The Uffizi Galleries opened yesterday, after the latest period of Covid closure, with some big news: fourteen new rooms dedicated to the Cinquecento and a streamlined entrance procedure. Pictures weren’t sufficient to understand how these rooms fit into the museum path, nor how the works relate to one another in space. With the excuse of “testing it” for you, dear reader, I had a once in a lifetime experience being almost entirely alone in the Uffizi.

Alone with Botticelli’s Primavera in the Uffizi the day after it reopened, May 2021. All photos (C) Alexandra Korey.

This was not a special press visit nor an after-hours tour. I simply showed up at 8:12am, three minutes before opening time, on the second day after reopening. I was hoping that it would not be crowded because I’m very uncomfortable with having people anywhere near me, as I suppose we all are right now. However, I could never have expected the surreal pleasure of having every room to myself, guards excepted. An elderly Florentine couple who also couldn’t believe their good luck sometimes wandered into a room just as I was leaving it. Exchanging a few words in front of the view of the Ponte Vecchio, they told me how they hadn’t been to the Uffizi in many years. “Too many tourists,” they said, and of course, I agreed. It’d been a while for me, too.

The new Uffizi entry

The new ticket area and entry path of the Uffizi in 2021

Both the entrance to the gallery and the ticket office are now located closest to the Arno. Facing the Arno, the ticket office is on the right, while the entry is on the opposite side. Through security, you enter into a hall and soon find yourself at the rear of the building, where you might recognize the exit. Here, we go downstairs into the basement, where the relatively new washrooms are located, and we are funneled down a long hallway before coming back up at the base of the grand staircase that takes us up two floors to the main gallery (on the first floor is the Print room). I assume that this route serves to space out visitors and allows the Uffizi gallery to use the best possible space for its entry, though it’s a pretty long walk and four (rather than two) flights of stairs before we see any art. I can see this as being an issue for the elderly or families with children, whom I hope are ushered into some more efficient route.

When exiting, we currently end up back where we started, at security, and into this area that mixes people entering and exiting the museum, which I can see as being a major point of blockage and pray it’s not a definitive solution.

Just me and the masterpieces

Piero della Francesca, Duke and Duchess of Urbino, May 2021. All photos (C) Alexandra Korey.

Piero della Francesca, Duke and Duchess of Urbino

Eloquence escapes me as I attempt to describe the sensation of being the first morning visitor in the Uffizi, alone in almost all the rooms. It was a quiet meeting with old friends, me smiling under my mask, them not showing their 500 years. I greeted them by name; nobody could hear me talking to myself. Hello, Mantegna, is that you? Oh Lorenzo Lotto, to think we’ve been apart for so long.

Michelangelo's Doni Tondo and his neighbours

There is probably a German word for how I felt today, combining glee with an understanding that this isn’t quite as it should be, and that it would never be like this again. A kind of saudade, a feeling of loss before it happens, that spurred me to consume the museum in perhaps not the most productive way.

The Leonardo Room, designed for many more people

It’s been some years since I have been through the entire Uffizi; I’ve written about some of the new areas as they opened, such as the new Botticelli rooms and the Caravaggio rooms. I saw Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi as it came out of restoration and was installed in its own room with just two other pieces; rooms like this are designed to accommodate the many art pilgrims who come from around the world to see paintings by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Botticelli. The discreetly shifted position of many of these works, such as the Battle of San Romano, much improves viewing experience, giving enough space to step back and admire large paintings, without upsetting the historic order and logic of the museum.

Filippino Lippi and Piero di Cosimo room, Uffizi
Filippino Lippi and Piero di Cosimo room, Uffizi

If you, like me, are used to the “old Uffizi” and so orient yourself based on what is in the rooms rather than their position (because who can keep track?), you may enjoy the game of “what was here before”. This was a reconnaissance trip for me. For example, I am pretty sure that the new room A27 dedicated to Filippino Lippi and Piero di Cosimo used to hold Titian’s Venus, and the adjacent narrow room Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck.

