Meaning ‘offices’ in Italian, the Uffizi is one of the world’s most famous art galleries and the jewel in the crown of Florence’s cultural heritage. The building, as its name suggests, started life as offices (and much more beautiful offices than yours or mine!) in the 16th century.
Over time, it came to showcase the growing collection of the Medici family, Florence’s de facto rulers and the most famous patrons of the Italian Renaissance. Initially ornating the office’s walls, these artworks soon became the main attraction, drawing scores of visitors on their Grand Tours and converting the Uffizi into a public museum as early as 1769.
Read on to find out all about the Uffizi Galleries: its history, collection, and how to visit.
Work started on the Uffizi in 1560, during the reign of the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici. Next to the Uffizi was the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace), the administrative seat of the Florentine Republic.
It was here that the city’s magistrates ostensibly ruled the city and its territory, though in reality all power was in the hands of the Medici family.
As a symbol of Florence’s power, the Palazzo Vecchio served its purpose perfectly. A huge, imposing fortress near the banks of the River Arno, it loomed over Piazza della Signoria below, where Michelangelo’s David stood looking resiliently into the distance towards Rome.
As Florence’s power and influence grew, so did the need for space for its records. Hence why Grand Duke Cosimo committed to building the Uffizi offices which, in their grandeur would match the Palazzo Vecchio beside them.
The man commissioned with the task of building the Uffizi was Giorgio Vasari, a fascinating figure who has left us far more than just architecture. Vasari was the author of the Lives of the Artists; a series of biographies providing the source of our information for such figures as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of Florence’s Duomo.
Vasari didn’t live to see the completion of his project. He died in 1574, aged 62, seven years before the Uffizi was inaugurated. His work was continued by Alfonso Parigi and Bernardo Buontalenti - the man credited, among other things, with inventing the gelato.
The Uffizi’s main purpose was to house Florence’s administrative offices and state archive. At least ostensibly. For the top floor of the Uffizi was made into a gallery for the Medici family and their esteemed guests showcasing their vast collection of Roman sculptures.
Over time, the Medici expanded their growing collection into other rooms of the Uffizi, adding paintings, jewelry, scientific instruments, and weapons to their enviable pantheon of ancient statues. The magnificence of this collection, among the finest in Europe, drew travelers on their Grand Tours in ever-increasing numbers until the Uffizi became a must-see stop on any visit to Florence. Much as it is today.
Tuesday - Saturday 8:15 am - 6:50 pm
The Birth of Venus and Spring by Sandro Botticelli
Dating to 1485 and 1482 respectively, the Birth of Venus and Spring by Sandro Botticelli are easily among the world’s most recognizable paintings. Lorenzo de’ Medici was said to have commissioned the Birth of Venus, his friends and family posing as models in the painting.
Rumor has it that his lover Simonetta posed as Venus, her beauty haunting Botticelli for years after her death. The figure of Mercury, meanwhile, is thought to have been Giulano - Lorenzo’s younger brother who was assassinated in Florence’s Duomo on Easter Day, 1478.
Botticelli’s Spring is beautifully enigmatic, dividing opinion over its meaning since it was unveiled in 1482. Is it an ode to beauty, a swirling pagan ritual, a feast held to welcome in the abundance of Spring? The whole work is surreal, from the foreground figures to the backdrop, yet this does more to captivate audiences to visit the Uffizi to view it.
Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio
Painted when Leonardo da Vinci was just 20 years-old, the Annunciation was the Great Master’s first work. It depicts the Angel Gabriel bearing the Virgin Mary the news that she will miraculously give birth to a son whose name will be Jesus and whose reign as the Son of God will never end.
The open, mountainous backdrop reveals Lenoardo’s deep-set appreciation of nature while the figures of Gabriel and Mary in the foreground show an already blossoming pictorial talent in the young Renaissance artist.
Its commission and early history are both obscure, though, and while it was executed in the studio of Leonardo’s master, Andrea del Verocchio, we don’t know to what extent the master laid the foundations for his student to complete.
Medusa by Caravaggio
Caravaggio painted the Medusa in 1597, just after receiving the biggest commission of his young life: to paint the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. As he was about to embark on new, more Christian subject matter, the Medusa can be seen as his attempts to exorcise his fascination with violence and realism.
The work depicts Medusa, a figure from Greek mythology whose abominable appearance and hair of writhing snakes would turn anyone who caught a glance of her to stone. Caravaggio imagines the exact moment when Medusa was killed, beheaded with the shield of the young Perseus under the guidance of Athena.
Beheaded but still conscious, Medusa screams silently as blood pours from her arteries. Yet her face is not imagined, but a self-portrait of the artist, whose dark features sat in harmony with his shady personality.
Venus of Urbino by Titian
Created in the 1530s and featuring an unknown model, Titian’s Venus of Urbino is one of the Uffizi’s most sensual artworks - suitable given the goddess as its subject.
The work is based on an earlier painting, the so-called Dresden Venus, which depicts the goddess similarly reclined in nature. Titian’s interpretation domesticates the goddess, though, contrasting the curvature of her form with the rigidity of her indoor setting.
Some interpretations suggest Titian’s Venus is less the goddess of immediate, carnal love and more the representation of long-term fidelity, as embodied by the loyal dog curled up at her feet. Yet it’s hard to deny the exposed eroticism of the painting, embodied if not by the subject at its center then by the flourishes of life around her.
Doni Tondo by Michelangelo
The Doni Tondo, was completed around 1507 by Michelangelo for the Florentine merchant, Agnolo Doni who had recently married into the well-known Strozzi family. Although the painting is smaller than his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, it is another beautiful work by Michelangelo and remains his only painting on display in Florence.
This painting features the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as a child) as the primary focus of the image, with infant John the Baptist behind them on the right. The meaning behind the other nude figures in the background seem to depict pagan humanity, separated from the Holy Family by a wall of original sin.
The Doni Tondo is on display at the Uffizi within its original wooden frame, designed by Michelangelo himself. Because wood carving is a traditional art in Florence, the frame is highly detailed and decorated, showing the head of Jesus and four other prophets. Look close at the top left part of the frame to see half moons, the symbol of the Strozzi family.
Laocoön and his Sons by Baccio Bandinelli
Based on an ancient original on display in Rome's Vatican Museums, Baccio Bandinelli’s Laocoön and his Sons depicts one of the most tragic scenes from Greco-Roman mythology.
We’re not going to give the story away here - instead it’s best enjoyed standing in front of the monument itself. Whether in Florence or Rome, we’re ready to share it with you.
The original is in Rome's Vatican Museums.
Visiting the Uffizi takes anywhere between 2 - 4 hours, depending on how in-depth you want to go. Its main masterpieces are many and deserve to be viewed at your leisure, so set aside at least a full morning or afternoon for the Uffizi and see how the mood takes you.
You can, but we wouldn’t recommend it. With somewhere around 2 million visitors each year, there’s a delicate balance between demand and capacity, meaning without priority entry tickets or assigned entry times you can be left standing in line for hours (though at least you’re shaded beneath its 16th-century porticoes).
There are ticket touts aplenty hanging around outside the Uffizi Galleries too hoping to make a quick buck out of a visitor’s confusion or indecision. By far the best way to visit the Uffizi is as part of a private tour, which includes timed skip-the-line entry straight inside the galleries.
Did you know the Uffizi is one of the oldest museums in the world? In the sixteenth century, visitors were able to visit it on request, and in 1765 the galleries opened to the general public. It may only have been formally recognized as a museum in 1865, but in reality it had been serving as one for around 300 years.