Exploring the Uffizi Gallery in Florence: A Visitor's Guide

Uffizi Gallery Statue
Uffizi Gallery Statue

For art lovers, the Uffizi is the number-one attraction in Florence. More casual tourists will at least want to see its highlights, including its most famous work, Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Apart from its size, perhaps the most mind boggling thing to know about the Uffizi is that this was a private collection of one family - and only part of it, at that. More priceless art is tucked away in their other palaces and villas.

Beyond collectors, the Medici were great patrons of art, and without their patronage, many of these works might never have been created. At some point in your tour, stop for a brief nod of thanks to the woman who assured that this great collection - and the other Medici art works - would stay here in Florence. The collections were bequeathed to the city by Anna Maria Ludovica von der Pfalz, the last heiress of the house of Medici, who died in 1743. And she stipulated that they must remain in Florence.

Uffizi Gallery Exterior
Uffizi Gallery Exterior

The Uffizi contains one of the world's most important collections of paintings. Besides Florentine and Italian art, it also includes a large number of foreign works and Classical sculpture. Its greatest treasure is the unique collection of Florentine Renaissance painting, a vital part of this city's contribution to European art. These works from between about 1300 and 1500 set the path for the whole of Western art that followed.

In this guide, you'll find the highlights of the Uffizi's treasures, following the same order as the museum's own tour guideline. Pictures are shown in chronological order according to when they were painted, beginning with Room 2 on the second floor of the Uffizi. However, beyond Room 13, the octagonal gallery in the Tribune, the works are no longer in chronological order but according to schools, regions, and countries. They cover works from about 1500 to 1700.

Tuscan Art: 12th-13th Century

Room 2 of the Uffizi brings together three large Madonnas from around 1300, illustrating the debut of Tuscan art and one of its first high points. These three paintings, seen together, are the best introduction you could ask for, both to the Uffizi and to Renaissance art. Cimabue's Madonna Enthroned (ca. 1275) is still entirely in the Byzantine tradition of painting the Virgin, who looks like a statue, aloof from reality and surrounded by symmetrically arranged angels. Cimabue's Infant Christ is dressed like a Roman general, and there is no sign of any tender exchange between mother and son. By contrast, Duccio's Madonna Enthroned (1285) shows more movement, with gentle coloring and flowing lines, but still ethereal and aloof.

The first appearance of a human, realistic view is in the Madonna Enthroned by Giotto (ca. 1310). The throne seems almost within reach, the figures have weight and solidity, making eye-contact with one another and the viewer. Giotto was the first artist to represent the Virgin as a woman with a physical presence, and even his minor figures are animated and have different facial expressions. He breaks away from the duller colors of Byzantine art, but the backgrounds remain the traditional gold. Giotto's most important and historical achievement, however, was his composition. He was the first painter to create a well-defined space that considers the eye of the beholder, and his pyramidal composition created a model that would last for centuries. Giotto's more personal, realistic style was to lead to a true Renaissance in art. From then on, painting would be an art in its own right, finally overshadowing sculpture.

Tuscan Art: 14th-15th Century

The next galleries show how other painters were changing from the old norms. More conservative painters such as the Sienese artist Simone Martini, whose Annunciation (about 1333) is still very much Gothic in style, with its gilded setting of turrets and gables ringing with Gothic architecture. But the angel's fluttering garment and the Virgin show great refinement and elegance. The movements have tenderness and sensitivity, but the delicate female images are still almost ethereal. Among other 14th-century Sienese examples in Room 3 are the Madonna in Glory (1340) by Pietro Lorenzetti, a follower of Giotto, and scenes from the life of St. Nicholas by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, notable for attempts at using perspective.

The most prominent of Giotto's Florentine followers shown here are Bernardo Daddi (d. 1348) and Taddeo Gaddi (d. 1366), whose altarpieces use delicate colors and soft, graceful lines to show people and settings more realistically. Gothic continued to dominate art into the early 15th century, and Lorenzo Monaco's The Adoration of the Magi (1420) and The Coronation of the Virgin (1413) still use the standard Gothic forms and colors. But although Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi (1423) still conveys the Gothic ideal of beauty, its lavish attention to detail marks the early transition from Gothic to Renaissance.

Early Renaissance Art: 15th Century

It was da Fabriano's contemporary, Masaccio, who revolutionized art by introducing perspective, creating three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. Masaccio's Madonna and Child with St. Anne (ca. 1420), painted with Masolino, is one of his early works. He ranks with Brunelleschi and Donatello as one of the founders of the Renaissance, a new art experience in reality, based on observing and recording nature accurately. You can see this in the relief-like modeling and realistic natural beauty of the faces and figures in Masaccio's altarpiece.

