Rooms 19 through 23 of the Uffizi are known as the Salette (“small rooms”). They were renovated in the early 2010s, reopening in April of 2014. These rooms bring us back to the Italian Renaissance, showcasing Italian artists who originated outside of Florence in a total of 44 paintings. Perhaps the most beautiful works of art are not hanging on the walls, however, but instead are the ceilings themselves, which were painted by Ludovico Buti in the “grottesque” style in 1588.
Grotesques mimicked ancient Roman frescoes, making them all the rage in a time when anything “classical” was considered higher art. In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Giorgio Vasari, Medici court painter, explains:
The painter Morto da Feltro, who was as original in his life as he was in his brain and in the new fashion of grotesques that he made, which caused him to be held in great estimation … He was a melancholy person, and was constantly studying the antiquities; and seeing among them sections of vaults and ranges of walls adorned with grotesques, he liked these so much that he never ceased from examining them. And so well did he grasp the methods of drawing foliage in the ancient manner, that he was second to no man of his time in that profession.Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing.
Originally, these rooms housed the Medici Armory. Thus, some of the decorations on the ceiling are of armor and battle scenes. Sadly, some of the ceiling in Room 21 was damaged during German bombing in World War II in 1944. To commemorate this event, a new design was placed on the ceiling that had been destroyed which depicts the bombing of Florence.
Hall 19. Sienese Artists
The first room in this series, Hall 19, is filled with pieces by Sienese artists. The first, Giovanni di Paolo, painted the Guelfi Altarpiece in 1445 for the Guelfi Chapel in the Church of San Domenico in Siena, also known as the Basilica Cateriniana, pictured below.
Giovanni famously kept Gothic elements present in his artworks, especially visible in the shape of this altarpiece. (By the time Di Paolo produced this altarpiece, it had been vogue for some time to shape altarpieces as a single panel rather than a polyptych.)
Giovanni also depicts the Christ child in the traditional Byzantine manner, i.e., as a miniature adult rather than a baby. Moreover, Giovanni knowingly flouted the newly discovered concepts of perspective that dominated contemporary art in neighboring Florence. The lack of perspective is incredibly evident in his depiction of the angels holding Mary aloft. They are flat, with no depth or shadowing. Rather than use gradient coloring, Giovanni greatly admired Gentile da Fabriano, and used Gentile’s technique of creating light using gold.
Giovanni became famous for his illustrations commissioned for Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and Paradise, themes that he seemingly took to heart, as the predella of this altarpiece suggests.
The globe represents the universe, comprised of a flat Earth, surrounded by concentric circles that represent the four known planets, one of which is the sun, in accordance with Medieval cosmological belief. The enclosing circle represents the constellations of the zodiac. The imagery was likely inspired by the text that Giovanni himself had illustrated: Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXII, lines 133-5 (the Longfellow translation).
with my sight returned through one and all The sevenfold spheres, and I beheld this globe Such that I smiled at its ignoble semblance
Interestingly, Giovanni decided to place Dante’s “lofty wheel” within the Garden of Eden. God is held up by blue cherubim, which are usually associated with Dominican knowledge (as opposed to the red seraphim associated with the Franciscan Order). Such connection is fitting because the work was commissioned for the Dominican church. Unusually, the angel expelling Adam and Eve takes on the naked form of a human.
Another piece of the predella (also located in the Met) depicts Paradiso, the moment when mankind redeems itself and enters into the kingdom of Heaven.
Several saints are identified below:
Giovanni’s open rejection of the perspective trend in Florence creates a rather flat pictorial space, reminiscent of a medieval tapestry, demonstrating that Giovanni wanted to celebrate the pictorial space rather than concentrate on the depth of the depiction.
Another Sienese artist, Lorenzo di Pietro, more commonly known as Vecchietta, was more receptive to the burgeoning Florentine trends. Indeed, Vecchietta was known for his combination of the Sienese tradition with the emerging Florentine humanism. His later altarpieces, including the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (1457), below, disposed of the traditional polyptych shape in favor of the Florentine pittura quadrata, literally “square painting.”
Vecchietta, however, does retain the gold background and the austere figures commonly seen in traditional Byzantine works.
Hall 20. Mantegna, Bellini and Antonello da Messina
During the late 16th century, the ceiling in Room 20 was repainted to showcase Florentine landmarks, including the Palazzo Vecchio.
Like Room 19, Room 20 showcases Italian Renaissance artists from cities other than Florence. Here, the artwork was painted by the “heavy hitters” of the Venetian 15th century: Mantegna, Bellini and Antonello da Messina.
Andrea Mantegna’s work, known as the Uffizi Triptych, was painted sometime between 1460 and 1464. It is unknown for whom and for where it was commissioned, but because it was painted around the time Mantegna was living at the court of Ludovico Gonzaga in Mantua, some scholars posit that it was painted for Mantegna’s patron, Gonzaga.
The left-hand panel is a depiction of the Ascension of Christ, the middle is the Adoration of the Magi, and the left-hand depicts the circumcision of Christ. Some scholars believe the three panels were not originally conceived as a triptych and instead were meant as three separate pieces.
