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Florence: The Uffizi

The painting gallery is housed in the structure built to serve as the offices (uffizi is Florentine dialect for uffici, or "offices") of the Medici, commissioned by Cosimo I from Giorgio Vasari in 1560 -- perhaps his greatest architectural work. The painting gallery was started by Cosimo I as well and is now housed in the second-floor rooms that open off a long hall lined with ancient statues and frescoed with grotesques.

The first room off to your left after you climb Vasari's monumental stairs (Room 2; Room 1 is perennially closed) presents you with a crash course in the Renaissance's roots. It houses three huge altarpieces by Tuscany's greatest late-13th-century masters. On the right is Cimabue's Santa Trȷnita MaestȤ (1280), still very much rooted in the Byzantine traditions that governed painting in the early Middle Ages -- gold-leaf crosshatching in the drapery, an Eastern-style inlaid throne, spoonlike depressions above the noses, highly posed figures, and cloned angels with identical faces stacked up along the sides. On the left is Duccio's Rucellai MaestȤ (1285), painted by the master who studied with Cimabue and eventually founded the Sienese school of painting. The style is still thoroughly medieval but introduces innovations into the rigid traditions. There's a little more weight to the Child Madonna and the Madonna's face has a more human, somewhat sad, expression.

In the center of the room is Giotto's incredible Ognissanti MaestȤ (1310), by the man who's generally credited as the founding father of Renaissance painting. It's sometimes hard to appreciate just how much Giotto changed when he junked half the traditions of painting to go his own way. It's mainly in the very simple details, the sorts of things we take for granted in art today, such as the force of gravity, the display of basic emotions, the individual facial expressions, and the figures that look like they have an actual bulky body under their clothes. Giotto's Madonna sways slightly to one side, the fabric of her off-white shirt pulling realistically against her breasts as she twists. Instead of floating in mysterious space, Giotto's saints and angels stand on solid ground.

Room 3 pays homage to the 14th-century Sienese school with several delicately crafted works by Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers. Here is Martini's Annunciation (1333). Note that Mary, who in so much art both before and after this period is depicted as meekly accepting her divine duty, looks reluctant, even disgusted, at the news of her imminent Immaculate Conception. Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti helped revolutionize Sienese art and the Sienese school before succumbing to the Black Death in 1348. Of their work here, Ambrogio's 1342 Presentation at the Temple is the finest, with a rich use of color and a vast architectural space created to open up the temple in the background.

Room 4 houses the works of the 14th-century Florentine school, where you can clearly see the influence Giotto had on his contemporaries. Rooms 5 and 6 represent the dying gasps of International Gothic, still grounded in medievalism but admitting a bit of the emergent naturalism and humanist philosophy into their works. Lorenzo Monaco's Coronation of the Virgin (1413) is particularly beautiful, antiquated in its styling but with a delicate suffused coloring.

In Room 7, the Renaissance proper starts taking shape, driven primarily by the quest of two artists, Paolo Uccello and Masaccio, for perfect perspective. On the left wall is Uccello's Battle of San Romano (1456), famously innovative but also rather ugly. This painting depicts one of Florence's great victories over rival Siena, but for Uccello it was more of an excuse to explore perspective -- with which this painter was, by all accounts, positively obsessed.

In the far corner is the only example of Masaccio's art here (he died at 27), the Madonna and Child with St. Anne, which he helped his master, Masolino, paint in 1424. Masaccio's earthy realism and sharp light are evident in the figures of Mary and the Child, as well as in the topmost angel peeking down. In the center of the room is Piero della Francesca's Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, painted around 1465 or 1470 and the only work by this remarkable Sansepolcran artist to survive in Florence. The fronts of the panels depict the famous duke of Urbino and his wife, while on the backs are horse-drawn carts symbolic of the pair's respective virtues. Piero's incredibly lucid style and modeling and the detailed Flemish-style backgrounds need no commentary, but do note that he purposefully painted the husband and wife in full profile -- without diluting the realism of a hooked nose and moles on the duke -- and mounted them face to face, so they'll always gaze into each other's eyes.

