The Uffizi Galleries first brought together three extraordinary museum complexes in 2014. Together, these three structures contain the core of the collections of art, precious artisan-made objects, books, and plants belonging to the Medici, Habsburg-Lorraine and Savoy families. It is a stunning collection of treasures dating from Antiquity to the 20th century, and over the years, it has contributed to the fame of the Uffizi, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. Since the Renaissance, these three museum sites have been connected to one another by an ingenious construction, the Vasari Corridor, and together they form one of the most important, most visited culture hubs in the world.
Historically, the integration of these three structures, joining the two banks of the Arno River since the 16th century, is part of peculiar visions of life, culture, power and customs of the ruling families who left their mark on and influenced the history of this area. Commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici, “Di qua d’Arno” palace was built in the mid-16th century to concentrate the full force of public power, creating an administrative headquarters called the “Uffizi” [offices] for Florence’s Tribunals , Guilds, Corporations and Courts.
The great architect, Giorgio Vasari, was responsible for the design of a marvellous building, “on the river and almost in the air”. Over the course of two hundred years or so, this was destined to house the art collections of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany and in 1769, it was opened to the public as a museum – in the modern sense of the word – at the wishes of Grand Duke of Tuscany Peter Leopold.
The “Oltrarno” area, on the other hand, was where the sovereigns lived privately, a symbol of the lavishness of court: Pitti Palace and its splendid Boboli Gardens were the chosen residence of the Grand Dukes of the Medici family (who ruled from the 16th century until 1743) and their successors, the Habsburg-Lorraine family (from 1743 until 1859). Lastly, the kings of Italy, the Savoy family inhabited the Palace in the period in which Florence was the capital of Italy, before finally granting it to the State in 1911. To connect the two areas, built on the opposite sides of the river, the public one (closest to the beating heart of the city) and the private one (separate and in the direction of the countryside) a raised path was created, the Vasari Corridor, for the use by the Grand Dukes but soon opened to the general public. It is a pathway from the Uffizi, passing over the river and the roofs of the city, offering unexpected panoramas and views, crossing over the palaces and civil and religious buildings to arrive at the Boboli Gardens and lastly, Pitti Palace.
The art collections that today’s visitors to the Uffizi Galleries are able to enjoy in all three complexes represent a whole that few in the world can equal. In fact, they were put together by the ruling families who lived here, and who preserved these works to hand down their unevaluable heritage destined to be enjoyed by the public. This is thanks to the enlightened, wise and generous action of the last of the Medici family, Anna Maria Luisa, who in her “Family Pact” of 1737 decided to leave the collections belonging to her illustrious family to the city of Florence so that, “no part could be removed from the Capital of the Grand Ducal State, of the Galleries, Paintings, Statues, Libraries, Jewels and other precious objects from the succession of His Serene Grand Duke, so that they remain here, as ornaments of the State, for the use of the Public and to attract the curiosity of Foreigners”. Thanks to this essential legacy and to the illuminated wisdom of the sovereigns who followed over the centuries, the city of Florence has been able to keep the core of the collections created by the Medici, Habsburg-Lorraine and Savoy dynasties almost intact (with brief intervals under the rule of the Bourbon-Parma and Elisa Baciocchi in the period of Napoleon). This heritage includes ancient and modern paintings and sculptures, precious furnishings, clothes and footwear, jewellery, items of everyday use, fabrics of all types, wall hangings and rugs, books, carriages, fountains, but also extraordinary examples of architecture from the 16th to the 19th centuries (such as the museum premises housing the collections, which are themselves marvellous examples of frescoed artistic treasure troves, just waiting to be admired), and even fabulous artificial grottoes, entirely decorated, and the ultra-rare collections of botanical species, acquired by the city’s rulers over the centuries and still expertly cultivated in the Boboli Gardens.
