Whether you’re a certified art lover or couldn’t tell a Vermeer from a Warhol, everyone should visit the Uffizi gallery at least once in their lifetime. The former Medici palace in Florence offers the ultimate tour through the highlights of Western art—and contains many of its greatest masterpieces.
The downside, of course, is that unless you go in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve (which I’m 99% sure is impossible), you’re going to be fighting through crowds. And unlike the Prado Museum in Madrid, for example, photos are very much allowed. This means, by my rough estimates, that around 80% of people are just there to get a good shot of The Birth of Venus to show off how cultured they are.
To help you avoid that fatal faux pas, we’re prepping you in advance. Here’s what you need to know about the major works in the Uffizi gallery before you go. Read it on the plane, skim it in the super-long line (psst, book tickets online!) or peruse it over dinner at Osteria Santo Spirito the night before. Speaking of masterpieces, get the truffle gnocchi. It’s divine.
The Uffizi gallery is perhaps best known for its collection of Italian Renaissance art. So it’s fitting that we start here, with a work that marked the beginning of the end of the Middle Ages. Cue everyone’s favorite era of humanism and classical revival!
It all started when a group of monks commissioned Giotto, already a big name on the Italian art scene, to paint the altarpiece for the Church of All Saints in Florence. Since they didn’t have much money (monks aren’t usually too big on the “fuck bitches, get money” lifestyle), they needed a lot of bang for their buck. Essentially, Giotto had one job: to make churchgoers weep like they just dropped a shrimp on their white chiffon blouse while Larry Gagosian looked on and their soulmate was canoodling with the rival gallery director in the background. That is to say, as was common in the Middle Ages, the altarpiece was expected to inspire a strong reaction in the viewer and encourage piousness.
Giotto nailed it, if I may say so myself. At the same time, this work ushered in major technical and stylistic innovations. Unlike the flat, symbolic and emotionless style of Gothic icons, Madonna Enthroned with Child and Angels contains figures that are definitively 3-D. Each character has their own personality and feelings. We haven’t hit Renaissance territory yet, but we can definitely see its outlines on the horizon.
A century later and we’re in a whole new art history era, although it’s not immediately obvious. We’re looking at another altarpiece with a Christ and Mary, set against a gold background and surrounded by saints and angels. Sure, the figures have shifted around a bit, but is that all there is to show for 100 years’ worth of progress?
If this is what you’re thinking, you’re forgetting one important detail. Namely, everything moved a whole lot more slowly back then. I mean, for 1000 years, very little changed around Europe (Medievalists can cash me outside). Unlike today, when a new groundbreaking technology comes out every other week, at the time, if someone started painting their angels a bit differently, it was a full-on revolution.
That said, let’s tackle those angels. While Giotto’s altarpiece is just starting to hint at individuality in its figures, here, not just Christ and Mary but also each figure in the crowd has distinct clothing, hair, facial expressions and features. For the past millennium, art had been predominantly about translating Church dogma into visual representations. Here, we see the beginning of the revival of artists’ creative license and individual self-expression. It’s a big fucking deal.
Now we’re moving away from religious territory, and that in itself is pretty amazing. Four years after the Battle of San Romano between Florence and Sienna, the rich Florentine merchant family called Bartolini Salimbeni commissioned Paolo Uccello to commemorate their victory with a three-piece panel (this is the central panel). A secular commission of this size was still highly unusual. The painting’s very existence shows that we’re moving away from the Medieval worldview, preoccupied overwhelmingly with the afterlife. While it’s not exactly correct to say that the Renaissance left religion behind, the focus did shift into this life and this world. Hence, we get humanism: humans to the front!
Granted, the composition is a bit of a clusterfuck. People, horses and spears are flying everywhere, and it doesn’t take an art historian to realize that this scene is not in the slightest bit realistic. But look closely and you’ll see Uccello working with the beginnings of linear perspective. At the same time, the composition is arranged to tell a story, specifically the story of Florence’s victory. Remember, the point of this work was to be a big flex for Florence.
Best known for his religious paintings, Piero della Francesca was a true Renaissance man. Trained as a mathematician, he applied his mathy background to his artwork. His portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino give a good intro to his style, but they also offer the perfect case study of Renaissance society and values.
