Ultimate Guide to Florence's Uffizi Gallery: History, Masterpieces & Essential Tips
Here's my complete guide to visiting Florence's beloved and art-rich Uffizi Gallery. I identify and describe the Uffizi's must see masterpieces and tell you need everything you need to know to have an efficient visit to the often crowded Uffizi.
Florence is synonymous with the Renaissance period of art history. Then, Florence was the cultural and artistic center of the world, ruled by the Medici dynasty. The Uffizi is its premiere gallery, preserving this precious legacy.
The Uffizi has the world's best and most abundant collection of Italian medieval and Renaissance art. The museum is a crowd pleaser, the third most visited site in Italy. It deserves its accolades and should be on your bucket list and itinerary for Florence.
The Uffizi houses seminal works from the 13th to 18th centuries, with a concentration on Renaissance art. Here's where you'll find one of the world's most iconic paintings, Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus. If you're an art lover, the Uffizi is a must visit site in Florence.
History of the Uffizi Gallery
In 1560, Cosimo I de Medici commissioned Giorgio Vasari, architect and art historian, to construct the Palazzo Uffizi. The Medici were a wealthy banking family that ruled Florence for almost three centuries. The palazzo was originally conceived as a office complex for them.
Cosimo the Elder supported early Renaissance artists such as Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Fra Angelico. Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent, commissioned works from Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo even designed the Medici Chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which boasts the most Michelangelo sculptures in Florence.
The Uffizi was first called the Gallery of Statues, since its then private collection consisted mainly of Greco-Roman statues. In the 19th century, many of the Renaissance sculptures were transferred to Florence's Bargello Museum. But the Uffizi still has a stand out ancient sculpture collection, which is overshadowed by the richness of its painting collection.
Each Medici heir continued to enrich the family collection. In 1743, the last Medici heir, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, left most of the family artworks to the Tuscan state.
In 1769, the Uffizi officially opened its doors as a public museum. Many of the works on display are treasures from the original Medici collection. The Uffizi also continues to acquire new artworks. For decades now, the Uffizi has been bombarded with mass tourism.
Recent Uffizi Renovations
In 2012, the Uffizi's centerpiece, the octagonal Tribune Room, was restored from the marble floors to the cupola. Created by architect Bernardo Buontalenti between 1581 and 1583, the room was designed “to keep jewels and embellishments of the Grand Duke," Francesco I de Medici. This was where the Medici placed their most valuable statuary and paintings.
In 2016, the Uffizi unveiled a major update to the way it displayed seminal works -- seeking a better visitor flow, less congestion, and more time for art lovers to linger. In particular, the Early Renaissance paintings were relocated. The uber popular and almost fetishized Botticelli paintings were moved out of Room 41 and given more space in four rooms.
In 2017, the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, and the Boboli Gardens were merged into one entity. This made it the most profitable museum in Italy.
In 2018, after renovations, Room 41 officially became the "Raphael and Michelangelo Room." Raphael's famous Portraits of Agonoli Doni and Maddalena Strozzi were moved from the Pitti Palace to the Uffizi, and placed in state of the art glass cases. In exchange, the Pitti Palace was given three other Raphael works.
These paintings were grouped with Michelangelo's Doni Tondo. That piece is overlooked by a Hellenistic era bust known as the Dying Alexander. Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch was also moved to the room, from a long corridor where it was mostly ignored. Three works by Fra Bartolomeo, a friar-painter at the beautiful San Marco Monastery, were also moved here as he's viewed as influencing Raphael.
In 2018, the Uffizi also rearranged rooms devoted to Caravaggio, his followers, and other 17th century Dutch masters like Rubens and Rembrandt. It also refurbished rooms dedicated to Baroque era artists Bernini and Goya.
In 2019, the Uffizi unveiled rooms dedicated to 16th and 17the century art works from Venetian and Florentine artists. These include the famous Venus of Urbino by Titian, as well as works by Lorenzo Lotto, Tintoretto, and Veronese.
Highlights of the Uffizi Gallery: Must See Masterpieces
The Uffizi is a nonstop steady stream of masterpieces. And it's not just the glorious paintings. There are important statues and beautiful decorated ceilings. So what should you see and focus on at the Uffizi? To narrow it down and give you a preview of the Uffizi, here are 18 things you shouldn't miss:
1. Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1486
Sandro Botticelli is the undisputed master of the early Renaissance period. His Birth of Venus is the Uffizi's most famous art work, akin to the Mona Lisa in Paris. Botticelli spent his entire life in Florence and was a friend of the Medici family.
