Museum Reviews Uffizi Gallery Florence Italy

Maddening beauty and dizzying centuries of history, crammed into a small space, can overwhelm innocent tourists. More than a few people have actually acquired a form of temporary insanity in Florence, home of the Uffizi Gallery.

It is called the Stendhal syndrome, named after the French writer who vividly described his bout with the malady. He recovered, fortunately for literature. Florence is thus demonstrably overwhelming. The Uffizi, its premiere gallery, concentrates the effect of Florence.

The Uffizi was built in the years between 1560 and 1581, to the order of Francisco de Medici, son of Cosimo I. It stretches from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Arno River. Designed for magistrates and bureaucrats, it is full of splendid corridors and meeting rooms that now work perfectly as galleries. The word Uffizi means offices in Italian.

Vasari’s building essentially consists of two long wings, facing each other across a lane. The wings are matched, and their facades carefully varied in a classical rhythm. As was the custom, the floor above the ground floor (the second floor in America) was the prime public space, the piano nobile, safely set away from street noise and smells. It is heavily ornamented, with frescoed, carved, and painted ceilings, and inlaid stone floors. The lower floor has a colonnade, designed with alternating piers and niches.

The Uffizi became, gradually, the first art museum in Europe. It began with the personal collection of some of the Medicis. It expanded to include works by Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Titian. The last Medici heir, Anna Maria Lodovica, ceded the collection to Florence. It was an important stop on the Grand Tour that well-traveled youths made to complete their education, and in 1765 it officially opened to the public.

The paintings are arranged in splendid rooms chronologically and by school. A visitor begins with archaeology and by the tenth through fourteenth rooms arrives at Primavera and The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. Room 15 holds three paintings by Leonardo da Vinci.

Room 18 is the octagonal Tribuna, decorated on a theme of the four elements, hung with Bronzino portraits of Medicis, and displaying the Medici Venus. This is where the Medici kept their treasures. The heart of the museum’s collection is work from the Italian Renaissance, but there are also German, Flemish, Dutch and French paintings. Works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Coreggio, Giotto, and Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and many more hang in splendor.

The sculpture in the upper corridors is Roman. The later statues in the niches of the colonnade were commissioned in the 19th century, and paid for by subscriptions, donations, and a lottery. By then people realized what a treasure Vasari’s building was, but wanted to decorate it a bit.

A visitor who likes Italian Renaissance painting can happily spend a week in the unreasonably beautiful Uffizi. Tuesday though Sunday, the gallery is open from 8:15 to 6:50. It is closed Mondays. The wait for entrance can be long, especially in summer, but certainly worthwhile.