As portraits usually go, this one flaunts the Duke and Duchess’ wealth, status and virtue. We see the Duke from the left because on his right side, he was covered in scars and missing an eye. Not cute. He made his fortune renting out mercenary armies—troops that you could hire—and got in a few scuffles in his day. He also might be facing this way so he can gaze for all eternity into his wife’s eyes (aww).
Sadly, the Duchess had actually died by the time the portrait was finished. She was only in her 20s. It’s hard to say if her pallor is supposed to be fashionable or a sign that she’s on her deathbed, but her huge forehead would have made her major #beautygoals. Florentine ladies in the day plucked their hairlines to achieve this sexy look.
On the back of the panel, we have another scene: the Duke and Duchess riding toward one another on chariots drawn by horses and unicorns (I have a lot of questions but unfortunately no answers). Surrounding them are figures representing their many virtues: Justice, Wisdom, Valor and Moderation for the Duke and Faith, Hope and Charity for the Duchess. Voilà, Renaissance ideals for each gender.
We’re back in religious territory, but this work looks nothing like the earlier Giotto and Fra Angelico altarpieces. While you probably learned in history class that the Renaissance ended Christianity’s dominance over all aspects of life, it’s not exactly true. The Church is still a major player; many of the Medicis, the powerful banking family whose palace you’re standing in, climbed the ranks all the way to Pope.
But unlike Medieval art, Renaissance work usually takes religious scenes and makes them specific and contemporary. Think Madonnas dressed in Florentine robes with the Tuscan landscape in the background. Doesn’t seem like a huge deal now, but picture a painting of Jesus in jeans and a Supreme hoodie hanging over an altar and you get the idea.
In this painting by monk, painter and notorious bad boy Filippo Lippi, the Madonna looks very tender and very, very human. But the picture’s overwhelming intimacy isn’t just pure Renaissance style. It might have something to do with the model. Buckle up for a juicy and scandalous ride!
While painting the altar at the Dominican monastery of Santa Margherita in Prato, Lippi met a young nun named Lucrezia Buti. It was forbidden love at first sight, and he kidnapped her from a procession and took her to his house. They lived together as lovers and had a son and a daughter. Very, very much not allowed—Lippi was also an ordained priest, remember? He was arrested and tortured, but eventually, Cosimo de’ Medici himself stepped in, pardoned the couple and let them get married.
So what does this have to do with Madonna and Child with Angels? The story goes that Buti was the model for the Madonna.
Before The Birth of Venus made its comeback (more on that coming up), this was Botticelli’s most famous work. A student of Lippi, Botticelli painted La Primavera for the Medici family, most likely for Lorenzo de Medici’s wedding in 1482, but no one really knows for sure.
As mysterious as its beginnings are, the painting itself is infinitely more complicated. Most art historians agree that it reads like a backwards comic strip, from right to left. Zephyrus, the wind god who looks like he’s about to asphyxiate, is grabbing at the nymph Chloris; clearly, he hasn’t heard that no means no. The next figure we see is Chloris transformed into the pregnant Flora, the goddess of spring. Next to Flora is Venus, done up like a chaste and virtuous married Florentine lady. To her left, the three graces are frolicking, oblivious to sneaky Cupid lurking above, arrow pointed at the center grace. And at the edge of the canvas, fondling a Medici orange, is Mercury, the messenger god.
So far, so good: a pretty, mythological tribute to springtime. But tons of juicy conspiracy theories are lurking under the flowery surface. Some scholars like to play up the possible allusions to Neoplatonism, which was all the rage in intellectual circles in Florence of the day. Its followers looked up to Venus as a quasi-Virgin Mary figure who embodied ideal love, both earthly and divine. That might be why Venus’ position echoes how Mary would appear in a religious icon. She’s raised above the other figures, head bowed and hand held up in the same gesture that Mary usually made in Annunciation paintings.
Is it true? No one really knows.
While Primavera is one of the first grand mythological scenes of the Renaissance, with the The Birth of Venus, Botticelli does us one better. This time, we have a fully nude Venus. While she’s still modest, covering herself with her hair while waiting for her robes, gone is the Medieval Christian “body is sin” mentality. Ideal, classical beauty is back.
One of the most iconic works of Western art today, this painting was actually forgotten for centuries. Although he was pretty well known in his day—he even worked on the Sistine Chapel—Botticelli faded into the shadows after his death. We have a very unlikely figure to thank for Botticelli’s comeback: Benito Mussolini. As a political publicity stunt for Italy, the dictator organized a traveling exhibit of Italian masters, including The Birth of Venus. Since it was done on canvas, the painting could travel easily. The rest is history. The work was a huge crowd pleaser; in New York, close to one in 15 people went to see it at MoMA.
