As I noted in my previous post, the Uffizi opened 14 new rooms following its reopening after its COVID shut down. That post discussed the rooms known as D1 through D6. This post explores the next two rooms, D7 and D8.
D7 – Corridor of the Marbles
A unique room in the new space is called the Corridor of the Marbles. Instead of paintings, viewers are confronted with Roman reliefs dating from the 1st century AD. Most, if not all, of the reliefs are copies of earlier Greek works. For instance, the first relief in the hall is likely one of the dozens of replicas of a Greek relief that was produced in the late classical period (400-300 BC).
Scholars have pieced together copies of what they believe to be the original Greek relief, and, based upon this Frankensteinian creation, they have determined that the hand on the left on this replica belongs to the Greek goddess Selene, the Greek personification of the moon. (Her Roman counterpart was known as Luna). Selene would drive her moon chariot, typically led by two horses or two bulls, across the sky, giving light to the mortals during the night.
The next relief is known as the “Nike Balustrade.” Here, two women led an ox to sacrifice while the women in front is holding a thymiaterion, i.e. an incense burner, likely part of the sacrificial ritual.
This Roman relief is a copy of a frieze, depicted below, that once decorated the Nike-Athena Temple in the Pantheon in Athens.
The next relief depicts dancing maenads (female followers of the Greek god Dionysus) and, like the others, is a Roman copy of a late 5th century BC Greek original.
There were more than 60 copies of the original work made, including the one pictured to the left of the Uffizi version, currently at the Louvre. Copies were typically commissioned or bought by wealthy Romans eager to demonstrate to their house guests that they were cultured and educated (and wealthy) enough to have Greek art in their homes. Obviously there were only so many of the Greek originals to go around so a booming industry developed that created copies for those who weren’t lucky enough to get ahold of an original. Thus, why we have so many Roman replicas today.
The women in the center holds Dionysus’ Thyrsus, a staff of giant fennel covered in ivy toped with a pine cone. It symbolized prosperity, fertility, and hedonism (all attributes of the god Dionysus). The first two women in the scene are carrying hunks of animals that have been physically torn apart, references to the The Bacchae, a tragedy written by the Greek playwright Euripides. In The Bacchae, the god Dionysus punishes the people of Thebes for failing to believe that he is the son of Zeus by putting the city’s women into a frenzied trance during which they perform atrocities. The Bacchae is considered by some scholars to be not only Euripides’ greatest tragedy, but the greatest tragedy ever written.
D8 – Correggio and Parmigianino
Francesco Mazzola, known as Parmigianino (“the little one from Parma”), trained in close contact with Correggio, and so their work is exhibited together in Room D8. Parmigianino tended to give primacy to art, not nature, and is therefore hailed as the leader of Emilian Mannerism. (Emilia is a region of northern Italy, roughly encompassing Ferrera, Ravenna, Bologna, and Parma). The departure from naturalism is demonstrated in his works held here at the Uffizi, including his Madonna di San Zaccaria (1531-1533), which prefigures his more famous Madonna of the Long Neck, which is also discussed below.
Parmigianino depicts John the Baptist holding the baby Jesus while John’s father, St. Zachariah, stares into the distance, perhaps contemplating the tragic – but necessary – fate of both young boys. (For those unfamiliar with Christian belief, John the Baptist was said to have been beheaded on the orders of Herod Antipas, the Roman Tetrarch of Galilee). Mary Magdalene is pictured behind the boys, identifiable via her traditional attribute of a jar of ointment. In the background stands a ruined triumphal arch and column, demonstrating the fall of the paganism that gave rise to such structures. The column also could point to the Virgin’s incorruptibility, as it likely does in Parmigianino’s later work, the Madonna of the Long Neck (c. 1534-1539).
Madonna of the Long Neck was commissioned by Elena Baiardi Tagliaferri for her private chapel in the convent church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Parma. Unfortunately, the work remains unfinished because Parmigianino died during its composition, as is evidenced by a foot without a body in the lower right corner as well as an unfinished angel’s head underneath Mary’s arm. Scholars believe that this figure was supposed to be a fellow saint (likely St. Francis) standing next to St. Jerome, who holds a scroll. The work was actually found in the artist’s studio after his death at the age of 37 in 1540. Due to its unfinished status, an inscription was added to the bottom step of the column, declaring “Adverse destiny prevented Francesco Mazzola from Parma from completing this work.” The name of the work clearly reflects Mary’s elongated neck, which mimics the ivory-colored column (likely prefiguring Christ’s death) behind her. It may also be an illusion to the Marian hymn Collum tuum ut columna (“Your neck is like a column”), which celebrated Mary’s incorruptibility. The Christ-child’s reflection in the urn on the right of the painting loosely resembles a cross, which also prefigures Christ’s death. In fact, to underscore this reference, Parmigianino painted Christ’s left arm to look as though it was dislocated, a clear reference to Michelangelo’s Pieta (located in St. Peter’s):
The other artist showcased in this room is Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio, after the city in which he was born. Along with Parmigianino, Correggio was at the forefront of the revival of Emilian painting and is known for his small devotional pictures, such as his Adoration of the Christ Child (1518 – 1520), located in this room.
The subject of Mary’s adoration of her child had been popular in the 15th century with artists such as Filippo and Filippino Lippi, where the iconography had been cemented, but its popularity had lost some of its steam as artists explored subjects outside the realm of religion. Thus, Correggio looked to the older examples of Adorations for the visual references that should be included when depicting such a subject.
The iconography was inspired by St. Bridget of Sweden, a mystic who had religious visions, including one of baby Jesus’ birth:
[S]he gave birth to a Son, from whom there went out such great and ineffable light and splendor that the sun could not be compared to it. …
But yet, at once, I saw that glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing in the greatest of neatness. His flesh was most clean of all filth and uncleanness. … And the Virgin’s womb, which before the birth had been very swollen, at once retracted; and her body then looked wonderfully beautiful and delicate.
When therefore the Virgin felt that she had now given birth, at once, having bowed her head and joined her hands, with great dignity and reverence she adored the boy and said to him: ”Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son!” And then the boy, crying and, as it were, trembling from the cold and the hardness of the pavement where he lay, rolled a little and extended his limbs, seeking to find refreshment and his Mother’s favor.
St. Bridget’s Revelations
Cosimo II placed exhibited Correggio’s work in the Tribuna, where it stayed for quite some time. Indeed, it is prominently featured in Johan Zoffany’s Tribuna of the Uffizi, painted 1772–1778.
Correggio’s other work in this room, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c. 1520), depicts the Holy family on their sojourn to Egypt to escape King Herod’s so-called Massacre of the Innocents, as told in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2:
13. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
14. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
15. And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
16. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.
King James Version, Matthew 2:13-16.
The actual scene itself, however, is based on the apocryphal gospel of pseudo-Matthew, which is part of the New Testament apocrypha, a group of writings by early Christians that were once cited as scripture. Since the early 5th century, however, the Catholic Church has limited what it believes to be the divinely inspired works to the current 27 books of the New Testament. The apocryphal gospel of pseudo-Matthew narrates a story wherein Mary is resting under a date tree and asks her husband, St. Joseph, to pick some fruit. The fruit was too high for Joseph to reach, however, so he told Mary that they should look for water instead. Jesus then asked the branch to bend down, which it did, and a spring appeared at the tree’s roots. Correggio depicts the moment that Joseph offers Jesus some fruit from the bowed branch.
The Altarpiece was commissioned for the family chapel of the Immaculate Conception in the Church of St. Francis in Correggio, the artist’s hometown and namesake, by jurist Francesco Munari, which perhaps explains the anachronistically inclusion of St. Francis (identifiable via his monk habit) kneeling on right. (The church for which it was destined was also a Franciscan church).
The palm tree marks central axis of work, and in fact the work was once known as Madonna of the Palm Tree, denoting the tree’s importance. The palm is a symbol of Mary’s perennial life, virginity, maternity because it never dries up, grows only in pure water, and provides shelter. She is likened to a palm in the Song of Songs (7, 8): “your stature is like that of a palm tree, and your breasts like its clusters of fruit.” Yet, the Palm is also a foretelling of Jesus’ sacrifice and victory over death. In fact, in Greco-Roman culture, from which the Catholic church borrowed heavily, the palm was associated with the Goddess Nike (depicted here holding a palm), the goddess of victory and triumph. In Egypt, moreover, the country in which this work is set, the palm was used in funeral processions to represent eternal life.
Since closing due to the COVID pandemic, the Uffizi reopened 14 new rooms, which show masterpieces that have not been displayed in quite some time. Here, I’m going to talk about the first seven.
D1 – Plautilla Nelli Corridor.
The new entry to the First Floor begins with the Plautilla Nelli Corridor, named after the first known female Florentine painter of the Renaissance. Nelli entered the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina di Siena when she was fourteen years old. The convent, like its brother institution, the San Marco Monastery, encouraged its initiates to paint devotional works to express their own piety and devote to God. Her Annunciation, which has never before been on permanent display, is above the new entrance.
Nelli keeps several of the conventional iconographies of the Annunciation: Gabriel holds a white lily, a symbol of Mary’s purity; Mary is interrupted while reading and is wearing her typical red and blue mantle; the white dove appears as the holy spirit; the pillar separates Gabriel from Mary, symbolizing the untouchable purity of the Virgin as well as prefiguring Christ’s flogging upon a pillar during his Passion. Yet for all this, Nelli’s Annunciation is unique in its life-like treatment of the figures’ expressions and attention to minute detail.
Living in the sister institution of San Marco, Nelli no doubt was familiar with the works of her predecessor artist, Fra Angelico, specifically, his depiction of Gabriel’s wings in his own Annunciation.
D2 – Andrea del Sarto
Gallery D2 is dedicated to the Florentine artist known as Andrea del Sarto, whose name is derived from his father’s profession as a tailor (sarto is Italian for tailor). Del Sarto was known for being an “artists without errors,” as well as for works that were highly balanced and very formalistic. Perhaps his most famous piece, Madonna of the Harpies (1517), was commissioned by the Sisters of San Francesco de’Macci.
Del Sarto, however, disappointed his patrons by painting St. Francis instead of St. Bonaventure, as was contracted, to the left of the Virgin and Child. It is likely that he chose to do so because of St. Francis’ identification as the “angel of the Sixth Seal.” The Seals, for those who are uninitiated in the cult of the television series Supernatural, are referenced in the Book of Revelation and according to same, as long as the Seals remain sealed, they keep the apocalypse at bay. Chapter Five of the Book of Revelation reveals:
1. And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.
2. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?
3. And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.
4. And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon.
5. And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.
6. And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.
7. And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne.
8. And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.
9. And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;
10. And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
11. And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands;
12. Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
13. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.
14. And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.
(King James Version)
Based on the belief that St. Francis was included as an illusion to the Sixth Seal, scholars have identified the pedestal as the well of Hell. In fact, figures on the base relief of the pedestal have been identified as locusts and allude to chapter nine of the Book of Revelations, believed at the time to have been written by St. John the Evangelist, although modern scholars now debate the authorship. (The work is known as Madonna of the Harpies due to an error by the artist/art historian Giorgio Vasari, who believed that the figures depicted in bas-relief were harpies). Chapter nine of the of Book of Revelations states:
1. And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.
2. And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.
3. And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.
4. And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.
5. And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.
6. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.
7. And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.
8. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.
9. And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.
10. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.