The beautiful Birth of Venus is a dreamlike celebration of beauty and love. It's a lush, richly symbolic, and a groundbreaking piece. It was the first large scale painting of a nude woman in almost 1000 years. The nudity wasn't religious either; it was pagan.
Venus, the goddess of beauty and love, is born fully grown from the foam of a wave. We see an ethereal Venus, half awake and fragile, blown by the Zephyrs. She floats on a shell tended by her maids.
Botticelli was a highly skilled painter and had an understanding of human anatomy. But he also made objectively beautiful paintings with luminous pastel colors. Even Venus' gold flecked hair is gleaming and highlighted. Venus' nakedness is idealized and innocent, not erotic. The painting was restored in 1983 and 1987.
The model for Venus was reputedly Simonetta Vespucci. She was considered the most beautiful woman in Italy.
Vespucci reputedly had a torrid affair with Lorenzo the Magnificent's brother, Guiliano. Botticelli was obsessed with Vespucci as well, frequently painting her image long after her death at just 22. When Botticelli died, his tomb was placed in the Vespucci Chapel near his muse.
2. Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, 1482
Botticelli's next most famous work is Primavera, also known as the Allegory of Spring. Venus is in the center of an orange grove with a half circle enveloping her. The choice of an orange grove is significant because the Medici, Botticelli's chief employer, had adopted the orange tree as their family symbol.
On Venus' left, the Three Graces (who represent chastity, beauty, and love) dance in celebration, while Mars dissipates the clouds. The translucent drapery of their clothing is incredible. Even their hair is interwoven with pearls. On the right, Zephyrus is in hot pursuit of his intended, a nymph who transforms into Flora.
Primavera is enigmatic. Its meaning is uncertain and has stumped scholars for centuries. Most believe the painting depicts the realm of Venus, as sung by the ancient poets. It could also depict a springtime wedding, and was possibly created for the wedding of Lorenzo the Magnificent's cousin.
Typical of Botticelli, his figures are elongated, weightless, and stand in odd positions. The painting is decorative, almost the opposite of the naturalism that most Renaissance painters championed. But it may have been what the Medici demanded. Both Flora and/or one of the Three Graces (on the left) is a portrait of Simonetta Vespucci.
3. Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, 1481
This is an early unfinished painting by Leonardo. If anyone deserves the title “Renaissance Man," it’s Leonardo.
Leonardo was a painter, polymath, inventor, astronomer, architect, anatomist, and engineer. Whew. Despite being spread too thin and often leaving works unfinished, Leonardo left a long-lasting legacy.
In 1481, Leonardo was given the Adoration of the Magi commission by the Augustinian monks of San Donato in Scopeto in Florence. But he left for Milan the following year, leaving the painting mostly unfinished.
In it, Christ has just been born. Three kings come and offer three gifts. Mary and Christ are in the center in a triangular form. The painting is chaotic, with many competing narratives.
What's revealed in the underpainting is Leonardo's working method. You can see the way he constructs features. You have a sense of his deep understanding of human anatomy. You can also see Leonardo's famous sfumato technique -- a technique where colors blur together to create an atmospheric smokiness and softness.
4. Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation, 1472-80
Leonardo completed the Annunciation in his early twenties. It's considered his first major work. In it, Mary is reading on a richly decorated desk carved from marble. The angel Gabriel arrives, Madonna lily in hand, to announce that Mary will be the mother of Jesus.
Leonardo's stylized painting is different from his predecessors' treatment of the theme. Most significantly, Leonardo portrays the scene as taking place outdoors in an atmospheric landscape. This underscores Leonardo's visual naturalism and use of perspective.
However, the painting's provenance is a little murky. The painting has also been attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo's teacher) and Lorenzo di Credi. Both were apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio's workshop at the same time as Leonardo.
It's likely that Annunciation is a collaborative work of several artists, with the finishing touches completed by Leonardo. It was a common enough practice at the time. But the landscape, sfumato technique, and figure of Gabriel look distinctively Leonardesque. And a prepratory drawing for Gabriel's sleeve has been attributed to Leonardo.
5. Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538
Titian was a Renaissance artist based in Venice. His paintings are more sensual than what his contemporaries produced in Rome and Florence. In Venus of Urbino, Titian created one of the most famous -- and provocative -- nudes of all time. By depicting her as the mythological Venus, Titian got away with it.
