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Five Must See Masterpieces at the Uffizi



Welcome


Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, we are going to travel to Florence, Italy to explore the Uffizi Gallery. This amazing museum is famous for its large collection of Renaissance and Baroque art. In this post, we are going to look at five must see masterpieces found here. It was hard to narrow it down, but these works truly embodied their artistic period and style. So, to learn more, keep on reading!


Background




Fascinatingly, the Uffizi Gallery was not originally built to be a museum. In 1560, Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned Giorgio Vasari to build offices to be used by Florentine magistrates. The top floor, however, would be used as a small gallery. Over the years, more and more of the space was used to display the vast art collection that the Medici family had acquired. In 1743, Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici died. She was the last surviving member of this once illustrious family. In her will, Anna Maria Luisa left her collection to the people of Florence. Two years later, the buildings were opened to the public. A century later, in 1860, the Uffizi was officially made a museum.


Today, around 2.2 million people visit the Uffizi annually. This makes it one of the most visited museums in Italy. Its collection has grown so large that many pieces have been gifted to other museums in the area, such as the Bargello. Between 1989-2017, the Uffizi underwent a massive modernization and expansion project. When visiting, it is highly recommended that you purchase tickets in advance, because lines can last up to five hours!


Baptism of Christ




The first chosen masterpiece is called the Baptism of Christ. It was painted by Andrea Verrocchio around 1475. This piece shows the story as it appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Jesus traveled to the Jordan River, where His cousin John the Baptist was baptizing people.Christ asked him to baptize him, but John was hesitant because he believed that his cousin was the prophesied Messiah. Jesus insisted and John began the process. During the baptism, the heavens opened up and God proclaimed Jesus to be His one and only Son.


Looking at this work, we can see that Verrocchio was using techniques of the Early Renaissance. Firstly, there is a strong sense of three dimensionality. There is a beautiful, desert landscape in the background while the main story takes place in the foreground. Christ stands with a contrapposto pose, most likely inspired by Ancient Roman statues. Finally, there is a haziness to the background, an early use of the sfumato technique.


Make sure to look at the angel on the far left side of the work, the one with the golden curls. Most art historians believe that they were painted by none other than Leonardo da Vinci! He was a student of Verrocchio at this time and this is likely the earliest example we have of his painting.


Ognissanti Madonna




No exploration of Italian art would be complete without Giotto. While the Arena Chapel in Padua remains his most famous work, this piece is a close second. The Ognissanti Madonna was painted around 1310 and was originally intended for the church with the same name. Art historians classify this work as “Proto Renaissance” because it's clear that Giotto was moving towards a new style of art, but he was still using elements from the past.


Firstly, there is a liberal use of gold throughout this painting. The background, the throne, and the halos are all made of gold. This would have reflected beautifully in the candlelight. Secondly, there is a clear hierarchy of scale. The Virgin and Child are larger than angels and saints that surrounded them. Giotto was heavily influenced by Byzantine icons with both of these details.


However, viewers can see that Giotto is Renaissance bound. The Virgin Mary has weight and depth about her. She isn’t quite three dimensional yet, but getting close. Her body is visible underneath the folds of her dress, especially her knees. Additionally, there is a symmetrical, mathematical composition. Viewers can draw a line down the middle of the work and it would be equal on each side. This technique was first used by Cimabue, Giotto’s teacher.


Lamentation




Although the vast majority of works in the Uffizi are by Italian artists, there are a few exceptions. This painting is one of them. It was painted by Early Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden between 1460-63. It is a traditional Lamentation scene, when Christ had been removed from the cross and His followers were mourning. His body is being supported by Joseph of Arimathea, while Mary and John hold his hands, crying. Mary Magdalene kneels on the ground, her grief evident. Finally, Nicodemus stands behind everyone and looks directly out at the viewers. His face is actually a portrait of Cosimo de Medici. Art historians believe that this work was commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici because it was recorded in the inventory that was taken when he died.


Generally, this work seems to have been influenced by Fra Angelico’s Pieta scene. However, van der Weyden did use his Netherlandish roots to make it his own. Firstly, there is a strong, vertical composition. The figures are all elongated and narrow. The colors of this work are rich and deeply pigment. There are also small details, such as the plants and jars, that he added. Both of these are characteristic of Early Netherlandish art.


Medusa




If you’re at the Uffizi in person, you’ll have to do a little searching to find this work. Caravaggio was a Roman artist, which means he was relegated to the basement of this Florentine institution. He painted this image of Medusa around 1597 on the commission of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It is the terrifying moment of her decapitation by the mythological hero Perseus. Her mouth is twisted in a scream as blood drips from her severed neck. The snakes that serve as her hair writhe in confusion.


This depiction of a Greek myth is incredibly dramatic and violent. These are hallmarks of both Caravaggio and the Baroque style. Interestingly enough, Caravaggio used his own face as Medusa’s. Some art historians believe that this was almost a boast, as if he was saying that he was immune to her gaze. Because otherwise, he would have been turned to stone.


Madonna and Child with Two Angels




Madonna and Child with Two Angels is one of the most famous works by Fra Filippo Lippi. He painted it around 1455-1465 and features one of the most popular scenes in Renaissance art: the Madonna and Child. The Virgin Mary is depicted as a beautiful, young woman. She wears rich clothing and her hands are clasped in prayer. Two angels support an infant Jesus, who reaches for his mother. Mary looks down in reverence, but there is another emotion there. Is it sadness because she knows the fate that awaits Him when He gets older?


Fra Filippo Lippi was the teacher of the famous Renaissance painter Sando Botticelli. Looking at the details of this work, the relationship is quite obvious. Lippi uses gold pigments to paint the hair on all four figures and Jesus' hair in particular has that signature wave. The Virgin's hair is covered by an amazingly transparent veil and has soft, classical features. Although Lippi may not be as famous as his pupil, the connection is profound.


Conclusion


These are only five of the thousands of works held at the Uffizi. If you are a lover of Renaissance art, try and make a pilgrimage here. In the meantime, you can always take a virtual tour via Google Arts and Culture!

 

Images


  1. Uffizi Gallery. CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  2. The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio. CC 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  3. Ognissanti Madonna by Giotto. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  4. Lamentation by Rogier van der Weyden. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  5. Medusa by Caravaggio. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  6. Madonna and Child with Two Angels by Fra Fillipo Lippi. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


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