Mary and the baby Jesus are depicted as “closing the mouth” of Hell and stand between the viewers and destruction. Indeed, the smoke referenced in Verse 2, above, appears floating past Mary’s left. On the other side of Mary stands St. John the Evangelist, perhaps writing those prophesies that appear in his Apocalypse.
Del Sarto’s formalism is demonstrated in the statuesque figures, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s depictions of the human form, as well as the use of the pyramid formation used so often by Raphael. Moreover, del Sarto used colors themselves to unify his paintings; as you can see the bluish tint in St. John’s robes is a reflection of Mary’s drapery while the orange and lavender of St. John is also reflected in Mary’s tunic.
The other painting here is Woman with the “Petrarchino” (c. 1528), which some scholars believe is a portrait of either del Sarto’s wife, Lucrezia, or Lucrezia’s daughter from a previous marriage, Maria del Berrettaino. Regardless, the woman is pointing to the verses of two love sonnets written by Petrarch: “Go, Warm sighs, to the cold heart” and “The stars, the sky and the elements complete.”
D3 – Francesco Granacci – Alonso Berruguete
In this room is Francesco Granacci’s Entry of Charles VIII (1518).
This piece depicts the moment King Charles VIII of France entered Florence on November 17, 1494 after invading Italy in September of that year to claim the crown of Naples.
Also in this room is Alonso Berruguete’s Salome (1514), one of only a handful of known paintings from Berruguete’s sojourn in Italy. (Berruguete was Spanish). As its name implies, the work depicts Salome, the step-daughter of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee who was infamously involved in Christ’s execution, as well as that of John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of Mark, Salome requested that her step-father present her with the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
Berruguete depicts Salome barely holding onto the silver platter with the saint’s dead. The beginnings of the artistic movement known as mannerism can be detected in Salome’s elongated fingers and idealized pose as well as the comparatively large size of the saint’s head. Mannerism was typified by exaggerated and complicated postures; it emphasized art over beauty.
D4 – Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino
Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, known as Rosso Fiorentino (the “red Florentine” on account of his hair), and Pontormo were both students of Andrea del Sarto, and they embraced his mannerist style. They are nicknamed the “different twins” because both discarded the teachings of the classical Renaissance, yet in different ways.
Rosso’s Madonna dello Spedalingo (Madonna with Child and Saints) (1518) is most famous for its reception, not its artistic value. In fact, the patron who commissioned this work, Leonardo Buonafé, the rector of the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital (the “Spedalingo”), actually refused the work when it was presented to him. Buonafé claimed that the saints looked like “devils.” Eventually, he was persuaded to pay 16 of the originally promised 25 florins for the piece.
Although “devilish,” the saints are still identifiable via their conventional attributes: St. John the Baptist wears an animal skin underneath his robes, St. Anthony is depicted in his habit, St. Stephen has a stone on his head, and St. Jerome holds his writings.
Rosso’s Musical Cherub (1521), on the other hand, demonstrates a sweetness to the artist’s style. This piece is probably a fragment of an altarpiece. In fact, reflectographic studies have shown that the black background covers what appears to be a step and part of a building.
Rosso’s “different twin,” Jacopo Carucci, known as Pontormo, was highly influenced by German artist Albrecht Dürer, as indicated in his The Supper at Emmaus (1525), which was commissioned for the guest-room of the Charter House in Galluzzo.
To create depth in his own work, Pontormo shifts two of the figures of Durer’s print to the front of the table. Another major change is the removal of the roasted lamb from the table, which was likely done to allude to the frugal meals enjoyed at the monastery.
The work depicts the moment after his Cruxifixction when Jesus’ disciplines recognize him as he breaks bread and says a blessing over it as told in the Gospel of Luke.
13. And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs.
14. And they talked together of all these things which had happened.
15. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them.
16. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.
17. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?
18. And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?
19. And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people:
20. And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him.
21. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done.
22. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre;
23. And when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive.
24. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.
25. Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:
26. Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?
27. And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
28. And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further.
29. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.
30. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.
31. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.
(King James Version)
The monochromatic monks depicted in the back sharply contrast with the saints and their colorful robes. The prior (the head monk) of the Charter House for which this painting was commissioned, Leonardo Buonafede, is included as monk within the work; he is the withered monk standing on Christ’s right-hand side.
The (admittedly creepy) floating eye within a pyramid at the top is a symbol of God the Father within the trinity triangle. It was actually the result of a posthumous cover-up of a three-sided face meant to symbolize the Holy Trinity (known as the Trifacial Trinity or tricephalous trinity), which had been banned by Pope Urban VIII in 1628.
Pontormo’s Adam and Eve (c. 1519) as well as his Ten Thousand Martyrs (c. 1529) are also located in this room. The Ten Thousand Martyrs depicts the infrequently explored subject of the legend of St. Achatius.
The legend’s first known reference is in the Catalogus Sanctorum of Petrus de Natalibus, written around 1370-1400. The legend told of a Roman commander, St. Achatius, who was dispatched with nine thousand Roman soldiers against a rebel host that vastly outnumbered them. The night before the battle, an angel appeared to Achatius and his men, telling them if they were to convert to Christianity, then they would defeat the rebel host. The Roman soldiers took the message to heart and converted to the new faith, and thereafter defeating the host the next day. The Roman Emperor, however, later hears about the conversion and leads an army against Achatius and his now Christian army. Although no battle occurs, the Achatius’ men refuse to recant their new faith so the Emperor determines he will torture them. Yet, he cannot. Stones bounce off the men without doing any harm; the whips that were meant to flog them are dashed to the ground. Seeing these miracles, one of the emperor’s other commanders, Theodorus, switches sides and joins Achatius, bringing with him a thousand of his own men, bolstering the Christian army to ten thousand men. The Christians are then crowned with thorns, in mockery of Christ’s own passion, and baptized in their own blood before being led to Mt. Ararat and crucified.
Pontormo’s scene is a synthesis of the two most famous battle scenes known to Renaissance artists: Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiariand Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, neither of which were actually completed.
D5 – Sebastiano del Piombo and the Influence of Michelangelo in Rome
Sebastiano del Piombo worked in close contact with Michelangelo, who went as far as securing patrons and commissions for him. His name is derived from his position as keeper of the Papal Seals, which were made of lead (“piombo” in Italian is translated as lead). Del Piombo’s Death of Adonis (c. 1515) was commissioned by Agostino Chigi, a wealthy papal banker. It was damaged in the 1993 bombing of the Uffizi, but its immediate restoration was a symbol of the Uffizi’s own rebirth after the bombing.
The work depicts the moment that Adonis, a figure from Greek mythology and a favorite of the Greek goddess Aphrodite (Venus in Roman mythology), dies from his wounds inflicted by a boar, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
The youth, in fear of his own life, runs hard,
but he is caught: the boar sinks his long tusks
into Adonis’ groin; he fells him—and
the boy lies prone along the yellow sands.
On her light chariot, Venus, who was drawn
across the middle air by her winged swans,
had not reached Cyprus yet; she heard, far off,
the dying boy—his moans. She turned around
her white swans and rode back. When, from the heights,
she saw him lifeless there, a bleeding corpse,
she leaped down to the ground. And Venus tore
her hair, and—much unlike a goddess—beat
her hands against her breast. She challenged fate:
‘But destiny does not rule all. Adonis,
your memory will live eternally:
each year they will repeat this final scene—
your day of death, my day of grief, will be
enacted in a feast that bears your name.
“The Metamorphoses of Ovid.” Trans. Allen Mandelbaum.
In the work, Venus (the central figure) is shown distressed, in the posture inspired by the Hellenistic bronze Lo Spinario (now located in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome). While the background depicts Venice (identified with Venus).
Also in this room is Giulio Romano’s Virgin and Child (c. 1520-1530).
Giulio was born in Rome (hence, Romano) and worked under the tutelage of Raphael, whose stylistic influence can be discerned in the tenderness Romano treats his Madonna.
Next to Giulio Romano’s Virgin and Child is Perin del Vaga’s rendition of the same theme. Perin del Vaga worked alongside Giulio Romano in Raphael’s workshop, and the similarities of their styles are immediately apparent.
Another artist showcased in this room is Battista Franco, known as Il Semolei). His work, Battle of Montemurlo (1537-1541) depicts its eponymous battle fought between exiled Florentines under command of Filippo Strozzi and the supporters of Cosimo de’Medici led by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s commander Alessandro Vitelli August of 1537. Two months after this battle, the Emperor bestowed on Cosimo his ducal title. The battle marked the end of the illusion that the Medici family worked within Florence’s Republican government to rule. Now, the Medici no longer hid their power behind the facade of Republican institutions, demonstrating to the city’s elite that the Medici no longer needed their support either.
In a glass case separating this room from the next is Allori Alessandro’s Allegory of Human Life.
D6 – Daniele da Volterra and Francesco Salviati
Daniele Ricciarelli, known as Daniele da Volterra, painted The Prophet Elias between 1543 and 1547.
The work was highly influenced by Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel, as evidenced in the Prophet’s musculature. The scene depicts the moment where ravens bring bread to the Prophet Elias (Elijah), as recounted in Kings Chapter 17 in the King James Version of the Bible:
3. Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan.
4. And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there.
5. So he went and did according unto the word of the LORD: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan.
6. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.
(King James Version)
This moment prefigures the Last Supper and the Eucharist. Also here is Volterra’s Massacre of theInnocents.
Francesco Salviati’s work is also displayed in this room, including Charity (1545), which Salviati painted during a stay in Florence while he was working on public works for the city.
Salviati’s composition, especially of the figures, was informed by Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo.
Charity, as the key cardinal virtue, was a common theme depicted in Renaissance art, typically through the motif of a breast-feeding mother. The contemporary concept of charity differs drastically from the modern definition of the word. “Charity” is derived from the latin word “caritas.” In Christian ideology, caritas is the highest form of love, i.e. the love shared between God and man, and the manifestation of that love in the form of man’s love of his fellow man. St. Augustine explained:
Then, after this human love has nourished and invigorated the mind cleaving to your breast, and fitted it for following God, when the divine majesty has begun to disclose itself as far as suffices for man while a dweller on the earth, such fervent charity is produced, and such a flame of divine love is kindled, that by the burning out of all vices, and by the purification and sanctification of the man, it becomes plain how divine are these words, “I am a consuming fire,” and, “I have come to send fire on the earth.”
St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church.
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of Charity’s common attributes is a flame, demonstrating God’s love. Salviati grapples with how love is expressed in his Charity, depicting his figures with an air of sensuality not seen in earlier variations on the theme. Compare Salviati’s work with the earlier Charity painted by Piero del Pollaiuolo in c. 1469.
Room 38 is intended to celebrate the fortuitous moment where three of the greatest artists of the age converged together in Florence. When the present configuration of Room 38 was unveiled in 2018, Gallerie degli Uffizi Director Eike Schmidt stated, “the new installation replaces the display of isolated masterpieces side by side with the principle of dialogue among works, artists and their patrons, urging visitors to discover and to explore the artistic interaction among the great masters of the past. That is why a third figure has entered the scene, a painter whom dialogue with Raphael has restored to his proper place as a major artist in his own right. Fra Bartolomeo (1473–1517) was a Dominican friar in San Marco and a very close friend of Raphael with whom, from the moment the latter arrived in Florence in 1504, he forged an intense and extremely fruitful relationship that visitors will now be able to explore further through the paintings on display.”