In the painting, a beautiful and languid Venus stares directly back at us, almost coyly. She's in an opulent domestic setting. There's a softness to the layers of paint, which makes it more sensual. Titan also uses chiaroscuro (contrasts of light and dark) to contrast Venus' skin with the dark rich background.
There's a debate about who Venus really is. Some art historians think it's a painting of a courtesan. Others think it's a marriage portrait. Evidence for the latter theory is the presence of the dog (who represents marital fidelity) and the trunk of clothes (which could be her trousseau).
With Venus of Urbino, Titian sets the standard for the reclining nude, which would be subsequently repeated by many famed artists -- Velasquez, Courbet, and Ingres. Perhaps the most famous reiteration, directly inspired by Venus, is Edouard Manet's Olympia in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Like Titian's Venus, Manet's painting caused a scandal when it was unveiled.
6. Giotto, The Ognissanti Madonna and Child Enthroned, 1306-10
Giotto was the first painter to successfully break away from the Byzantine style of painting. With Cimabue as his teacher, Giotto adopted a more natural, rather than supernatural style. His madonnas didn't look like unreal aliens.
Giotto laid the foundation for two centuries of subsequent Renaissance painting. He's most famous for his frescos in Padua's Scrovegni Chapel. But this beautiful painting is also well known. It's called the Ognissanti Madonna because it previously hung in an altar in Florence's Ognissanti Church.
Mary occupies space. She has a monumentality and physicality, totally different from anything seen in the 13th century. The painting isn't nearly as flat either; it seems almost sculptural.
Christ appears almost like an old man. That was the fashion back then, to depict the baby Jesus as wise from day one.
7. Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child With Two Angels, 1460-65
You see this painting right after coming from Room 1. In Room 1, there's three giant and solemn medieval paintings of a Madonna and Child from the 13th century, including the one by Giotto above and a famous one by Cimabue.
Lippi's Madonna and Child is like a breath of fresh air. It's humanist in approach. The boldly colored painting feels playful. Mary is portrayed as a beautiful real woman who you might see on the streets of Florence. Similarly, the angels look like children. Mary's halo is almost transparent.
Lippi was one of the leading Renaissance painters in the generation following Masaccio and Giotto. He was also Botticelli's teacher. You can see his influence on Botticelli. They both emphasize the decorative to large degree.
Lippi was a womanizer, who led a colorful life. In 1456, Lippi abducted a novice nun, Lucrezia Buti, and had sexual relations with her. The result was their son Filippino Lippi, who also went on to become a famous painter.
This painting caused a bit of a scandal. It's full of illicit love and unholy models. Lippi likely used Lucrezia as his model for Mary, at a time when it wasn't considered acceptable to portray a "fallen" woman. Mary is also not even looking at baby Jesus, but at the mysteriously smiling angel who could be her son Filippino.
8. Piero della Francesca, The Duke and Duchess of Urbino, 1473-75
Piero della Francesca is an admired 15th century Italian painter. He used a cool color palette and sense of geometry and formality to create his works. In addition to being an artist, Piero was a mathematical theorist.
This double portrait used to be a diptych. It was hinged like a book, with landscape scenes painted on the back. The painting is one of the most celebrated portraits of the Renaissance.
It's a strange juxtaposition and unflattering portrayal of the couple. The couple is together, but apart. Only a background landscape, rare for that time in painting, connects them.
The duchess' pale skin contrasts sharply to the duke's bronze tones. She has a very high forehead, which was the fashion then. Women even plucked their forehead back to achieve the desired effect. The duchess had just died and this was a commemorative portrait.
9. Michelangelo, Doni Tondo, 1505-06
The Doni Tondi, or Holy Family, is Michelangelo's most famous painting, aside from his work in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, a must see site in Rome. It's the only painting Michelangelo ever made that wasn't painted directly on a wall.
The painting was commissioned by a Florentine merchant, Agnolo Doni, to celebrate his marriage and the birth of his child. The figures are rendered in a sculptural style. The ancient Laocoon sculpture had just been unearthed in Rome, and likely influenced an admiring Michelangelo.
The Doni Tondo is unconventional and seems to anticipate the late Renaissance Mannerist style. The colors of the Doni Tondo are bright and unnatural. The composition is a difficult spiral pose. The Doni Tondo is characteristic of Michelangelo's women who ... well ... look like muscular men. You almost think of Rosie the Riveter when you look at Mary's right bicep.
10. Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1506
Raphael was another prodigious talent of the Italian Renaissance, producing a series of masterpieces before his premature death at the age of 37. The Uffizi contains one of his loveliest paintings, the serene Madonna of the Goldfinch.
The painting shows Mary with a young Christ and John the Baptist. The goldfinch is a potent symbol of the passion of Christ, of Christ's suffering.
You can see a tenderness between mother and child. Christ puts his foot on his mother's foot, as he (rather amusingly) stands in a staged and artificially elegant contrapposto pose. The Madonna doesn't sit on a throne anymore, but a rock. Nature has taken on the expression of God, without kingly symbols.
Raphael's Madonna is a survivor. In 1547, when the original owner’s house collapsed, the painting was shattered into 17 pieces. The work was only 41 years old.
Back then, an artist used nails to put it back together and the cracks were painted over numerous times during the following years. Five centuries later, the painting was a dour dusty brown and green. In 1998, a 10 year restoration returned the painting to its former glory -- with Raphael's trademark reds, royal blues, and gold.
11. Caravaggio, The Shield With the Head of Medusa, 1596
Caravaggio was the most important and influential Baroque artist. Caravaggio's story is one of talent and turbulence. He acted like a devil, but painted like an angel.
Caravaggio rejected the sanitized idealism that characterized much of the Renaissance era. He invented and used a darker, dramatically lit palette. He produced naturalistic and emotionally-charged raw works that were viewed as morbid, bluntly realistic, and shocking at the time.
Medusa was a subject right up his alley. According to the poet Ovid, Medusa was renowned for her loveliness. But when Poseidon raped Medusa in the Temple of Athena, Athena was ticked off. She transformed Medusa's glorious mane of hair into snakes -- a symbol of female rage.
Upon looking at her, Medusa's enemies were turned to stone. Medusa became both a beautiful victim and a monstrous villain. Perseus promised to procure her head and stop her reign of terror. He guided himself in this task by Medusa's reflection in his shield.
In Caravaggio's rendition of the ancient myth, Medusa is shown alive and in the very moment of transformation. Medusa peers into an unseen mirror in writhing agony. Caravaggio might have inspired Bernini's later Medusa in the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
12. Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1596
This is one of several of Caravaggio's depictions of Bacchus, the mythological libertine and god of wine. It's an early Baroque masterpiece full of symbolism about decadence and decay. Bacchus was commissioned by Caravaggio's first patron, Cardinal del Monte, who reputedly had dissolute parties.
Caravaggio's Bacchus is shown as a rather effeminate and erotic teenager, offering the viewer a goblet of wine (and perhaps more) at a private soiree. The half robed boy is a common street person, as were most of Caravaggio's models.
Bacchus even has dirty fingernails and a wilting vine leaf crown. The fruit is bruised and overripe. These elements may suggest the fleetingness of youth.
The background of the paintings is dark, without any landscape. There are extreme contrasts of light and dark, a technique pioneered by Caravaggio. The energy of the painting is in the strangely shallow wine glass, which seems to shimmer and ripple. In the jug of wine on the left, you can see a Caravaggio self portrait in a reflection.
13. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1620
Gentileschi was one of the most talented painters of the Baroque period, rivaling Caravaggio himself. Judith Beheading Holofernes is her masterpiece.
It depicts a classic biblical scene, popular with many artists including Donatello and Caravaggio. It's the Old Testament story of Judith and Holofernes, in which a heroic woman single handedly beheads the warlord who’s besieged her town in Israel.
Typically, a widowed Judith is portrayed as virtuous, delicate, or almost disgusted by her murderous task. The actual act of beheading wasn't even depicted, until Caravaggio's 1599 treatment (in Rome's Palazzo Barberini).
Artemisia's version is even bloodier, a shockingly violent beheading. The focus of the painting is Judith, not Holofernes. He looks to be almost dead, his limbs visually cut off and body radically foreshortened.
Judith is depicted as a muscle-y determined woman on a mission. She's not subtle or disgusted. She's out to get her man with a large sword and rolled up sleeves.
Rivulets of blood spill onto white sheets. Artesmisia was raped by her tutor, Agostino Tassi, when she was just 17. To give her painting an autobiographical spin, Artemisia renders Judith as a self portrait and gives Holofernes the face of Tassi.
