Art Encounters @ The Uffizi: Italy, Day 4 (Florence)

Welcome to the fourth installment of my adventures in Italy, covering day four. The series starts here.

Not kidding when I say, it was crowded at the Uffizi!

I’ll be blunt. The Uffizi Gallery is one of the great art museums of the world. But it was not a great experience. It was very, very crowded. And this is the off-season. Far be it from me to resent that other people also wish to see the many monumental works of art on display. Art is for everyone.

Anyway, it wasn’t just the crowds.

Practical Tip: This was our first visit to a truly top-tier site. We bought tickets in advance online with a timed entry. This is a good move for such sites. Also, skip-the-line tickets and tours are good investments. We got there at the designated time and waited in the line to enter. Waiting to buy a ticket first would have made for a much worse day, leaving us tired before we even got in. Also, the Uffizi has a lot of stairs, be prepared.

Encountering Art: Is Progression Progress?

Several weeks before the trip I spent a Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, which I have visited many times (although not as many as I would like). For four hours (including a long gelato break) I wandered around, looking at whatever caught my eye. There were plenty of other people, but it never felt crowded. It was wonderful, I felt joyful and cleansed afterwards. (I was in a bad place professionally at the time and needed a break.) The Uffizi was not that. We listened to Rick Steves’ free audio tour. It was pretty good, giving historical context to some of the masterworks on display (he also makes corny jokes). The audio tour itself takes 60 minutes, but with lots of stops and starts (particularly to look at other things) we were there for several hours. The tour gave a sort of box-ticking feel to the endeavor. I reminded myself, I am on a quest. I need to get to know Italy. I will come back. Ideally, I’d spend a few months in Florence and visit the Uffizi multiple times and wander at my leisure. This visit was a base coat, getting the masters and high points out of the way so I have context for future visits.

How it started (Giotto 1310)
How it’s going. (Raphael 1506)

I won’t recreate the Rick Steves’ tour or attempt to describe the wonders of the Uffizi. He walks through the development of Renaissance art, beginning with Giotto. Before the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael), there was Giotto, the first rock-star artist of the Renaissance. In one gallery are paintings of Mary and Jesus by Cimabue, Masaccio, and Giotto. Cimabue and Duccio’s similar paintings in the same gallery (no pics, sorry), while intricately detailed, are both flat (there is no use of perspective) and the people depicted are more akin dolls than real human beings. Giotto was a student of Cimabue, but he changed all of that, breaking with the Byzantine style of the East, giving the people form (note the natural feel to Mary’s clothes and figure) and the overall painting some three-dimensional perspective. This starting the path that led to the Renaissance masterworks of Botticelli and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I won’t share all of my pics, but instead skip from Giotto’s 1310 painting almost two centuries ahead to Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, completed in 1506. Besides the tremendous skill in rendering objects and people naturally, the figures show palpable affection between each other and seem very human in their gestures, epitomized in Jesus’ foot resting on top of his mother’s exposed foot.

It is simplistic to view this progression from the Medieval to Renaissance as necessarily a qualitative improvement. The Medieval paintings have a charm of their own. (I need to learn about the technology and technique of painting: was the depiction of perspective known and rejected, or did it need to be discovered?)

Not being Christian, the emotional and intellectual resonance of many of these paintings is limited for me. When I see paintings, my eyes look for things to chew on – it is a sensory experience. The Medieval style paintings will often have extremely intricate decorations that fascinate. Further, we (that is human beings) are not always most amused by accurate depictions of reality. Painting is akin to stage magic. It deceives our senses causing us to see (or not see) things, intriguing us and making us wonder. As I mentioned regarding de Chirico in my last post, odd perspectives, can make our eyes process things differently and evoke pleasure and feelings. I was recently at the Neue Galerie in New York and saw Klimt’s masterwork Lady in Gold, which is flat and unbelievably beautiful. Klimt was inspired by the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna. (I’ll write about it as soon as I finish writing about Italy – so in about a month.) Since the development of photography, painters have wrestled with what painting means when reality can be captured precisely with technology. In seeking new ways to convey beauty and feeling they have often, like Klimt, turned to pre-modern approaches, whether by looking through time (ancient Egypt or Byzantium) or space (Japan or Africa.)

