Archive | February, 2011

The Uffizi Gallery, Florence

26 Feb

Since I was just in Florence I insisted we go to the Uffizi.  Although it doesn’t necessarily have the name recognition of the Louvre or the Met nor the size, it still ranks as one of the greatest art museums in the world.  Why?  Like the city of Florence itself, its modest size belies its importance in history and art.  Seeing the Uffizi is like seeing the Renaissance taking place before your eyes; all the great names that defined art between 1200 and 1600 are represented.  As anyone who’s taken an intro art history class can tell you, however, getting through this period in art isn’t always easy.  My goal here is to make it a bit more pleasant to experience what is one of the great museums of the world.

To begin with, do yourself a huge favor.  Take a moment or two to read the Wikipedia entry on the Renaissance.  You might have a vague memory of your high school history teacher talking about a “Rebirth” in Italy, but unless you have some idea about the ideas behind the Renaissance the Uffizi is going to be rather boring.  Trust me on this.  There are some strikingly beautiful works on display – Lippi’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels springs to mind – but unless you try to get some background knowledge it’s going to be very, very redundant.

Which brings me to point #2.  Despite the importance of secular ideas during the Renaissance it was still the church that had the money and the power.  Even though Renaissance Florence was ruled by a wealthy merchant class, they still spent their money on works for the church in order to secure their own afterlife as well as having a way to demonstrate their own wealth and influence (For a similar idea, look at people who have museum wings, concert halls, or university buildings named after themselves for a sizable donation).  As a result of all this and many other reasons the Uffizi is filled with religious scenes.  You really have to look for the subtle differences if you don’t want to be extremely bored by the first half of the museum.


Now most of the time at the Uffizi you’ll be stuck going with the flow of traffic, so I won’t bother giving suggestions as far as that goes.  A few things to keep in mind, though-

  • You’ll read it in every single guidebook out there, but it’s worth repeating – buy your tickets in advance online.  During all but the slowest times you’ll still have to wait to get in even with an advance ticket.  It’s that crowded.
  • Don’t let the size fool you.  The Uffizi boasts what can only be described as a dense collection and it’ll take a while to go through it.  Plan accordingly.
  • Keep in mind that the museum is presented in roughly chronological order so you can compare and contrast and get more of a feel for how art progressed in the Renaissance.
  • A good rule of thumb is once you’re finished with the first half (rooms 1-24) go over to the café and have an espresso before tackling the rest of the museum.  You’ll need the energy boost, and it’s worth it to see the view of the city from the terrace there, as well.
  • I like to go back and at least see The Birth of Venus one last time before I leave if I can.  It’s a personal favorite, but it also gives you some perspective to look back at the beginning of the “timeline” once you’ve seen everything else.
  • Take some time to look at the building itself.  Begun in 1560 by Giorgio Vasari as municipal offices, it’s truly a thing of beauty and a fantastic setting for such a rich display of art.


Overall the Uffizi is a magnificent place and shouldn’t be missed.  The Accademia may have David and the churches may be impressive, but only the Uffizi has the ability to demonstrate the ebb and flow of Renaissance art and give the full effect of how far art came in a relatively short time in that small Tuscan city.


The Danger of Academics

16 Feb

Recently I was discussing art with an acquaintance.  An artist in his own right, he has been working in theater in Europe for years.  We started talking about the purpose of art and the first thing that he brought up was the importance of emotion.  Despite the fact that I’ve always considered myself a bit of a rebellious, back-to-basics sort of art student, I found I was taken aback by this.  Emotion?  Could it really be that simple?

Thankfully I visited Florence soon after.  For those who haven’t been, imagine a giant outdoor museum with some of the best food you’ve ever had.  That’s Florence.  It’s an absolutely incredible place.  It would be very easy to turn any trip to the city into a Long March-style art history class, but my acquaintance’s words haunted me throughout my trip.  Yes, the interior of San Lorenzo was a masterwork of Renaissance architecture, but that wasn’t why I spent quite a while standing in awe while my friends waited outside.  I was amazed not by the specifics, but by the sense of serenity that came from the space.  After all, that’s what makes great art great.  Academics may argue about the artistic or historic merits of a particular piece, drop words like “composition”, “tone”, or “perspective”, but those really aren’t the things that will hold your attention.

I kept trying to find the median – explaining works as an art historian while encouraging my friends to simply enjoy what they saw, and I have to tell you it was extremely difficult.  I guess the proper way can, like the Renaissance that inspired Florentine artists, be traced back to Greek philosophy.  Moderation in all things.  I had to work to balance the obsessive need I had to see all the great works of art and architecture with the simple enjoyment of what is a beautiful city.  Not that it stopped me from dragging them to Santa Croce to see the Pazzi Chapel on our last day, but I made sure to leave time to wander through the city one last time before dinner.

I think in some ways why I’ve found it so difficult to really work on this blog.  Once you start to analyze art too much it loses its power.  Sometimes you have to stand in front of a work of art and simply enjoy the experience and feel the emotions.  Even I can forget to be excited about art sometimes.  Visiting the favorites helps.  Standing in front of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus I can tell you I wasn’t thinking about what the painting meant to art history or how the artist had constructed the work.  It’s a beautiful painting, pure and simple.  To think anything beyond that is to diminish the talent of the artist.  I guess, too, that art is in many ways like life itself.  It should never be taken too seriously.  There are times you can learn more from the emotions than any of the academics.