by Roderick Conway Morris

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Uffizi, Florence
Detail of façade of Vasari's Uffizi

For Florence, Vasari Was a Man of All Talents

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 14 July 2011


With the publication of his 'Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors from Cimabue to our own time,' in 1550, and its expanded version of 1568, Giorgio Vasari became the father of modern art history.

The 500th anniversary of the birth of the painter, architect, connoisseur, collector and author, on July 30, 1511, in the southern Tuscan town of Arezzo, is being marked in his hometown by an exhibition of his religious paintings, 'Giorgio Vasari: Santo e bello' at the Palazzo Vescovile (through Dec. 30) and in Florence by 'Vasari, gli Uffizi e il Duca,' a gathering of paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculptures and models at the Uffizi (through Oct. 30).There are also plans to put some of these exhibits on permanent display at the Uffizi, in a new section within the gallery relating the rich history of the building itself.

'Vasari, gli Uffizi e il Duca' is accompanied by an excellent book of the same title, documenting the genesis and construction of the Uffizi and of the Corridoio Vasariano (Vasarian Corridor).

Vasari had emerged from the obscurity of a provincial artist's workshop and he dedicated the first edition of his 'Lives' to Cosimo I de' Medici, an outsider in his own way, who had found himself, an orphan on the fringes of the Medici clan, unexpectedly appointed Duke of Florence at the age of 18 in 1537.

Despite his strategically placed literary dedication to Cosimo, Vasari, in his forties and still without secure patronage, had to wait nearly five years for the summons to Florence to serve the Duke.

When he arrived there, the artist proved to have a phenomenal ability to design and realize hugely complex architectural and decorative projects, marshaling dozens of assistants, and over the next 20 years the center of Florence was radically restructured by Duke Cosimo and his new master of works to reflect new political realities.

Indeed, during this time much of the city's heart acquired the appearance, both interior and exterior, that visitors encounter to this day. Yet most visitors to Florence will probably know little about Vasari or Cosimo I de' Medici, or that the Uffizi is the great monument to their remarkable collaboration.

The Corridoio Vasariano literally will pass over their heads, barely noticed, as it winds its way, traversing several buildings, vaults and bridges, in some places over 20 meters, or 65 feet, above ground from the Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti.

Cosimo I's predecessor, Alexander I de' Medici, was a tyrant with an insatiable sexual appetite, and it was while he was on one of his countless escapades in pursuit of other men's wives and daughters that he was assassinated. Cosimo was chosen by Florence's grandees in the hope that this young man still in his teens would prove malleable and allow them to run the state in their own interests.

But Cosimo soon revealed he was made of sterner stuff and personally took a firm grip on the reins of power. He meanwhile manifested a genius for administration and set about thoroughly reorganizing the Florentine state and expanding its borders by military means. In 1555, the year Vasari took up his post, Florence's greatest rival, Siena, was annexed. In 1569, Cosimo's conquests were acknowledged by the pope, when he conferred on him the new title of Grand Duke of Tuscany.

In the first of a series of symbolic gestures, Cosimo moved himself and his family from the Medici palace into the Palazzo della Signoria (later known as the Palazzo Vecchio), seat of the ancient republican government, in which the Medici had once played a major part. In recognition of its historic importance, the building's external appearance was preserved, but under Vasari's direction an army of artists and craftsmen now set about transforming its interiors into a floor-to-ceiling decorative celebration of the Medici in general and Cosimo in particular. The crowning gesture of this enormous project was the radical remodeling of the old republican assembly hall into a ducal throne room.

Cosimo's most ambitious autocratic architectural statement was the decision to build the Uffizi, or 'offices.' Florence's trade guilds and professional associations played a central role in republican government. Cosimo now resolved to bring them under his direct tutelage by moving them en bloc from their various sites to a new edifice next door to his ducal residence, an action symbolic of his determination to manage every aspect of the state. Thirteen guilds were eventually accommodated in the new premises, only two venerable bodies - the Notaries and Judges, and the Wool Merchants Guilds - being allowed to remain in their original headquarters.

Vasari's design for the building, in which Cosimo was closely involved at every stage, drew inspiration from various sources, including ancient Roman architecture, Bramante's Belvedere in the Vatican gardens, Michelangelo's Laurentian Library and New Sacristy, and Codussi's Procuraterie Vecchie in Venice's Piazza San Marco. But Vasari created a highly distinctive building, which was to become as emblematic of Florence as the Palazzo Vecchio and the city's cathedral with its dome by Brunelleschi.

The site cleared for the Uffizi was one of the most run-down in the city, characterized by squalid housing, low taverns, and dye-works spilling out noxious waste products. On this leveled ground Vasari's magnificent exercise in calm, classical grandeur took shape - a tangible example of the order and peace that Cosimo had brought to Florence after decades of conflict.

While the ground floor of this oblong building was occupied by the new guild headquarters, the floors above were strictly the domain of the ducal family, making it in effect an extension of the private apartments of the Palazzo Vecchio next door. The final touch to the architectural expression and practical implementation of Cosimo's monarchical rule was the construction of the Vasarian Corridor.

Built in just five months in 1565, the Corridor, over three quarters of a kilometer in length, about half a mile, runs across a vaulting arch bridge joining the upper floors of the Palazzo Vecchio with those of the Uffizi, continues from the far end of the new building atop a series of lofty aqueduct-like arches before traversing the rooftops of the shops lining the Ponte Vecchio and arriving at the Palazzo Pitti, the family's other principal urban residence, on the other side of the river, with a side corridor branching off to the Boboli gardens.

Thus the duke, his family and retainers could move at all hours between these key residential and administrative points unobserved by the citizenry below without descending to earth, while being able to monitor what was happening in the city at large through a series of windows and circular observation portals.

The transformation of the Uffizi into a museum was begun by Cosimo's son and successor Francesco I, who moved part of the Medici treasures into the upper floors in 1581. Three years later he also had built there a special octagonal exhibition space, the famous Tribune. In more recent times, the Vasarian Corridor has been used to hang the Gallery's unique collection of artists' self-portraits.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024