Room 8 is devoted to Filippo Lippi, with more than half a dozen works by the lecherous monk who turned out rich religious paintings with an earthy quality and a three-dimensionality that make them immediately accessible. His most famous painting here is the Madonna and Child with Two Angels (1455-66). Also here are a few works by Filippo's illegitimate son, Filippino. Room 9 is an interlude of virtuoso paintings by Antonio del Pollaiolo, plus a number of large Virtues by his less-talented brother, Piero. These two masters of anatomical verisimilitude greatly influenced the young Botticelli, three of whose early works reside in the room. This introduction to Botticelli sets us up for the next room, invariably crowded with tour-bus groups.

The walls separating Rooms 10 to 14 were knocked down in the 20th century to create one large space to accommodate the resurgent popularity of Sandro Filipepi -- better known by his nickname, Botticelli ("little barrels") -- master of willowy women in flowing gowns. Fourteen of his paintings line the walls, along with works by his pupil (and illegitimate son of his former teacher) Filippino Lippi and Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo's first artistic master. But everybody flocks here for just two paintings, Botticelli's Birth of Venus and his Primavera (Allegory of Spring). Though in later life Botticelli was influenced by the puritanical preachings of Savonarola and took to cranking out boring Madonnas, the young painter began in grand pagan style. Both paintings were commissioned between 1477 and 1483 by a Medici cousin for his private villa, and they celebrate not only Renaissance art's love of naturalism but also the humanist philosophy permeating 15th-century Florence, a neo-Platonism that united religious doctrine with ancient ideology and mythological stories.

In the Birth of Venus, the love goddess is born of the sea on a half shell, blown to shore by the Zephyrs. Ores, a goddess of the seasons, rushes to clothe her. Some say the long-legged goddess was modeled on Simonetta Vespucci, a renowned Florentine beauty, cousin to Amerigo (the naval explorer after whom America is named) and not-so-secret lover of Giuliano de' Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent's brother. The Primavera is harder to evaluate, since contemporary research indicates it may not actually be an allegory of spring influenced by the humanist poetry of Poliziano but rather a celebration of Venus, who stands in the center, surrounded by various complicated references to Virtues through mythological characters. Also check out Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi, where the artist painted himself in the far right side, in a great yellow robe and golden curls.

Room 15 boasts Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation, which the young artist painted in 1472 or 1475 while still in the workshop of his master, Andrea del Verrocchio; however, he was already fully developed as an artist. The solid yet light figures and sfumato airiness blurring the distance render remarkably lifelike figures somehow suspended in a surreal dreamscape. Leonardo helped Verrocchio on the Baptism of Christ -- most credit the artist-in-training with the angel on the far left as well as the landscape, and a few art historians think they see his hand in the figure of Jesus as well. The Adoration of the Magi, on which Leonardo didn't get much beyond the sketching stage, shows how he could retain powerful compositions even when creating a fantasy landscape of ruinous architecture and incongruous horse battles. The room also houses works by Lorenzo di Credi and Piero di Cosimo, fellow 15th-century maestros, and a PietȤ that shows Perugino's solid plastic style of studied simplicity. (This Umbrian master would later pass it on to his pupil Raphael.) Uffizi officials use Room 18, the Tribune, as a crowd-control pressure valve. You may find yourself stuck shuffling around it slowly, staring at the mother-of-pearl discs lining the domed ceiling; studying the antique statues, such as the famous Medici Venus (a 1st-c.-B.C. Roman copy of a Greek original); and scrutinizing the Medici portraits wallpapering the room. The latter include many by the talented early baroque artist Agnolo Bronzino, whose portrait of Eleonora of Toledo, wife of Cosimo I, with their son Giovanni de' Medici (1545), is particularly well worked. It shows her in a satin dress embroidered and sewn with velvet and pearls. When the Medici tombs were opened in 1857, her body was found buried in this same dress (it's now in the Pitti Palace's costume museum).

