Gothic Art at the Uffizi

In 1560, the Duke of Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici (later Grand Duke of Tuscany), commissioned the construction of the Uffizi to house magistrates, seats of the Florentine guilds, and judiciary offices. It is from this function that the building derived its name (“Uffizi” means “Offices” in English). To design and supervise the new building project, Cosimo commissioned Giorgio Vasari, who, for the last several years, had been restructuring and decorating the Palazzo Vecchio, Cosimo’s newly adopted ducal residence. Describing his design for the new building, Vasari is said to have proclaimed:

I have never built anything more difficult nor dangerous, being founded in the river, and almost in air.

After Vasari’s death in 1574, the project was finished by Bernardo Buontalenti.

Cosimo’s son and heir, Grand Duke Francesco I, opened the first museum exhibition of the Gallery in 1581. The ceilings of the Gallery were decorated with what was known as “grotesque” motifs, which were inspired by the paintings of the Domus Aurea (Emperor Nero’s former home) and reflected those in the recently renovated Ducal Apartments in the Palazzo Vecchio.

The collection of works built up over successive Medici dukes, each acquiring and adding new pieces to the Gallery. Ferdinando I transferred the Jovian series (a collection of portraits) from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Gallery. This collection was mixed with the Aulica Series, a collection of portraits of the principal members of the Medici family, which was commissioned by Francesco I. The dowry of Vittoria della Rovere, Ferdinando II’s wife, included several Titians and Raphaels that ended up in the Gallery. Cosimo III, the son of Ferdinando II and Vittoria della Rovere, appointed Paolo Falconieri as the curator of Gallery and obtained papal permission to transfer ancient statues from the Villa Medici in Rome (including the Venus of the Medici, the Wrestlers, and Arrotino) to Florence.

Ultimately, Gian Gastone de’Medici died in 1737 with no heirs, and so the Medici family lost their hardwon Grand Duchy of Tuscany to Francesco Stefano di Lorena (the son-in-law of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI). (Gian Gastone was too ineffectual a ruler to secure the title for his closest male relative, Don Carlos, later King Charles III of Spain, who ceded Tuscany to the Holy Roman Emperor in return for the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily). Although Gian Gastone lost the title, his sister, Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici, did manage to hold on to the art collection. But, as it happens, Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici also died with no heirs. Prior to her death, she declared the collection to be “public and inalienable property,” thereby ensuring that it would remain intact and in Florence.

Francesco Stefano’s successor, Pietro Leopoldo di Lorena opened the gallery to the public in 1769. Between 1842-1856, Leopold II commissioned 28 statues for the niches of the pillars on the square. These statues were of Tuscan figures dating from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century.

Room 2. Giotto and the 13th Century.

Since the 1950s, Room 2 of the Uffizi has housed Italian works dating from the 13th century. This room has been dubbed the Sala delle “Tre Maestà” due to the three most famous Madonnas Enthroned of the 13th century. It is these three Madonnas that many art historians harken back to when discussing the origins of the Renaissance and why it began in Florence. The first of the three is Cenni di Peppi’s 12.5 foot Santa Trinita Maestà (c. 1290-1300). Cenni di Peppi, known as Cimabue (translated as “Ox-headed” or “bullheaded,” perhaps indicating that Cimabue was hotheaded or had an aggressive personality; indeed, Dante places him among the proud in purgatory in his Divine Comedy), is viewed as the dividing line between the “old” Byzantine school of art and the “new” European tradition.

The reason for this thinking is epitomized in Cimabue’s Maestà of Santa Trinita (destined for the main altar of its eponymous Vallombrosian church in Florence). This altarpiece fuses the traditional Byzantine style with the emerging naturalism of the Gothic. For instance, Mary is positioned as the Byzantine Virgin Hodegetria, an iconographic depiction of Mary wherein she simultaneously holds the baby Jesus and points to him, indicating that he is the salvation of the world. This depiction is also known as Our Lady of the Way, a title derived from the Greek word “Hodegetria,” translated as “she who shows the way.” It was modeled after a famous icon allegedly painted by St. Luke himself. Also typical of Byzantine paintings is Cimabue’s use of damascene, i.e. the inlay of gold within the robes of the Virgin and Child, the golden background, which was used to signify that this scene took place out of time, and the solemn expressions of the angels. Moreover, the blues and pinks of Mary’s robes are reflected in the wings of the angels, symbolizing her status as Queen of Heaven.

