“The only way to understand painting is to go and look at it. And if out of a million visitors, there is even one to whom art means something, that is enough to justify museums.” – Pierre-Auguste Renoir
“Which painting in the National Gallery would I save if there was a fire? The one nearest the door of course.” —George Bernard Shaw
Botticelli’s breathtaking “Primavera” (1470’s) is an ode to Greek Mythology. A clothed Venus (center) is flanked by the Three Graces and Flora, goddess of spring (third from right). Some art historians speculate that Mercury (far left) was modeled after one of the Medici. At far right, the garden nymph Chloris is being abducted by Zephyrus, the god of the west wind. The author believes it is really a gallery attendant grabbing a tourist as she attempts to enter the out door. (Mike Vouri)
If you’re planning a trip to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, reserve a spot for early admittance—9 a.m. is the earliest allowed the general public—though if I had my druthers it would be 3 a.m., when everyone else in town is asleep.
And you’d better find a gallery map and plan your visit to see the essentials, and then make like an Olympic walker through the two long halls, because chances are that even at nine you’ll be in a footrace with hundreds of other art lovers and gawkers, who were also sold timed admittance to this world-class art museum.
Waiting to enter the Uffizi Gallery on a typical day in October 2017. Regulated ticket sales have eased these crowds somewhat, at least early in the morning, but the main hallways inside were at least as packed by 11 a.m. in 2022. (Mike Vouri)
That’s the way of it with any Instagram-selfie attraction in the age of “overtourism,” and post-pandemic “vengeance travel.” I learned these words while assembling this piece, which is offered in a sincere attempt at understanding following our recent three-week trip to Italy.
Having visited these same sites in October 2017 and thoroughly enjoying the experience, we leaped into the breech and booked our trip last March. October continues to be billed as one of the best months to visit northern Italy because the weather is salubrious and the sites a smidgeon less crowded. We had also read that prime tourist destinations such as Florence, Venice and Rome were lessening tourist impacts by leveling higher VATs (value added tax), behavior modification fines (no sitting on church steps was a big one) and regulated entry to landmark attractions.
So I dutifully purchased skip-the-line tickets, exclusive audio-guided tours and even one live guided tour (that one in Venice), expecting to avoid the lines and suffocating crowds, which we learned only at the 11th hour were unprecedented for that time of year. Among these were tickets to the Uffizi, which we had visited before, but yearned to see again, along with millions of other folks, present…and past.
The two wings of the Uffizi gallery giving onto the Piazza della Signoria, with the Paxxa Vecchio in the near background and Santa Maria della Fiori (Duomo) beyond. You can just make out one of the arches of the Loggia dei Lanzi anchoring the wing on the left. (Mike Vouri)
On maps, the Uffizi resembles a tuning fork, with the base hugging the River Arno and the tines giving onto the Piazza della Signoria. It was here that citizens of the republic thronged to be heard by government officials in the Palazzo Vecchio, and where miscreants were hanged and traitors and heretics burned at the stake (the Jeremiad friar Savaronola suffered both). For good measure, their visages, dangling in nooses, were recorded in frescoes rendered on the back wall of the Loggia dei Lanzi to deter future violators. These days, the piazza can be similarly jammed, only by tourists who by midday are flushed from the narrow streets on their way to and from the Ponte Vecchio (a bridge with jewelry and gimcrack shops) as well as museum goers.
The loggia, with its elegant arches and capitals—under which I found shelter during a rain storm—anchored one wing of the municipal offices (or uffizi), which were funded by the ruling Medici family and dedicated in 1580. Although it was built to house administrators and the state archives, the building has always been about art. From its very inception, it housed on the upper floors Roman sculpture owned by the Medici’s, and works by most of the Renaissance high masters. Initially meant for family and friends, as the decades and centuries rolled by the collections became available for viewing by subscription (sort of like skip-the-line), and finally were opened to the public in 1765. The government offices were steadily winnowed down, the collections grew and more galleries were created until this first of the truly modern museums in Europe became what it is today: the must-see attraction in Florence for art lovers and gawkers alike. More than two million visit annually, the museum boasts, and that’s no hyperbole.