A Setting for Art

Uffizi means “office.” Originally these galleries were built to consolidate the city offices. They were designed by Giorgio Vasari, who besides being a renowned artist in his own right, is the father of art history. Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects remains a foundational work not only about Italian Renaissance painting, but as an approach to understanding the history of art. Vasari designed these offices not for prosaic issues of work efficiency, but to showcase the Medici art holdings and as a statement of the family’s wealth and power. Hence, the finely decorated and fascinating interiors. As we made our way through the museum, I found myself staring up at the corridor ceilings. It isn’t easy to appreciate art at that angle, especially in a working and walking space (as opposed to a church ceiling where one would be seated for long periods). But I thought that if they were transported to a wall, they would be worthy of appreciation and study. (Maybe a tour just focused on the ceilings would be interesting?)  Why paint elaborate scenes that can barely be appreciated? Detailed decorations, without scenes, would also work, or would they?

I’d take a tour of the Uffizi ceilings.
Ceiling fresco close-up.

The Medici’s sponsored sculpture, but also collected sculptures of antiquity. The Tribune Room was built to highlight the great treasure of their collection, the Medici Venus, along with their other prized Greco-Roman sculptures. The room gives a sense of the sheer opulence of their palace. For centuries it was a key stop on the Grand Tour taken by aristocrats through Italy. Unfortunately, while it’s still a major tourist site, you cannot enter this room and can only see the statues and paintings from a distance. I understand the necessity, but it contributes to the feeling of box-ticking/selfie-taking tourism. I admit that I am also guilty of this.

Side-view, also gives a sense of the room’s opulence.
The Medici Venus in the Tribune Room

Practical Tip: The headlong view of the Tribune Room usually has a line. There is a much less crowded sideview where you can spend at least a little time looking over the room.

And the Quest…

Besides fueling my general interest in art, there were some specific items at the Uffizi I wanted to see. I mentioned in the last post, that de Chirico made a sharp turn away from his Metaphysical work. One of the inspirations for this was de Chirico’s studying masterworks of Titian. The Uffizi has some notable Titian paintings, so I thought I should take a look.

Titian was the great painter of the Venetian school, which paralleled but was very different from the Florentines of the Renaissance. The painters of Florence painted like sculptors, making careful designs and capturing form precisely. The painters of Venice were more interested in color and light, using layers of brush strokes, rather than careful design.

Limited palette, great effect.
Titian depicts Venus as ready to party.

You can see some of this in portrait by Titian, in which subtle gradations of dark colors achieve an effect. The contrast between Titian’s Venus of Urbino vs. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (I didn’t take a picture, but you’ve seen it) really highlights these distinctions. It calls to mind that contrast between Sophocles and Euripides I mentioned earlier. Botticelli’s Venus is a statuesque and remote goddess. Titian’s Venus is seductive and beckoning. Some of this is the content of the painting, but the style too emphasizes this difference. I’m not the first to make this observation. The Medici’s placed the Titian by their ancient sculpture of Venus to make highlight the contrast.

Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo, painted by fish.

As I explored, I encountered many paintings by the Mannerist great Agnolo di Cosimo, better known as Bronzino. Besides sharing a name with a particularly tasty fish, Bronzino is a favorite of my favorite novelist Robertson Davies. I haven’t the energy and need more knowledge to explore all of this, but the dress in this portrait of Eleonora di Toledo and her son Giovanni is mesmerizing. Eleonora was Cosimo I’s wife and an accomplished stateswoman.

Practical Tip: If you have the means but are generally thrifty, an important skill in life is knowing when to spend a little money to make your life much better. It was a dreary, rainy day, and we were exhausted, so we grabbed a cab.

We went straight to Ruth’s to pick up challah (egg bread traditionally eaten on Shabbat). Simcha convinced us to sit and have a bite, so we had a pleasant meal – a very late lunch. The Uffizi has a single, crowded, coffeeshop, so we were very hungry. We stopped by the nearby supermarket and picked up some additional supplies for Shabbat. Back at our efficiency we rested, started our day of rest and had a simple Shabbat dinner (pasta, sauce, bread, and of course wine!)

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