Uffizi hall
The empty hallowed halls of the Uffizi

To experience the Uffizi as a whole today helps me realize what great steps the museum has taken in recent years to finally update the historic display in line with modern needs. More space has been given to important works, recessed installations and anti-reflection glass ease viewership (though I continue to suspend judgement on the “MRI machine” aesthetics), young staff are ready to answer questions, and bilingual explanatory panels are available now for all works. Benches are still somewhat at a premium, but when the museum is once again full of visitors, there simply isn’t space for seating. I’m still waiting for a free map that informs visitors where to find key works, a standard item in international museums, but I’m sure it’s on their list for when they finally finish the shifting and expansion!

The new Cinquecento Rooms

The gallery has now expanded by 2000 square meters over fourteen rooms placed on the first floor above ground. After finishing your visit on the second floor with the Leonardos, or arriving at the café, you double back to take a set of stairs down to the first floor. Immediately to your right you now find the new area dedicated to masterpieces of the Florentine sixteenth century as well as Emilian and Roman art of the same period. This flows into the Venetian Cinquecento, and at the very end, you get to the “red rooms” dedicated to Caravaggio and the seventeenth century.

The new Cinquecento rooms: Andrea del Sarto

The new rooms are a bit of a maze; in fact, a friendly guard is there to direct you so you don’t immediately go in the wrong direction. There are arrows and “x”’s above the doors like those confusing highway tunnels that sometimes have one lane inverted. After the bold blue rooms and the very bold red ones, pietra-serena grey is the order of the day here. Lacking natural light, these rooms are intimate and self-contained, opening up viewpoints to adjacent spaces but concentrating the visitor’s attention on the current one.

We kick off with Andrea del Sarto and Rosso Fiorentino, moving through Beccafumi, Bachiacca and of course, Pontormo. This series of small rooms is as eloquent as the Strozzi exhibition on the Florentine Cinquecento back in 2017 and as strange as the same museums’ exhibition “Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, diverging paths of Mannerism” in 2014, when I wrote about how I struggled to understand Rosso Fiorentino. Sarto’s Madonna of the Harpies is actually displayed on a pietra serena base similar to an altarpiece and is given pride of place in the first room of the series.

Rosso Fiorentino room

In the next room are three Rosso Fiorentino’s: the Spedalingo Altarpiece (one of the most disturbing paintings of Early Modern Italy) is made sweeter by the “putto” next to it – the oft-reproduced lute-playing angel – which serves as a comparison to the musical putti at the base of the altarpiece. And on the left, a recent acquisition: donated by Professor Carlo Del Bravo in July 2020 is a San Giovanni by Rosso Fiorentino, just as strange as one would expect from this artist (read the linked article above for my musings on him).

A new favourite room?

My new favourite room may be D5: Sebastiano del Piombo and the impact of Michelangelo in Rome. Absolutely stunning colours and very, very clever visual comparisons make this room rich and rewarding for the informed viewer who can easily recognize Michelangeloesque themes in the paintings by Alessandro Allori, Marcello Venusci and Semolei.

The Parmigianino room

To follow is the Madonna of the Long Neck, with enough space to see her, and some other quirky portraits from Dosso Dossi and co.

Best comparison, ever.

The hall dedicated to Venetian sixteenth-century painting, with its Christmas-tree-green walls, was actually renovated and opened in 2019 and quite seamlessly connects to that of the same period in Central Italy. A virtual tour is available on the Uffizi’s website. I hadn’t yet seen these rooms, and they brought me so much joy: although my brain likes Florentine art, my heart and soul respond to the Venetian. Here too, it’s looking around corners that one is most rewarded. My very favourite viewpoint compares Titian’s Venus to Licinio’s Reclining Nude, and a flowy-shirted Lucretia with the lovely Flora. I wonder what happens when crowds block these viewpoints.

The Tribune

My take? These new rooms are innovatively curated and bring joy around every corner. They increase the understanding of the paintings and periods by suggesting comparisons that were less effective in the old halls. A bit more signposting to understand just how many more rooms you’re in for would be helpful for the first-time visitor; the Uffizi will always be so incredibly rich as to be somewhat indigestible, but it is vastly improved. After a lengthy absence, this is the time for Florentine residents to take back the museum… while we still can. I may need to go back next week.

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