Travels in Italy, Part 2: The Uffizi

Ah, the Uffizi. The heart and soul of one of the world’s great capitals of art. The home of countless stunning masterpieces, including works by Giotto, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Titian, and Raphael. The subject of a book by Abbeville Press. Truly, the Fanta of art museums.

Not one to be intimidated by all this prestige, I spent a large portion of my time in the Uffizi looking for places to sit down. My friend and I in our wine-soaked laziness had waited too long to reserve tickets, so we had to slog through the hourlong wait at the entrance before being admitted. (Sadly, there’s no such thing as an Arbiter of Style press pass—I need to talk to the publisher about this.) By the time we actually started strolling through the gallery, my dogs were tired. The art was beautiful, but the cushioned benches, wherever I could spot them, looked absolutely ravishing.

Still, I was able to take in most of the collection over the course of the day, and was duly blown away by its contents. In my capacity as official sharer of unsolicited opinions, I’ve put together a list of quick pronouncements on The Best of the Uffizi:

Best Room: The Sala del Botticelli, hands down. I could have spent the entire afternoon in this one. If nothing else, the presence of so many of his greatest works in a single room drives home the fact that Botticelli painted the best eyes in all of Western art. He was the master of the soft-focus stare or “dreamer’s gaze” that always seems to be looking inward or elsewhere, outside the painting. Even figures that seem at first to look straight at you—say, the Christ child in the Madonna of the Pomegranate, or Flora in the Primavera—are on second glance just as dreamy and distracted as Venus stepping from her seashell. Nor is the faraway gaze reserved for goddesses and other holy figures; someone once said that in Balzac novels even the janitors are geniuses, and in the same way, at least half the figures in Botticelli look like otherworldly visionaries. The effect is arresting and genuinely moving: after seeing enough tilted heads and sad, bemused eyes, you catch yourself taking on the same look.

Best Madonna and Child: With the exception of Madonna of the Pomegranate, my favorite was Filippino Lippi’s Adoration of the Child. The simplicity and naturalism of this work, like the Madonna it depicts, are lovely. Too many Madonnas of the period are saddled with a kind of stiff, overt piety, and too many Christ children with features that look disturbingly (or comically) adult; Lippi avoids both pitfalls by giving us a dangling-haired Madonna regarding her baby with unforced tenderness, and a realistic Christ child looking back with a baby’s questioning eyes. By emphasizing the figures’ humanity rather than their holiness, the painting was able to tug the heartstrings of even a godless aesthete like me.

Best Crucifixion: This would have to be the one by Luca Signorelli, with its haunting background detail of Christ’s fellow prisoners being dragged down from their crosses, and its equally haunting (in fact, downright creepy) foreground detail of a skull with a lizard crawling into it. The suggestion is that amidst so much death, Christ and his followers endure, but the viewer’s attention is definitely drawn more to the death side of the equation.

Best Self-Portrait: It always makes for a little cognitive dissonance to see an iconic painting “in real life”—to see an apparently timeless, universal image confined to a single time and space. It’s even weirder to see such a painting hanging by itself in a corner, just above a dehumidifier—as was the case with Raphael’s famous 1506 self-portrait in the Uffizi. Amidst all the museum’s splendor, good old Raph, with his youthful face and soulful eyes, looked like he had been tucked away in someone’s den. The big tour groups that normally cluster around well-known works practically passed it by. I found this strangely charming.

Most Unctuous Lutanist: Speaking of charm, the mustachioed star of Van Honthorst’s Supper Party certainly seemed to be working his mandolin to great effect with the lady sitting next to him. I bet he’d have done even better with a piano-guitar, though.

Most Terrifying Single Image: No shortage of competition in the Uffizi for this title—all those lizard-skulls and bloody heads of Holofernes and hell, even the flowers coming out of Chloris’s mouth in the Primaverabut I’ll have to go with Caravaggio’s Medusa, if only because of its uncanny resemblance to a snake-haired Johnny Depp.

I could continue, but passing all these expert judgments has tuckered me out again, so I’m going to take the writing equivalent of a nice rest on a cushiony bench. Tomorrow we’ll put Italy on hold for a day and toss out a few pearls of style to our Japan-lovers out there. Arrivederci.

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