The Christ Child gives a blessing and is adorned with his cruciform nimbus (“ringed cross”), a halo inscribed with a cross. The cruciform nimbus was used to identify figures of the Holy Trinity, especially Christ, in early Christian/Byzantine art. Each bar of the cross in this particular halo is comprised of three dotted lines, symbolizing the dogmas of the trinity, the oneness of God, and the two natures of Christ. Christ’s overall posture, with his right foot propped up, reflects that of his mother, whose right foot is also propped up on a ledge.

Below the scene are several Old Testament prophets, whose placement allude to their role as the foundation of the Church. From left to right they are: Jeremiah, Abraham, David and Isaiah. The prophets also serve a typology role; typology was a common theme in Christian art where an Old Testament figure was paired with and served as a harbinger of a New Testament figure. For example, Jeremiah’s three days spent inside the whale was seen as the precursor to Christ’s three days in the tomb; Abraham’s sacrifice of his son and God’s staying of Abraham’s sacrifice was a parallel to God’s sacrifice of his own son and his resurrection; David’s triumph over Goliath alluded to Christ’s triumph over Satan; and finally Isaiah, like Christ, was to be sacrificed by his father and then saved by God. Moreover, the scrolls in the prophets’ hands also serve as the foundation of the Church, reinforcing the notion that the worshippers and God’s message is part of an all-encompassing plan, as well as foretell the Mary’s role as the Mother of God.

The expressive depiction of these Old Testament prophets as well as detailed personalization in the other figures had not been seen prior to this time. Compare the visages between those in this piece with those in a piece from only 20-25 years earlier.

The faces in the Cimabue are more natural while Saint Veranus’ face (in the altarpiece on the right) seems more fitted to a cartoon. Moreover, notice the differences in spatial depth. The Cimabue creates three dimensions via foreshortening of the angels near the front of the throne while the Saint Veranus altarpiece looks flat. Noticing these differences, Vasari wrote:

“[T]here being seen therein a certain greater quality of excellence, both in the air of the heads and in the folds of the draperies, than had been shown in the Greek manner [i.e. Byzantine] up to that time by anyone who had wrought anything, not only in Pisa, but in all Italy. ”

Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing.

Cimabue’s innovations were picked up by his (probable) student, Giotto di Bondone, who went even further and replaced the Byzantine style with a greater sense of naturalism, rediscovered the lost art of perspective, and introduced the concept of narrative painting.

In painting Cimabue thought he held
the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim-
the former only keeps a shadowed fame.

Dante's Purgatorio XI, 94-96 (Mandelbaum Translation).

Judging from Dante’s words in his Purgatorio (written around 1314), it is clear that Giotto’s innovative techniques are not only appreciated by us and art historians, but were acknowledged as groundbreaking by his immediate contemporaries.

That very obligation which the craftsmen of painting owe to nature, who serves continually as model to those who are ever wresting the good from her best and most beautiful features and striving to counterfeit and to imitate her, should be owed, in my belief, to Giotto, painter of Florence, for the reason that, after the methods of good paintings and their outlines had lain buried for so many years under the ruins of the wars, he alone, although born among inept craftsmen, by the gift of God revived that art, which had come to a grievous pass, and brought it to such a form as could be called good. And truly it was a very great miracle that that age, gross and inept, should have had strength to work in Giotto in a fashion so masterly, that design, whereof the men of those times had little or no knowledge, was restored completely to life by means of him.

Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing

It was around this time that people’s attitudes towards art was changing as well. During the Medieval period, artists were considered skilled laborers akin to stonemasons or metalworkers. After the advent of Cimabue, however, artists were becoming celebrities. Lorenzo de’Medici even organized a monument to Giotto to stand in the Duomo. Prior to that time, monuments had only been erected for military and literary heroes. Art was, in short, becoming art.

