The Uffizi

Trip Start Oct 13, 2010
Trip End Oct 30, 2010

Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Saturday, October 23, 2010

This morning began with a visit to the Piazza della Signoria just down the street from Santa Maria del Fiore. This is civic centre of the city of Florence named after the Signoria of Florence; also known as the Priori, who were chosen from the ranks of the guilds of the city. Rising above the L-shaped square is the fourteenth century Palazzo Vecchio, originally called the Palazzo della Signoria, where the Priori would meet on civic matters and site of important decisions was made. Although it is now a museum the palace is still used for some important functions, including weddings (of which we saw one in progress), and the entrance is guarded by a reproduction of Michelangelo's David and Baccio Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus. Inside the palace are several courtyards complete with ornate columns, partly-faded frescoes, sculptures and plaques with quotes from famous Florentines (including Dante); from the first you can glance through a skylight to see the clocktower reaching to the sky.

To one side of the Palazzo Vecchio is Bartolomeo Ammannati's Fountain of Neptune where the face of the Roman sea god resembles that of Cosimo I de' Medici; an homage to the famous Medici patron which still looks over the Piazza della Signoria centuries later. The other side is the Loggia dei Lanzi, also called the Loggia della Signoria, which consists of three arched bays open to the square: the design was so admired by Michelangelo (as well as his fellow Florentines) that he even proposed they should be continued all around the Palazzo Vecchio. Built in the late fourteenth century it is home to several impressive sculptures including Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Donatello's statue Judith and Holofernes, Giambologna's The Rape of the Sabine Women, several restored Roman sculptures (Jupiter, Mercurius, Minerva, Danaë, Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus) that were part of the Medici collection of antiquities.

As the civic centre it is important to note that the square bore witness to many important historical moments in Florentine history. It was here that Francesco de Pazzi and his fellow conspirators were executed after attempting to murder Lorenzo de Medici, capture the Signoria in a coup d’état to take control of Florence. When the Medici family were deposed after France invaded the city it was the location where Dominican priest and politician Father Girolamo Savonarola and his followers carried out the Bonfire of Vanities in the square: destroying musical instruments, fine dresses, chess pieces, gaming tables, immoral sculptures (anything that did not depict saints or biblical scenes), pagan books, lewd pictures, cosmetics, mirrors, women's hats, works of the ancient poets, and many fine Renaissance artworks (including those by Sandro Botticelli) which he attributed to the moral corruption of the city. Incidentally Savonarola was hanged and burned on the same spot in 23rd May 1498: a round marble plaque reminds Florentines what happened that day.

After taking lunch at the restaurant Perseo (named for Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus with the Head of Medusa in the Loggia dei Lanzi) it was time to make our way to the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery) which is one of the oldest and most famous galleries in the world. The palace itself was began in the sixteenth century after Cosimo I de Medici commissioned Giorgio Vasari to build a home to civic offices of Florence's magistrates, hence the name uffizi (offices). The role as a cultural centre began after Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, last Medici heiress, bequeathed the large art collection of the Medici family - which included contents of the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti and several Medicean villas - to the Tuscan state on the condition that it never left Florence. Called the Patto di Famiglia (Family Pact) centralisation of the collection allowed the Uffizi to open doors to the public in the middle of the eighteenth century and visitors to Florence continue to go there. The various collections are vast and I had read somewhere that only forty percent of available art and sculptures to the Uffizi are on display at any one time: either in storage or loaned to other museums in the city. Extensions began in 2006, which were still in progress while we were in Florence, are designed to enlarge the existing six thousand square metres to almost thirteen thousand square metres which will obviously increase the amount of display room available to the curators.

Due to the sheer demand to visit the Uffizi we purchased tickets so that we could get in later that afternoon: it took perhaps a quarter of an hour to get them, which is extraordinary, as ticket lines can actually mean a wait of several hours. Having some more time to wander around Florence we wandered down to the Arno River and took a look around the Ponte Vecchio; site of an earlier Roman bridge over the river and the oldest remaining bridge in Florence. The famed structure is considered a landmark and was the only Florentine bridge to survive the Nazi occupation of the city at the end of the Second World War (indeed it is said that Adolf Hitler ordered that no German military action was allowed to cause the destruction of the bridge). During the Renaissance it was the butchers that initially occupied the shops built alongside the bridge; but the present-day tenants are jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers. Running over the top of it is the Vasari Corridor that links the Palazzo degli Uffizi on one side of the Arno River to the Palazzo Pitti on the other and was used by the Medici to travel safely between the two.

