Uffizi Gallery, the Urban Context, and Renaissance Values

Uffizi Gallery, the Urban Context, and Renaissance Values

By

By Lauren Welch

This article will connect the Uffizi Gallery to renaissance themes and study the influence
that renaissance values as well as surrounding contexts had on its design, patronage, and
construction. The Uffizi gallery is a museum of the arts in Florentine, Italy, housing a collection of fine art of the Renaissance. It holds over 100,000 drawings and prints, as well as antiques and sculptures1. The article will address how the gallery embodies characteristics of individualism and virtú (power and knowledge of the fine arts); evaluating how the values and philosophies of the renaissance impacted the building. The Uffizi Gallery, as a prominent structure in the public space, is integrated with urban design. This article will examine the gallery’s relationship to the street and Renaissance society. It will also evaluate elements of architectural style of the gallery, looking for evidence of the influence of Classicism and connecting these design choices to the historical context of its patronage. Through this lens, the iconography, spatial elements, structural features, and other architectural forms will be examined.

In 16th Century Florence, Italy, the Medici family was a respected financial and political power-house and generous patron of the arts. They dominated the government of Florence, and under their monopoly and patronage humanism and art flourished. They financed the construction of famous public buildings such as Saint Peter’s Basilica and Santa Maria del Fiore. One such building complex that they financed and heavily influenced was the Uffizi Gallery. The Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici tasked artist and architect Giorgio Vasari to build a singular broad structure that could house all the independent authorities of the government that were at the time spread throughout the city. Essentially, what the Medici wanted was an office to centralize and unify control, among other purposes. The function of the building as an office complex is reflected in the name Uffizi, which means “office”2.

Cosimo I called for a new street to be built from the Palazzo della Signoria to the Arno in
1546, and soon after the initial design for the Uffizi was proposed by Vasari3. The foundation was laid in 1560, and by the time Vasari and Cosimo I died in 1574, the east wing and the corridor to Pitti Palace had been built and largely decorated by Vasari. After their deaths, the Uffizi was left to the instruction of Francesco Medici, Cosimo’s son who appointed Buontalenti and Parigi to continue construction with Vasari’s designs1. The building continued to go through changes and additions under these two architects until it was finished in the 1580s. In 1590, a section was converted into a private exhibition space called the galleria to house the growing art collection of the Medici family, which now included works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, and virtually all the recognized artists of the renaissance4. By the 18th century, duke Leopold I gave the Uffizi museum status, appointed it a director, and opened it to the public1. It remains a public museum to this day.

Figure 1. Timeline for the construction of the uffizi gallery

As a huge construction, the Uffizi had to be thoroughly integrated into the urban context.
Florence would come to have its city fabric made up of several elements: a town square (The Piazza della Signor); a city hall (The Palazzo Vecchio); a bridge (The Ponte Vecchio); a covered walkway (Vasari’s Corridor); a church (Santa Felicita); a residence (The Pitti Palace); and a garden (The Boboli Garden)5. The Uffizi would find its role in this context as a sort of office building, and eventually a museum. The “megabuilding” complex created by all these structures are connected by Vasari’s Corridor. Each building has its own identity and internal logic, each versatile in use, but at the same time form fragments of a larger piece of urban organization5. In contrast to the adjacent Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi is no higher than the surrounding texture and has no clearly recognizable borders. The deep façade of the loggias defines a void and disguises the diverse particularized rooms behind; creating a schism between outer and inner space, allowing the building to function independently on both urban and private scales5. This division also accommodates adaptation of the private rooms while remaining unchanging in the perspective of ordinary citizens, alluding to its steadfastness and authority.

Figure 2. Diagram of Vasari’s Corridor in relation to the Uffizi Gallery. Original image from:
https://www.ciaoflorence.it/en/page/85.

The Uffizi gallery has had several functions given its historical context and its evolution
over time. It was not initially designed to be a museum. Over the course of around four hundred years multiple architects renovated, designed, and made additions the complex of the building5. The first and foremost practical function was to centralize the government by bringing together different agencies in a large “office”. A theater was eventually added by Buontalenti at the north end of the east wing, and though it’s since been removed, it once served as a place of public gathering and entertainment. The Uffizi also provides the two legs of the Vasari Corridor, the passage which connects Palazzo Vecchio with the Pitti Palace. The corridor runs along the embankment, over the street, through the Uffizi, and through the neighborhood across the Ponte Vecchio2. A primary function of the Uffizi therefor was to provide a pedestrian thoroughfare to stimulate inter-commerce and allow for travel.

Another primary function of the Uffizi was to serve as a symbolic statement of the Medici’s power; a testament to the duke’s authority. It was commissioned to be built on
confiscated property with communal funds, and new tenants were forced to relocate there from their previous agency establishments2. The Uffizi’s central location was also symbolic of the Medici’s importance, built next to the Palazzo Vecchio (which then functioned as the Florentine government’s headquarters and Cosimo’s residence). The structure has a prominent river-facing end which projects outward and further emphasizes its grandiosity. The building could even provide a private means of circulation during civil disorder from the Palazzo della Signoria to the Palazzo Pitt as a place of refuge for Cosimo3. Most evident of a design choice meant to symbolically represent power is simply the colossal size of the Uffizi. Its sheer magnitude and uniformity, impressive to this day, reflect the ultimate authority that its patrons held.


