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Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Uffizi, Florence, Italy

The Piazzale degli Uffizi, designed by Giorgio Vasari
If you trek halfway around the world to visit the Uffizi, don't go on a Monday. They're closed on Mondays, also the Galleria dell'Academia, the second best (and much smaller) art museum in Florence, Italy. Unfortunately, I speak from sad experience. I can understand the need to close up one of the greatest art museums in the world one day a week (everyone, even Michelangelo's David, needs to stand down and rest a little). But to close both museums on the same day...I was, I think, justifiably outraged. However inasmuch as I hadn't bought my entry ticket in advance, I also missed waiting in line up to five hours to get in. I did get to see Palazzo Vecchio (and the David copy outside) as well as the marble sculptures under the Loggia dei Lanzi (those not boarded up for restoration).
Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-78, Johann Zoffany--more art than art museum.
The Uffizi (pronounce U-feet-zee) is one of the oldest art museums in Europe (older than the Louvre). Officially called the Galleria degli Uffizi, the museum was opened to the public in 1765, which makes it older than the United States. The building itself is a couple hundred years older than that, designed by the painter, architect, and art historian, Giorgio Vasari in 1560. It was originally an office building (Uffizi means office in Italian) for Cosimo de'Medici and his Florentine magistrates. Completed in 1581, though technically an office building, it has always served somewhat as an art repository, first for the de'Medici family and their burgeoning stash, and then, after they were booted out, for Florentine art in general, which gradually crowded out all the desks, chairs and file cabinets.

The Vasari corridor, a (very long) artists' hall of fame.
Today the Uffizi lines both sides of the street leading from the Arno River to the Piazza della Signoria, the town square (one of several, actually). The street is really the very elongated courtyard of the museum, which rises more than five stories straight up on each side. On the river end of this street Vasari created an architectural "screen" which effectively terminates the narrow vista without actually blocking it. High above is what may be Vasari's most unique creation, known today as the Vasari corridor. One might call it the first "skywalk", a passage approximately fifteen feet wide and about one kilometer in length which snakes from the Palazzo Vecchio, across the upper level of the Uffizi, then up the river to the Ponte Vecchio, crossing the river, then over and around the Florentine skyline to the Pitti Palace where Cosimo had taken up residence as ruler of the city. He wanted avoid traffic as he rode his horse to work each day. The area of the corridor passing over the Uffizi is now used to display portraits of the world's greatest artists (separate ticket required).

The Arno flows placidly by Vasari's south portal of the Uffizi.
As might be expected with any museum more than two hundred years old, the Uffizi has had its ups and downs. It was damaged by bombs during WW II, a devastating flash flood in 1966, and a car bomb in 1993 (probably the Sicilian mafia) which effected the Arno front of the building, destroying several frescoes inside. The flood brought water as high as seven feet in much of Florence, though fortunately, Vasari did not build the Uffizi at street level so the museum escaped that disaster with far less damage than many other Florentine antiquities.

In 1966, the Arno did not just flow by, but lingered inside the Uffizi for some 24 hours,
 while giving all of Florence a Venetian look. (Compare this photo to the one above.)
This is not the place to go if you don't like crowds. If you're familiar already with the art the museum houses, it's satisfying to know you've "been there, done that" in having seen them first hand, though in most cases, actually getting close enough to study the works, of even linger long enough to do so, is beyond realistic. And though it's a very big museum, it's not the Louvre or the Hermitage or the Met. It does not overwhelm with sheer size and content. It begins with Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna from around 1310 and ends with two or three Rembrandt self-portraits some 350 years later. Basically it's everything you'd ever want to know and see from the Italian Renaissance with a smattering of pieces from the North.

The Birth of Venus, 1485, Sandro Botticelli
The Uffizi is where you'd go to see Botticelli's Birth of Venus (above), Michelangelo's Doni Tondo, Titian's Venus of Urbino, Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ, Durer's Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo's Annunciation, as well as works by Uccello, Duccio, Cimabue, and Artemesia Gentileschi (if you've got a strong stomach). Although you'll see a few pieces of sculpture within the walls of the Uffizi, most of what the de'Medici once possessed has been moved across town to the Bargello. Likewise, you'll have to check out the Academia to see Michelangelo's original David. Tickets to see all this at the Uffizi are (full price) twenty-one Euros (about $29) per person with discounts for children and senior citizens. Just don't go on Mondays.

The Uffizi's gallery of artists' self-portraits, circa 1890
--not the place for the nearsighted or those with a stiff neck.


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