Also here are Raphael's late St. John the Baptist in the Desert (1518) and Mannerist Rosso Fiorentino's 1522 Angel Musician, where an insufferably cute little putto (cherub) plucks at an oversize lute -- it's become quite the Renaissance icon in the recent spate of angel mania.

Room 19 is devoted to both Perugino, who did the luminous Portrait of Francesco delle Opere (1494), and Luca Signorelli, whose Holy Family (1490-95) was painted as a tondo set in a rectangle, with allegorical figures in the background and a torsion of the figures that were to influence Michelangelo's version (in a later room). Room 20 is devoted to Dɒrer, Cranach, and other German artists who worked in Florence, while Room 21 takes care of 16th-century Venetians Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, and Carpaccio. In Room 22 are Flemish and German works by Hans Holbein the Younger, Hans Memling, and others, and Room 23 contains Andrea Mantegna's triptych of the Adoration of the Magi, Circumcision, and Ascension (1463-70), showing his excellent draftsmanship and fascination with classical architecture. Now we move into the west wing, still in the throes of restoration following the bombing. Room 25 is overpowered by Michelangelo's Holy Family (1506-08), one of the few panel paintings by the great master. The glowing colors and shocking nudes in the background seem to pop off the surface, and the torsion of the figures was to be taken up as the banner of the Mannerist movement. Michelangelo also designed the elaborate frame.

Room 26 is devoted to Andrea del Sarto and High Renaissance darling Raphael. Of Raphael we have the Madonna of the Goldfinch (1505), a work he painted in a Leonardesque style for a friend's wedding, and several important portraits, including Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi and Pope Julius II, as well as a famous Self-portrait. Del Sarto was the most important painter in Florence in the early 16th century, while Michelangelo and Raphael were off in Rome. His consciously developed Mannerist style is evident in his masterful Madonna of the Harpies (1515-17).

Room 27 is devoted to works by Del Sarto's star Mannerist pupils, Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo, and by Pontormo's adopted son, Bronzino. Fiorentino's Moses Defends the Daughters of Jethro (1523) owes much to Michelangesque nudes but is also wholly original in the use of harsh lighting that reduces the figures to basic shapes of color.

Room 28 honors the great Venetian Titian, of whose works you'll see a warm full-bodied Flora and a poetic Venus of Urbino languishing on her bed; Sienese High Renaissance painter Sebastiano del Piombo (his Death of Adonis and Portrait of a Woman are both strong works); and a few mediocre works by Palma il Vecchio.

Tiny rooms 29 and 30, ostensibly honoring works by several Emilian artists, are totally dominated by late Mannerist master Il Parmigianino, who carried the Mannerist movement to its logical extremes with the almost grotesquely elongated bodies of the Madonna of the Long Neck (1534). Room 31 continues to chart the fall of painting into decorative grace with Paolo Veronese's Martyrdom of St. Justine (1573), which is less about the saint being stabbed than it is a sartorial study in fashion design.

Room 32 is a nice break provided by the dramatic and visible brush strokes that boldly swirled rich, somber colors of several lesser works by Venetian master Tintoretto. All the better, as these must see you through the treacle and tripe of rooms 33 to 34, stuffed with substandard examples of 16th-century paintings by the likes of Vasari, Alessandro Allori, and other chaps who grew up in Michelangelo's shadow and desperately wished they could paint like him. (Note: They couldn't.)

Popping back out in the main corridor again, you visit the last several rooms one at a time as each opens off the hall. Room 35 features the taffeta, cotton-candy oeuvre of baroque weirdo Federico Barocci (whose works are currently coming into vogue -- why, I've no idea). Continue right past that exit staircase, because they save a few eye-popping rooms for the very end.

Room 41 is all about Rubens and his famously ample nudes, along with some works by his Flemish cohorts (Van Dyck, Sustermans). Room 42 is a lovely side hall flooded with sunlight and graced by more than a dozen Roman statues that are copies of Hellenic originals, most of them of the dying Niobids.

And so we come to Room 43, previously home to Caravaggio before he and his students were moved to the expanded exhibition space downstairs. Now the room hosts a collection of 17th-century paintings by such artists as il Guercino and il Domenichino.

