Review of A Visit to the Uffizi Gallery
By: Michael A. Arnold

A coffee and some crisps in the shade – the sun was shining down over the cuddling Tuscan roofs. People were walking in every direction around me. Across the way was the replica of Michelangelo’s David, just by the old main entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio. About an hour ago I had finished my tour of that building – and was still a bit shaken up by it. The sight, from the medieval battlements over the sleepy-looking orange tecti of Florence, reaching all around the huge dome of the huge cathedral in the centre of the city was something I knew will never leave me. My next stop was just beside the Palazzo Vecchio, seemingly tucked into an alleyway that leads down to the river Arno: the Uffizi gallery – one of the most visited art galleries in the world.

I was only looking at it from one side, but from my café chair it looked like just another building. That is actually quite typical of cities like Florence, I passed the Palazzo di Medici without even noticing it, and had almost missed the small bookshop that I bought an Italian copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy in. But this impression (was it disappointment?) was quickly dispelled when I paid for my coffee (and that ‘complimentary’ snack) and walked into the ‘alley’ which revealed itself to be a really large courtyard stretching all the way to the riverfront.

I walked up to the Arno. A small speedboat flying the red rose flag of Florence was lazily swaying in the water below, then looked back. That courtyard had what looked like Grecian columns all along the length of it, with platforms cut into them where statues of the great of Florence’s history were placed; they were looking down on, almost judging, the people strolling past them like I was. There stood Leonardo Da Vinci, Petrarch the poet and Humanist, Machiavelli the philosopher and statesmen – people who had changed the world in some way, and now were immortalized in this grand courtyard. It was difficult to not just be impressed, I felt weak again, blown away.

That was the thing I found over and over with Florence: you get to a point where you think ‘Ok, I’ve seen it all now, there cannot be anything to impress me more than what I have already seen’ and then you turn the corner and there is something else, and you go through the cycle all over again. This absolutely did not stop when I went into the Uffizi itself – before my trip I had paid a little extra to be allowed through a private side entrance, which is something I do very much recommend when visiting Italy as it cuts down so much waiting time and is not as expensive as you might think.

Once you have gotten through security (somehow the sight of armed guards and metal detectors did not break the spell, but which did make sense because the Uffizi gallery had been bombed by the Sicilian Mafia in 1993, destroying precious and priceless works of art – the security felt necessary) you go up a huge staircase into the gallery itself – and the many showrooms (sometimes literally) stuffed full of incredible artworks.

There was a kind of sequential order to the museum and the way it was laid out – or at least there was when I went. It started you with very early Christian art, but as you went on through the rooms it became more and more contemporary. By which is meant: up to about the Dutch Golden Age. You could see in this ordering a broad kind of evolution of European art, from quite crude devotional works to the more classical and then increasingly secular focuses and themes.

As with any gallery, what you tend to remember the most are either the pieces you feel a connection with, or the most famous. My main aim in the Uffizi was to see the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, which was easily the most popular room. At times it was difficult to even get close and see the painting. When I was able to it was quite shocking. Having been painted in around five hundred years ago, when close you could see the paint was cracking because of sheer age: it looked like thin, black spider web lines covered the whole thing. If it had not been so carefully preserved it would look very different today - much less vibrant with the paint wearing out and the image starting to fade with the cracking paint. It was actually very sad –such amazing things are actually really delicate, and seeing that in person really makes you understand the term ‘priceless’. These things are fragile.

What was not apparent at first was that, aside from the path that visitors were clearly intended to walk through the gallery on, the building itself was set out in a very official sort of way, with all the many rooms lined around a long central corridor that reached all around the courtyard in a kind of U shape, lined with statues of the Greco-Roman gods:

The Uffizi gallery had once been the official offices of the Medici family, the family that (either literally or effectively) ruled Florence during much of the Renaissance. The name Uffizi means ‘offices’, and a number of the artworks in the museum’s collection came from the Medici themselves.