Mantegna’s depiction of the Adoration is exceptionally notable because it is one of the first known depiction of the Magi as men of different races. Indeed, prior to this piece, Italian painters almost always depicted the Magi as white men, but Mantegna chose in this work, and in his later Adoration painted c. 1430-1506, to depict one of the Kings as African. This depiction of the Adoration would not gain any sort of traction until well into the 16th Century, until such time as it became the convention to depict the Magi as Kings from the three known continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Mantegna has also disposed of the typical crowns worn by the Magi in conventional depictions, and thereby was able to emphasize the gem-laden gifts the Magi present the Christ-child. Melchior, depicted kneeling, presents Christ a vase topped with a pearl. The pearl, known as unio because an oyster can only contain a single pearl at a time, probably refers to the virgin conception of Christ. Melchior’s gift is gold, which represents Christ’s kingship. Balthasar stands behind Melchior holding his gift of frankincense in a vase topped with a sapphire. Sapphires represent heaven/the sky and virtue, which explains why Mary is typically dressed in blue, symbolizing her role as the Queen of Heaven. Frankincense, which moves through the air towards the sky, is used during liturgical practices to convey prayers to Heaven; thus, its association with the sapphire. Gaspar, kneeling behind Balthasar, presents his gift of myrrh, held in a vase crowned with a ruby. Myrrh was used during the embalming process, and therefore symbolizes Christ’s humanity. The vase’s ruby is a symbol of charity and fire, i.e. Christ’s martyrdom, which is only possible due to his humanity.
Each element of Mantegna’s work is meant to reference the Epiphany. Mary and Christ are placed within the mouth of a dark cave, conveying the then popular Epiphany metaphor of light filling darkness. So too the coming dawn.
In the background are the typical exotic animals and dress that routinely crop up in Adorations. Interestingly, the camels are rendered expertly because Mantegna had access to a real life example housed in his patron’s menagerie.
Mantegna was fascinated by classical culture, most likely spurred on by his childhood home of Padua. Padua, once known as Patavium, was very proud of its ancient past as part of the “glorious” Roman Empire. This pride took the shape of an enthusiastic revival of Roman culture in all areas of life, including academia (Padua is home to one of the oldest universities, founded in 1222), names (children were named after Caesar, Hercules, Aeneas, etc. rather than after, as was traditional, saints), arts, etc. Indeed, Mantegna’s (and Padua’s) fascination with Roman culture is evident in the architecture in his paintings. For instance, in the panel depicting the circumcision of Christ, the architecture is reminiscent of an ancient Roman temple.
Another “heavy hitter” of Venice, Giovanni Bellini, known as Giambellino, painted what is known as the Sacred Allegory (sometime between 1487 and 1504). It is considered one of Bellini’s most enigmatic pieces. The shape of the painting suggests that it was meant for a palazzo for private consumption. Some scholars believe it was the painting requested by Isabella d”este for her studiolo in Mantua.
Bellini has placed several saints among others within a hortus conclusus. A hortus conclusus, translated as “enclosed garden,” was a common artistic device used to denote a sacred space. It is believed that the term was derived from Song of Solomon, Chapter 4, verse 12 (“A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” King James Version). The Virgin Mary and a child whom many scholars believe is Christ, although others believe may be the infant St. John, are the only two seated figures. The other children are placed atop a chequered tile, which some believe is a reference to the Cross.
Some scholars have identified the female figure on the Virgin’s right as the personification of the virtue Hope. She is floating several feet above the pavement, thereby alluding to Hope’s traditional association with elevation. Indeed, Hope is generally depicted either with wings or with her face tilted towards the heavens. Those that buy into this interpretation of the painting identify the other female figure as Faith. Some representations of Faith, as it would seem this one, are depicted wearing a crown in reference to Revelations 2:10, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” (KJV).
Hall 21. Venetian Artists
Cima da Conegliano’s Madonna and Child, painted around 1504, demonstrates Cima da Conegliano’s typical style in his use of deep blue and red.
Cima represents the bridge between Venetian arts Bellini and sons and Andrea Mantegna and the later Venetians Titian and Giorgione. Like the Bellinis and Mantegna, Cima produced emotional, sacred pictures, but he imbued them with a new sense of naturalism, made possible by the emerging trend of painting with oil paint. Moreover, neither the Madonna nor the Christ-Child is depicted with a halo; instead, the figures are shown as fully human – not divine nor idealized. Behind the figures is Cima’s hometown, Conegliano, which he typically painted as a landscape in his works.
Hall 22. Emilia Romagna
Hall 22 houses paintings from the Ferrara school, including paintings by Cosmè Tura, Ercole da Ferrara, Lorenzo Costa, and Francesco Francia.
Francesco Francia painted this Virgin Enthroned with SS. Francis and Dominic.
Francesco Francia was born in Bologna and trained as a goldsmith, which is apparent in his acute attention to detail in his works, the rigid drapery, and enamel-like surface. He specialized in religious works, particularly in altarpieces with the Madonna and Child and saints, like the one depicted here. The saints depicted with the Virgin are St. Francis and St. Dominic. St. Francis is recognizable by the stigmata (the appearance of the wounds suffered by Christ) on his hands. Interestingly, St. Francis is clean shaven as the fashion had changed during the last decade of the 13th century, when beards became to be thought of as characteristic of the poor, uneducated, and the outcasts of society. His works are also characterized by their gentleness/softness. Indeed, Vasari noted of Francia’s art: “The people, when they beheld the new and living beauty, ran madly to see it, thinking it would never be possible to improve upon it.”
Hall 23. Lombardy.
The final Hall in this series houses works by Lombard painters.
A large painting by an unnamed artist, known only as the Master of the Pala Bertone, painted this Nativity scene.
The Bertone Altar in the church of Sant’Agostino in Chieri is the work of a fascinating and unknown painter of the early sixteenth century active in Piedmont strongly influenced by transalpine painting, i.e., Flemish.
Finally, Boccaccio Boccaccino painted what is commonly known as the Portrait of a Gypsy, although there is no indication of who this woman actually could be.
Her necklace is in the formation of a cross, indicating that she is likely a Christian. The ruby symbolizes love and Christ’s passion. The color of her head scarf, however, indicates that some money went into this painting, as blue was an expensive pigment to use in painting. Boccaccino’s use of the dark background to create depth is a forerunner to its use by later artists such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, who commonly used the same technique.