Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Uffizi Gallery in Three Pictures

I have survived the mad crush of art-gawking tourists at Florence's Uffizi Gallery, and am safely home with a suggestion: Next time you're in Florence, see three pictures at the Uffizi and head for the hills. Or head for the "David" of Michelangelo at The Academy, because he's not here.

There is such an accumulation of religious art at this U-shaped Louvre on the banks of the Arno River built originally as office buildings for the Medici family that, unless you have more art-history chops than I do, it's impossible to separate one Annunciation from the other 49, one Crucifixion from the other 99. So let me tell you about the three works of art that floored me.

You may associate Florence with Michelangelo Buonarroti, but as far as I can tell there is only one picture by him at the Uffizi. Still, it's a stunner and I thought it was worth the 15 euro price of admission. His painting of "The Holy Family" (1506 or 1507?) originally hung in the bedchamber of its patron, a rich merchant. If it hung in my bedroom would I be a better husband, a better father? There are probably cheaper ways of accomplishing that, like daily Mass.

There are things both moving and puzzling about this round painting, displayed in its original frame, designed by Michelangelo himself. What's moving is the way Mary, the center of the composition, leans back casually over her right shoulder to take the baby Jesus from Joseph, the way any mother might do on a day at the beach. "I'm going in for a swim, Mary. Keep an eye on junior, will ya?" And the way a boy named John (the future Baptist) looks on lovingly from the right flank.

Super-puzzling are the five male nudes who lounge casually against a wall in the background. Can anyone explain these guys? I know they're not the four Evangelists.

The gallery is designed to funnel hordes around its long U, then down through a series of staircases to a truly Medician group of bookstores and gift shops. If you don't buy anything before leaving here, you have more will power than I. To get to the Michelangelo, you have to negotiate one side of the U, turn the corner, and look in the furthest room from the entrance. Hint: "The Holy Family" is the only picture in the Michelangelo room that is protected by bullet-proof glass.

To find the other two pictures that moved me, you have to navigate only the first few rooms of the U, and keep your eyes and heart open. The first is a stunning "Pietà" by Lorenzo di Allesandro da San Severino dated to about 1491, the year before Columbus set out for America. This nearly semicircular painting is thought to have topped off an altar piece in its early days. Now, like everything in the Uffizi, it has been surgically removed from its liturgical context. But its power remains.

At the center, the heads of the grieving Mary and the crucified Christ are joined. His eyes are closed and his head turned down; her eyes search heavenward with a striking realism, especially when you have just emerged from rooms full of pre-Renaissance art. The tempera colors are especially bright. Katie, who stood with Marian and me just looking for a long time, noted that this intense realism is a mark of the Renaissance. Marian noted the pallor of Christ's body, compared with the flush of Mary's face and the figures to either side. At left, Mary Magdalene kisses the extended hand of Christ, while at right, John the Beloved Apostle wears a terrible face of woe.

In a room just a bit further on is the third painting that moved me: "The Thebaid, or Scenes from the Lives of the Hermits from the Province of Thebes," painted circa 1420. If the Michelangelo celebrates the Incarnation and the Pietà the Passion, this third painting suggests the unlikely fruitfulness of the Catholic Church in its early centuries and in the Egyptian desert of all places. Attributed to Fra Angelico, it is now thought to be the work of a lesser artist, Gherardo Starnina. Whoever painted it, it is remarkable.

About five feet long by a third as high, it depicts a fantasy desert landscape dotted by dozens of caves, in each of which a hermit is praying or performing some improbable act. I could not find a really good image on line to link this post to, so you may have to go to the Uffizi in Florence to see it.

But I've saved you a lot of trouble with this three-painting guide to one of the world's most famous art galleries. It suggests a series and other titles in a series targeted to the exhausted cultural tourist: Rome in Three Churches, Venice in Three Canals, and so on. As soon as I finish my book about the Camino de Santiago, I'll consider it more carefully.

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