The centerpiece of Room 38 is clearly Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Doni Tondo (c. 1506-1508), to which an entire wall is dedicated. It is the only known finished panel painting done by Michelangelo and is considered by some art scholars to be the most important work created in the 16th century.
Based on the timing of the work, scholars believe that it was commissioned by the Florentine merchant Agnolo Doni to celebrate either his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi or the birth of the couple’s daughter Maria. Doni is the only patron aside from the Pope to obtain works by both Michelangelo and Raphael. (Doni’s commission from Raphael, discussed below, also appears in Room 38).
Michelangelo began work on the Doni Tondo after the unearthing of the celebrated Greek sculpture known as the Laocoön in January 1506 (now displayed in the Vatican Museums).
The influence this statue had on Michelangelo’s style cannot be overstated. After Michelangelo saw Laocoön and His Sons, the body-heroic permeated throughout his works, including the Doni Tondo. For instance, compare the pose of the nude behind the Holy Family in Michelangelo’s Tondo with the son to Laocoön’s right:
The influence can also be deduced in the posture of the Holy Family itself, which wraps around itself in an eerily serpentine manner reminiscent of the Laocoön. Moreover, the Holy Family is depicted as though they themselves were Greek statues, which, at this time, was highly unorthodox. (I would be remiss if I did not mention that Michelangelo hated painting as an art form and believed himself to be a student of the – in his opinion – higher art of sculpture. In fact, Leonardo famously criticized Michelangelo’s painting, stating, “You should not make all the muscles of the body too conspicuous … otherwise you will produce a sack of walnuts [un sacco di noce] rather than a human figure.” Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017)).
Michelangelo takes his unorthodox depiction of the Holy Family even further by: omitting their typical halos from the picture; allowing Joseph, as opposed to Mary, to hold baby Jesus; and discarding the traditional contemplative, diminutive pose in favor of a dynamic scene, i.e. a story that has been captured in motion. Indeed, Michelangelo is playing with traditional themes and tropes, but twisting – both literally and figuratively – them into his own unconventional style.
Although much debate has occurred over the purpose of the nudes in the background of the Doni Tondo, the general scholarly consensus is that they represent the pagan ages, when men were naked in their ignorance. With the nudes behind the wall is a small boy who can be identified as St. John the Baptist based on his dress. (St. John is typically depicted dressed in furs, symbolizing his sojourn into the wild). St. John is known as the Harbinger of Christ, and therefore, because he was born into the pagan world (before Christ), he remains behind the wall. Another interpretation that has been put forward is that the ignudi are disrobing in order to be baptized, which also would explain John the Baptist’s presence, although not his depiction as a small child. Finally, I would like to note that the frame of the Tondo was likely designed by Michelangelo himself. It depicts Jesus and the four evangelists.
In addition to the Doni Tondo, Agnolo Doni also commissioned portraits of himself and his wife, Maddalena Strozzi Doni. These portraits, however, were commissioned from Raphael, who was working in Florence at the same time as Michelangelo. (In fact, Michelangelo felt an intense rivalry with Raphael, who he saw as the new “up and comer.”)
Raphael’s early work, like these portraits, owes much to Leonardo da Vinci. You can see Leonardo’s influence in the posture of the sitters, the setting of the portraits, as well as the depiction of the subject’s psychological state through his/her movements.
Raphael mimics Leonardo’s treatment of his sitter’s hands, using the hands to tell the story. Indeed, Maddalena’s hands are decked out in jewels, demonstrating her wealth and social status. Moreover, Raphael depicts his sitters at half-length in front of a balustrade and against a landscape, just as Leonardo places Mona Lisa. Rather than adopt Leonardo’s style in toto, however, Raphael departs from Leonardo’s teachings to enhance the brilliance of his patron’s jewels. He achieves his effect by eschewing Leonardo’s techniques of chiaroscuro and sfumatura. The jewels depicted on both of these portraits convey separate meanings, which would have been well recognized by contemporaries. For instance, rubies alluded to vitality; sapphires to wealth; pearls to purity; emeralds to fertility. The emerald jewel is actually set in a unicorn, which alluded to chastity. Thus, by placing the emerald in the belly of unicorn, Raphael symbolized that Maddalena, as a chaste and faithful wife, will provide her husband with a legitimate heir.
The portraits were once a diptych, and thus each has a drawing on its reverse side. Both drawings are based on episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem that proved popular among the so-called Renaissance men. The episode depicted on the reserve of Agnolo’s Portrait is known as “The Flood,” which tells the story of Jove’s destruction of most of humankind via a flood (very similar to the Judeo-Christian story of Noah). This episode corresponds to the one depicted on the reserve of Maddalena’s portrait, which tells the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, a couple who is allowed to survive the flood. Deucalion and Pyrrha, who were unable to have children, were allowed to survive the Flood by the Gods, and then they restored life to humanity. These episodes are believed to be the work of Raphael’s colleague, whose identity remains unknown.
Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch(Madonna del Cardelino), painted in 1506, also shows traces of Leonardo’s influence, whose own depictions of the Madonna and Child were typified by their simple yet intimate settings. This work was allegedly a wedding gift for Raphael’s friend, a merchant named Lorenzo Nasi. It is known as the Madonna of the Goldfinch because the scene depicts the Christ Child stroking a goldfinch, a symbol of his passion. According to legend, while Christ was carrying the cross upon which he was to be crucified, a goldfinch plucked a thorn from Christ’s head, splashing Christ’s blood on its chest, and from that time onwards, goldfinches have had red spots on their chest to commemorate the Goldfinch’s mercy. Interestingly, goldfinches have since ancient times been used to depict a person’s soul, which many ancient peoples believed would fly away after death.
Like Leonardo’s Madonnas, Raphael’s Virgin does not sit atop a throne as was typical up until this time, but atop a rock, creating the conceit that nature is her throne. Through this allusion, Raphael makes the radical statement that divinity is in nature and surrounds us all. Like in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, the viewer is meant to recognize St. John the Baptist based on his fur loincloth while the Christ child is depicted naked, emphasizing his human nature. St. John, Christ, and the Virgin are grouped together in a pyramid, as though they are one form, yet each figure retains his/her individuality and purpose (St. John as the Harbinger, Christ as the Savior, and Mary as the Mother). Raphael pirated this formula from Leonardo, who likewise depicted the Holy Family as separate pieces of a single unit, creating depth and balance within the work.
Raphael also chose to depict Jesus contrapposto, a posture that a child would never naturally take, thereby alerting the viewers of his innate wisdom. In the past, artists would indicate Christ’s wisdom by depicting the infant as a small man, as the Maestro del Bigallo did in his Madonna Enthroned, supra.
Fra Bartolommeo is the final of the three artists showcased in Room 38. As his title implies, Fra Bartolommeo was a Dominican Friar and lived and worked in the monastery of San Marco, in the manner of his direct predecessor Fra Angelico. Like many other Florentines of his time, Fra Bartolommeo was capitative Fra Girolamo Savonarola, the firebrand preacher who took Florence by storm and gained enough power and influence to send Florence’s ruling family, the Medici, into exile. Fra Savonarola had such a hold on Fra Bartolommeo that Bartolommeo retired from painting for a time based on Savonarola’s teachings against much of the artistic world. Yet, to many’s surprise, Bartolommeo once again took up the brush six years after Savonarola’s execution to paint The Vision of St. Bernard (c. 1504), which Bernardo del Bianco commissioned for the Bianco Chapel in the Badia Fiorentina.
The scene depicts the moment recalled by St. Bernard, who was too weak to perform a homily when the Virgin appeared and gave him the strength to write it. Behind St. Bernard stand Saints Barnabas and Benedict, whose presence is likely due to St. Bernard’s adherence to the Benedictine Rule.
Like Raphael, Fra Bartolommeo was clearly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci. Each of the figures interact with one another and respond through their expressions and hand gestures, thereby conveying to the viewer their inner emotions. Fra Bartolommeo has also employed Leonardo’s techniques of sfumato (the blurring of contours and edges of figures because the eye does not see hard lines when it processes the real world) and contrapposto. Absorbing Leonardo’s innovative style, Fra Bartolommeo added his own radical take on painting religious scenes as regards his portrayal of the Virgin Mary. Prior to this work, the Virgin Mary was typically portrayed as a passive figure that was usually seated, whether that be enthroned as before the High Renaissance or seated in nature as Leonardo and Raphael chose to place her, and disinterested. Here, however, Fra Bartolommeo depicts the Virgin as an active participant in the scene. This change may be explained by the theory of the Immaculate Conception, which was gaining traction at this time due to the Church synods at the Councils of Basel and Trent. A common misconception is that the Immaculate Conception is related to Mary’s conception of Christ via the Holy Spirit, but it actually is a reference to St. Anne’s conception of Mary, who, according to the Immaculate Conception doctrine, was without sin since the moment of her conception and was therefore a worthy vessel for Christ. (Although starting to be generally accepted at this time, the doctrine did not become official church doctrine until Pope Pius IX issued the bull known as the Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854).
Upon the unveiling of the new Leonardo Da Vinci room, Room 35, in 2018, the director of the Uffizi, Eike Schmidt, stated,
The new arrangement has been designed not only to permit a slow, meditated visit, whereby visitors can compare the art and understand the stylistic evolution of Leonardo in his youth, but it is also correct in terms of art history, placing the artist’s works immediately after the rooms dedicated to the Florentine Quattrocento…It is part of a set of changes implemented to adjust the Uffizi to the needs of understanding by visitors as well as adhering to the museum’s educational principles.
The walls were painted grey to both enhance the mediative atmosphere as well as to mimic the church environment for which the paintings were originally meant. On the left is the Baptism of Christ (c. 1480), which was commissioned for San Salvi Church sometime around 1475-78. Leonardo worked on this painting during his apprenticeship with Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, a Renaissance legend in his own right, although more gifted as a sculptor than a painter. (Verrocchio designed and installed the golden palla (“ball”) on lantern of il Duomo). In fact, due to his background as sculptor and engineer, Verrocchio was a master at conveying movement in his art. Leonardo would adopt his maestro’s skill to transform his own art from intrinsically static into a narrative.
Art historians believe Leonardo painted the angel on the far left of the scene, the body of Christ, and the background. The twisting figure of the angel is typical of Leonardo (one of his many methods to demonstrate movement in his works), as are the angel’s beautiful curls.
In the work, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and harbinger, performs the first baptism of the Christian faith. He is shown pouring water from the River Jordan on Jesus’ head, as recounted in the Gospels:
4. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
5. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
6. And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
7. And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
8. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
9. And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
10. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11. And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Mark 1: 4-11 (KJV).
Thus, the Holy Trinity is represented here: God the Father, represented by the arms, Jesus the Son, in the flesh and therefore no representation necessary, and the Holy Spirit, represented, as it so often is, by the dove. The scroll unfurling from John’s hand states, “ECCE AGNUS DEI,” the shortened version of “ECCE AGNUS DEI QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI” (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1: 29).
The centerpiece of this room is Leonardo’s Annunciation (c. 1472 or c. 1475-78), which is believed to be Leonardo’s first work that he completed single-handedly (although he is believed to still have been in Verrocchio’s employ). The paintingwas recently restored in 2000, revealing the work’s original luminosity, clarity of detail, and sharp perspective. According to Christian belief, the Annunciation is the moment when the Archangel Gabriel appears before the Virgin Mary to announce that she is to bear God’s only son. Leonardo departs from previous representations of this moment, which typically depicted the exchange in an enclosed space, such as a loggia, by placing the Virgin and Gabriel outside.