The fascination with Giotto continued well after his death. Indeed, Vincent van Gogh once said of Giotto: “Giotto touched me the most — always suffering and always full of kindness and ardour as if he were already living in a world other than this. Giotto is extraordinary, anyway, and I feel him more than the poets: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio.” Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo van Gogh, as translated by The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Although Giotto is best known for his tower (pictured left), his Ognissanti Maestà (c. 1310) illuminates the reason for his fame.

The Ognissanti Maestà derives its name, in part, from the positioning of Mary in a throne (maestà is the Italian word for majesty), and in part from its intended location, the Church of All Saints (Ogni is the Italian word for “each” or “all” and so ognissanti may be translated as “all saints”) where it was to be hung above the Umiliati Altar. Due to the position of the Umiliati Altar, it is believed that the altarpiece is meant to be seen from the right, and indeed, if you look at the piece from the right, it takes on a new sense of depth and spatial awareness that it only hints at when viewed headon. It is this spatial awareness that Giotto reintroduced into panel paintings that helped launch the Renaissance and earned him his fame.

Ognissanti Maestà

Giotto also strayed away from ornamental details to focus on the naturalism of his figures, giving each a different expression full of human emotion. He abandoned the use of stark outlines to define his figures, instead opting for shadow and the graduations of light, thereby ensuring that his figures appeared solid and real. For instance, look at the subtle curve of the cushion that Mary sits atop. The curl of this cushion emphasizes Mary’s presence; her body actually interacts with the other elements of the painting and has an effect on them. As for the iconography in this work: Jesus is depicted giving a blessing with his right hand and holding a rolled parchment, a symbol of wisdom, in his left. The white, blue, and gold of Mary’s robes are reflected in the coloring of her throne (as is the red of Christ’s gown); the white alludes to her purity, the blue as her role as Queen of Heaven. The red of Christ’s gown alludes to his passion. The angels at the foot of the throne are offering both roses and lilies. 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). The lilies allude to purity. The angels on either side of the throne hold a crown and a pyxis, alluding to the human nature of Christ and therefore his ultimate sacrifice. The many saints depicted surrounding the throne allude to the painting’s intended location, All Saints in Florence.

The last Maestà in this room is known as The Rucellai Madonna (c. 1285) by Duccio di Buoninsegna, a painter from Siena. It is the largest painting on wood from the 13th century known to date and was commissioned for the Santa Maria Novella by the Florentine confraternity Compagnia dei Laudesi, a lay fraternity dedicated to singing devotional hymns to the Virgin. Its name was derived from the chapel owned by the Rucellai family where it hung at the end of the 16th century. Like Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna, this altarpiece is meant to be viewed from the right.

Rucellai Madonna

Also like Giotto’s Maestà, the Rucellai Madonna fuses traditional Byzantine aspects (the gold lettering and the construction of the figures’ solemn faces) with the innovative techniques of Cimabue, including the distribution of light and shade to create depth (a technique known as chiaroscuro), draped fabrics, and the foreshortening of objects to make them appear closer to the viewer, seen here in the throne and the slight angle of Mary. Behind Mary, angels hold a banner, emphasizing her status and honor.

This piece, specifically the angels holding up the throne, was likely inspired by the Belle Verrière window located in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres.

Room 3. Sienese Painting of the 14th Century

Like Room 2, Room 3 was designed and curated during the 1950s. It documents the transition from the 13th century fusion of Byzantine and Gothic into the 14th century “fairytale” esque style, which emphasized courtly elegance and romanticism via multicolored fabrics, elaborate flooring and marble overlay, and increased use of gold leaf. The main proponents of this style were Simone Martini, his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi, and the Lorenzetti brothers, Ambrogio and Pietro.

Simone Martini, sometimes known as Simone Memmi due to his relationship to Lippo Memmi, worked in Avignon, where he met Francesco Petrarca, better known in English as Petrarch, the Italian poet who is often credited as the source of the modern Italian language. Petrarch wrote of Simone:

Per mirar Policleto a prova fiso 
con gli altri ch’ebber fama di quell’arte, 
mill’anni non vedrian la minor parte 
della beltà che m’àve il cor conquiso. 

Ma certo il mio Simon fu in Paradiso 
onde questa gentil donna si parte; 
ivi la vide, et la ritrasse in carte, 
per far fede qua giù del suo bel viso. 