If you're interested in Gentileschi, here's my complete guide to her life and best works.
14. Rosso Fiorentino, Angel Playing the Lute, 1521
I have always found this painting very beautiful. Fiorentino was a leading artist of 16th century Renaissance painting in Florence, along with Pontormo and Andre del Sarto.
He was influenced by Michelangelo and almost single handedly pioneered the art movement known as Mannerism. Mannerism is classified as either a late Renaissance movement or a new movement breaking away from Renaissance idealism.
In this famous work, a child angel plucks the strings of a lute. The painting is a fragment of an altarpiece, which art historians speculate depicted the Madonna and Child with Saints. The dark background was added later. The more modern brushstrokes give the painting a certain vivacity.
15. Paul Uccello, Battle of San Romano, 1436
A student of the Italian sculptor Ghiberti (of Gates of Paradise fame), Uccello was a product of the International Gothic style. But he became an innovative artist of the early Renaissance. Uccello became obsessed with the study of perspective. According to Giorgio Vasari, he neglected his family, becoming "solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and impoverished."
Battle of San Romano is a painting on wood panel about Florence's victory over Sienna. It's one of a set of three. The other two are in London's National Gallery and Paris' Louvre. They were once all together in the Medici Palace.
In this crowded painting, Uccello shows scenes from the battle. It looks rather like a fake medieval tournament. The ideas of surface decoration (Gothic) and deep space with a linear perspective (Renaissance) come together.
16. Raphael, Portaits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni, 1504-07
This double portrait was removed from its original in situ location in the Palazzo Pitti. Raphael painted these two famous and exquisite half bust portraits, depicting a newly married couple -- a successful Florentine merchant and his aristocratic wife. They were commissioned by Agnolo Doni, who also commissioned Michelangelo's Doni Tondo.
The works show the influence of Leonardo da Vinci and were meant to compete with the Mona Lisa. The portrait of Maddalena has a similar composition and picture plane to the Mona Lisa.
But Raphael departed from Leonardo's sfumato technique, adopting an absolutely clear use of shape and color. Of particular note is the sublime matching landscape uniting the figures.
17. Famous Sculptures of the Uffizi
The Uffizi has a rich sculpture collection, dating from ancient times. They can be found in several different places, and many are displayed along the wide corridors on the second floor.
The highlight of the sculpture corridors is Baccio Bandinelli's Laocoon and His Sons. It's based on a Hellenistic sculpture that was unearthed in 1506, and is in Rome's Vatican Museums. Pope Leo X commissioned Lacoon as a gift to King Francis I.
The Niobe Room houses 12 ancient sculptures representing the myth of Niobe narrated by Latin poet Ovid's Metamorphoses. The Tribune Room holds the Uffizi's most famous statue, the Medici Venus, dating from as early as the 1st century BC. It depicts the Greek goddess Aphrodite. A rarity for ancient statues, we know the author -- Cleomenes of Athens.
There's also the beautiful Sleeping Ariadne. It was in the former Michelangelo Room, but was relocated to the Vasari Auditorium during the reshuffle. The sculpture depicts Ariadne, who helped Theseus kill the Minotaur in Greek mythology. Portions of the sculpture are more modern additions, but its Roman origins are still confirmed.
You should also peak into the Verone sull’Arno, a large passage room on the gallery route. The Verone is at the end of the route of the "Red Rooms," which host works of Florentine Mannerism. Inside, there are three monumental works that came from the Villa Medici in Rome.
The most imposing is the Gradivus Mars, a masterpiece by Bartolomeo Ammannati, the creator of the Neptune Fountain in Piazza della Signoria. Commissioned by Cosimo I, the sculpture depicts the god Mars marching at the head of an army. The musculature and anatomy draws heavily from Michelangelo.
18. Grotesque Frescos in the East Corridor
The Uffizi has some beautiful ceilings. I particularly love the grotesque frescos in the East Corridor. They were inspired by Roman antiquity. Grotesque frescos became all the rage in the late 15th century, when a young man fell into a crevice in Rome. He discovered Nero's Golden House, Domus Aurea, a must see archaeological site in Rome.
The richly decorated frescos inside the caves were nicknamed "grotesques." They featured geometric forms, bright colors, monsters, and whimsical figures -- nothing like the classical themes of the Renaissance. Renaissance artists went spelunking into the buried palace to admire the ancient works and reproduced them.