Near it, look for Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, the Dominican monk who was a contemporary of Masaccio, but whose mystic religious concept of art takes him in the opposite direction. But he was innovating in other ways. While he still uses gold backgrounds and ethereal draped figures, Fra Angelico's rich colors and circular arrangement of figures creates a unifying pictorial perspective. About 20 years later, around 1456, Paolo Uccello took perspective a giant step forward in his Battle of San Romano. Originally hung high on a Palazzo Medici wall, this painting reflects Uccello's deep interest in problems of perspective, and he solves its high placement by viewing the battle from below with greatly foreshortened figures. But notice also his abstraction and even modernistic colors (he anticipated Franz Marc's red and blue horses by several centuries).

Domenico Veneziano's Virgin and Child (ca. 1445) deals with perspective by placing the saints harmoniously in a semi-circle, but his main innovation came as a master of realistic light and shade. His fine nuances and delicate shades of color were far ahead of the solid areas of strong color used by his Florentine contemporaries. Portrait painting was another focus for early Renaissance art - and one that kept patrons happy. Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca from around 1465 are a good example. But Piero did not flatter his sitters, showing the Duke's aquiline nose, wrinkles, thin lips, and stocky build. Notice the background, a rare example of early Renaissance landscape.

More like a portrait than religious art is Filippo Lippi's Virgin and Child (ca. 1460), an elegantly dressed young Mary with two smiling angels, a scene showing affection and eye contact between mother and child that reflects increasing secularized interpretations of religious themes. Room 9 features huge panels of the Seven Virtues, by Piero del Pollaiolo. Actually, Piero painted only six, the seventh is one of the earliest works by Botticelli.

The Golden Age

Which brings you into Florence's Golden Age, and to one of its brightest stars. Botticelli painted the altarpiece Adoration of the Magi around 1475 when he was about 30, and the commission included portraying members of the Medici family and their associates among the onlookers. He arranged the group in a pyramid with the holy family at its peak, below them the three kings - the three highest ranking Medici - and below them in order of rank more Medici and their friends. The actual theme seems to recede into the background, serving more as a pretext for a magnificent representation of the Medici and their supporters.

Along with their own aggrandizement, patrician Florentines were intensely interested in Classical literature and philosophy, and Botticelli's most famous works, Birth of Venus and Primavera, both commissioned by a Medici, reflect this. In the Birth of Venus (1482/1483) Botticelli combines Classical and Christian thought in terms of Renaissance ideas, as a rebirth of the spirit from Classical mythology and Christian theology. He paints a female nude modeled on a Classical statue of the love goddess Venus, and implies a Christian baptism (as Christ is baptized in the Jordan). Compare this Florentine thinking with the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden's Entombment (ca. 1450) and the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, both in the same room, to appreciate how widely these Florentine ideas differed from those of Northern Europe. There, a nude would be unthinkable, and figures are concealed in drapery.

When Botticelli died in 1510 a new generation of artists was already at work, and the early 16th century brought the famous triumvirate in of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Leonardo was a pupil of Andrea del Verrocchio, and worked with him on The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (ca. 1470-1472). Verrocchio had begun as a goldsmith and worked for most of his life as a sculptor, which shows in his almost sculptural Christ and John the Baptist. Leonardo da Vinci lived at a time of scientific discovery that questioned biblical accounts as the only model for explaining the universe. Leonardo sensitively captures the atmosphere of his time in the Adoration of the Magi (1481). In the center of this unfinished picture, the Madonna and child appear as a stabilizing influence, encircled by a heaving mass of people who greet the birth with wonder and amazement or with doubt and fear. Instead of a folk tale, the Nativity gains a new dimension of world redemption.

Room 16 is the last in the first part of the tour of the Uffizi, which is devoted to Florentine and Tuscan art from 1300 to 1500, mostly in chronological order. The art of the later Italian Renaissance follows in Room 25 onwards, arranged according to schools of painting.

Renaissance Art by Schools

In the center of the stunning octagonal Tribuna, in itself a work of art, is the Medici Venus, the most famous Classical marble sculpture in Florence and thought to be a late Greek version of the "Aphrodite of Cnidus" by Praxiteles. On the walls are Mannerist portraits of the Medici family from the mid-1500s, the most outstanding by Pontormo, Bronzino, and Vasari. Pietro Perugino, a student of Verrocchio and teacher of Raphael, is represented by Madonna with Saints and various portraits that show his three-dimensional realism and subdued color that paved the way for the Classical art of the High Renaissance. Likewise, the turbulence and color of Luca Signorelli's style, as you'll see in his Holy Family (ca. 1495) and Madonna and Child, on the other hand, show much more turbulence and movement, an influence on the young Michelangelo.

