Not an Art Historian? A Beginner’s Guide to the Uffizi Gallery

When I took my first art history class, I didn’t really know what art history was but I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t like it.  Five courses later, hours memorizing titles, artists, years and mediums, and countless visits to museums all over the glob in search of seeing the works I learned about in class, it’s safe to say that Freshman Nikki was wrong.  (She was about a lot of other stuff too, but that’s for another day).

During my first trip to Italy, we were carted around to so many different churches, museums and historical sites that they all blended together.  I knew the stuff I was seeing was cool (I especially knew I loved the Sistine Chapel), but none of it really knocked me off my feet.  That is, until I saw a 17-foot tall man named David.

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what a hunk

Michelangelo’s David, located at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy, stands a whopping 17 feet tall and was carved entirely out of marble.  As soon as I entered the long corridor of which is stands at the other end, I was breathless.  While all of my friends were mocking his poses, I was very dramatically tearing up in the corner.  That moment — my reaction to a hunk of marble — helped me look at all future artworks in a different way (especially the ones I spent years learning about in lecture halls).

However, if you are unlike melodramatic self and art museums make you feel somehow overwhelmed and bored at the same time, here’s a far from comprehensive guide to Florence’s biggest and most famous museum:  the Uffizi Gallery.

(hang in there, there’s only a quick three stops in this chuck!!!!)

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La Primavera, Botticelli (1481-2)

First on our truncated journey is none other than Sandro Botticelli himself.  Both his La Primavera (1481-2) and Birth of Venus (1483-5) are located in the Uffizi.  Although both of the Renaissance style of art, the paintings have a completely different color palette.  La Primavera offers a more chaotic scene, with the three graces dancing in sheer dresses in the foreground while a dark figure (identified by most art historians as Zephyr) attempts to pull a fourth, similarly dressed, figure (the goddess Flora into the woods.  If Zephyr succeeds, it is almost implied that maybe spring will not come.  The painting is notable first and foremost for its sheer size, spanning ten feet by six feet.  The incredible detail and lifelike rendering of the clothes is really just not miss-able.

Birth of Venus offers a much more tranquil scene.  We see “Venus” being “born” and the woman to her right (with a flowered dress just like we saw Flora wear in the previous image) rushing to cover her.  The main figure has the famous gesture, denoted as venus pudica: in a nude, the (usually female) figure will attempt to cover themselves, to regain a sense of “modesty,” but actually draws the eye directly to the covered.  Birth of Venus is also just huge (9 ft by 5.6 ft).  Venus’s gaze is mystifying and draws the viewer in, making them feel like the only person in the entire museum.

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Birth of Venus, Botticelli (1483-5)

Sleeping Ariadne found in the same room as the Doni Tondo by Michelangelo (which I will cover in a future art history post), is relatively difficult to find information about online.  However, it’s a sculpture that has many copies, including one in the Vatican Museum.  It’s an incredible sight to see though.  Women in art, especially during this era, are not often depicted without a man to lean back on or without sexual overtones.  And although Ariadne is partially naked in this sculpture, it doesn’t feel sexual.  Ariadne is a strong and solid figure and her captivating nature is only compounded by her location in the museum.  Thousands of tourists push around her to crowd the Doni Tondo (I love the Doni Tondo, don’t get me wrong) while she lays still in the middle of the floor, albeit dramatically.  I’m always looking for more representation of strong, dramatic female figures in Renaissance art, TBH.

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Sleeping Ariadne

What are some of your favorite artworks in the Uffizi or otherwise? Did I miss anything you were hoping I’d include? Do you feel excited and invigorated to go see some art or just as unenthused??

Ciao for Now,

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