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Home to the world's greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art, Florence's premier gallery occupies the vast U-shaped Palazzo degli Uffizi, built between 1560 and 1580 to house government offices. The collection, 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 Francesca's profile portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino and rooms full of masterpieces by Sandro Botticelli.
The gallery is undergoing a €65 million refurbishment (the Nuovi Uffizi project) that will eventually see the doubling of exhibition space and possibly a new exit loggia designed by Japanese architect Arato Isozaki. Work is pretty much complete on the permanent collection, which has grown over the years from 45 to 101 revamped rooms split across two floors; but there is much to be done still on areas earmarked for temporary exhibitions. Until the project is completed (date unknown) expect some halls to be closed and the contents of others changed.
The world-famous collection, 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: 13th to 14th Centuries
Arriving in the Primo Corridoio (First Corridor) on the 2nd floor, Rooms 2 to 7 are dedicated to pre- and early Renaissance Tuscan art. Among the 13th-century Sienese works displayed in Room 2 are 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 Le Maestà di Ognissanti (1306–10).
Moving into Siena, Bologna and Pisa in the 14th century, the highlight in Room 3 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 con il bambino in trono e 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 (Room 4) paid as much attention to detail as their Sienese counterparts: savour the realism of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1360–65) by gifted Giotto pupil, Giottino.
Florence's victory over the Sienese at the Battle of San Romano, near Pisa, in 1432, is brought to life with outstanding realism and increased use of perspective in Paolo Uccello's magnificent Battaglia di San Romano (1435–40) in Room 8. In the same room, don't miss the exquisite Madonna con Bambino e due angeli (Madonna and Child with Two Angels; 1460–65) by Fra' Filippo Lippi, a Carmelite monk who had an unfortunate soft spot for earthly pleasures and scandalously married a nun from Prato. This work clearly influenced his pupil, Sandro Botticelli.
In Room 9, 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. Don't miss the reverse side featuring the duke and duchess eternalised with the Virtues.
In the same room, the seven cardinal and theological values of 15th-century Florence by brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiolo – commissioned for the merchant's tribunal in Piazza della Signoria – radiate energy. More restrained is 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 is Fortitude (1470), the first documented work by Botticelli.
The spectacular Sala del Botticelli, numbered as Rooms 10 to 14, but in fact two large light and graceful rooms, is one of the Uffizi's hot spots and is always packed. Of the 18 Botticelli works displayed in the Uffizi in all, the iconic La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus; c 1485), Primavera (Spring; c 1482) and Madonna del Magnificat (Madonna of the Magnificat; 1483) are the best known by the Renaissance master known for his ethereal figures. Take time to study the lesser-known Annunciazione (Annunciation), a 6m-wide fresco painted by Botticelli in 1481 for the San Martino hospital in Florence.
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.
Don't miss the Adorazione dei Magi (Adoration of the Magi; 1475) featuring Botticelli's self-portrait (look for the blond-haired guy, extreme right, dressed in yellow), tucked away in Room 15 alongside Botticelli's Coronation of the Virgin (1488–90) and works by Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (1430–82). Study the altarpiece, painted by the latter for the church inside Florence's Santa Maria Novella hospital, to observe the clear influence artists in northern Europe had on Florentine artists.
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.
Elsewhere in Italy: 15th Century
The final rooms in the Primo Corridoio (First Corridor), Rooms 19 to 23, delve into the work of painters in Siena, Venice, Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy in the 15th century. As compelling as the art strung on the walls are the ornate vaulted ceilings here, frescoed in the 16th and 17th centuries with military objects, allegories, battles and festivals held on piazzas in Florence.
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 33 and 34, with sage-green painted walls, evoke the artistic environment in which a young Michelangelo lived and worked in Florence. They display sculptures from classical antiquity, of great influence on the aspiring sculptor, and from the Medici-owned sculpture garden in San Marco where Michelangelo studied classical sculpture as an apprentice from the age of 13. The master himself, 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. It was painted for wealthy Florentine merchant Agnolo Doni (who hung it above his bed) and bought by the Medicis for Palazzo Pitti in 1594.
Head downstairs to the 1st-floor galleries where Rooms 46 to 55 display the Uffizi's collection of 16th- to 18th-century works by foreign artists, including Rembrandt (Room 49); Rubens and Van Dyck share Room 55. The next room gives a nod to antique sculpture, before moving back into the 16th century with Andrea del Sarto (Rooms 57 and 58) and Räphael (Room 66), whose Madonna del cardellino (Madonna of the Goldfinch; 1505–06) steals the show. Räphael painted it during his four-year sojourn in Florence.
Room 65 is dedicated to Medici portrait artist, Agnolo Bronzino (1503–72), who worked at the court of Cosimo I from 1539 until 1555 (when he was replaced by Vasari). His 1545 portraits of the Grand Duchess Eleonora of Toleto and her son Giovanni together, and the 18-month-old Giovanni alone holding a goldfinch – symbolising his calling into the Church – are considered masterpieces of 16th-century European portraiture. Giovanni was indeed elected a cardinal in 1560, but died of malaria two years later.
As part of the seemingly endless New Uffizi expansion project, four early Florentine works by Leonardo da Vinci are currently displayed in Room 79. (In due course, Leonardo could well be shifted back upstairs to the 2nd floor.) His Annunciazione (Annunciation; 1472) was deliberately painted to be admired, not face on (from where Mary's arm appears too long, her face too light, the angle of buildings not quite right), but rather from the lower right-hand side of the painting. After a five-year restoration, Adoration of the Magi (1481–82), originally commissioned for the altar of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, near Florence, has returned to the gallery and is typical of Florentine figurative painting in the 15th century.
Rooms 96 to 99, with their burgundy red walls, feature works by Caravaggio, deemed vulgar at the time for his direct interpretation of reality. The Head of Medusa (1598–99), commissioned for a ceremonial shield, is supposedly a self-portrait of the young artist who died at the age of 39. The biblical drama of an angel steadying the hand of Abraham as he holds a knife to his son Isaac's throat in Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac (1601–02) is glorious in its intensity.