The Art History

PUBLISHED in 'THE ART NEWSPAPER' (London) July issue 1998

 by Raichel  Le Goff

Fifteen invitations were recently sent to leading architects across the world including Frank O. Gehry, I.M. Pei and Sir Norman Foster. The Italian Minister for Culture Walter Veltroni  has effectively opened a competition for the redesigning of Piazza Castellani in Florence which will form the new exit of the Uffizi Museum. An initial sum of 25 million lire is offered for each submitted plan. Veltroni, an advocate for revolutionary contemporary design will be looking for a scheme that challenges the traditional concept of Florentine architecture and will move the city into the 21st century. If Gehry enters and wins instead of his famous giant binoculars for Venice California, Vasari’s Uffizi may end up with a giant paintbrush at its doors.
The Piazza Castellani project will be the only radical change to the exterior of  the museum. Rather than a neo-medieval or neo-renaissance solution the Soprintendente Architect Mario Lowlighetti agrees with Veltroni that a completely new approach to the Uffizi is called for. The chosen design will also be one that incorporates the remains of previous abandoned projects for the Piazza. At the age of ninety-nine the highly revered Antonio Michelucci submitted a design that featured towering glass prisms over the doorway. A massive three metre high concrete ramp was built to support his lofty piazza with fountains and will be a physical hurdle any new architect has to overcome.
Uffizi buildings that surround the Piazza on three sides include the Biblioteca Magliabecchiana and existing offices of the Soprintendenza but their facades hold no architectural merit and provide the architect with a blank backdrop upon which to set his design.
Piazza Castellani is the loud mouthpiece for a larger program of works called The New Uffizi. The project originally referred to as The Greater Uffizi was initiated after the war and had its most recent re-launching in 1990 with the Michelucci design as a focus. It was also the moment when the Archivio di Stato finally vacated the space they had occupied and moved to the bunker on Piazza Beccaria.
Over the past eight years several rooms have been renovated within the main gallery including the da Vinci and Lippi rooms which stand as models for the progressive revamping of all exhibition rooms. Controversially it is the Uffizi's aim to cover every work of art with a protective glass shield. The glass is supposedly non-reflective but still provides an excellent opportunity for Japanese girls to comb their long hair.
Recent visitors to the Uffizi have been shocked by the number of rooms closed. This seems likely to continue whilst the renovation program is underway. One room due shortly for a makeover is perhaps the most famous as it houses works of the postcard king Botticelli. His Primavera and Birth of Venus that draw crowds to this vast space which once functioned as a theatre will soon be in close company when the room is split into halves. A new ceiling will cover up the magnificent exposed beams and further diminish the room size. Works by Botticelli will be shown in one half of the current space whilst Pollaiuolo and Florentine works of the first quarter of the cinquecento shall occupy the preceding space. Let us hope that the crowds who jostle for elbowroom now do not turn into a murderous rabble when their viewing area is halved.
Uniformity and anonymity is the key to the renovation scheme of the gallery rooms, in flooring, wall colour, lighting and display. It will be a relief to escape into the highly decorated corridors even though blinds shall be in place to shut out inspirational views over the Arno and across Vasari’s courtyard.  This is a recently introduced measure to curb bleaching of the ceiling paintings, another sore point for those opposed to conservation restricting the all-round aesthetic experience.
Installed on the top floor of the same building since 1581 the new gallery will double in size as rooms open on the floor below once occupied by the Archivio di Stato.
A new monumental staircase at the Loggia dei Lanzi end shall lead down to this new section where works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries augmented by rarely seen paintings from the deposito will be on view.
Exhibition space will cover 14,000 square metres with a further 7,000 square metres earmarked for offices, education and services.
This December the new reception areas are scheduled to open on the ground floor. Hopefully the ticket office shall now cope with the daily queues and people will be able to leave tiresome coats and bags in a proper cloakroom. A much needed bookstore promises to offer more than the standard catalogues. The Director, AnnaMaria Petrioli Tofani stressed the importance in the New Uffizi of the role of communication and education. “Children in particular enter the museum daily by the thousands almost totally ignorant of what a museum really is and what they are expected to find when they look at masterpieces by da Vinci and Raphael. I should like to change that.”
A computer centre modelled on the micro-gallery of London’s National Gallery will form the hub of an information strategy that will include a new lecture theatre for children and an area where school groups can be properly received. This is an admirable ideal to pursue but when asked if a room had been designated for the micro-gallery, the Director replied “not yet”.
Even the Uffizi architect in charge of the project Antonio Godoli was not sure which of the five large rooms or suite of numerous smaller rooms on the ground floor would be assigned which functions. With the opening only six months away it seems a very casual approach to the outsider.
December will also see the opening of the collection Contini Bonacossi that has been locked away in the Pitti Palace for years. A condition of the donation to the Uffizi was that it should be presented in a unified display as it was at Count Alessandro’s villa of Pratello Orsini. The rooms, or rather the building allocated to the collection is situated in via Lambertesca but will be accessed from the main galleries of the Uffizi and entry will be included on the same ticket. Visitors will view paintings by Cimabue, Duccio, Sassetta, Cima, Veronese, Goya and Velasquez. Sculpture, maiolica, chests and furniture range from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.
Fabric wall coverings, wooden floors and the restoration of all fresco decoration will concoct a period setting in which to display these treasures.

Whilst the Uffizi seems vague about the direction the project will take after the end of this year across the Arno in his palatial office Soprintendente Lowlighetti is more committing. “The New Uffizi is not just a refurbishment job. It is important as a window to our continuing culture into the next century for all the world to judge us by. I should like the interior to be as exciting as Vasari’s exterior is breathtaking but for many reasons this cannot be. However we can make permanent statements with the Piazza Castellani  and with two great new staircases that I hope will not only be functional but grand architectural declarations of high aesthetic value with a cutting modern edge.”
Work on the staircases is due to begin in 1999 but because they are such a crucial feature of the overall project they have not even been planned on paper, victims of intense debate among the high-ranking team of experts which make up the ruling committee. Duke Cosimo I himself advised Vasari about difficulties in building the Uffizi: “Just remember that the Florentines are always fighting among themselves and that we have never managed to bring together two who would agree; since you are Aretine and not Florentine, don't enter into their quarrels.”

Another obstacle is the office of the Soprintendenza still located where the Piazza Castellani exit staircase is to be built. Florence has only just received 15 billion lire from Rome for the commencement of the restoration programme for the Palazzo Bardini which is to be the new seat of the Soprintendenza. With all this against progress it is no wonder the Uffizi was reluctant to outline plans for the year ahead. They have adopted a “play it by ear” attitude.

This is the most important project in Florence. Among items on the agenda are the relocation of the Uffizi Library to the Biblioteca Magliabecchiana with its beautiful nineteenth century interior, the enlargement of the Cabinet of Prints and Drawings, the opening of two rooms for exhibiting the Medici tapestries, the creation of a new department for the exploration of technological advances in conservation, a complete rehauling of museum security, lighting and climate control and the installation of lifts and improved amenities for staff and the public. The Director is also actively adding to the graphic collection and the self-portrait collection which began in the seventeenth century with Cardinal Ippolito de Medici.

Asked how a gigantic New Uffizi could operate smoothly when staff shortages and practical problems plague the present museum, the Director expressed confidence that Rome would not let them down with funding. As the optimistic Lowlighetti remarked,

“Italy loves the Uffizi, there will always be money for it, when the time comes.”

Raichel  Le Goff 

Raichel Le Goff Florence Uffizi

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