From James Bond to Lady Gaga to Monty Python, everyone who’s anyone has paid tribute to this iconic work. But, like most beauty queens, Venus is as easy to hate as she is to love. Her flowing blonde hair, fair features and idealized figure (the girl barely has a left shoulder, how’s that for bikini body goals?) make her the poster child for unrealistic beauty standards that the West exports to the entire world.
If you’re going to stop in front of just one of Annunciation painting in the Uffizi gallery—and you have many to choose from—this should be it. One of da Vinci’s early works, it’s actually a collaboration with his master Andrea del Verrocchio. While you’re fighting your way through the throngs of tourists, you can try testing your art history chops by identifying which bits were Leonardo’s.
Okay, I’ll tell you: it’s the angel. And for all the bird watchers out there, here’s another fun fact: da Vinci probably copied the angel’s wings from a bird in flight.
Of all the wonderful Raphaels to choose from in the Uffizi gallery, this is one of our favorites for the backstory as well as the painting itself. But first, a few words on Raphael. Together with da Vinci and Michelangelo—don’t worry if those names don’t ring any bells, they’re pretty obscure—he was one of the masters of the High Renaissance. He’s known for his balanced compositions and harmonious, effortless style.
Raphael didn’t live very long, but boy, did he live fast. Nearly 200 of his paintings survive, compared with da Vinci’s 15 or so, and when he wasn’t painting like a madman, he was cavorting with the ladies, including his longtime mistress, Margherita Luti, a.k.a. La Fornarina.
But we’re here to talk about a different lady. This painting of Elisabetta Gonzaga hangs next to its companion portrait of her husband, the Duke of Urbino. The Duke was impotent, which might explain her expression… just kidding. Actually, Gonzaga was the model wife who took care of her sickly husband, refused to divorce and even to remarry after his death. She was also an intellectual force to be reckoned with and inspired Castiglione’s book on courtly manners, The Courtier.
She’s also my personal favorite art history Scorpio. The wall text in the Uffizi gallery reads that Gonzaga’s scorpion headband alludes to her interest in astrology, which fits in well with the Renaissance interest in classical culture. Western astrology, after all, comes from the ancients. And it doesn’t take an expert to work out what her sign was; that broody gaze and sassy side-eye marks a true Scorpio if I ever saw one.
Michelangelo’s only finished panel painting in the world is surely worth a stop. His version of this popular Renaissance scene, the Madonna with baby Jesus, was probably made for Agnolo Doni in honor of his wedding. That’s why the painting has a round shape, which was traditionally used for domestic contexts.
At first glance, it seems like a pretty typical Renaissance scene: figures placed in a triangle composition, religious subject reworked in a contemporary Italian context. Soft pastels, naked dudes in the background. Wait, what? Did I miss something? Why are there naked dudes standing behind the holy family?
My personal theory is that Michelangelo was so good at depicting the human form that he couldn’t resist showing off a little bit. But art historians have a different take. Mirella D’Ancona thinks that they’re supposed to represent sinners who are stripped naked, waiting to be baptized in the water separating them from the holy family. Sounds convincing, but it also sounds like the kind of thing an art historian thinks up centuries later to make sense of a work. It makes for a good scholarly book, but is that actually what Michelangelo was thinking?
Unfortunately, he’s dead, so we’ll never know. But feel free to come up with your own interpretation—there are no right and wrong answers in art!
Up until now, all of the masters we’ve seen have aimed for one thing: natural beauty à la Greece and Rome. Here we have a painter who isn’t afraid to get freaky and try something new. Nothing about this painting follows the model established by the Renaissance canon. For starters, Madonna’s neck is much longer than any human’s, giving the painting its nickname. Actually, most of her proportions are very off, including her elongated hands. These are all classic hallmarks of the Mannerist style, the beginnings of which we see in this work.
And then there’s the composition itself. Instead of arranging his subjects in a neat and harmonious triangle, Parmigianino crams them all into the left hand of the frame. Except, of course, the tiny St. Jerome, who looks like an action figure that someone forgot to pick up while the model was posing for the painting. When you think things couldn’t possibly get any weirder, you see baby Jesus. He’s huge, pale and, dare I say, slightly dead-looking. And finally, one last detail that’ll blow your mind: Madonna’s foot. Look closely and you’ll see that it’s sticking out of the picture frame, breaking the fourth wall, if you will. All this makes for a shockingly modern composition for the sixteenth century, don’t you think?