At the same time, German artists were moving into their own Renaissance, as you'll see in masterpieces by Lucas Cranach, including his portrait of Martin Luther and his wife Katharina, a self-portrait, an impressive Melanchthon, and a rather erotic Adam and Eve. Albrecht Dürer is well represented by his Virgin and Child (1526), Portrait of the Father (1490), and Adoration of the Magi (1504). Venetian painting, characterized by soft color and balanced light, is represented by Giovanni Bellini's Religious Allegory (ca. 1485) and Giorgione's Portrait of a Maltese Horseman. Also representing High Renaissance art in Northern Italy are religious works by Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio, whose diagonal compositions, light effects, and unusual depths of perspective had a lasting influence on later Baroque painting.

High Renaissance

Michelangelo's Holy Family (1504/1505), known as the Doni Tondo, is devoid of any religious sentiment, the family appearing as though carved out of a block and showing Michelangelo's strong background in sculpture. You'll see hints of his masterwork on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the profusion of naked figures and the bright, iridescent colors. The year of Raphael's death (1520) marked the beginning of Mannerism, the late phase of the Renaissance that lasted until about 1600. Its departure from classical styles included unnatural forms and colors, shown by the almost two-dimensional composition of Rosso Fiorentino's Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro (1523), whose figures seem unreal, almost like articulated dolls.

Three important works by Raphael include a self-portrait (ca. 1506), his charming Virgin Mary with the Goldfinch, and Pope Leo X with the Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de'Rossi. Raphael depicts the Pope as an individual and intellectual, not simply a powerful leader. Andrea del Sarto's Madonna with the Harpies, a monumental altarpiece that is typical of Florentine High Renaissance art, combines Raphael's soft technique with Michelangelo's monumentality and Leonardo da Vinci's atmospheric qualities. Mannerism was the 16th-century transition between Renaissance and Baroque, turbulent and full of movement, distorting reality, and mystically interpreting piety. In Jacopo da Pontormo's Supper at Emmaus (ca. 1525), you'll see influence by his teachers Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto fused with inspiration from the late work of Raphael and the monumental art of Michelangelo.

Works by the great Venetian painter Titian include Venus of Urbino (1538), Ludovico Beccadelli (1552), Venus and Cupid (1560), Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere, Francesco Maria, Duke of Urbino, and La Flora, one of his finest portraits of women. Venus of Urbino is especially interesting for the way Titian uses shades of red to pull the different parts of the picture together diagonally. Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, known as Parmigianino, was influenced in turn by Correggio, the Roman High Renaissance, and Mannerism. Madonna with the Long Neck, painted between 1534 and 1540, is a good example of Mannerist distortion, with its elongated figures and strange light.

Other Highlights

If your eyes haven't glazed over by now, take a quick look in the remaining galleries, which contain a variety of masterpieces. Look especially for Head of a Youth by Lorenzo Lotto (1505) and, in Room 34, works by Venetian artists, including Veronese's Holy Family with St. Barbara, Annunciation, and Martyrdom of St. Justina, and Tintoretto's Portrait of a Man. In the next room are several more by Tintoretto. Next are works by Van Dyck and some of Rubens' finest works - Henry IV at Ivry and Henry IV Entering Paris, Isabella Brandt, and Entry of Ferdinand of Austria into Antwerp. In the Niobe Room, look for the finest classical sculpture in Florence after the Medici Venus, the Medici Vase from the second century BC. And finally, shown with works by Caravaggio, including his Medusa and Youthful Bacchus (1589) are the Uffizi's Rembrandts: Self Portrait as an Old Man (1664), Portrait of an Old Man (1658 or 1666), and Self Portrait as a Young Man (1633/1634).

Tips & Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Uffizi Visit

  • Although you can expect lines for admission to be very long spring through fall, the longest are on weekends, Tuesdays, and in the morning.
  • Advance tickets, while more expensive, allow you to skip the line.
  • Audio tours are available, but the small guidebook sold at the entrance is more detailed.
  • If you did not reserve tickets in advance, you can sometimes buy them in the museum ticket office at the Church of Orsanmichele (closed Sunday). They may not have any available, but it's worth a try.
  • Remember that photos of any kind are not allowed in the Uffizi.


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