The Uffizi Gallery was opened to the public in 1765, but it had acquired fame long before this date. Even before the end of the 16th century, Francesco Bocchi wrote in his guidebook, “It is amongst the most supremely beautiful sights in the world and is filled with ancient statues, noble paintings and extremely precious objects.” Curiously, the pictures are hung in the gallery in the same order in which they appear on the pages of Bocchi‘s guide.
It was the ruler of Florence, Cosimo de Medici, who came up with the idea of constructing a gallery. At first he wanted to build an administrative services building, as the civil servants had outgrown their offices in the Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti. Incidentally, “Uffizi“ in Italian means “administrative office." For this work, they chose to hire the finest architect of that time, Giorgio Vasari, who, in addition to many beautiful buildings, also gave the world the book, “The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.” Vasari designed the gallery in the shape of a horseshoe, with the two wings pointing to the Piazza della Signoria, joined by a corridor overlooking the River Arno. The Medici dukes spared no expense in the construction and they played an active role in choosing the materials to decorate the interior. So the Uffizi was not an office building for very long. In 1581, Francesco de Medici ordered that the gallery should henceforth house the famous family’s art collection.
Most of the sculptures were brought here from the Vatican. Some of the figures’ poses were a little too candid for the Pope, and he wanted to be rid of them. As soon as the gallery became a museum, the collection began to grow very rapidly, and it was not long before there was no more space left on and along the walls for all the paintings and sculptures. This is why, early in the 17th century, a corridor was built linking the gallery with the Ponte Vecchio.
In 1737, the heiress Anna Maria, the last Duchess of the Medici line, donated all the family buildings and contents to the city, and negotiated one crucial condition: the works of art should never leave Florence. It is for this reason that the Uffizi masterpieces are exhibited only in the gallery.
The gallery has 45 halls, and most of these are devoted to artists of the Renaissance: Giotto, Botticelli, Titian and many others. Of all the rooms in the gallery, the most striking is surely the Buontalenti Tribuna, a hall with a ceiling inlaid with shells, and the works of artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael on display.
In 1993 the gallery was damaged when a car bomb exploded in the street. Parts of the palace and a number of sculptures were affected, but the greatest damage was suffered by the Niombe room. Even though its interior has been fully restored, some of the frescoes being stored in the hall were destroyed.
Adjoining the gallery is Florence’s famous Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge. In the 16th century it was used by the local traders as a market over the river. When Duke Ferdinando de Medici strolled along the Vasari Corridor over the bridge, he was infuriated by the smells of the produce on sale below, and in 1593 he banished the grocers. Their places were swiftly taken by jewelers, although these merchants were charged double the previous rent.
According to another version of the legend, what really spoiled the Duke’s stroll was that common people’s conversations on the bridge below were audible via the small windows of the Vasari Corridor, so he ordered the market stalls to be replaced by jewelers’ shops to deter ordinary folk from congregating on the Ponte Vecchio.
A third legend refers to one of the young princesses of the Medici clan, who was taking a walk along the Vasari Corridor and could hear the traders swearing and cursing. On returning to the palace, she asked her father about the meaning of the new words she’d heard. Ferdinando, naturally, was furious and this is why he banned the shopkeepers and invited goldsmiths in their place.