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The Uffizi Gallery

October 9, 2015
Continuing on with our grand "Sisters Only" adventure, my sister and I finally got to tour the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  I've seen mostly Modern Art museums in my travels... but this was my first Renaissance art museum.

Located along the banks of the Arno River, the Uffizi building complex was designed by Giorgia Vasari for Cosimo I de Medici to be offices for the Florentine magistrates (Hence, uffizi meaning 'offices'), and also to display the prime artworks of the Medici family.


The gallery is a great architectural masterpiece.  From the plan below, one sees the building is split into two corridors with an open space in the center.  The internal corridor is so long and so narrow - it is considered the first regularized streetscape in Europe.


It is a huge building complex... it has three floors and looms over you... it surrounds you, wraps itself around you... and yet instead, it also feels like it is light and lifting upward.  There is life inside - pedestrians walking, street performers, artists and caricaturists...


If you look to the top of the walls all along the underside of the ceilings, you can see many portraits of dignitaries who came to visit.  Coming to visit Firenze typically meant staying several weeks or months...  During their stay, dignitaries often had their portraits painted.  The portraits hanging in the gallery now are all reproductions... and the originals are safely tucked away.


The frescoes along the ceilings of the first corridor are by Alessandro Allori.  It is painted in the Grottesque style (which is different from the grotesque we know today).  This style blurs the lines between art and nature, reality and fantasy... and is highly ornamental.

Grottesque, 1581, Alessandro Allori

Right up to the Renaissance, during the Pre-Renaissance, paintings looked a lot like what you see below:

Left: Cimabue, Santa Trinita Maesta', 1280 (Cropped Image) Right: Giotto, Madonna d'Ognissanti, 1310

The perspective was still very two-dimensional.  People look flattened onto the canvas.  Notice how the angels look like they are cardboard cut outs placed one in front of the other.  The knowledge of anatomy and physiology was basic at best.  Also, the halo usage is very frequent in these paintings.  It was also customary to never paint someone you know into the composition - a big, no-no.

But, then there were signs of things changing.

The Baptism of Christ, Verrochio, 1475

The Baptism of Christ was finished in the studio of Verrochio in 1475.  It depicts the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  It was not uncommon during these times for several people to work on a single painting.  Let's say the master painter would do the main character while the students or apprentices would do the landscape, the supporting characters, etc.

In this painting, a soon to be well-known student, named Leonardo da Vinci, painted the angel on the far left, the landscape in the background, and the water at the men's feet.

It was a huge breakthrough when this painting was unveiled.  Everyone was amazed at the softness and youthfullness of the angel, the realistic transparancy and rippling of the water, and the sense of distance of the landscape.  And notice the haloes becoming more realistic and less like golden orbs.

Annunciation, Leonardo da Vinci, 1472 (Cropped Photo)

The Annunciation was also another 'collaboration' between Verrechio and his student, Leonardo da Vinci.  It is said that Verrechio left a note for Leonardo to finish the angel wings and background landscape.  This is the first time angel wings are depicted as bird wings with feathers.

The story tells of the angel, Gabriel, coming to Mary to deliver a message... that she would miraculously conceive and give birth to a son...  but, interestingly enough, there is a room with a bed shown on the right.  Hmmm...

Madonna and Child with Two Angels, Filippo Lippi, 1465

Remember the no-no about painting people you knew?  Well, Filippo Lippi's painting, Madonna and Child with Two Angels consists of models he knew quite well - his wife and three children.

The main child, depicted as a boy, was really his daughter.  And, the child hidden in the background is of one of his other children who had passed away at a very young age.

The angel in front was of his other son Fillipino, who would also grow up to be a painter like his father.

Something people also did not do before the Renaissance was to have their own portraits done.  Was the above portrait a move towards the modern selfie? 

Posing in profile in the Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino, Battista Sforza and Federigo II da Montefeltro by Piero Della Francesca, the Duchess and Duke of Urbino are painted as facing each other.  We are looking at the good side of the Duke because it is said that the other side of his face is distorted and his vision is impaired due to injuries in battle.  Look closely and you will see a very funny shaped nose on the Duke.  It is also said that he wanted to excel in battle and so had doctors shave off a bit of the bridge of his nose so that his remaining good eye could see better.

Notice that the Duchess looks a bit pale?  Well, she passed away prior to this portrait... ergo her bluish, greyish complexion.  Look at the detail of her head dress.  It took the ladies of those days hours to do their hair... and speaking of hair, that high forehead line was made intentionally by plucking and shaving.  A high forehead meant higher standing.  Notice the blond(ish) hair color... women spent hours (or days!) trying to lighten their hair... often sitting for hours in the sun with their hair soaked in horse urine.  Oh, yeah.  That's right.

Notice, also, the sleeve of her dress.  In those days, women could easily open up their sleeves to give a quick wipe of their arm pits.  It was "common knowledge" back then that bathing and hygiene were bad.  People often went for long periods of time without bathing... and even longer periods without washing their clothes... until the Plague, and things definitely started to change!!

Hello to the female body!

Venus de' Medici

The Venus de' Medici captures the moment she supposedly emerges from the sea, alluded to by the dolphin.  Her origin is unknown... but historians believe she is from the 2nd Century BC and is perhaps a marble copy made in Athens, Greece.  She is a navigation point from which the progress of the Western classical tradition can be traced.