Verrocchio’s continuing influence on Leonardo is evident in the shape of the lectern, which is reminiscent of Verrocchio’s design for the tomb of Pietro de Medici, located in the Church of San Lorenzo. Moreover, although the Annunciation is no doubt a masterpiece (and way beyond the bounds of anything I could even dream of producing, as devastatingly evident in every wine and paint night I’ve ever participated in), Leonardo’s youth is discernible due to several anomalies. First, the Virgin’s right arm (the arm reaching towards the lectern) is disproportionately long. Secondly (and hypercritically, but important to point out to demonstrate Leonardo’s exponential growth in his skilled use of light and shadow), Gabriel’s shadow is too dark for dawn, which the restoration revealed was the time of day Leonardo chose to set his scene. Leonardo likely chose dawn to symbolize the Annunciation, i.e. the dawning of Christianity.
The dawn light casts a pale yellow glow on the garden wall and top of lectern, and shadows are seen where the sun light would be blocked. Moreover, the lectern’s side, however, has a blueish tint. This tint signals Leonardo’s bourgeoning interest in refracted light; indeed, Leonardo discerned that white marble sitting outside is lit by refracted light of the sky, not the light of the sun. Leonardo’s detailed observations and scientific acumen is also evident in Gabriel’s wings, which fold realistically, as though they were actual bird wings. Here, Leonardo once again departs from the conventional depiction of the Annunciation, which dictated that Gabriel’s wings should be multicolored.
Leonardo purposefully used light and shadows to create plasticity (i.e. the effect of three dimensional volume in a two dimensional space), a technique that would be later be known as chiaroscuro (derived from the Italian word for light, “chiaro,” and dark, “scuro”). To employ chiaroscuro in his works, Leonardo created a tonal range for each pigment that ran from white to black and then coordinated each tonal range with another to ensure that all hues were represented in a single overall light to dark range, creating the effect of shadows. These colors could react uniformly to where the light hit a particular object. For instance, the Virgin’s sash looks further back in the painting than the blue robes despite blue being the darker of the two hues. The previous system, known as the absolute color system, which had been in use since the middle ages, involved adding white to a pigment to make the color lighter. Problematically, adding white to pigment dilutes the pigment and therefore does not accurately capture the effects of light on color. Because the darkest tones would be the most saturated with color (since they had less white mixed in), they would be the most intense. But in reality, intensity of color corresponds to the amount of illumination and light. Therefore, Leonardo rejected this system and invented chiaroscuro.
Leonardo also used a technique known as sfumato, a method involving the blurring of contours and edges. In pursuit of his scientific studies, Leonardo realized that the eye does not register sharp edges; instead, the human eye blurs edges of objects. Therefore, when drawing, Leonardo did not outline his figures and then fill in the details. Instead, he modeled his figures from space; building their forms from inside out. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote, “The line forming the boundary of a surface is of invisible thickness. Therefore, O painter, do not surround your bodies with lines.” Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017). Leonardo’s use of sfumato is most clearly evident when you compare the painting’s foreground, which features detailed flowers, with its background, which fades into haziness. It is therefore counterintuitive that it is the background that is the focus of this work, more specifically, the mountain in the background. All perspective lines lead to the mountain, drawing the viewer’s eye towards it.
Moreover, it is framed by the trees. One of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermon on the Annunciation speaks of the “Mountain of Mountains” and the sky giving forth dew, which is received by the Earth (representing Mary’s womb). From this fertilization (i.e. the Annunciation), comes forth Christ, who is spoken of as the Mountain on the Sea.
The final work by Leonardo in this room is the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1481), which was commissioned by the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in 1481, but was never finished. It remains – even in its unfinished form – as one of the greatest works of the Renaissance.
Art historian Kenneth Clark called Adoration, “The most revolutionary and anti-classical picture of the fifteenth century.” Kenneth Clark, Leonardo da Vinci (1939). Indeed, Adorations typically contain an ordered, stately procession, with a focus on the Holy Family, who typically wait in a lower corner of the painting. Leonardo throws that convention out completely, giving us a frenzied swirl of activity that surrounds the Christ child, pictured in the center of the work.
These frenzied and emotional figures prefigure mannerism, an artistic style that would become the mainstream in the late Renaissance (about forty to fifty years after this work was commissioned). Typical of Leonardo, the Adoration focuses on the onlookers’ reactions to the Incarnation, part of the reason for the chaos. Leonardo’s notebooks are full of doodles exploring human facial expressions. His notes make clear that his figures’ emotions are paramount and take expression in their movements: “In painting, the actions of the figures are, in all cases, expressive of the purpose of their minds.” Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017). Leonardo even experiments with the placement of the horses. For instance, the horses on the right are actually different potential positioning of one horse:
Leonardo, as was typical, failed to finish this commission; this time, he failed to finish because the Duke of Milan accepted Leonardo’s what essentially plea for employment. Filippino Lippi was asked to replace the unfinished work. Lippi paid homage to Leonardo’s original design:
The Green Rooms were opened in 2014 on the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death. Perhaps surprisingly to some, given that these rooms were opened to celebrate Michelangelo, the Green Rooms actually house works from Ancient Greece and Rome. Yet, it was the ancients that inspired Michelangelo, giving him the insight into the human form that had been lacking prior to this time. In fact, while Michelangelo was busy painting the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the famous Laocoön, an ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest fighting snakes sent by Athena, as well as the Belvedere Torso, were unearthed. The impact of these sculptures on Michelangelo is evident in his work in the Sistine Chapel.
It is therefore fitting that Rooms 33 and 34 were opened on the anniversary of Michelangelo’s death to celebrate his life and work.
Room 33 is dedicated to Greek Portraits, most of which came from the Medici collection. The room is set up to mimic the genre of decoration known as uomini famosi (“famous men”) that was so popular during the Renaissance. In these types of cycles, each individual depicted was intended to inspire the viewers (usually the ruling elite) to a higher standard of behavior and governance. The idea was that with the uomini famosi looking upon individuals, those individuals’ actions would be informed by the illustrious examples of leadership, patriotism, etc.
Room 34 is dedicated to the many sculptures that are of the type that would have been in Garden of San Marco. The Garden of San Marco was created by Lorenzo de’Medici to allow young artists to practice drawing and painting ancient sculptures. Sadly, it no longer exists, but it was where Michelangelo would have studied and worked as an up and coming young artist. (Allegedly Lorenzo de’Medici gave the young Michelangelo the key to the Garden so he could study the ancient sculptures whenever he so wished). Although those sculptures have since been dispersed, the pieces in this room evoke the same atmosphere that surely must have been felt in the Garden itself. These works are Roman copies of Greek marbles dating from the fifth to the third centuries B.C., some of which were intended to decorate ancient Roman residences. Also located in this room are memorials stones and altars of Greek origin, which have been unearthed in Rome.
One relief, the Processional Scene from the Ara Pacis, is a copy of the Processional Scene on the south side of the Ara Pacis, purchased, along with several other friezes, by Ferdinando de Medici at the end of the 16th Century.
The Ara Pacis Augustae (the Altar of Augustan Peace) was commissioned by the first emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, and completed in 9 B.C. The altar celebrated the “peace” that Augustus had supposedly brought to the Roman Empire. I think the Gauls and the Germanic tribes would dispute the term “peace,” but with Augustus, the major civil wars where Romans fought Romans did come to a respite. The Altar was presumably used for blood sacrifices to the Roman gods (not human sacrifices though – the Romans very rarely practiced human sacrifice; in fact, only a few known occurrences of Roman human sacrifice are recorded, and those occurred only during times of great upheaval, including during the Second Punic War when Hannibal invaded Italy).
The frieze in Room 34 shows Romans in traditional religious garb processing towards the physical Altar itself, as if they were about to participate in a religious rite themselves. The figures in this relief are members of Augustus’ immediate family, including his son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa (the hooded figure in the center of the piece). Agrippa is performing the role of high priest. Some scholars believe that the veiled woman to Agrippa’s left is Liva, Augustus’ wife. By placing his family on the monument, Augustus was proclaiming his dynasty and the death of the Republic. Unfortunately for Augustus, siring a dynasty proved a little problematic. It was his step-son Tiberius who inherited the role of Emperor, not a blood relative as Augustus had initially wished.
The animation and individualism of each figure demonstrates the high point of Roman sculpture that had been achieved and that was only to be achieved (at least in western Europe) once again during the Renaissance.
Another relief located in this room is a depiction made during Hadrian’s reign, i.e., 2nd Century AD, of an animal sacrifice.
On the right side of the relief are corinthian columns while on the left side of the relief are ionic columns topped with tympana. The victimarii, who are identifiable via their naked torsos and limi (plural of limus, which was a type of loincloth worn by the slaves who handled the animals during a sacrifice) have led the sacrificial bull to the victimarius known as the popa, who stuns the animal with an axe while another, known as the cultrarius, holds the sacrificial knife, known as the culter.
Also located in this room is the Sarcophagus with the Rape of Persephone (AD 160-180), the front of which depicts a scene from the Greek myth explaining the origins of the seasons.
According to this myth, the god of the underworld, Hades (whose counterpart in Roman mythology was called Pluto) came across a young girl playing in the fields, with whom he immediately fell in love (although as the name of the sarcophagus implies, it was more likely that he fell in lust). This young girl was Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of the harvest, Demeter (i.e., Ceres). Upon deciding that he wants to marry Persephone, Hades travels to Mount Olympus (where the gods lived) to ask his brother Zeus, king of the gods (and Persephone’s father), for her hand in marriage. This request puts Zeus in a pickle: he felt that he could not deny his brother, but he knew that Persephone’s mother (and Zeus’ sister) Demeter would absolutely be against the marriage so he answered equivocably, neither saying yes nor no. Hades took this non-answer as permission and laid a trap to capture Persephone so as to elude her mother.
Of fair-tressed Demeter, Demeter holy Goddess, I begin to sing: of her and her slim-ankled daughter whom Hades snatched away, the gift of wide-beholding Zeus, but Demeter knew it not, she that bears the Seasons, the giver of goodly crops. For her daughter was playing with the deep-bosomed maidens of Oceanus, and was gathering flowers—roses, and crocuses, and fair violets in the soft meadow, and lilies, and hyacinths, and the narcissus which the earth brought forth as a snare to the fair-faced maiden, by the counsel of Zeus and to pleasure the Lord with many guests. Wondrously bloomed the flower, a marvel for all to see, whether deathless gods or deathly men. From its root grew forth a hundred blossoms, and with its fragrant odour the wide heaven above and the whole earth laughed, and the salt wave of the sea. Then the maiden marvelled, and stretched forth both her hands to seize the fair plaything, but the wide-wayed earth gaped in the Nysian plain, and up rushed the Prince, the host of many guests, the many-named son of Cronos, with his immortal horses.
“The Homeric Hymns.” Trans. Andrew Lang. Apple Books.
Demeter eventually discovers that Hades has kidnapped her daughter and demands Zeus order Hades to return her. But, once again, Zeus equivocates and decides that if Persephone has eaten anything while in the underworld then she has to remain there. When Persephone is questioned about her eating habits while in Hell, she claims that she has been so distraught that she hasn’t eaten a thing. It turns out, however, that she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. Therefore, Zeus decided that Persephone must stay in Hell with Hades for six months of the year, and she may return to her mother for the other six. During Persephone’s stay, her mother falls into a depression and refuses to allow anything to grow (hence fall and winter), but when Persephone is back with her mother, everything grows in abundance.
