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Floored in Florence

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in Articulations, Sunday Herald on April 3, 2016

Florence, the capital of Tuscany, is the land of vineyards and olives, of course. But it’s also the birthplace of the Renaissance and houses the Uffizi Gallery, the art museum marked for its vast collection of paintings and statues.

The structure of Uffizi Gallery (uffizi meaning offices) originally housed the administrative and judicial offices of Florence, and was commissioned to be built by the then Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I De Medici, in 1560. Begun by the architect Giorgio Vasari, it was completed by yet another great designer, Bernardo Buontalenti, in 1574, after Vasari’s death.

In 1581, Francesco I De Medici, son of Cosimo and the ruling Grand Duke, had the first collection of statues and some exquisite pieces of art installed in the first floor of the East Wing. And with that began the vast collection of art, spanning the rule of the Medici family, who were great patrons of art.

Florence heaved with the Renaissance movement by questioning age-old traditions in the field of art — in the expression of dimension, distance; in essence, the linear perspective — and by infusing some humanist spirit into art.

Then, the gothic art and architecture had developed characteristic elements of 12th and 13th centuries and owed much to Italian classical tradition. They were influenced by the monastic orders of the time that substituted God’s benevolence with fear of his divine wrath in their teachings. The plague (Black Death) that ravaged most parts of Europe in the 13th century had an impact on art as well. It took the form of the dark and dismal — a morbid preoccupation with the fear of eternal damnation.

Carrying through right from Greek and Roman antiquity, with marked influences of the Byzantine and Islamic civilisations, the Renaissance brought in a complex culture. Artists began to assert their personalities through their works, with focus on the study of anatomy and new visual principles that were geometrically precise.

Leading the way

Artists of this period — Giotto di Bondone, Simone Martini, Duccio, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Giovanni Pisano — who showed glimpses of novelty in approach, would later find expression in the works of the great Michelangelo. Under the influences of the Florentine, Flemish and French art, they placed man in realistic settings, bringing out the relationship between him and the world.

The artistic revolution had begun. The 14th century ushered in Masaccio, who, with his dramatic force and intensity of work, inspired other artists. Artists of the calibre of Donatello (who made the early David) were to be followed by artists-sculptors like Antonio del Pollaiolo and the great Michelangelo. Painter Paolo Uccello, in his magnificent frescos in the cloister of Santa Maria Novella, and painter Sandro Botticelli, in his paintings Birth of Venus, Pallas and the Centaur and La Primavera, showed a sensitive understanding of the human form.

Florence and central Italy produced some of the greatest works of art for many years and generated a movement that influenced all of Western European culture. Three Umbrian-born artists — Piero della Francesca, Donato Bramante (the sculptor who made a sizable contribution to the Baldacchino in St Peter’s Basilica) and Raphael — also brought forth their understanding of thoughts and ideas of this period.

In Uffizi, I found the artworks spread out, allowing one to view the works leisurely: The Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli, wherein he has cleverly placed members of the Medici family — Cosimo (as the first Magus) at the feet of the Virgin; Piero and Giovani, his sons, as the second and third Magi; and his grandsons, Lorenzo (who was the ruler then) and Guiliano. And at the extreme right stands Botticelli himself, looking straight out of the canvas.

There is the famed La Primavera, symbolic of the arrival of spring; and Bacchus, in it the man pensive and drunk with a crown of grape vine, by Caravaggio; the gripping Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, painted at the time of the trial of Augusto Tasso, convicted of her rape. She is considered the earliest of feminists and an outstanding pupil of Caravaggio.

Great impressions

There is Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, a visible parting from the regular; the self-portrait of Raphael; The Battle of San Romano, the set of three paintings by Paolo Uccello; The Birth of Venus by Botticelli; and Venus of Urbino by Titian.

Room No 15, as it is called, is devoted to the genius of Leonardo Da Vinci — painter, sculptor, scientist, architect, mathematician, inventor, anatomist, geologist and writer!

In Uffizi, one moves around in the vast space with a disbelief and realisation that one is in the presence of the great minds that fought barriers of antiquated ideas, and lit up the landscape with the brilliance of the sun with their artistic experimentation and efforts.

Keywords: Renaissance, Italy, Florence, Uffizi Gallery

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