The Birth of Venus, by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, depicts the goddess Venus arriving at the shore after her birth, when she had emerged from the sea fully-grown.
Topping everyone’s list among the masterpieces—undoubtedly fueled by travel guides, newspaper travel sections and Hollywood films—are Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” (1495) and “Primavera” (also known as “Spring,” 1480), which conveniently hang in adjoining galleries. Art historians tell us that these secular renderings were a dynamic departure from paintings (including his own) that were exclusively religious and commissioned for and by churches. “Venus” and “Primavera” deal with Greek mythology, and are freighted with symbolism. And, as with many of his paintings, likenesses of friends and patrons populate the subject matter, including, allegedly, his ideal model, Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, whose husband was a cousin of Amerigo, as in “America.”
The bloviating over the authenticity of Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (1445-1510), better known as Botticelli (which means barrel), makes paying the extra freight of skip-the-line tickets essential to avoid having your line-of-sight obstructed by cell phones. The work is a classic example of an empty controversy spanning centuries. The English art critic and philosopher, John Ruskin (1819-1900), joined others in perpetrating the legend that Botticelli, who grew up in Florence’s Borgo neighborhood with Simonetta’s husband Marco, was in love with his subject. So was Lorenzo de’ Medici’s brother, Giuliano, who, in 1475, as winner of a joust in Santa Croce Piazza (bearing a flag emblazoned with her image), proclaimed Simonetta “The Queen of Beauty.”
Left: Simonetta Vespucci, the Genoan wife of Botticelli’s next-door neighbor, Marco, is presumably the model for Venus, though she was 10 years in the grave when he finished the painting. Right: This is how Sandro Botticelli interpreted himself in a detail from his classic “Adoration of the Magi,” which hangs in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novello in Florence. Also included among the witnesses in Renaissance clothing, are members of Medici clan, who numbered among his patrons.
On and on it goes, including titillating bits about how Botticelli talked her into posing nude; how she died of tuberculosis at 21 only a year after the joust; how she was paraded through the streets of Florence in an open coffin for the benefit of mourning citizens; how Giuliano was assassinated two years after she passed; how a cult of Simonetta developed in ensuing years (undiminished, so it seems); and finally how the artist pledged to be interred at her feet in Borgo’s chiesa di Ognissanti (Church of All Saints).
The facts are considerably less sensational: While Botticelli and Simonetta are both interred in Ognissanti, though no one quite knows the location of their remains as the church has been heavily renovated over the centuries. And as for posing in the buff, it seems unlikely that a married woman who moved in aristocratic circles would risk the scandal that surely ensue. Moreover, “Primavera” and the “Birth of Venus” had more to do with Botticelli’s active imagination than anything else, as they were painted years after Simonetta was under the marble.
While listening to tour guides drone on (in multiple tongues) while their charges clogged the gallery (A11, if you plan to go), I barely suppressed the urge to burst into “Venus” by Frankie Avalon [“Venus if you will, please a little girl for me to thrill.”] and “Venus in Blue Jeans” by Jimmy Clanton [“My Venus in blue jeans, Mona Lisa in a ponytail.”] I know, it should have been a madrigal, but I don’t know any.
The “pool table” gallery room housing Venus of Urbino. (Mike Vouri)
I left the room, humming both tunes interchangeably, determined to win the race to the gallery’s other famous famous Aphrodite (as she was known to the Greeks): Titian‘s exciting “Venus of Urbino” (1538), which is singled out in grand fashion in a gallery the color of the baize felt you find on most pool tables. In this secular tableau, Titian (Pieve di Cadore of Venice) portrays a bride having a lie-down before attending her pre-wedding ceremony. Her little dog is curled up at the foot of the bed while her maids prepare her trousseau.
Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” created a sensation when he completed it in 1538. The sleeping dog signifies fidelity in marriage, according to art historians. (Mike Vouri)
The work’s painterly qualities aside, what I just described would normally sound pretty boring—if she were not stark naked. In place of a clam shell, nymphs, graces and angels are maids going about their work. One dives head first into a hope chest, while the other stands with the bridal gown draped over her shoulder. Hardly a painting you would have found hanging in the Basilica of Santa Croce.
After the “Venuses,” the starlings surge toward anything by Michelangelo and Leonardo. But there’s also “Angel Playing A Lute” by Fiorentino (sorry no pop song for that one), the “Medusa” by Caravaggio (I thought of the film, “Clash of the Titans” wherein Perseus lops off Medusa’s head after she turns his comrades to stone) and Raphael’s magnificent “Madonna of the Goldfinch,” which features Christ and John the Baptist as babies at the foot of a seated Virgin Mary.
Raphael’s “Madonna of the Goldfinch” never fails to draw a crowd…unless you’re lucky (Mike Vouri)
I stumbled upon this work as I transited a relatively empty room on my way to check out the “Laocoon and His Sons,” a statue that is situated at the end of hall near the entrance to the museum café. If you’ve read Virgil’s Aneid you know that Laocoon was the Trojan seer who warned that the giant wooden horse left on a deserted beach should not be brought into the city. Before he could finish his diatribe, he and his sons are attacked by sea serpents and dragged kicking and screaming out to sea.
The statue is the Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli’s 1540 copy of the ancient original (housed in the Vatican) that was unearthed in Rome in 1506. It is pretty scary, graphically depicting Laocoon’s agony as the snakes entangle his limbs while choking the life out of his sons.
“Laocoon and His Sons,” an ancient statue unearthed in Rome in 1506, kind of symbolizes the author’s mental state while negotiating the crush of European museums, airports and landmark churches in October 2022. This piece, a 1540 copy of the original that is housed in the Vatican, is located at the end of the hallway, just before you reach a stiff drink in the cafe. (Mike Vouri)
But as I had planned on revisiting Laocoon in Rome I decided to give Bandinelli’s piece a miss and focus on the masterwork in front of me that I had all to myself. As I stood in the quiet, I wondered why John, already in animal skins, was holding a bird to Christ’s nose before crushing the life out of it, as babies, not to mention dogs and cats, are want to do with animated little creatures. In a few minutes I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a photo for future contemplation. As I later discovered, the bird represents Christ’s earthly fragility, as does the bible the Madonna is reading to pass the time while minding the kids.
Speaking of fragility, meaning solitude, I soon heard footsteps. As I turned, multiple tour guides with flags on sticks stormed in from the hallway, followed by gaggles, most wielding cell phones, though blessedly without selfie sticks, which are forbidden. The room bordered on crush in a matter of seconds, with those who were not checking texts or dialing friends craning on tip-toe to see what the guide was describing. Attendants also appeared, as if by magic, regulating the ordinarily open doorways into entrances and exits. Heaven help you if you attempted to go in the out door.
My revery was over and I could relate to poor old Laocoon, waiting down the hall.
Botticelli’s breathtaking “Pimavera” (1470’s) is an ode to Greek Mythology. A clothed Venus (center) is flanked by the Three Graces and Flora, goddess of spring (third from right). Some art historians speculate that Mercury (far left) was modeled after one of the Medici. At far right, the garden nymph Chloris is being abducted by Zephyrus, the god of the west wind. The author believes it is really a gallery attendant grabbing a tourist as she attempts to enter the out door. (Mike Vouri)
Still in all, the Uffizi is well worth the sacrifice in health and mental well being. How many times will most of us visit this heart of the Renaissance after all? Push on through, then decompress and discuss what you’ve seen with a Campari spritz on the second-floor cafe, followed by lunch on the Piazza della Signoria. No one is burned at the stake there these days and seated away from the push and shove, the city hums in a delightful mix of past and present, Medici and Gucci, Pinocchio and even Mickey Mouse.