L’opra fu ben di quelle che nel cielo 
si ponno imaginar, non qui tra noi, 
ove le membra fanno a l’alma velo; 

cortesia fe', né la potea far poi 
che fu disceso a provar caldo et gielo 
et del mortal sentiron gli occhi suoi.

Petrarch, Canz. 77.

Had Policletus seen her, or the rest
Who, in past time, won honour in this art,
A thousand years had but the meaner part
Shown of the beauty which o'ercame my breast.

But Simon sure, in Paradise the blest,
Whence came this noble lady of my heart,
Saw her, and took this wond'rous counterpart
Which should on earth her lovely face attest.

The work, indeed, was one, in heaven alone
To be conceived, not wrought by fellow-men,
Over whose souls the body's veil is thrown:

'Twas done of grace: and fail'd his pencil when
To earth he turn'd our cold and heat to bear,
And felt that his own eyes but mortal were.

As Translated by Major Robert Macgregor.

Had Polycletus in proud rivalry
On her his model gazed a thousand years,
Not half the beauty to my soul appears,
In fatal conquest, e'er could he descry.

But, Simon, thou wast then in heaven's blest sky,
Ere she, my fair one, left her native spheres,
To trace a loveliness this world reveres
Was thus thy task, from heaven's reality.

Yes—thine the portrait heaven alone could wake,
This clime, nor earth, such beauty could conceive,
Where droops the spirit 'neath its earthly shrine:

The soul's reflected grace was thine to take,
Which not on earth thy painting could achieve,
Where mortal limits all the powers confine.

As Translated by Susan Wollaston.

High praise coming from one of Italy’s foremost writers. Although the portrait Simone painted for Petrarch is lost, his Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (1333), which he worked on in partnership with Lippo Memmi, may just as easily be described as “one, in heaven alone to be conceived.” The piece was commissioned for the altar of St. Ansanus in the transept of the Siena Cathedral to pair with Duccio’s Maestà, discussed above (it is likely that Martini trained under Duccio).

Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus

On one side of the work is the martyr Ansanus (a patron saint of Siena), who bears a banner with Siena’s colors (not pictured here). On the other side is another martyr, who some have identified as Maxima, the wet nurse of Ansanus, or Margaret (the inscription identifying her as Judith has been proven incorrect and not part of the original work). Gabriel points upwards towards the incarnation of the Holy Spirit with one hand, and in the other, he holds an olive branch, a sign of peace. His rippling cloak conveys motion, alluding to both his startling arrival as well as the tension it has caused; indeed, Mary is depicted as recoiling from her unexpected visitor. The vase of lilies at the feet of Mary symbolize her purity.

The Latin streaming from Gabriel’s mouth states, “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you” (“AVE GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM”), and the rest of the prayer is embroidered in Gabriel’s robes.

Martini was interested in colorful patterns, but it was his decorative details that really took off, prompting the development of the school known as the International Gothic, the subject of a later post.

Room 4. Florentine Painting of the 14th Century.

While 14th century Sienese painting was typified by courtly elegance and otherworldly grandeur, 14th century Florentine painting continued, and further developed, Giotto’s 13th century innovations (naturalistic figures, luminosity, and spatial awareness). The major players here include Taddeo Gaddi, Gaddi’s son Agnolo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi, Pacino di Bonaguida, Giottino, and Giovanni da Milano.

Lippo di Benivieni’s altarpiece (c. 1315), although not found in Room 4 because it was acquired as part of the Contini Bonacossi collection, is more properly discussed among its 14th century Florentine brethren.

Madonna and Child between a Pope and a Bishop

Not much is known about Lippo di Benivieni, aside from the fact that he was working in Florence during the 14th century. His skill, however, can be appreciated in this altarpiece.

The expressions, produced via shading, are much more realistic and three dimensional than those produced during the 13th century, although they do retain the austere solemnity of the Byzantine tradition. Lippo also used shading to give three dimensions to the Bishop’s collar, which gives depth to the painting not seen in prior art.