The sarcophagus itself demonstrates the moment Hades grabs Persephone from among the flowers. Here, the goddess Athena, identifiable by her helmet and shield, is shown trying to save Persephone while the goddess of passion, Aphrodite tries to stop Athena by grabbing her shield. Athena and Aphrodite represent the two warring sides of the story: the passion of Hades and the virginity of Persephone (Athena was renowned for her virginity).
The scene takes on a cosmic importance as the chariot tramples the goddess of the earth, Gaia, demonstrating death’s ultimate triumph over everything in the world.
The other sarcophagus in this room is known as The Sarcophagus Depicting the Labours of Hercules, which dates from AD 150 to 160 (slightly older than Sarcophagus with the Rape of Persephone, supra).
Six of Hercules’ Labours are depicted on the front of the Sarcophagus; from left to right there are: (1) the Nemean lion; (2) the Lernean Hydra; (3) the Erymanthean Boar; (4) the Hind of Cerynea; (5) the Stymphalian Birds; and (6) the stalls of King Augeus. As the story moves from left to right, the youthful, beardless Hercules moves through his own life and ages right before the viewers’ eyes, reiterating the Roman ethos that life is fleeting, but a man may live on through the glory of his deeds. The Sarcophagus is missing its lid, which is where the other Labours were likely depicted (the back of the Sarcophagus is blank).
Halls 25 through 32 were recently renovated in 2015 as part of the “Nuovi Uffizi” project. During the renovation, the walls were painted green, which denotes exhibitions dedicated to 15th century art (i.e. 1400s, or Quattrocento).
Hall 24. Cabinet of Miniatures.
After Duke Ferdinando de’Medici married Christina of Lorraine, he constructed this room to hold the immense amount of gems and precious stones Christina brought with her as her dowry. Today, the room houses more than 400 miniatures.
Hall 25. Baldovinetti and Ghirlandaio
The view thence of Florence is most beautiful—far better than the hackneyed view of Fiesole. It is the view that Alessio Baldovinetti is fond of introducing into his pictures. That man had a decided feeling for landscape. Decidedly. But who looks at it to-day? Ah, the world is too much for us.
E.M. Forster, A Room with a View.
Hall 25 focuses on work painted by Alesso Baldovinetti and his pupil Domenico Ghirlandaio. Baldovinetti was himself the pupil of Domenico Veneziano, a connection which is made manifest in Baldovinetti’s Annunciation when compared with the loggia depicted in Veneziano’s Santa Lucia dei Magnoli Altarpiece.
The Annunciation was likely produced during Baldovinetti’s early phase of work and is characterized by slender figures, columns, and trees. Like most depictions of the Annunciation, Baldovinetti sticks to the traditional conventions: the walled garden (hortus conclusus), symbolizing Mary’s separation from the material world; Mary’s blue robe, alluding to her role as the Queen of Heaven, not only due to the color of the sky, but also due to the great expense of the blue pigment derived from lapis lazuli; and the central column dividing the space, prefiguring the column of flagellation (the column upon which Christ was flogged prior to his crucifiction). The central column also signifies the separation of Mary from the world and her untouched purity. In fact, even the beams of light (presumably representing the Holy Spirit, which impregnates Mary) do not penetrate the Virgin’s sacred space, thereby demonstrating the impenetrability (and therefore purity) of Mary’s body.
The cypruses in the background harken to the Garden of Eden. Baldovinetti is credited with introducing attention to landscapes to Florentine art, which is clear here in the lush landscape he created for this painting. Giorgio Vasari, artist and art critic, wrote of Baldovinetti, “He took much delight in making landscapes, copying them from the life of nature exactly as they are; wherefore there are seen in his pictures streams, bridges, rocks, herbs, fruits, roads, fields, cities, castles, sand, and an infinity of other things of the kind.” Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Stadium Publishing, 2018.
Baldovinetti’s pupil, Domenico Ghirlandaio, is also exhibited in this room. He painted this Adoration in 1487. Based on the circular shape of the work (known as a tondo), it is likely that this work was commissioned for a private palazzo. Some scholars link it to a tondo listed in the inventory of the Tornabuoni family and therefore believe it was painted on the occasion of the birth of Giovanni Tornabuoni, first born of Lorenzo Tornabuoni and Giovanna degli Albizi, in 1487.
Ghirlandaio links the classically inspired composition so favored during the Italian Renaissance with the detailed realism of the Netherlandish school that was favored in Northern Europe at the time. Here, Mary sits on a dais that Ghirlandaio decorated with an antique leaf relief surrounded by the adoring Magi. In front of the scene is a travel bag, sack, and inscribed ashlar (square-cut stone) while the background demonstrates an acute attention to minute details characteristic of Northern European painting.
The Adoration became a popular subject during the Fifteenth Century in Florence, in part because its feast day, January 6, was also the day of celebration for Christ’s baptism, an event during which Florence’s patron saint, John the Baptist, was obviously integral (John the Baptist baptized Christ, hence his moniker). This connection between Florence and the Adoration was furthered by the ruling family, the Medici, who closely identified with the cult of the Magi. Moreover, the Magi were associated with Eastern scholarship/the inheritors of men such as Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras, and Plato, i.e. ancient wisdom that had been “lost” to the West during the so-called “Dark Ages.” Along that vein, beginning in the late Fifteenth Century, Adorations started to be commonly set amongst the ruins of ancient temples rather than the more traditional barn/cave. Compare Ghirlandaio’s Adoration with that of Gentile Fabriano, where Mary sits in front of a barn and a cave, not ancient ruins.
Placing the Adoration among ruins signified the triumph of Christianity over paganism both physically, as Christian churches replaced the crumbling temples, and socially. It also allowed Renaissance artists to harken to the classical era from which so much of their art was inspired, yet still express the utter sense of loss of the ancient past.
Also in this room is Biagio d’Antonio’s allegory of Justice, which, as its name implies, depicts the personification of the virtue of Justice.
She is pictured with her traditional attributes, the sword, the sphere, and the scales of justice, which denote both the two sides of Justice (the distributive, which rewards and punishes, and the commutative, which mediates disputes and symbolize the weighing of evidence) as well as the weighing of evidence. Justice, like most of his figures, is characterized by her slender appearance and pale/pinkish skin.
Hall 26 – Cosimo Rosselli
Cosimo Rosselli is mainly known for his work in the Sistine Chapel, which he did alongside Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Unlike the others, however, he is known for using bright colors and much more gold in his works, as is evident in this Madonna and Child EnthronedWith Angels, St. Nicholas, and St. Anthony the Abbot.
A cloth of honor is fastened to a number of trees, whose tops are visible and allude to the Garden of Eden. On the Virgin’s right is St. Nicholas while on the left is St. Anthony the Great.
Rosselli’s other work in this room is his Adoration. In this work, Christ is holding a bird, a goldfinch, which symbolizes the soul because, like a bird, it was believed that the soul would fly away after death. The use of the goldfinch specifically is due to the belief that the red spot on a goldfinch’s chest was acquired when a goldfinch removed one of the thorns from Christ’s head and was splashed with blood.
By this time, landscapes have become common background in paintings as opposed to the traditional Byzantine gold, yet the ground where the figures stand in this work still resembles the artificial ground in a tapestry rather than real earth, which feels and reacts to figures’ weight on it.
Hall 27 – Perugino
Like Cosimo Rosselli, Pietro Perugino worked on the Sistine Chapel alongside Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio.
In Perugino’s rendition of the Crucifixion, he has placed St. Jerome on the far left of the work, identifiable by the lion by his feet and his red cardinal’s hat, which Jerome has thrown to the ground as a symbol of his rejection of earthy honors. Next to St. Jerome is St. Francis, identifiable by the stigmata on his hands and his monk’s habit. At Jesus’ feet is Mary Magdalene with her traditional attribute, ointment, on the ground in front of her. Next to Mary Magdalene is Blessed Giovanni Colombini, founder of the Jesuati (not to be confused with the Jesuits, founded by Ignatius of Loyola), and St. John the Baptist in his hair shirt.
The figures all give off shadows, indicating a single light source, a relatively new innovative concept in art. Additionally, the deep perspective and the infinite background that it creates is typical of Perugino.
Also located in this room is Mater Dolorosa (“Mother of Sorrows”), a copy of Hans Memling’s painting. It is here because it was likely copied by a Perugino follower. The painting itself is quintessentially Netherlandish. The Virgin is depicted as indisputably human, not as a creature of Heaven. The only acknowledgement of her holy status is her thin, almost nonexistent halo that fades into the dark background.
Hall 28 – Piero di Cosimo and Filippino Lippi
The next room features work by two artists: Piero di Cosimo, student of Cosimo Rosselli, and Filippino Lippi, son of Fra Filippo Lippi.
In the first piece, Piero di Cosimo depicts the mythical story of the hero Perseus and Andromeda. According to the myth, Perseus was traveling back after killing the gorgon Medusa when he spotted the Princess Andromeda chained to a rock. Andromeda was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia of Ethiopia, who had boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, the daughters of the sea god Nereus. To avenge Nereus, the king of the sea, Poseidon, sent his sea creature to attack Queen Cassiopeia’s country. Cassiopeia consulted an oracle, who told her that by sacrificing her daughter, the sea creature would be appeased. Instead, Perseus flies in and saves the day, killing the sea monster and marrying Andromeda.
Perseus is shown three times in the painting: flying in the winged sandals loaned to him by the god Hermes in the top right hand corner; standing atop the sea monster; and celebrating with Andromeda in the bottom right corner. His multiple appearances indicates that this work is intended as a narrative piece, not a static picture.
The background is as interesting as the narrative in the foreground:
Here, Piero depicted three altars to the gods (from left to right) Hera, Zeus, and Hermes. While the mountain behind the altars takes the shape of a man, specifically the titan Atlas. (Titans were the children and grandchildren of the primordial gods Gaia, or Earth, and Uranus, i.e. Sky.) According to the Perseus myth, after killing Medusa, Perseus asked the titan Atlas if he would give him shelter from Medusa’s sisters, but Atlas refused. So Perseus pulled Medusa’s head out of the bag that he had been carrying it in, and when Atlas looked into her face, he turned into a mountain.
Given the timing and the subject of the painting, scholars believe that it was commissioned for the marriage of Filippo Strozzi the younger and Clarice de’ Medici. Multiple Medici emblems occur throughout the work. First, in the center is a laurel branch, which is capable of regenerating (like a phoenix, another Medici emblem), which reflects the Medici’s return to the city of Florence after a brief exile. Near the branch is Perseus’ shield, the top of which is shaped like a diamond, another Medici emblem. (They are the original proprietors of the phrase “Diamonds are forever.”)
The Medici also liked to identify themselves with Perseus. In fact, the family commissioned this statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa from Benvenuto Cellini when they returned from exile. Perseus was the son of Zeus, King of the Gods, and a princess and therefore descended from royalty, a status for which the Medici had always been grasping until they finally achieved it in 1569 with Grand Duke Cosimo I. Thus, identifying the family with Perseus signified that they too had royal status. Additionally, if the Medici could identify as Perseus, then it could be inferred that they swooped in to save Florence from the “sea monster” (i.e. the Republic) just as Perseus did to save Andromeda.