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1480

Ahh, the famous Botticelli - The Birth of Venus 

The painting depicts the birth of Venus as an adult woman emerging from the sea and arriving at the shore.  There is similarity between the Venus de' Medici as Botticelli studied this sculpture prior to this painting.  There is so much symbolism and variety of interpretations that I won't go into that here.  I'm just happy to see women being subject matter other than as the Madonna.

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, 1482
More celebration of divine love, the world's new fertility, and the eternal spring.  The bodies of women are softer and fuller.  There are many types of different flowers in the painting... we see more of the natural world entering the composition and the symbolism.  Oh,  and women seem to be having a better time in their lives!

Carita, Francesco Salviati, 1543

In Carita (Charity) by Francesco Salviati, we see the mother and child theme evolving into something more sensual... the woman's body is exposed, more realistic... rather than the previous Pre-Renaissance two-dimensional flatposes.  Preportions are becoming more true to life.  Facial expressions are more real.  Body positions are more probable...

Adoration of the Child by Gerrit Van Honthorst, 1619 (Cropped Photo)

In the Adoration of the Child by Gerrit Van Honthorst, we see a painting that uses an incredible lighting effect known as chiaroscuro, which creates a sense of volume in the space by using a
value gradiation of color... here, we see a very dark background moves into a very light, almost illuminated point in the composition.   The eyes move from the darkness into the main point of the painting - the child.  Van Honthorst was a Dutch painter who was a master of this effect.  There is great control and focus pulled from the viewer's eyes by the artist.

Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, 1475

Remember when painting someone you knew or even looking outward from the canvas were frowned upon during Pre-Renaissance times?  Well, by the 1400's, many people of great stature were included into paintings - men of great wealth, politicans, even the artists themselves were in the painting.

In Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo the Elder can be seen kneeling in front of the child... and Botticelli, himself, dressed in orange, looks out from the right corner of the painting.  This reminds me of when Alfred Hitchcock (or today, Quentin Tarantino) make cameos in their own films!

Death of Adonis, Sebastiano de Piombo, 1511 (Cropped Photo)

Adonis is known in Greek Mythology as "an annually-renewed, ever youthful vegetation god, a life-death-rebirth deity whose nature is tied to the calendar.  He is the archetype applied to modern handsome youths." (Thanks, Wiki!

His dying is depicted in the Death of Adonis in the presence of a group of young girls around the poet Sappho.   There is so much action in this painting... the women surrounding the poet, the woman and child, Adonis dying off to the side... now, paintings are becoming full on stories that are caught in a specific moment.

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio, 1592 (Cropped Photo)

Speaking of action and capturing the moment, the next two paintings do a great job at letting the viewer into the very dramatic act of killing.

Around this time, the Church was looking for a new style, different from Mannerism, and in stepped Caravaggio, who invented a radical realism that combined a close physical observation with an even more dramatic use of chiaroscuro that  came to be known as tenebrism (where the shift from light to dark is extreme, using very little intermediate value gradations).

For more on the symbolism of the sacrifice of Isaac, go here.

Judith beheading Holophernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620 (Cropped Photo)

Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the few women painters of the Renaissance.  She was introduced to painting in her father, Orazio Gentileschi's, studio.  She showed great talent and was heavily inspired by Caravaggio during that period.  Her father was working with Agostino Tassi and later hired him to tutor his daughter privately.  It was during that time that Tassi raped Artemisia.  After promising to marry her, Tassi broke his promise and Orazio pressed charges.

Artemisia took all of these events to heart and used them in her feminist themes in her paintings.

In Judith beheading Holophernes, we see Judith at the very moment where she is bracing herself right as her sword penetrates the neck.  The blood is spewing everywhere, there is only darkness as the background.  We are pulled into this very dramatic, very private moment.

In the painting, we see a second woman holding down Holophernes.  She represents the solidarity and unity of women.  When Artemisia was raped, she cried for help, but the woman who rented the apartment upstairs ignored her cries and pretended nothing happened.  This woman was the only female figure in Artemisia's life (as her mother died when Artemisia was twelve)... and this betrayal only solidified Artemisia's strong sense of women standing together.

Supper Party, Gerrit Van Honthorst, 1619 (Cropped Photo)

Some moments capture not only death and dying, but also more common events like pulling a tooth.  Even this moment is pictured happening right at the table during a supper party.  There seems to be conversation and music while the two ladies tend to the gentleman with the sore tooth.  The elder lady in the corner seems to be enjoying this man's pain!

. . .

So, we have now seen several of the many changes in art during the Renaissance period.  It's a rapid evolution given what the art looked like during the pre-Renaissance, don't you think?  I think life got real for the first time since halos and angels and the consistent religious themes of the past decades.

Real people are in the picture now... with three dimensional bodies and surroundings... doing real activities... telling a variety of stories from the mundane to the dramatic... and they are even looking out of the frame back onto the viewer.

Instead of only viewing into the painting, I think now a viewer looks into a painting and the subject looks right back at them in a way that is very much alive... I see these subjects looking back at me and I wonder what they must be thinking... what are they trying to tell me.  If they are indeed alive, in that weird movie kind of way, do they see me and wonder what's going on in the world I live today??  What would THEY think about our lives?

And, maybe that was the point during the Renaissance - the rebirth of man... a thinking man... who learned and questioned his surroundings. 

The goal of art is to get you to think... about something... anything.  Feel something... anything.

But,  all I can think of at this very moment is if Keanu Reeves is a time traveller?  Because maybe he (or his doppelganger) was living in Florence around the 1500's?  What are you trying to say to me, mystery man in Portrait of a Man?  Apparently, I'm not the first one to think of this!

The Portrait of a Man, Parmagianino, 1530

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