), rooms 25 to 34 were closed at the time of writing as part of the massive ongoing expansion and reorganisation of the Uffizi.
Michelangelo's dazzling Tondo Doni, a depiction of the Holy Family, hangs in room 35. The composition is unusual and the colours as vibrant as when they were first applied in 1504-06. It was painted for wealthy Florentine merchant Agnolo Doni (who hung it above his bed) and bought by the Medici for Palazzo Pitti in 1594.
Beautifully renovated Room 42, the Niobe Room, was built to house a group of statues representing Niobe and her children. Discovered in a Roman vineyard in 1583 and brought to Florence in 1775, the works are 4th century BC Roman copies of Greek originals.
The work of Venetian masters graces Room 43, where eight Titians are displayed. Masterpieces include the sensual nude Venus of Urbino (1538), and the striking portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino (1536-37). The next room, No 44, features works by Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto, the latter's famously ink-black Portrait of a Man (c 1555-60) being a dark highlight. Tintoretto's Leda and the Swan (c 1550) also hangs here.
'New Uffizi' 1st Floor Galleries
As part of the ongoing 'New Uffizi' expansion project, the Uffizi added an astonishing 1800 sq m of gallery space to its already vast repertoire in 2012, and expansion continues well into 2014. Head downstairs to the 1st floor where the Sala Blu (Blue Room), aka rooms 46 to 55, display the Uffizi's collection of 16th and 17th century works by foreign artists, including Rembrandt (room 49); Rubens and Van Dyck share room 55.
The next nine rooms, walls painted a deep crimson red to reflect their 16th-century focus, include two key players in ushering Florence from the High Renaissance to Mannerism: Andrea del Sarto (rooms 56 to 59) and Räphael (room 66). The latter's charming Madonna of the Goldfinch (1505-06), which he painted during his four-year sojourn in Florence, is the star piece of the red Räphael room (No 66).
To check the latest new rooms to have opened as part of the €65 million 'New Uffizi' expansion project, in the making since 1997, check the 'News' section of www.uffizi.org. When complete (end date unknown) the Uffizi will count over 100 rooms and a lovely new exit on Piazza Castellani designed by Japanese architect Arato Isozaki. In the meantime, expect to find rooms temporarily closed and the contents of others dramatically changed.