To ensure that these underlying messages were not missed, Perseus, and therefore Medusa’s head, were placed so that Medusa is looking straight at Michelangelo’s David, a symbol of the Republic, “turning” him to stone.
The other artist represented in this room is Filippino Lippi, son of the famous Fra Lippi. One of Lippi’s (the younger) works housed here is an Adoration of the Magi (1496), which was commissioned by the Convent of San Donato in Scopeto because the original Adoration that they had commissioned was never finished. (Perhaps not a surprise to anyone, but the original commission had been given to Leonardo da Vinci, who had run off to Milan without finishing it.)
Some scholars have posited that the misty lake in the top left is a homage to Leonardo’s famous sfumato technique since it was his Adoration that this one replaced. Compare the unfinished Leonardo with the Lippi:
In the left corner of the work kneels a man holding a globe, alluding to the Magi’s astrological knowledge. This man is believed to be Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, whose sons (Lorenzo and Giovanni) are supposedly depicted as the king being crowned and the young blonde holding a vase. Such a statement was bold in a republican Florence, but the Medici had long been identified with the Magi.
Like Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, Lippi’s Adoration places the main characters in the center of the work rather than off to one side. Previously, artists would place the Virgin and the Three Kings in a corner of the work to emphasize the movement of the kings’ procession. But, with the advent of perspective, artists like Filippino Lippi were able to convey movement with shadows and light and therefore were able to focus the main action in the center without losing the movement of the Magi’s trains/processions they wanted to convey.
The other work in this room by Filippino Lippi is St. Jerome Penitent, which depicts St. Jerome kneeling before a crucifix. This painting is one of the first times that we see a saint dressed in rags and depicted old in a grizzled, downtrodden way rather than the more usual aged, but venerable and wise.
Beneath the saint’s left elbow trots his lion, his usual attribute, while in the cave lays his cardinal’s hat, left unnoticed and without care, demonstrating Jerome’s retreat from earthly pleasures.
Also in this room is Lippi’s Madonna degli Otto (1486), painted for the Sala degli Otto di Pratica, a room in the Palazzo Vecchio. This commission, like so many others, had first gone to Leonardo da Vinci, who, once again, failed to finish, and so the commission ended up resting with Lippi.
The niche that holds the Virgin is in the shape of a scallop shell, a symbol which had been appropriated from the classical world, wherein the scallop shell was a symbol of fertility. The Christian tradition limited the meaning from “all births” to simply the birth of Christ. Mary, therefore, was dubbed as the “new Venus.” Mary is surrounded by the patron saints of Florence, from left to right, St. John the Baptist, St. Vittore, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Zanobi. St. Bernard is holding open a book, on which pages are written his homily to Mary.
Above Mary are two angels holding garlands of roses. The roses allude to charity, Christ’s passion, and Mary herself, who was and is known as “a rose without thorns,” an epithet which is itself an allusion (to the garden of eden where roses grew without thorns). Crowning the entire scene is the Croce del Popolo, a symbol of the Florentine Municipality.
Hall 29 – Lorenzo di Credi
Hall 29 is dedicated to Lorenzo di Credi, who was a pupil of Andrea del Verrocchio (Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher) and took over Verrocchio’s workshop after he died.
Hall 30 – Doriforo
In Hall 30 is a sculpture from the early First Century AD known as the Doryphoros (“Spear-Bearer”) Torso. The Doryphoros Torso is one of the most well preserved copies of the Doryphoros of Polykleitos. The original Doryphoros of Polykleitos no longer survives, but it was a Greek marble from the 5th Century B.C. Polykleitos earned his fame because he “solved” the issue of reproducing the ideal male body in motion.
Hall 31 – Signorelli and Florence
This room is known as “Signorelli and Florence” because it gives the visitors a splendid view of Florence through a window next to one of Signorelli’s tondos.
Hall 32 – Signorelli
One of the more striking works in this room is Signorelli’s Madonna with Child (c. 1490), which features Mary and Christ with male figures in the background. The Tondo is framed in a false frame with two prophets flanking a bust of St. John the Baptist. The monochromatic frame brings the Madonna into stark realization. Madonna and the Christ Child are sitting among ancient ruins.
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.
The Hall of Geographic Maps had been closed to the public for more than twenty years, but it has been recently reopened after a 700 thousand euro restoration. The Medicean (the Medici family was ruling family of Florence) geographer Stefano Bonsignori designed the original room and Ludovico Buti frescoed with geographical renderings of Medici Tuscany, including Florence, Siena, and Elba, around 1589. Cartology, or the making of maps, formed a key pillar of Medici propaganda and myth-making. Indeed, the renderings of Florence and the hard-won colonies of Siena and Elba, conquered during the reign of Cosimo I, represent the the Grand Duchy’s place within the history of the universe and cosmos, a persisting preoccupation of the Medici dynasty.
It was intended to house Grand Duke Ferdinand’s collection of scientific instruments, thereby emphasizing the connection between science and art. These scientific instruments, many of which were commissioned by Grand Duke Ferdinand himself, were works of art in and of themselves. The Medici family believed that both art and scientific knowledge conferred political power and prestige and so became prominent patrons of both. Copies of several of those instruments are housed here; the originals have been transferred to the Florence Museum of the History of Science, also known as the Galileo Museum. One of the copies housed here is the cosmographer Antonio Santucci’s armillary sphere, known as, straightforwardly enough, Santucci’s Armillary Sphere. (Santucci also made a copy of the sphere for King Philip II of Spain, which can be viewed today in the main library of the Escorial Monastery, outside of Madrid, Spain). The word Armillae in Latin can be translated as “rings.” Each ring represents a prong of the Aristotelian universe.
Another copy located in the Hall is the great terrestrial globe made by Egnazio Danti for the Palazzo Vecchio. Danti was the first “Cosmographer to the Most Serene Grand Duke,” appointed in 1562 to the new institutional figure.
The room was meant to represent Ptolemaic cosmography, i.e., the union of cosmography proper, i.e., the sky/heavens (Santucci’s Armillary Sphere), geography (Danti’s terrestrial globe), and chorography (Buti’s frescoes), as expressed in Ptolemy’s Geographiké Uphégesis.
Room 17. Stanzino delle Matematiche
The Mathematics Rooms or Room of Military Architecture was once known as the “Hermaphrodite Room” because it once housed the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, an ancient sculpture that caused a sensation in the Renaissance due to its sensuality (now located in the Louvre, in Paris, France).
The original room was dedicated to military architecture, as devised by the diplomat Filippo Pigafetta. In a letter to the Grand Duke Ferdinando, Pigafetta wrote:
The place devoted by Your Highness to keep the devices of military architecture (principal part of the science of warfare) was missing to the perfection of your Galleries, where so many other arts with their artificers are found, and it being certain that Your Serene Highness is well furnished with instruments for drawing and measuring by sight, both in the sky and on earth, and models for hoisting the heaviest weights with ease, and inventions as well as various devices and texts pertinent to the aforesaid Architecture, it was well worth to assign them a room where they could be placed, not only to demonstrate their utility but also to be displayed to visitors.
Filippo Pigafetta, Museo Galileo and Masterpieces of Sciences, Filippo Camerota, ed., p. 137.
Giulio Parigi painted the frescoes in the first bay of the ceiling, which celebrate mathematics. Each frieze depicted an invention and/or discovery of antiquity, including the Pythagorean theorem, Ptolemy’s cosmographic system, Euclid’s geometric elements, Archimedes’ inventions, or a contemporary application of mechanics, including the wheel crowned with sponges, the pile-driving and excavating machines used in building the Port of Livorno, and ships, nautical charts, and the compass. Many of these contemporary scenes were sketches depicting the actual machines themselves, as they were held in the Medici collections.
Since the War with Siena, military engagements were no longer thought of as chivalric art, but as a mathematical science, based in part on the emergence of firearms. No longer was a military man exalted for his skills in hand-to-hand combat, but now needed to possess the knowledge of “military architecture” in order to be able to win at a distance. That is not to say that strategy and mathematics had not been a part of warfare prior to the 16th century; indeed, one of the most famous mathematicians, Archimedes, earned much of his fame due to his defense of his native city Syracuse against the invading Romans in the 3rd century B.C. But with the advent of firearms, compasses, and other such advances in military technology, the need for a general to understand ratios between weight and range of cannonballs, the geometry of fortresses, navigability of the oceans, etc. was greatly increased.
For what pertains to warfare, nothing is required but practice in the mathematical sciences, that is, cosmography, geography and topography, mechanics and perspective, as well as a good knowledge of civil and military architecture with excellent skill at drawing and a good understanding of arithmetic, because with the practice of these alone, and through the live voice of intelligent and practice persons, he [Prince Lorenzo de’Medici] can easily learn everything that a good soldier needs to know.
Ranuccio Farnese to Christina of Lorraine, Museo Galileo and Masterpieces of Sciences, Filippo Camerota, ed., p. 140.
The new warfare was based on engineering and new technologies including compasses, plumb levels, and surveying compasses, which invariably led to a collectors frenzy over such items. This room once housed the geometric and military compasses that Galileo had dedicated to Cosimo I in 1606 and the telescope that had been used to reveal a new image of the universe in 1610, which relaunched Copernicus’ understanding that the Earth travelled around the sun, not the other way around.
Now, this room houses 19 small marble and alabaster Roman arts dated to the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD, statues in marble and Bronze by Tuscans from 16th to 19th centuries, 24 bronze statuettes by Flemish sculptor Willem van Tedrode, and a bronze by Lombard Leone Leoni.
Room 18. The Tribune
Perhaps one of the more well-known rooms in the Uffizi, the Tribune was constructed during Francesco de’Medici’s reign to display the Medici’s ever-growing horde of treasures. Architect Bernardo Buontalenti deigned the room in 1584.
The room is in the shape of an octagon because it was Christian belief that the number eight was a heavenly number while the room’s high vault symbolizes vault of heaven, the venetian glass windows symbolize the cosmos, and the floor, which is in the shape of a flower, symbolizes the earth. In fact, artist Jacopo Ligozzi painted animals and plants along the base of the walls to reinforce the floor’s symbolism. To symbolize water, Buontalenti designed the cupola to be encrusted with over 6,000 mother-of-pearl shells whereas he designed the red velvet walls to symbolize fire and the lantern at the top of the cupola to symbolize air. Thus, the messaging of the cosmos, so important to the Medicean propaganda, is physically built into the Tribune.
The Tribune was also supposed to evoke the spirituality of a chapel. Indeed, its very name, Tribune, was appropriated from Catholic parlance: a tribune (Tribuna in Italian) is the semicircular domed end of a basilica.
The star of the Tribune is undoubtedly the statue known as the Medici Venus (Cleomenes, son of Apollodorus), which entered the Tribune in 1677.
The Medici Venus was allegedly found near the Trajan Baths, in Rome. The statue is a 1st century B.C. marble copy of a Greek bronze. Traces of the paint that once adorned the marble can still be detected. Although many people think of Greek and Roman statues as quintessentially white, they were actually painted with highly pigmented colors, which were rubbed off over the thousands of years spent combating the elements. The Medici Venus is no exception. For a riveting commentary on the Medici Venus and the nude as depicted in art in general, watch Mary Beard’s two-part series, The Shock of the Nude.