The Uffizi contains the quintessence of western art, a marvellous promise that is hinted from the architecture of the building. When arriving at the museum, visitors are first and foremost struck by the beauty of the Loggia dei Lanzi (still part of the Uffizi), a temple to art, built for the Grand Dukes of the Medici family to provide an example of the literal meaning of “absolute”: the beauty and power of a dynasty that “spoke” through the expressive power of the artworks on show. Around the museum entrance is a charming parade of illustrious Tuscans, from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. The niches inside the portico of the square, alongside Piazza Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio, contain 19th century sculptures of famous artists and writers, scientists, explorers, sovereigns, lawyers, and architects, famous throughout the world, reminding visitors that the museum was born and continues to live through the centuries to celebrate, exhibit and share the “genius”, the best of human experience in all fields of art and knowledge.
In fact, in the sense of a museum, the Uffizi is a parade of intellect, a gallery of wonders, a compendium of absolute masterpieces from western painting, set out in chronological order, from the 13th to the 18th centuries, with the addition of an archaeological collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. The works are on show in the rooms and corridors of the historic second floor of the building, frescoed with grotesqueries; for some years now, they are also displayed on the first floor, set out as a museum following modern criteria and using examples of contemporary architecture. The same building also contains: the Department of Drawings and Prints, located on the first floor and including works on paper by some of the greatest artists, from the Renaissance to the present day; the Library, with its rich collections of ancient and modern books including a first printed edition of Vasari’s Lives; and since 2016, a new and extensive space dedicated to temporary exhibitions, the Aula Magliabechiana, on the ground floor.
Outside the Uffizi and across the Ponte Vecchio, is Pitti Palace, majestically looking down on the square of the same name; a monument to the splendour of court, from the Renaissance to the present day. Since the latter half of the 20th century it has gradually become a top-ranking museum, as well as a lively hub attracting contemporary culture, with shows by the greatest names in fashion, music, theatre and contemporary opera.
Visitors can enter the Palace from the monumental 16th-century courtyard, the Cortile dell’Ammannati, where they will be given the opportunity to access different areas with four different core collections. The noble floor houses the Palatine Gallery and the Royal Apartments, which display priceless works of art from the private collections of Grand Dukes and Kings (including eleven paintings by Raphael, and masterpieces by Andrea del Sarto, Titian, Caravaggio and Rubens, together with many other treasures). The collection is located inside a splendid residence, decorated and frescoed partly in Baroque style, and partly in Neoclassical style - especially in the richly decorated private apartments, where the rooms were inhabited by sovereigns, courtesans and illustrious guests: men and women who have left a mark of their everyday lives, of their passing here over the centuries.
On the second floor of the Palace, the Gallery of Modern Art contains one of the most important Italian collections of paintings and sculptures from the 19th and 20th centuries, from Neoclassicism to the 1930s. On the same floor, the Museum of Costume and Fashion in an elegant building called Palazzina della Meridiana reminds visitors that for over a half century, the name of Pitti Palace has been linked to international fashion. Indeed, the Pitti famous shows started in the White Room, since the period after World War II, conceived by some of the greatest designers in contemporary history. The museum preserves an extraordinary collection of clothes, footwear and accessories of all types and styles, from the 16th century to the present day, plus stage and screen costumes worn by famous actors and singers, created by the greatest costume designers, and made by the very best dressmakers.
On the ground floor, in the charming setting of the Treasury of the Grand Dukes, it is possible to view the grandiose collection of jewellery and objets d’art – diplomatic gifts but also furnishings and everyday items – that belonged to the Medici and Habsburg Lorraine families, together with a vast collection of more recent and contemporary precious items. On the same level is the Teatro del Rondò di Bacco, which will soon be restored to its original purpose, as created in the 1950s in the northern wing of the building. Below the theatre, overlooking the outlet into Via Guicciardini on the square, there will soon be a brand new Carriage Museum, while the southern wing will house the Tapestry Museum.
The sensational setting of Pitti Palace is completed by the Boboli Gardens, which extend over the hills behind. In Renaissance Italian style, they are a unique example of a combination of art and nature, where extremely rare and centuries-old botanical collections (floral species, plants, ornamental and fruit trees) and native wildlife have been expertly combined with manmade creations by great ancient and contemporary artists (sculptures, fountains, grottos, architecture, gardens, views and panoramas, engineering and hydraulic works) in a blend of enchantment and illusion, designed to astound, surprise and inspire visitors.