It was Bernardo Daddi, however, who was considered the leading painter in Florence at this time. Daddi was a student of Giotto and like his teacher, he sought to portray his figures as realistic as possible. To do so, he combined Giotto’s innovations with stylistic features from the Sienese school. Daddi’s first dated work is the Triptych with Virgin and Child between St. Matthew and St. Nicholas of Bari (1328) depicts the Virgin Mary with St. Nicholas of Bari on the right and St. Matthew the Evangelist on the left. The work was commissioned by Nicholaus de Mazinghis, which explains St. Nicholas’ appearance in the piece. In the tondos above each figure is Christ giving a blessing.

Triptych with Virgin and Child between Saint Matthew the Evangelist and Saint Nicholas of Bari, Bernardo Daddi (1328)

Daddi’s San Pancrazio Polyptych was likely painted after this Triptych, sometime during the 1330s. (The San Pancrazio Polyptych is mistakenly identified as an Agnolo Gaddi by Vasari).

San Pancrazio Polyptych, Bernardo Daddi

The Virgin and Child are the principal image, and they are surrounded by St. Pancrazio (who eponymous Church was the home of this altarpiece), St. Zenobius, St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist, St. Reparata, and St. Miniato (from left to right). The predella contains images from the life of the Virgin, demonstrating Daddi’s skill in miniaturist painting. It Daddi’s figure of Mary, however, that demonstrates Giotto’s influence:

The similarities between the thrones is remarkable: each decorated with inlaid marble, each with a delicately decorated ciborium (canopy of state), each surrounded by angels, and each with roses and lilies at the foot of the throne. Yet, the differences between the two are equally astounding. In Giotto’s version, the angels piously face Mary and Jesus, but the angels in Daddi’s version are interacting with each other, creating a narrative image rather than a simple icon to be worshiped. This theme is reflected in the depiction of Mary and Jesus; the Mary and Jesus in Giotto’s version face the viewer, directly connecting with him or her while the Mary and Jesus in Daddi’s version face each other, establishing the mother-child relationship while Baby Jesus reaches towards a flower held by his mother. Rather than a simple icon to be mediated upon or worshipped, Daddi’s version gives human context and emotions to his figures, indicating a move towards the Renassiance and, later, Mannerism, a style focused intensely on emotion.

Also part of the Contini Bonacossi collection, but is better discussed here is Agnolo Gaddi’s Virgin and Child with Ten Angels and the Saints Benedict, Peter, John the Baptist, and Miniatus (c. 1380). Interestingly, this altarpiece is actually a combination of two separate works by Gaddi. The side panels were likely meant for the church of San Miniato in Florence, while the central panel featuring Mary enthroned was a separate piece.

Virgin and Child with ten angels and the Saints Benedict, Peter, John the Baptist and Miniatus

As in this altarpiece, Gaddi’s compositions were characterized by harsh colors, varied visages, and  curvilinear contours. To the direct right of Mary is John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint, recognizable via his animal skin tunic. Next to John is Prince Miniatus, Florence’s first martyr while to the left of Mary is St. Peter, holding a book inscripted with “DOMINE TECUM PARATUS SUM ET IN CARCEREM ET IN MORTEM IRE” (“And he said unto him, Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death”) (Luke, 22:33). Next to him is St. Benedict, identifiable via his white tunic, which would have been worn by the Olivetan Benedictine monks who lived in the Florentine Benedictine monastery from 1373.

Unlike Daddi’s work, this altarpiece seems to revert back towards traditional motifs: Mary’s throne is flat, evoking the feeling of a casket rather than a chair. Although the two angels in back are interacting, the majority of the figures either look towards the viewer or towards the Christ child in adoration. Moreover, the faces of the figures seem rather generic, harkening back to Byzantine work.

A more recently rediscovered artist, known as Giottino, painted this final piece known as the Pietà di San Remigio (1360-1365).

Detail of Pietà di San Remigio, Giottino

Mary is holding her son’s head while two other women kiss the stigmata, the wounds caused during Christ’s Passion, on Christ’s hands. Standing behind Christ and the mourning women are Saints Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and John the Evangelist (not pictured). The women kneeling on the left is one of the patrons of the work. In contrast to the other figures, she is depicted on a smaller scale and wearing contemporary Florentine dress. The work was commissioned for the Church of San Remigio. It is considered a masterpiece due to the expressions of the figures and its psychological insight into the figures’ suffering.