Duck through the end of this room to pay your respects to Rembrandt in Room 44, where he immortalized himself in two Self-portraits, one done as a youth and the other as an old man. Hang a right to exit back into the corridor again via Room 45, a bit of a letdown after the last two rooms, but still engaging (if you've any art-appreciation energies left after all this) for its "Greatest Hits of the 18th Century" artists -- Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Il Canaletto, Francesco Guardi, and Tiepolo -- plus a Spanish twist to end it all with two paintings by Francisco Goya.

Now it's time to move downstairs toward the exit, but not before you visit five recently added rooms on the ground floor, starting with the space devoted to Caravaggio in Room 5. Caravaggio was the baroque master of chiaroscuro -- painting with extreme harsh light and deep shadows. The Uffizi preserves his painting of the severed head of Medusa, a Sacrifice of Isaac, and his famous Bacchus . Caravaggio's work influenced a generation of artists -- the caravaggisti including Artemisia Gentileschi, the only female painter to make a name for herself in the late Renaissance/early baroque. Artemisia was eclipsed in fame by her slightly less talented father, Orazio, and she was the victim and central figure in a sensational rape trial brought against Orazio's one-time collaborator. It evidently had an effect on her professional life; the violent Judith Slaying Holofernes, is featured here, in all its gruesome detail.

Rooms 6 and 7 are devoted to two followers of Caravaggio: respectively, Bartolomeo Manfredi and Gerrit von Honthorst, known in Italy as Gherardo delle Notti. Paintings by both artists were destroyed in the 1993 car bomb; the ones on display here were previously safeguarded in storage. Manfredi will be forever remembered for bringing plebian life to the canvas, with scenes in taverns and featuring card-playing soldiers, although those in the Uffizi's collection focus on more religious and ancient Roman subjects. Gherardo delle Notti, as his nickname might suggest, was famous for his bright illumination of subjects by sources of light seen and unseen, and the paintings here, especially his adoration of the baby Jesus, will not disappoint.

Room 8 is dedicated to other European students of Caravaggio, including Matthias Stomer, Francesco Rustici, and Nicolas Regnier, while Room 9 is dedicated to Guido Reni, perhaps best known for his collaboration with Annibale Caracci on the Farnese Palace in Rome, but also noted for his paintings betraying the influence of Caravaggio. His rendering of a triumphant David admiring the slain head of Goliath, upon your exit, is a fitting tribute to your conquest of this overwhelming gallery -- because that's it. The Uffizi is finished. Treat yourself to a cappuccino alfresco. You've earned it.

Rising from the Blast -- On May 27, 1993, a car bomb ripped through the west wing of the Uffizi, seriously damaging it and some 200 works of art and destroying three (thankfully lesser) Renaissance paintings. The bomb killed five people inside, including the museum curator and her family. While everything from a Mafia hit to a government conspiracy was blamed, the motive for the bombing, and the perpetrators, remain unknown to this day.

In December 1998, Italy unveiled what it called the New Uffizi, a $15-million renovation that repaired all damaged rooms, added more than 20,000 square feet of new museum space, and displayed more than 100 works that had never been seen before -- part of a larger project to triple exhibit space. Several branches of the book/gift shop were added to the ticketing areas on the ground floor, and the old outdoor cafe at the end of the galleries, atop the Loggia dei Lanzi with a view of the Palazzo Vecchio's tower, was reopened.

Reserving Tickets for the Uffizi & Other Museums -- You can bypass the hours-long ticket line at the Uffizi Galleries by reserving a ticket and an entry time in advance by calling Firenze Musei at tel. 055-294-883 (Mon-Fri 8:30am-6:30pm, Sat until 12:30pm) or visiting www.firenzemusei.it. By March, entry times can be booked more than a week in advance. You can also reserve for the Accademia Gallery (another interminable line, to see David), as well as the Galleria Palatina in the Pitti Palace, the Bargello, and several others. There is a 1.55€ ($2.85) fee (worth every penny), and you can pay by credit card.

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