It has been a violent summer in many ways. So troubling has been the international landscape that it seems flippant to wax lyrical on the cultural treats I have enjoyed in recent months. Yet even in the face of political calamity and human crisis, I am reminded a civilisation which does not work to protect, indeed fervently celebrate, art and beauty is not a world in which we’d like to live. So since it is my great good fortune to reside in places where much of that celebration goes on uninterrupted, I can only thank God for it and pray things markedly improve in other parts of the world where too many are suffering.
While busy wearing an arts/event manager hat, I haven’t found time of late to post comment on many good productions: King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe; the exquisite performance of Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda in the Royal Opera House’s production of Rigoletto; the striking Restless Futures exhibition at Central Saint Martin’s Letharby Gallery for London Design Festival; the interesting Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A; and the energetic (nationalistic) fun of the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 13th September which wrapped up another wonderful season of accessible and vibrant concerts. Yet of many luxurious experiences in galleries and theatres this summer, it was arriving back in Tuscany a few days ago which has surely been my personal highlight.
Regular readers know I used to live in Toscana and not a day goes by where, on some level, I don’t miss her. So going back to see friends and visit old haunts was food for the soul. I stayed an hour with David, as lovers of Renaissance sculpture must do, and as with many visits it was hard to drag myself away. He did not step down from his plinth as is commonly desired, but rather stayed as poised and concentrated as Michelangelo left him, but one can only hope. And there is so much to be thankful for in this figured miracle that, as usual, it took an act of will to focus a while on masterpieces by Perugino, Albertinelli, Bronzino, Allori, di Tito, di Credi and of course Michelangelo’s Unfinished Slaves. The latter, in particular, reminds us marble is not an easy substance in which to ‘find flesh’... heightening one’s respect for the famous artist’s extraordinary ability to release lifelike figures from the stone and create something as glorious and monumental as David.
Apart from abundant eating, drinking and socializing with Italian and ex-pat friends, a little retail therapy (couldn’t resist three leather handbags), I spent one big day in the Uffizi – arguably the most famous U-shaped building in the world, perfectly situated on the banks of the River Arno and adjacent to Firenze’s Piazzale Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio. Cutting the queue by asking the guard to let me into the office for Amici delgi Uffizi, the helpful lady, Lima, who administers the programme asked with a welcoming smile: Guilia, come stai? Vivete in Toscana ora? O dove? In Londre, I replied... whereupon we chatted for a good ten minutes, as is the friendly Italian way, before getting down to business. Quickly then I was through security and climbing the beautiful neo-classical stairs to the infamous second floor.
A couple of years ago I knew every inch of most Tuscan and Umbrian museums, churches and villas. I was excited to see it all again in the Uffizi, to feel utterly cocky and familiar. And I did for a while when perusing the first corridor, the cheeky ceiling grotesques and Roman busts a weekly fixture in my former Italian routine. Then I discovered the curators had moved much of the collection around. I was a little discombobulated. The world had tilted, like stepping off a roller-coaster and having to re-adjust to the earth. Well, they might have asked. I mean, don’t we come back to ancient and classical places specifically so things stay the same? It dawned on me many references in my research and writing would now have to be updated. I felt an unnerving loss of knowledge, ownership... a perceived loss of control perhaps... confirmation the universe evolves whether or not we keep up. And this self-observation made me laugh. Clearly I was going to have to: a) respect the wisdom of the curators... who would not be doing their job if they didn’t augment and reinvent the exhibitions; and b) take the opportunity to rediscover the Uffizi as if, indeed, it was my first visit.
So that challenge accepted, I began with new eyes, new curiosity, and did my best to become acquainted with the collection as it is now arranged.
Though I do wish to say I hope when they finish renovating Rooms 2-7 they put back works from the Sienese and Florentine 14th century schools, as well as masterpieces like Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi (circa 1423), for it is only through appreciation of more primitive and gothic styles that the full flowering of the Renaissance in the hands of Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino and da Vinci can be truly understood. Nevertheless the masses were not disappointed, for Room 10-14 is still home to Botticelli’s much adored Primavera (circa 1482) and The Birth of Venus (circa 1484). So I found a seat and let the crowds come and go as I swivelled my attention slowly from one wall to another - immersion of the best kind – inevitably coming back to Venus, Flora and the Three Graces who are draped with such sheer and billowing fabric their ethereal delicacy belies Botticelli’s underpinning statement of vigour, sensuality and fertility.
I didn’t queue to get close to The Tribune for I know its gold and shell encrusted dome as well as I know my bedroom ceiling, but I was very happy it had not moved (hardly possible given its elaborate and unique construction!) and that she still houses the demure and tiny Medici Venus. The only difference was the shuffling of a few paintings and that visitors can no longer promenade around the cylindrical room because it’s been decided protection of the multi-coloured precious tiles must take priority.
I also thought the new display in Rooms 19-23, keeping the works Italian and grouped by region, was a positive change. And as Rooms 24-32 used to be crowded and rushed, with respect to historical development, I was pleased to find them closed for restoration and reorganisation. So far so good.
Room 35 now houses Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (a round painting of the Holy Family with the infant St John the Baptist) but, as is common in heavily-trafficked galleries, it was having a day off from tourists and the door was shut tight. I used to admire Rubens in Room 41 but it appears to have been hijacked for storage so not sure what plans the Uffizi has for him. However the large room with ancient sculptures telling the Legend of Niobe is unchanged and as popular as ever due to extravagant Baroque decoration.
It is down on the first floor where the latest renovations to the Uffizi become dramatically clear. There is now so much more useable space. The temporary exhibition rooms (formerly ad hoc and somewhat cobbled together) are located now under atmospheric and attractive stone arches which seem to burrow so deeply into the building I wonder how I never knew these ‘rooms’ were there. These sneaking ‘corridors’, or more literally ‘cavities’, form a chain of space which is not only generous to curators looking to evoke a theme, but under neutral stone arches emitting a soft, low and ancient light, the individually lit paintings on display are thrown into such striking relief it creates the kind of reverence and contemplation ordinarily reserved for monasteries and abbeys. The Uffizi’s new temporary exhibition space – the area used for visiting works and paintings which might otherwise remain in the basement – is no longer of secondary interest but a part of the experience which the savvy visitor will now have to reserve time to enjoy. This is a huge change when over three years I could count on one hand the times I did more than hurry through the first floor.
In addition, the first floor now groups artisti stranieri, the works of Spanish, Dutch, French and Flemish painters from the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, into one logical area. And in larger and less crushed rooms along the dividing wall from the temporary exhibition space, around the large Uffizi U, all the way to the steps which lead back to the book shop and main exit, the visitor can stroll in a digestible and leisurely order from the early Mannerism of Andrea del Sarto to Vasari, Bronzino, Raphael, Correggio, Titian (or more correctly, Tiziano), to Caravaggio and his many followers. The only challenge, for a one-off visitor, is to have the time to take it all in.
There are other rooms of course which take one forward or back in artistic time, not least to areas with ancient sculpture (frequently in the Uffizi, Roman copies of Greek originals), but the groupings, the overall flow, it must be said, is much improved and less intense.
I might not know for a while where every work hangs and, in admitting it, swallow the distasteful knowledge I am not currently a resident Fiorentina... but it is deeply heartening to know this great gallery continues to preserve and improve our access to the works gifted wisely and generously by Anna Maria Luisa Medici to the State in 1737, and to be reminded there will always be more to learn, more to admire, more to cherish.