Started in 1560 as the Magistrates’ building that gave the complex its original name of Magistrature, the construction involved the demolition and rebuilding of the Rione di Baldracca, the quarter where a notorious tavern of the same name was located.
The old Romanesque church of San Pier Scheraggio, where formerly the municipal Council used to meet before Palazzo della Signoria was built, was spared. It was incorporated into Vasari’s project, and used as a place of worship until the 18th century.
Vasari brilliantly solved the problems of limited space, using solutions of bold, dramatic effect. A Serlian window overlooking the Arno, an architectural feature consisting of a large central arch with two adjacent openings, framed the porticoed square, the new economic and political forum, and the traditional civic space par excellence, Piazza della Signoria.
The 13 offices of the Magistrates in charge of overseeing Florentine production and trade were transferred to the ground floor of the building, while the first floor housed the administrative offices and workshops of the Grand Duchy, which were dedicated to the manufacture of precious objects. Originally, the building was topped by an open loggia.
Cosimo I requested the addition of an elevated passage, which is still used today, between the new building and Palazzo Vecchio. In March 1565, on the occasion of the marriage between Francesco I and Joanna of Austria, another elevated passageway was built between the Uffizi and Pitti Palace, known as the Vasari Corridor. This “aerial route” was reserved to the court for three centuries and opened to the public in 1865.
On Vasari’s death (1574), works continued under the direction of Alfonso Parigi and Bernardo Buontalenti, who completed the building, connecting it to the Loggia dei Lanzi in 1580.
Francesco I, Grand Duke from 1574 to 1587, was responsible for creating the first museum arrangement in the Gallery on the second floor of the building. The eastern wing of the loggia contained a series of ancient statues and busts, while along the corridor was the Tribuna, an octagonal room designed by Buontalenti, where the treasures of the Medici’s collections were displayed.
The Gallery’s ceilings were decorated with “grotesque” motifs, following a style made popular by Raphael and his pupils, which drew inspiration from the wall paintings in the Domus Aurea, the home of Emperor Nero, which had been discovered in that period.
Moreover, Francesco commissioned Buontalenti to build the Medicean Theatre – inaugurated in 1588 – in the eastern wing of the building. Today, all that remains of this structure is the Vestibule on the first floor. The Theatre was the home of the Senate during the period in which Florence was the capital of the Kingdom of Italy (1865-1871), and then it was divided into two to create exhibition spaces in 1889.
Ferdinando I, brother of Francesco and his successor in 1587, had the Giovio Collection, a series of portraits of illustrious figures, moved to the Gallery from its previous home in Palazzo Vecchio, where originally Cosimo I decided to place it. The portraits executed by Cristofano dell’Altissimo were copies of an original collection belonging to humanist Paolo Giovio, and kept in a villa on Lake Como. The Giovio Series of illustrious men is alternated with works from the Aulic Series, a collection of portraits of the main members of the Medici family, started by Francesco I de' Medici. The paintings from the Giovio and Aulic series occupy the three corridors of the Gallery to form one of the largest and most complete collections of portraits in the world.
Ferdinando commissioned also the creation of new rooms in the Gallery: the “Stanzino delle Matematiche” [Room of Mathematics] was set out in a small room adjacent to the Tribune, while the maps painted by Ludovico Buti after drawings by cartographer Stefano Bonsignori were arranged on a Terrace. The rooms after the Tribune, which were decorated by Buti in 1588, were used to display the Armoury, a selection of fine weapons and armours previously kept in the private Wardrobe of the Grand Duke.
In the period of Ferdinando II, between 1658 and 1679, frescoes were painted on the ceilings of the western corridor. Between 1696 and 1699, Grand Duke Cosimo III ordered the corridor which overlooks the River Arno to be decorated with religious frescoes. The rooms at the beginning of the eastern wing were home to the “Fonderia”, both the Grand Duchy’s apothecary and cabinet of natural curiosities. Cosimo III was also responsible for moving some of the most famous examples of ancient statues to Florence from the Villa Medici in Rome: the Medici Venus, the Wrestlers and the Scythian were all placed in the Tribune by Buontalenti.
In 1737, the death of Grand Duke Gian Gastone without heirs marked the end of the Medici dynasty. The assembly of other European powers, with the preliminary agreements of Wien in 1735, decided to grant the Grand Duchy of Tuscany to Francis, Duke of Lorraine and husband of the heir to the imperial throne, Maria Teresa Habsburg. Thanks to the Family Pact of 1737, Anna Maria, sister of Gian Gastone, left the Medici’s art collections to the city of Florence, decreeing that they could never be moved from there.
Francesco’s successor, Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, opened the Gallery to the public in 1769 and commissioned Zanobi del Rosso to set out the new entrance to the Museum Mediceum. This was followed by a rational, education-based rearrangement of the collections in the Gallery by Giuseppe Pelli Bencivenni and Luigi Lanzi. In 1779, the Neoclassical Niobe Room was designed by Gaspare Maria Paoletti to house the ancient group of statues depicting Niobe and her children, taken from the Villa Medici in Rome. Between 1842 and 1856, Leopold II commissioned 28 statues for the niches of the colonnade in the square, which depicted illustrious Tuscan figures from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. At the time of the Kingdom of Italy, the Renaissance statues were transferred to the new national Museum of Bargello, the Gallery gradually became used to display paintings. In 1956 the first rooms of the Gallery were rearranged by architects Giovanni Michelucci, Carlo Scarpa and Ignazio Gardella. On 17 December 2011, the new western stairway, designed by Adolfo Natalini, was inaugurated to connect the historic second floor of the Gallery to the new rooms on the first floor.