Uffizi, Florence until October 30th
Before entering this exhibition, take the time to examine the building that houses it. Study its façade at close range and from the opposite bank of the Arno. Contemplate its severe, stately economy. Notice the columns that seem to support more weight than they should. Allow your eye to scan the stretch of monolithic architraves, the repetitious ordering of portals. Only then will you begin to appreciate that the core of this exhibit is not in the Uffizi, it is the Uffizi.
The site chosen by Cosimo I and Giorgio Vasari for this architectural gem was already a hub of commercial activity. Most of the guilds that eventually moved into the Uffizi were already based in or around the area. The name “Uffizi” comes from ufficio, referring to the “office space” allocated for the thirteen magistrature which — at least in theory — played an active role in Florentine governance. In reality, the Grand Duke was eager to bring these administrative bodies under one roof so they he could wield his authority over them more directly.
Cosimo, the highly ambitious seventeen-year-old son of Giovanni delle Bande Nere, seized power through a series of highly effective political and military moves. He proved himself an energetic, ambitious, and pragmatic leader, bent on carrying out a clear political program till the end. He had all the right intuitions about presenting himself as a limited sovereign while depending on the support of an extremely powerful Spanish military. He reinforced his autocratic rule by using the arts to inculcate public virtue into the citizenry, thus ensuring a continuous reign of the Medici dynasty for nearly three centuries. His move from the family palace to the Palazzo Vecchio sent a strong signal that he planned to remain unchallenged till the end of his life.
Construction of the Uffizi began in 1560, though neither Vasari nor Cosimo lived to see the project completed. They died within months of each other in 1574, six years before the final stones were put into place. Cosimo insisted from the outset that the building rise as a single unit to ensure horizontal uniformity. It was conceived in the form of a “U” extending from the Piazza della Signoria to the Arno River with the base connecting the preexisting structures of the Zecca Vecchia and the Loggia dei Lanzi. The plans envisioned the tip of the east arm to encompass the medieval church of San Pier Scheraggio, parts of which are still visible along the Via della Ninna in a palimpsest.
Vasari based the entire complex on the recurring theme of a ground-level portico flanked by two columns, niches, with three windows above. This served as the prototype for all three sides of the enclosed space. The overall effect is one of dignified, urban austerity reflecting the fiscal efficiency presumably occurring within the building. Vasari completed the inner portions and the base of the U by 1565, modifying the prototype slightly in the case of the latter to create more breathing space at the entryway. 1565 was also the year Vasari completed the so-called “Corridoio Vasariano” connecting the Palazzo Vecchio to the newly acquired Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river, allowing the Grand Duke and his family to pass between the two domiciles safely.
Vasari encountered opposition at the earliest stages of the Uffizi project. His collaborator Ammannati was convinced that the architectural emphasis on the functional similarity of the offices was grossly exaggerated. He proposed instead to break up the trabeation by inserting “Serliana” above the portico in which statues would be placed. This would give the structure more vertical thrust. Vasari persisted with his prototype nonetheless, allegedly keeping it under lock and key to prevent colleagues from tampering with it. The exhibition features a reconstruction of this precious model which, despite Vasari’s precautionary measures, has been lost to history.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of Vasari’s plan is the use of trabeation, which always tended to break under the weight of the upper floors. He describes the problem and the solution in chapter three of the Vite de’ più eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori. The secret was to design architraves in such a way that they would support only their own weight by means of an intricate layering of stress-relieving arches hidden beneath the frieze and cornice. He positioned stone dadoes on the monolithic architraves directly above the columns. The frieze consisted of three voussoirs grooved in an arch-like manner to shift weight over the columns. Further mass distribution was achieved by masoning arches directly above this layer. Toward the end of the exhibit is an interactive video and accompanying model illustrating this revolutionary technique.
The urban settings of Rome and Venice exerted a special influence on Vasari’s plans for the Uffizi. He had successfully designed a stage set for Pietro Aretino’s opera La Talanta, giving him a foretaste of the possibilities that emerge when architects think “theatrically.” He also kept in mind Bramante’s original plan to link the Belvedere Palace to the Vatican, as well as the barrel-vaulted portico in Peruzzi’s Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne. Included in the exhibition is a drawing (1561) by Pirro Ligorio of the lower section of the Belvedere Courtyard in the Vatican, whose three terraces fascinated Vasari even though he had something quite different in mind for the Uffizi. The Belvedere project, which Ligorio completed for Pope Pius IV after Bramante left it unfinished, was conceived as a quasi-theatrical space for raising exotic animals and hosting elaborate tournaments at festival time. The drawing by Ligorio indicates the removal of a central fountain, proving that the courtyard would no longer be used as a garden. Unlike Ligorio, Vasari could not settle for a portico that functioned merely as a scenic entryway; he aimed rather for an integral composition of the entire structure insofar as the form of the colonnade needed to reflect the interior organization of the offices.