Once the home of multiple Leonardo’s, Room 15 of the Uffizi was recently renovated to house Hugo van der Goes’ well known work, the Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1477-1478).
The altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari for the main altar of Sant’Egidio, a church connected to the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Portinari was intimately connected with Santa Maria Nuova because the hospital was founded by one of his ancestors in 1288. Astonishingly, Santa Maria Nuova remains an active hospital to this day and is one of the oldest active hospitals in the world. It is believed to be the hospital where Leonardo da Vinci performed his innovative experimental dissections of human cadavers.
Tommaso Portinari managed the Bruges branch of the Medici bank (located in modern Belgium) where he had access to artists who were operating outside the direct influence of the Italian Renaissance. Unlike their Italian counterparts, northern artists used oil paint as their main medium, as opposed to tempera mixtures. Oil paint took longer to dry than tempera, allowing artists to blend their colors more effectively. Moreover, due to its translucent nature, oil paint enables light to penetrate each layer of paint and reflect those layers back to the viewer, similar to what happens when light enters a prism or a diamond.
Compare the Cardinal of Portugal Altarpiece (left) with the Novitiate Altarpiece (right). The Cardinal’s altarpiece was done in oil paint while the Novitiate was done in tempera. As you can see, the Cardinal’s has a softness to it, which can be attributed to the superior blendability of oil paint whereas the figures in the Novitiate appear more solid and statuesque.
Because of the profound differences seen in oil paint, the Portinari Altarpiece caused a sensation when it finally arrived in Florence in 1483. Indeed, it was to fundamentally change the trajectory of the Italian Renaissance, inspiring famous artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael to use oil as their main medium.
In addition to his use of oil paint, Van der Goes was known for his acute attention to detail, complex landscapes, and superb lighting. Northern artists like Van der Goes were also well known for the extensive use of iconography. Indeed, the central panel of the Portinari Altarpiece is rife with symbolism.
For instance, the abandoned clog by Joseph’s feet communicates to the audience that the figures stand on holy ground; the flowers in the forefront symbolize the impending Passion and humanity’s salvation. In the vase on the right, the seven blue columbines symbolize the seven sorrows of Mary while the three red carnations symbolize both the three bloody nails as well as the holy trinity. Moreover, the glass of the vase symbolizes Mary’s virginity, as St. Bernard notes:
“Just as the brilliance of the sun fills and penetrates a glass window without damaging it … thus, the word of God, the splendor of the father. entered the Virgin chamber and then came forth from the closed womb.”
Meiss, Millard. “Light as Form and Symbol in Some Fifteenth-Century Paintings.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 27, no. 3, 1945, pp. 175–181. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3047010. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.
The vase on the left symbolizes purity (the white flowers), royalty (the purple flowers), and Christ’s passion (the red flowers) and is particularly noteworthy because it indicates a vibrant trade with Spain; indeed, the vase is what was known as a Spanish albarello vase, a luxury item only available in Bruges due to its status as an international trade hub. The flowers held in the albarello vase not only symbolize Christ’s qualities, but also provide a link to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, the hospital to which Sant’Egidio was connected because the flowers are herbs and ointments typically used by apothecaries. Moreover, the vases were strategically placed to look as though they were sitting atop the altar once the altarpiece had been installed in its intended location. Placing flowers in front of holy images is a common practice.
Behind the vases is a sheaf of wheat, lying parallel to the Christ child. When the work had been displayed in its intended place above the altar, both Christ and the sheaf would be parallel to the altar, which held the holy communion. According to Catholic rites, the bread blessed during mass transforms into the actual body of Christ. Thus, the placement of Christ parallel to the wheat parallel to the altar with the holy communion visually translates this transformation, know in Catholicism as Transubstantiation.
The entire scene is permeated by angels, who are generally dressed in rich priestly vestments that were common at the time this work was produced.
In the background of the main panel are the very same shepherds who appear before Mary and Jesus in the foreground. Depicting figures twice to show continuous movement within a single work, a technique known as continuous narrative, was well known in Florence prior to the influence of northern painting, but what sets northern continuous narrative apart is Flemish artists’ ability to use light in such a way as to denote different times of day in a seamless way.
The side panels were actually painted later than the central panel, and so they possess some stylistic differences than the central panel. For instance, the side panels are darker and have less spatial depth.
The right wing of the triptych depicts Portinari’s wife, Maria Maddalena Baroncelli, kneeling next to their daughter, Maria Margherita. Behind the patron’s family stand (in exaggerated stature to denote their importance) the name saints of Maria Maddalena and Maria Margherita, Mary Magdalene and St. Margaret. The saints, however, are transposed: St. Margaret is not standing behind her namesake, but instead is directly behind Maria Maddalena. Her positioning behind the mother of Portinari’s heirs is likely meant to emphasize St. Margaret’s role as the patron saint of childbearing. In fact, studies of the painting have demonstrated that the two saints had been positioned behind their name sakes, but the artist changed his mind and transposed them. The original positioning of the saints explains St. Margaret’s red cloak and loose hair, attributes typical of Mary Magdalene, not St. Margaret.
Maria Maddalena is depicted wearing a necklace of pearls, symbolizing purity, a diamond, symbolizing strength, and a ruby, symbolizing charity.
This necklace is believed to have been actually owned by Maria Maddalena, rather than the artist’s invention, because it appears in another portrait of Maria Maddalena and her husband.
Moreover, it is believed to be the necklace Tommaso Portinari was forced to sell to settle his debt to the Medici; debt he incurred by causing the bankruptcy of the Medici bank he was charged with operating.
On the left side of the panel kneels Portinari and his two sons, Antonio and Pigello. Behind Portinari stands his namesake, St. Thomas the Apostle (identifiable by the spear he holds in his hand), and behind the boys stands St. Anthony the Great, Antonio’s namesake saint. St. Anthony is a plague saint, and therefore has links not just to the Portinari family, but also to the hospital.
The link to childbearing is referenced in this panel as well, via the background scene wherein Joseph tends to a pregnant Mary as they travel to Bethlehem to register for the census ordered by Caesar Augustus.
Northern artists such as Hugh Van der Goes had a massive impact on their Italian counterparts as their work began to drift southward. To emphasize this link, the Uffizi placed Van der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece next to Botticini Francesco’s Tobias and the Three Archangels (c. 1470).
In this piece, Botticini sticks to the contemporary conventional iconography of the once well known Biblical tale of Tobias and the Archangels from the Book of Tobit. The Book of Tobit is found in the Old Testament Apocrypha (i.e. the collection of works that the Church fathers decided, for one reason or another, to leave out of the accepted Catholic canon). The story is about a young boy named Tobias who is sent by his father Tobit, a blind and devout man, to collect a debt from a family member. Tobias is accompanied on his journey by the Archangel Raphael, who, unbeknownst to Tobias, has taken on the appearance of one of Tobias’ relatives. When bathing on the road, Tobias is almost swallowed by a fish, but Raphael tells him to catch it, which he does. They extract its heart, liver, and gall. Its heart and liver were subsequently used by Tobias to kill demons haunting his future wife and the gall was used to cure his father’s blindness. Because of this story, Raphael was linked with travel and merchants, and the legend eventually morphed into the concept of guardian angels in the 16th century.
But, why did Botticini include the other two archangels, who were not mentioned in the original story? (Michael holds the Sword of Victory and the archangel Gabriel holds the lily he gave to Mary) One scholar has argued that the purpose of the depiction is not to tell the story, but to invoke the idea of guardian angels, and what could be better than having three guardian angels accompany you on your travels?
Botticini was fascinated by this story, painting at least seven versions over the course of his life. In fact, a year or so after this commission, in 1471, Botticini became a member of the confraternity of the Archangel Raphael of the church of Santo Spirito, the church for which this particular version was commissioned.
The last work in this room is Ghirlandaio’s The Madonna and Child adored by St. Zenobius and St. Justus (1479). Domenico di Tommaso Bigordi, known as Ghirlandaio, is primarily known for his narrative frescoes. Flemish influences can be seen in his minute attention to details, but although influenced by the Flemish school, Ghirlandaio never experimented with oil paint, sticking instead with the more traditional egg tempera mixture.
This altarpiece was made for the high altar of San Giusto alle Mura, a church dedicated to St. Justus of Lyons, thus the appearance of a St. Justus in the lower left corner of the work. The pictured St. Justus, however, is not Justus of Lyons, but Justus of Volterra, who was sometimes confused and/or conflated with Justus of Lyons. We know that the pictured Justus is the Bishop of Volterra due to the scene depicted in the predella, discussed below. The saint opposite Saint Justus is Saint Zenobius, a patron saint of Florence. Standing above the Saints are the Archangel Michael, dressed in his conventional armor, and the Archangel Raphael, holding his healing ointment.
Gold is used throughout the piece, but Ghirlandaio did not use the typical gold leaf technique. Instead, he painted thin layers to achieve the shining effect.
Notice the unique frieze of the wall and the Madonna’s throne. It is encrusted with sapphires (symbolizing modesty), rubies (symbolizing charity), emeralds (symbolizing beauty), and pearls (symbolizing purity). Moreover, the Virgin’s broach is a large oval sapphires, surrounded by pearls, clearing marking her as dogmatically virginal.
The baby Jesus holds a crystal globe topped by a pearl encrusted cross. The globe had been a symbol of kingship for centuries, since both the Roman and Byzantine times. A common misconception is that the globe symbolizes the Earth. Problematically, the ancients believed the Earth to be flat, and so they would not have used a globe as a symbol for the Earth. Instead, the globe symbolized the cosmos and universality to the ancients. The added cross references Christ’s spiritual kingship and spiritual universality. The material of the globe, rock crystal, was believed to have healing powers due to its reflective ability. It was also linked with the Baptism of Christ and his incarnation.
Moreover, the globe is a typical attribute of St. Michael, the archangel. Therefore, the globe held by Christ suggests a privileged relationship between the two. The pearls in his girdle remind us of Michael’s angelic chastity, also linking him with the Virgin Mary. Michael, therefore, functions as an extension of both Christ and the Virgin.
The predella, which some scholars believe Ghirlandaio’s younger brother Davide had a major hand in producing, features well-known events from each of the depicted figures’ lives. For instance, the first panel, beneath the archangel Michael, depicts Michael fighting the rebel angels who sided with Lucifer prior to Lucifer’s ultimate defeat.
Next, the panel beneath St. Justus depicts him with St. Clement, offering bread to soldiers. According to Christian belief, the citizens of Volterra was starving because the city was under siege by the Vandals. St. Justus and St. Clement prayed for help, and the city’s granary was miraculously filled. Then, the saints, in accordance with the Christian maxim “if thine enemy hunger, feed him” (Romans 12: 20), gave bread to the Vandals. After such kindness, the Vandals ended their siege and left the city in peace. Ghirlandaio’s depiction slightly deviates from the traditional story, wherein the saints throw the food over the city walls. Ghirlandaio’s version, however, was likely easier to depict and had the added bonus of emphasizing the saints’ bravery.
The center panel depicts Mary’s marriage to St. Joseph, thereby emphasizing Mary’s centrality to Catholic faith. Ghirlandaio depicts Joseph’s branch blossoming, which designated him as Mary’s future husband, and to the left of Joseph, one man is depicted breaking his own branch in frustration at his loss.
To the right of Mary’s marriage is the depiction of the translation of St. Zenobius’ body from San Lorenzo to il Duomo. During the translation, the funeral bier touched a dead tree, and it burst to life. Behind the procession, you can see the Baptistry and the Campanile.