The Uffizi Gallery extends from Piazza della Signoria in Florence to the river Arno
and can be seen from the loggia at the southern end. In the middle of the West Wing, there is an entrance to Lambertesca Street. The Uffizi Gallery is U-shaped and the façade consists of a single bay deep structure with a loggia on the ground floor. Some existing buildings were left behind the façade and integrated with the new ones. The Loggia served as a waiting area for visitors to the office. The fact that most of the façade is divided into three bay sections reflects the building’s function as space for some institutions. Each institution had its own entrance, occupying the first and second floors of that section2.

Figure 3. Diagrams of Geometry and Tartan Grid of the South Façade of the Uffizi Gallery.
Diagrams by Lauren Welch.

The long sides of the Uffizi were designed to create a strong emphasis on the horizon and
sense of perspective from the street level especially. The distinct outer appearance of each story also enhances this sense of horizontality. Rather than repeat the same 33 bays, the centermost bays are differentiated from the flanking ones, creating a three-bay pattern repeated along the east and west wings to break the monotony2. Each story has a different intended purpose and design. The ground story is a loggia supported by colonnades of columns and piers, decorated by niches with sculptures. The sculptures have both Christian and ancient imagery, connecting the Medici to authority through religion and timelessness3. Above this there is the illusion of a mezzanine level, suggested by the windows illuminating the ground-story corridor, with blind panels between each three-bay section. The piano nobile level has segmental pediments capping central windows and triangle pediments on the outer ones, and all windows have balustrades2.
Finally, the top story was turned into a gallery and studio for artists after Cosimo’s death
(initially this was an open loggia and space reserved for the duke). Buontalenti converted this story by filling the openings with glass so the area could house sculptures and the like.

Figure 4. Diagrams of the perceived levels and the repetition of the bay window triad of the east and west
wings of the Uffizi Gallery. Images manipulated by Lauren Welch.

Another significant alteration Buontalenti made was to add the Porta della Suppliche, a
door reached through the west wing archway. The door served as a place where petitions to the duke could be dropped, as implied by the name Suppliche, which means “supplications.”2. The Tribuna, an octagonal salone to accentuate special artworks that had been in Francesco Medici’s studiolo, was added to the east wing. The end wall was designed to connect the long wings of the Uffizi without preventing pedestrians from accessing the river. A three-part Palladian motif is incorporated into the two stories of the wall. At the base level, the motif straddles three bays, and at the piano nobile a smaller version of the motif decorates the central bay. This motif serves as a focus point at the convergence of the long side wings2. Vasari was both an artist and an architect, so he knew how to accentuate the perspective lines. Round arches at the end wall were echoed by apsidal niches and windows—three arches are visible from the five-bay façade along the Arno. These are the corridors of the loggias and the central opening of the Palladian motif. The end wall creates a serliana, which establishes links to antiquity and classical “triumphal arches”3. This symbolic iconography indicates rulership that could also fortify the Medici’s credibility.

Figure 5. Diagrams of the symmetry and perspective of the Uffizi Gallery, by Lauren Welch.

The Uffizi gallery is an invaluable source of history and housing the arts, as well as a
puzzle piece in the larger inter-connected city fabric of Florence. It was designed originally to be an office complex to unify the then-separate agencies of the political system. A huge
consideration in the design of the building was how to integrate it into the urban fabric. This was achieved with several visual techniques to adhere to both uniformity and grandeur, while also accounting for its multifunctional use with concealed diverse inner rooms. The Gallery also had several intended purposes in garnering respect for the Medici family in an individualist fashion, connecting them to the renaissance values. The Uffizi served as an art gallery for the art that the Medici family patronized, and this association of the family gave rise to their virtú, or knowledge of the fine arts and intellectualism. The Christian, classical, and Palladian iconography also served to instill the credibility of the Medici family, and garner respect for their authority with apparent association with antiquity and religious power. As a building still so significant to the culture of Florence, the Uffizi continues to reflect the values of the Italian renaissance.


1 Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Uffizi Gallery,” Encyclopædia Britannica, July 31, 2012, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Uffizi-Gallery.

2 “Palazzo Degli Uffizi,” Quick guides to Italian Renaissance Architecture, 2014,
https://www.sgira.org/hm/qkmap.htm.


3 Leon Satkowski and Roger J. Crum, “On the Iconography of the Uffizi Facade,” The Art Bulletin 72, no. 1 (1990): pp. 131-135, https://doi.org/10.2307/3045721.


4 Riccardo Bianchini, “Uffizi Gallery – Florence,” Inexhibit, November 3, 2019,
https://www.inexhibit.com/mymuseum/galleria-degli-uffizi-florence/.

5 Michael Dennis, “The Uffizi: Museum as Urban Design,” Perspecta 16 (1980): p. 62,
https://doi.org/10.2307/1567024.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

1.- Satkowski, Leon, and Roger J. Crum. “On the Iconography of the Uffizi Facade.” The Art
Bulletin 72, no. 1 (1990): 131–35. https://doi.org/10.2307/3045721.

2.- Dennis, Michael. “The Uffizi: Museum as Urban Design.” Perspecta 16 (1980): 63–72.
https://doi.org/10.2307/1567024.

3.- Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Uffizi Gallery.” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 31, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Uffizi-Gallery.

4.- “Palazzo Degli Uffizi.” Quick guides to Italian Renaissance Architecture, 2014.
https://www.sgira.org/hm/qkmap.htm.

5.- Bianchini, Riccardo. “Uffizi Gallery – Florence.” Inexhibit, November 3, 2019.
https://www.inexhibit.com/mymuseum/galleria-degli-uffizi-florence/.

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