As for the exhibit within the Uffizi, the focus is the cultural, artistic, and political milieu in which Vasari lived and worked. It opens with a portrait executed by his students (after 1571), showing the master vested with the honorific chain of the Order of the Golden Spur conferred upon him by Pope Pius VI. Nearby is Poppi’s portrait of Cosimo’s tutor Pierfrancesco Riccio, a man who bitterly disliked Vasari out of preference for the smoother lines and softer tones of Pantormo and Bronzino. The former is represented by his Adoration of the Magi (c. 1520) and Portrait of a Gentleman (c. 1540), and that latter by his Portrait of Luca Martini (c. 1554-56). A tapestry by Jan Rost after a cartoon by Bachiacca (c. 1545-46) highlights the grotesque patterns that inspired Vasari’s fresco designs for the Palazzo Vecchio. Cellini’s sculpture of a Saluki (c. 1545-48) illustrates the crossover from goldsmith to sculptor that characterized much of the work surrounding Vasari, a phenomenon he dwells on at length in the Lives. A fusion of painting, sculpture, and architecture peaks in the Santa Croce Ciborium at the end of the exhibition.
Vasari bore the brunt of envy after Alessandro Farnese asked him to prepare sophisticated apparatuses to welcome Charles V and Margaret of Austria to Florence, leading to the artist’s virtual banishment from the city until 1554. Riccio led the crusade against the Arezzo native. Vasari attempted to regain his stature in Florence by submitting a painting for a contest held in honor of Francesco’s baptism in 1539. With typical expediency, he finished his Baptism of Christ in just six days.
On loan from Minneapolis is the delightful Six Tuscan Poets (1544), a commission brokered by Bronzino, and the Portrait of Lorenzo de Medici (1534), brokered by Ottaviano and thus demonstrating the close ties he had with Vasari at an early stage.
Among the pieces commissioned by Bindo Aloviti are the Pietà (1542) and a copy of the Allegory of the Immaculate Conception (1541), an altarpiece done for the wealthy banker’s family chapel. Aloviti was a rabid republican and vicious enemy of Cosimo, showing that Vasari was a practical man who took commissions wherever they could be found.
Vasari’s practical nature is also evident in his relationship with Michelangelo. Vasari claims to have studied under him sometime in the mid-1520s, although we have no reliable evidence that they met until the early-1540s while Michelangelo was working on the Belvedere staircase in Rome and Vasari on the Villa Giulia and Del Monte chapel for the church of San Pietro in Montorio. Vasari consulted with Michelangelo thereafter, often through brief correspondence consisting of no more than a few scribbles indicating dimensions for an architectural project. Cosimo, desperately wanting to complete the New Sacristy and Laurentian Library, begged Vasari to coax Michelangelo back home.
Much of this exhibit simply revolves around the history of the Uffizi. Paintings such as Mirabello Cavalori’s Saint Rocco Healing Lepers (c. 1565-72) and Antonio Cioci’s Festa degli Omaggi in Piazza della Signoria (c. 1790) show the importance of the palace for architectural painting. One room is dedicated exclusively to the Uffizi’s appearance in film, another to Nello Bemporad’s “Greater Uffizi” project (1966) that finally closed the courtyard to motor traffic, and another to the State Archives set up in the Uffizi by the Grand Duke, Leopold II of Hapsburg-Lorraine, in 1852 and finally moved to its current building in 1988.
What emerges from this intelligently arranged show is the constant concern Vasari and his contemporaries had for a delicate balance between order and design. He returns to this theme repeatedly in the Lives. Order gives rise to the idea, while design implements the idea into a concrete plan. The endless theoretical and practical debates Vasari and his colleagues loved to engage in all concentrated on this issue: how does one move from order to design? How tempting it was for them—indeed how tempting it is for us—to refuse to make this difficult passage and believe we can make do without one or the other.