Would you like to delve into the wonders of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence? I’ve recently done just that, thanks to Context Travel. They invited me to join their Uffizi Gallery Tour Crash Course, a 3-hour long tour led by an expert in art history, and I can’t recommend it enough. Here’s a little taste of what you can expect on this fascinating tour!
Exploring the Uffizi Gallery with Context Travel
Admire the masterpieces of the Uffizi
The Uffizi Gallery is a must-see for anyone who loves Renaissance art and is interested in Florence’s history. Located between the handsome Piazza Signoria and the river Arno, the elegant porticoed building hosts one of the world’s largest collections of Renaissance and Mannerist paintings.
As a Florentine myself, I know that this place is more than an art gallery. The Uffizi collection is the most unique of its kind in the world, and seeing it with a knowledgable guide is like taking a journey through the history of Western art. You see iconic works by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Titian and Caravaggio to name but a few. But you’ll also learn about the themes and techniques they developed throughout the centuries. Along the way Florence will reveal some of its secrets. And you’ll experience art in a way that will stay with you.
The Medici and the Uffizi
Our small group is met by our guide Elizabeth in Piazza Signoria. She gives us a friendly welcome and an introduction to the iconic museum that we are about to explore.
“We have the Medici family to thank for the Uffizi. Gran Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici employed Giorgio Vasari to design the building, as a place to host the government’s ‘uffici’, or offices, and entertain kings and heads of state who were coming to Florence. You could say it was a sort of calling card for the city. It was only later, with Cosimo’s son Francesco, that it became a space to store the growing art collection of the Medici”.
Elizabeth goes on to tell us that Vasari was also responsible for creating the legendary Vasari Corridor. This is an elevated covered passageway that links Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti, which was the Medici’s residence on the other side of the river Arno. She explains that this was how Florence’s rulers were able to stroll above the city in total privacy, and show it off to their hosts.
As we wind through the crowds in Piazza Signoria to reach the famous loggias of the Uffizi we see the long queue outside the entrance. But I’m relieved to see Elizabeth guide us to past the line, and usher us straight in.
Giotto and Masaccio: towards the Renaissance
The visit starts on the second floor, in a room dominated by the majestic Madonna by Giotto, dating back to 1310. I’m mesmerised by her beauty.
“Giotto brought something new to art. He brought solidity and perspective. If you compare it with the other Madonna on the left, by his master Cimabue, you can see how in thirty years there’s been a shift in sensitivity and style. We’re moving toward to the Renaissance, with growing interest in realism and observation of nature”.
In the next room we stop to admire Elizabeth’s favourite painting, the “Adoration of the Magi” by Gentile da Fabriano. Painted in 1423, it’s a truly impressive sight, with all the gold and exotic figures crowding the space.
Elizabeth tells us that the subject of the Magi, or three Wise Men, was particularly significant for the city of Florence. Back in the 15th century, the city had a ‘Confraternita dei Magi’ that put on a cavalcade in costume every 6th January to celebrate the journey of the Wise Men. A tradition that lives on today.
Our guide then points out a small painting by Masaccio, known as the ‘Tickling Madonna” (1426). It shows the tender gesture of Mary tickling the Christ Child, who is swaddled as was the trend at the time. With a charm necklace around his neck, he looks like a real baby. With his revolutionary style, Masaccio brings reality to bear on the world of sacred art.
Next we a spend a little time observing the powerful portraits of the Dukes of Urbino by Piero della Francesca before heading to the VIP’s gallery. I ask if we can take a look at one of my personal favourites on the way, “Battle of San Romano” by Paolo Uccello. I’ve always been fascinated by this painting, a dramatic battle scene rendered in an unconventional way, full of orderly chaos. To me it looks like it could almost be the work of a contemporary graphic designer.
The VIP’s of the Uffizi
Finally we come face to face with Botticelli. A painter whose work has become part of our collective imagination. People are crowding in front of his paintings, staring in wonder at Flora with her flowing dress and the naked but modest ‘Venus pudica’, just born from the sea.
“Botticelli used gold to paint her hair. You can imagine how it would flicker under candle light back in the day. These paintings were commissioned by the Medici family, to be hung in their villa!”.
Elizabeth then touches on the many different critical interpretations of these masterpieces. You could study the complex allegories behind the mythological figures inspired by Neoplatonism. Or you can come to the Uffizi and simply stare at the timeless grace of these iconic figures.
These rooms have been all refurbished in the last couple of years, the space and lighting has been redesigned to give more ‘breathing space’ to the paintings and the thousands of visitors.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Room is beautifully lit. The “Adoration of the Magi” deeply moves me. Maybe because Da Vinci is larger than life, or maybe because his figures seem to be ready to step out of the painting.
“Leonardo left this painting unfinished, like many of his works.” Elizabeth tells us before leading us on to admire the “Annunciation”. Curiously you need to look at it from the right hand side because that’s how it was supposed to be seen”.
Michelangelo and the Mannierists
Now we get to Michelangelo and the famous “Tondo Doni”, painted around 1506. This is about the time that the Renaissance moves in the direction of experimentalism.
“The sacred family portrayed in this round painting shows the so-called ‘serpentine pose’, seen in Roman statues and loved by Michelangelo and the Mannerists that came after him. The colours are vivid and the muscular bodies are forced into an unnatural positions, which is typical of Michelangelo”.
We’ve met the VIP’s of the Uffizi, but our visit is not over. After a brief rest at the cafeteria, set on the terrace above the Loggia dei Lanzi, we move on to the first floor, dedicated to Mannerist and Baroque art where we continue our journey past a plethora of masterpieces; from the weird and disturbing “Mary and Child with Saints” by Rosso Fiorentino, to Bronzino’s famous portraits of the Medici, and Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”.
Caravaggio and the Baroque style
The last rooms are dedicated to Baroque period, and we end our visit admiring the works of Caravaggio. His terror-filled Medusa, painted on a wooden shield, shocks the visitors. Elizabeth explains that here, Caravaggio leaves the ideal beauty of Renaissance behind and embraces naturalism using light to create volume and drama.
Three hours later we emerge from the Uffizi into the warm afternoon light of Florence. We’ve been immersed in a world full of the most beautiful art works on the planet, walking the corridors of the Uffizi lined with ancient marble statues. My head is still spinning from all the fascinating detail and colour that Elizabeth has added along the way.
I can say it was a privilege to be on a tour given by such an expert and engaging guide, always ready to answer our questions and share her knowledge with us. Thanks Elizabeth, thanks Context Travel, we’ll be back for more!
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Author: Sabrina Nesi, co-founder of Lovefromtuscany.com