Finally, the panel beneath St. Raphael shows the popular Renaissance subject of Tobias and the fish, discussed above.
To give you some idea of how the altarpiece would have looked, I’ve arranged it as it was intended to be seen below:
The Annunciation of San Martino alla Scala (1481) was commissioned for the Ospedale di San Martino alla Scala, the Florentine branch of the Sienese Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala, a hospital dedicated to serving pilgrims, tending the sick, and caring for orphans. The work was a fresco, meaning it was painted directly onto wall of the entrance loggia, which explains its relatively chalky coloring. Decorating entrances to buildings with Annunciations had a long tradition in Christendom as a sign of welcome based on the notion that as Christ entered the world through Mary to save humankind from eternal damnation, so too would the pilgrim enter the building to receive safety and shelter.
The Feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25th, was such a favored feast day in Florence that it served as the first day of the Florentine calendar year. And, like most Florentines, Botticelli was fascinated by the subject, painting no less than ten different versions of the event through the course of his life. In this particular version, Botticelli sets his scene in a Renaissance palazzo and uses the tropes conventional of depictions of the Annunciation: the walled garden (hortus conclusus), symbolizing Mary’s separation from the material world; the lilies (held by Gabriel), which symbolize purity; Mary’s blue robe, alluding to her role as the Queen of Heaven; and the central column dividing the space, prefiguring the column of flagellation (the column upon which Christ was flogged prior to his crucifiction). Yet, unlike contemporary Florentine depictions of the Annunciation, the Annunciation of San Martino alla Scala depicts Gabriel hovering, rather than firmly planted on the floor. This artistic choice is likely due to the location of the hospital’s parent hospital in Siena, where it was the norm to have Gabriel floating rather than firm on the ground.
Another work that Botticelli produced around the same time as the Annunciation of San Martino is known as the Madonna of the Magnificat (1481-85). This Madonna is likely the most expensive tondo that Botticelli created (due to the amount of gold it required). It was also one of his more popular works; at least five replicas of it were produced.
Tondos, which get their name from the Italian word rotondo, meaning round, were generally produced for secular settings, particularly the palazzos of wealthy patrons. This tondo, the Madonna of the Magnificat, is named for the eponymous prayer, the beginning words of which are inscribed on the book pictured in the work. The “Magnificat,” also known as the “Canticle of Mary” or “Ode of the Theotokos” appears in the Gospel of Luke 1:46. where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with St. John the Baptist. Mary tells her cousin:
Magnificat anima mea Dominum
et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo
quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes
quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est et sanctum nomen eius
et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies timentibus eum
fecit potentiam in brachio suo dispersit superbos mente cordis sui
deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles esurientes
implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes
suscepit Israhel puerum suum memorari misericordiae
sicut locutus est ad patres nostros Abraham et semini eius in saecula.
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
This episode is also alluded to on the left page of the pictured book, which is inscribed with the beginning words of the Benedictus (Gospel of Luke 1:68). It was rare for the Virgin to be depicted writing, making this piece all the more interesting. The Virgin is also depicted with a crown made from many small stars, alluding to her title “Stella Matutina” (“Morning Star”). Whereas the angels are depicted with contemporary hairstyles and Christ is holding a pomegranate, known as the fruit of paradise and whose pips symbolize the Passion.
In fact, several years later, Botticelli painted an astonishingly similar work to the Madonna of the Magnificat entitled Madonna of the Pomegranate (c. 1487), where – you guessed it – Christ is depicted holding a pomegranate. (Also, fun fact, the emblem of Catherine of Aragon, the one time Queen of England or Princess of Wales, depending on your point of view on the Great Matter).
Like the Madonna of the Magnificat, this tondo likely hung in a secular setting. Some scholars have argued that the gilded lilies on blue field, which symbolize the alliance between Florence and France, are similar to those that decorate a room in the Palazzo Vecchio and thus it hung there, but there is no definitive proof that it did so.
We have much better information on where Botticelli’s Altarpiece of San Barnaba (Botticelli, c. 1487-89) was located, obviously, the Church of San Barnaba. San Barnaba was erected to celebrate victory over the Guelphs in 1289 on San Barnaba’s feast day, and it was managed by the Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries (Arte de’ Medici e Speziali) and the Augustinian monks.
It was the largest classical Renaissance painting by a Florentine at the time of its production. Beneath the Virgin, Botticelli painted an inscription, which proclaims, “Vergine madre; Figlia Deltvo Figlio” (“Virgin Mother; daughter of thy son”). The phrase was taken from Dante’s Paradise, XXXIII, 1-3 and was used to praise the uniqueness of Mary (i.e. a virgin cannot be a mother; a mother cannot be her son’s daughter). Because Mary both precedes Christ in earth’s chronology, but follows him in terms of spiritual ascension, she is the beginning and end of all things and makes the impossible, possible.
The saints are, from left to right: Catherine of Alexandria, Augustine, Barnabas, John the Baptist, and Ignatius of Antioch, next to whom stands the archangel Michael. St. Barnabas, on Mary’s direct right, is in the place of honor because this piece was intended to be in his church. The saint on Mary’s direct right would normally have been John the Baptist, the older and higher ranked saint in Church hierarchy, but since that position is occupied, he is placed on Mary’s direct left. John is likely included in this altarpiece because he is the patron saint of Florence. St. Augustine is present as the representation of the canons of the church, and therefore Christ is turned towards him and St. Barnabas to signify that it is through St. Barnabas’ church, and the Augustine priests that manage it, that the members receive Christ’s blessing. The archangel Michael’s presence is likely a reference to the Florentine military victory over the Guelphs, the occasion for which the church was built to celebrate. Catherine of Alexandria and Ignatius of Antioch’s presence are likely due to St. Barnabas’ connection with the cities Alexandria and Antioch, where he was active prior to his martyrdom.
Botticelli’s maturing style is evident in the elongated face of Virgin as well as the harsher expression of the figures. Indeed, during his mature period, Botticelli turned away from the sensual and elegant paintings of his past and instead focused on the spiritual. It was around this time that a certain monk by the name of Girolamo Savonarola was becoming popular in Florence. Savonarola was a firebrand monk, who preached against what he considered to be the materialistic upper class, especially against the Medici (although one author has suggested this is because he was not a Medici client and felt himself rebuffed). Botticelli actually gave up painting for a time and some scholars believe he burned some of his more pagan work in what has now become known as the Bonfire of the Vanities. Perhaps due to the inner turmoil he felt as he was drawn towards Savonarola’s teachings against art, Botticelli’s work began to be characterized by frenzied, elongated figures and artificial, abstract backgrounds.
Botticelli’s next painting, the Cestello Annunciation (1489-90), however, retains some of the graceful movement so treasured in his early works. The Cestello Annunciation was commissioned by Benedetto di ser Francesco Guardi for his family chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi (which, at the time, was known as the church of Cestello).
The composition of the Cestello Annunciation is relatively conventional: Gabriel enters the Virgin’s house, interrupting her reading, to tell her that she is to bear the son of God. Yet, Botticelli reflects the desire for simplicity, as inspired by Savonarola as well as the sparsity of the church of Cestello itself, in the bare furnishings, sober clothing, and limited use of color. The door jam acts as a physical separator between the divine (Gabriel) and the earthly (Mary), emphasizing the idea of conception without physical contact.
San Marco Altarpiece (Coronation of the Virgin) (1490-1492) was commissioned by the Goldsmiths Guild (orefici) for the chapel of their patron saint, St. Eligio, in San Marco. The guild of the orefici (a branch of the Arte della Seta (the Silk Guild), known by contemporaries as the Arte di Por Santa Maria) was responsible for the upkeep of the San Marco.
This altarpiece was unique because it depicted two different episodes in single panel. The upper scene is set against an elaborately decorated golden background which comes into stark contrast with the sparseness of the landscape in the bottom part of the painting; a sparseness that is more typical of Botticelli. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci once wrote of Botticelli:
He who does not care of landscapes esteems them a matter involving merely cursory and simple investigations. So does our Botticelli, who says that such studies are vain, since by merely throwing a sponge soaked in different colours at a wall, a spot is formed, wherein a lovely landscape might be discerned.
Leonardo da Vinci. Trans. by Frank Zöllner, in Sandro Botticelli.
Against this sparse background are depicted St. John the Evangelist, the patron saint of the Arte della Seta, St. Augustine, who is dressed as a bishop, St Jerome, who is dressed as a cardinal and whose writings touch on the event taking place in the clouds, and St. Eligio. St. John is looking towards the Coronation itself, connecting the earthly with the heavenly (sacra conversazione) while his counterpart, St. Eligio, looks out to the viewer, connecting the viewer with the painting.
The last work I want to talk about is called Calumny of Apelles (1495), which was inspired by a work entitled “Slander, A Warning,” by the ancient Greek satirist Lucian. The work describes a painting by the famous Greek artist Apelles and the circumstances of its creation. Apelles had apparently been slandered by a jealous rival to Egyptian King Ptolemy I, but was rescued when a courtier intervened. Subsequently, Apelles painted the event, as Lucian explains:
“On the right sits a man with long ears almost of the Midas pattern, stretching out a hand to Slander, who is still some way off, but coming. About him are two females whom I take for Ignorance and Assumption. Slander, approaching from the left, is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, but with a heated, excitable air that suggests delusion and impulsiveness; in her left hand is a lighted torch, and with her right she is haling a youth by the hair; he holds up hands to heaven and calls the Gods to witness his innocence. Showing Slander the way is a man with piercing eyes, but pale, deformed, and shrunken as from long illness; one may easily guess him to be Envy. Two female attendants encourage Slander, acting as tire-women, and adding touches to her beauty; according to the cicerone, one of these is Malice, and the other Deceit. Following behind in mourning guise, black-robed and with torn hair, comes (I think he named her) Repentance. She looks tearfully behind her, awaiting shame-faced the approach of Truth. That was how Apelles translated his peril into paint.”
Lucian. “Slander, A Warning” Trans. by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler.
Lucian’s quoted writing is what is known as an ekphrasis, i.e. a literary description of a painting. Below is Botticelli’s interpretation of what Apelles’ painting might have looked like:
In Botticelli’s version, King Ptolemy sits atop his throne. He has the ears of an ass, which are being whispered in by the personifications of Suspicion and Ignorance. Approaching the King is Calumny, dragging her victim, Apelles, by his hair. Calumny, meanwhile, is being led by Envy, personified by the man holding the burning flame. Calumny also accompanied by Treachery and Deceit, depicted as beautiful women, who are grooming her hair. In contrast to the beautiful women in colorful and elegant dresses stands Repentance, personified by a woman cloaked in all black. The meaning is clear (although a bit dated and chauvinistic): treachery and deceit are seductively beautiful and will lure you away from Truth, who is the lone nude in the work.
This little picture warns rules of the earth
To avoid the tyranny of false judgment.
Apelles gave a similar one to the king of Egypt;
That ruler was worthy of the gift, and it of him.
The trompe l’œil niches are just as fascinating as the main scene; each depicts an episode from classical mythology, the Bible, history, and literature. Scholars have identified the three statutes in the niches that face the viewer as: the Old Testament King David on the left, Saint George in the middle, and Saint Paul on the right. The statute directly behind King Ptolemy is Judith, with the head of Holofernes at her feet.