Walking around this huge corridor, not really knowing where to look because everything was so finely detailed and ornate, I stopped to rest by a window overlooking the Arno River. To one side you could see the Ponte Vecchio, but it was difficult to see anybody on it. I took a picture, ignoring the stern-looking Zeus staring at me from his marble stand, and then took a picture of him just out of spite. As I was, someone came up to my window and also took a picture of the Ponte Vecchio. I said to him “e bellissimo, eh?” – it’s beautiful, eh?

‘Sorry, I don’t speak Italian mate,’ he was from Manchester, I could tell by his accent.

‘Ah. It’s sure something, isn’t it?’

‘Oh yeah, wow! My girlfriend raved about this place! I’m so glad she did!

‘Oh yeah? Art student?’

‘No, just really likes it, yeah. She’s …. somewhere’ and then he ran off to look for her. That left me smiling.

I walked on to the other side of the Uffizi, looking out for signs of the secret passage that runs from the Palazzo Vecchio, through the Uffizi, over the Ponte Vecchio, and up to the grander Palazzo di Medici on the south side of the river – a different building from the other, more in-the-city Palazzo I had passed earlier in the day without realising it. I never saw it, but Florence is a city full of secrets and things hidden in the open. Secret codes and meanings to things that you only see if you already know about them. I knew that this secret passage existed, but did not know what to look out for - so I never found it.

In the Uffizi this ‘hidden in plain sight’ applies even to things you might think should be more blatant. My memories of the other half of the Uffizi are much less clear, it was much smaller. But one thing I distinctly remember was going down what looked like a small corridor on a whim, thinking I should not even be there and it was only for staff of the museum, and instead found it lead into a large room full of the Medici’s private collection of Islamic art, including a copy of the Qur’an from around the 15th century, and silk and arabesque dresses and costumes held in special, air-tight containers. The colours of gold and maroon mixed with dim yellows and oranges made everything there feel like a completely different world. That was something I did not even know was in the Uffizi’s collection, and I am so glad I found it.

There was one more room in my memory of the Uffizi, and I am not really sure exactly where it was, but when you walked in the first thing you saw was the image of Medusa’s head on a shield, painted by Caravaggio. That was especially striking, not just because it was as beautiful as it actually was, but because it was also so violent. It was hard to miss the anger in that piece. I had somehow never seen the piece until seeing it in person (which is strange because it is one of the more popular images used to advertise the Uffizi online, somehow I had completely missed it) but it is one of the many things from the Uffizi that still remains clear in my head. There was another room with the famous bust of Aristotle, next to an actual statue of an unknown woman from classical Athens, around 500 BC. The two things side by side was really humbling for all sorts of reasons, but the fact that the statue of the woman was so damaged by time, and more than 2,000 years old – especially when contrasted with a more recent imitation of classical Greek art, the impression of the sheer age of the thing is really quite eerie. There are times when a sudden jolt seizes you up, and you just have to stay in place and take in what you are seeing - that was one of those times.

It would be difficult to talk about literally everything the Uffizi has in its collection though – there must be hundreds of amazing works of art there. Almost every room was covered with paintings and filled with statues, and after a while you might seem to walk past them without stopping to actually appreciate them: either you can get tired of masterpieces or you become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of them that they seem to blend into a splendid background. But once it is over it is over, and there is either the rooftop café or the gift shop to browse.

Even the gift shop was impressive – I’m not really the kind of person who likes gift shops very much – but there was an entire room set apart just for books either about art, or the Uffizi itself, or Florence more generally in dozens of languages. There was a pile of the Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, complete for twenty euros – that was tempting, but an ice cream and coffee on the Uffizi roof won that little battle.

I seem to remember leaving the Uffizi without actually realising I had, as if commanded by an outside force. At one point, as I dodged a cyclist I had to look back with a ‘what just happened’ sort of feeling, because the entire experience felt like it was already somehow unreal, like it had been some kind of beautiful hallucination. Also, even though it felt like I had only been inside for about ten minutes, my watch said I had been in there for just over four hours. I could have spent, and wanted to spend, a lot more time in there - but for whatever reason I didn’t. One of life’s little mysteries I guess.

Needing to process everything from the Uffizi, I walked back to the Palazzo della Signoria for a drink.