This monumental piece is actually a copy of a famous ancient sculpture, rediscovered buried in Italian field in 1506. It tells the story of Laocoön, a Trojan priest who warned his people not to accept the Greeks’ Trojan Horse, urging them to burn it instead. The goddess Athena, who was rooting for the Greeks, wouldn’t stand for this, so she sent a huge serpent to devour the crafty priest, and his two sons for good measure.
For all the drama of the story, it’s a tad ironic that the most controversial part of this work is something super trivial: Laocoön’s arm. When the antique statue was dug up, it was missing several pieces, including Laocoön’s right arm. When the pope commissioned a copy of the ancient sculpture, all hell broke loose between the big-shot artists of the day over the arm’s position. Michelangelo thought the arm should be bent, with Laocoön straining to pull the serpent out of his back. Raphael disagreed, preferring a straight arm that was telling off the gods.
In the end, as you can see, Bandinelli, who made this copy, went for a compromise. But in case you just can’t sleep at night without knowing how it would’ve looked with the other arm positions, you’re in luck. You can see different versions of this sculpture in Paris, Rome, London and Moscow.
Long before Internet porn, we had the Venus of Urbino. Known as one of the most erotic paintings ever made, the Venus was either painted for a Medici Cardinal (oh, the irony) or to celebrate the marriage of the son of the Duke of Urbino—to a 10-year-old. Either way, Titian painted the famous courtesan Angela Zaffetta as a domestic of Venus, losing all of the idealism and allegory to focus on her raw sexuality.
Compare this Venus with Botticelli’s Venuses and you’ll see what I mean. In La Primavera, Venus is covered up and emanates grace and poise. Even his nude Venus in The Birth of Venus covers herself modestly with her hair while waiting for her robes. We catch her in the split second that she’s exposed; Titian’s Venus stares at us suggestively, clearly in zero rush to put some clothes on. The domestic, indoor setting also makes the scene that much more intimate.
There’s been lots of debate over whether Venus is waiting for her husband or her lover—you can decide for yourself. Regardless, Mark Twain called it “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses,” joking that it was probably painted for a brothel, but was turned down for being “a trifle too strong.”
You have to see this work in person to appreciate the stunning detail. Usually we see this kind of fine-grain realism in Northern European painting, but Caravaggio shows that he can clearly hang with the Dutch bros. The wine glass and carafe are both shockingly rendered; you can even make out each individual ripple in the wine that Bacchus holds out to you.
Lots of critics have obsessed over Caravaggio’s methods for painting this work. Some believe that he used a mirror instead of a model, which would explain why Bacchus is holding the wine in his left hand, not his right, as a normal right-handed person would. If you can lean in close enough without a guard yelling at you, you might even be able to spot Caravaggio’s self-portrait in the reflection of the glass, a point for the mirror theory.
We’ve written about this work elsewhere, but reading about Artemisia Gentileschi doesn’t compare with coming face-to-face with this painting in the middle of the Uffizi gallery. To be honest, I didn’t know that Gentileschi had work in the Uffizi gallery, so our encounter came as a total shock. With ten minutes before closing, ushers ushering me out, I stood glued to the floor, unable to tear myself away. Gentileschi serves up all the requisite Baroque drama and then some.
We tend to think of “old” art as traditional, stuffy, allegorical and distant from reality, at least our own. But two minutes in front of this painting is all you need to change the way you look at classical art forever. The emotion is so palpable, the scene so immediate, that you can instantly feel that the real subject of the painting is a woman’s rage and revenge, not Judith and Holofernes.
Gentileschi’s lived experiencLong before Internet porn, we had the Venus of Urbinoe with Baroque fuckboys is so present in the work that it’s impossible to look at without thinking back to her rape and humiliation at the hands of men. It’s a work that demands that we contextualize it the same way we most naturally do for contemporary art: using the artist’s personal, social and political landscape. In this way, it’s the perfect painting to wrap up our Uffizi gallery tour, carrying us out of the past and into the present, timeless moment.
Images via Traveling in Tuscany, Wikipedia, Pinterest, Uffizi, WikiArt, Ancient Rome, Wikimedia, Artsy