After browsing the shops of the Ponte Vecchio it was off to the Casa di Dante (Home of Dante) which is now a museum; the poet being in exile from Florence at the time of his death and buried in the city of Ravenna. Although the museum itself was closed at the time we took it as an opportunity to see another Dante-related site in Florence: the church of Santa Margherita de' Cerchi where the remains of Beatrice Portinari and Dante's wife were laid to rest. Beatrice's influence on the works of Dante was far from simple inspiration; she was his muse and appeared as a character in La Vita Nuova and Divina Commedia (Inferno, Purgatario, Paradiso). Even to this day his courtly love of Beatrice remains legend.

With our entry time to the Uffizi now approaching it was time to head back. We passed several street performers who, in makeup and costume, appeared as statues between the Doric columns of the palace. Much like the Accademia security was tight and they limited the number of people inside the museum to assist with conservation of the artwork inside. In the two main corridors were marble sculptures recovered from Roman ruins and the workshops of Renaissance masters; running along the top of the corridors were numerous portraits of key figures from Tuscany including those that were recognisable and some much more obscure. 

Moving from room to room it was a veritable "who's who" of European art. Amongst the collection on display it was an opportune time to see works by Leonardo da Vinci (The Annunciation, The Adoration of the Magi), Sandro Botticelli (Primavera, The Adoration of the Magi), Giotto (The Ognissanti Madonna, Badia Polyptych), Titian (Flora, Venus of Urbino), Raphael (Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi), Cimabue (Maestŕ), Duccio (Maestŕ), Simone Martini (The Annunciation), Paolo Uccello (The Battle of San Romano), Piero della Francesca (Diptych of Duke Federico da Montefeltro and Duchess Battista Sforza of Urbino), Fra Filippo Lippi (Madonna with Child and Two Angels, Incoronation of the Virgin), Andrea del Verrocchio (The Baptism of Christ), Hugo van der Goes (The Portinari Triptych), Piero di Cosimo (Perseus Freeing Andromeda), Albrecht Dürer (The Adoration of the Magi), Parmigianino (The Madonna of the Long Neck), Caravaggio (Bacchus, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Medusa), Artemisia Gentileschi (Judith and Holofernes) and Rembrandt van Rijn (Selfportrait as a Young Man, Selfportrait as an Old Man, Portrait of an Old Man). As you can imagine it was simply all a little overwhelming. For me, though, it was The Doni Tondo by Michelangelo, The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botichelli and Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael that made the visit special. Like the statue of David in the Accademia these were paintings I had studied for years and now I had a chance to gaze on their one-on-one as it were.

After completing half the gallery we took advantage of the open-air cafe in the middle of the Uffizi. Located on a terrace used by the Medici family to view performances in the Piazza della Signoria below: sitting down to take a break and enjoy a coffee also gave us time to enjoy spectacular views of the Duomo, Giotto's belltower and the Palazzo Vecchio that were not obscured by visitors, traffic or other buildings. Once finished we finished the last corridor before viewing a special exhibition about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, as 2010 is the five hundredth anniversary of his death; his art, his students and other artists whose works he influenced.

Leaving the Uffizi we strolled back to the hotel so that we could prepare for the opera this evening and grab something in town for dinner. Finding a quaint little tattoria near the Duomo we enjoyed another local dish, ribbolata; a tuscan bread soup with vegetables and beans. Served with crusty bread and the house wine it was something delicious and simple. Finishing the meal we walked down to the Via Cerratani where Musica in Marchera were to perform Giacomo Puccini's masterpiece La Bohčme; incidentally one of my favourite operas. For those not familiar with the story of this particular opera it goes something like this ...

A seamstress named Mimě and a poet Rodolfo almost immediately fall in love with each other, but Rodolfo later wants to leave Mimě because of her flirtatious behavior. However, Mimě also happens to be mortally ill, and Rodolfo also feels guilt, since their life together likely had worsened her health even further. They reunite for a brief moment at the end before Mimě dies.

Yes! Another tragic opera! The thing to remember is opera was often about melodrama which is why you see the singers strutting around the stage and overacting. This was the nineteenth century equivalent to a soap opera and audience then, and still, lap it up greedily. Leaving the theatre I noticed they had a book so the audience could communicate with the troupe and left some flattering comments about the two performances we had experienced in Florence. On the stroll back to the hotel we enjoyed the Tuscan capital at midnight as we discussed the performance and how much we enjoyed it: an amazing way to end an amazing day.
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