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  • Writer's pictureClementine de la Poer Beresford, MA

A Brief History of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

What is the Uffizi Gallery?

The Uffizi Gallery is a fabulous gallery of art teeming with Renaissance treasures that’s housed in the former offices of the Florentine magistrates.

Uffizi Gallery

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Uffizi Gallery History

From the moment it was commissioned in 1560 by Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Uffizi Gallery was designed as somewhere that would house and display extraordinary artistic treasures. Although Cosimo died before he was able to see the family’s collection put on display, his son Grand Duke Francesco I oversaw the completion of Cosimo’s plan. The building, which had been initially conceived by Giorgio Vasari, was completed by Alfonso Parigi and Bernardo Buontalenti.

Whilst the principal role of the Uffizi was to accommodate the offices of the Florentine magistrates (uffizi means offices in Italian), Parigi and Buontalenti built a gallery on its second floor. On display in the eastern wing of the loggia was the Medici collection of ancient statues and busts, while along the corridor was the Tribune, an octagonal room which housed the priceless Medici jewels. The vibrant ceilings of the gallery were decorated with motifs inspired by the wall paintings in the Domus Aurea, Emperor Nero’s vast ancient complex in Rome, which had only recently been discovered.

Over the centuries, more and more artworks were added to the collection and the galleries were expanded. During the 18th century, they became a must-see for anyone enjoying the Grand Tour (the journey that young aristocratic men took around Europe as a complement to their university education). That same century, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the last Medici heiress, bequeathed the collections to Florence in the Patto di Famiglia (or Family Pact) and the gallery opened to the public in the 1760s, formally becoming a museum 100 years later.

Today, the Uffizi houses many of the world’s most extraordinary masterpieces. The artworks are spread over two floors, with the second floor housing 45 halls with art from the 13th to the 18th centuries and sculptures from antiquity. Highlights include Sandro Botticelli’s two enormous Renaissance works, The Birth of Venus and Primavera. The Birth of Venus depicts the goddess of love nude standing in a giant scallop shell, blown onto the shore by the wind god Zephyr, whilst the Primavera shows a group of figures from classical mythology placed together in a garden. Although scholars debate the exact meaning of the Primavera, many believe it’s intended to be an allegory for the abundance of Spring.

Another work not to be missed is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, in which Judith powerfully cuts off the head of Holofernes, the Assyrian General and tyrant who was laying siege to Judith’s hometown of Bethulia. The heroine bears remarkable similarity to Gentileschi and indeed the work is recognised to be a self-portrait. Gentileschi’s decision to cast herself as Judith may have been informed by the sexual assault she suffered at the hands of her father’s colleague, Agostino Tassi. Titian’s famed Venus of Urbino, which depicts the female goddess reclining on a bed in beautiful surroundings must also be seen, as must the works by the Italian polymath, artist, sculptor and theorist Leonardo da Vinci, and the great German artist Albrecht Dürer.

Those who have a penchant for architecture will also delight in the Uffizi’s architectural design. Its internal courtyard, which is long, narrow and open at one end to the River Arno, is considered to be the first regularised streetscape in Europe.

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