In Florence, the first Sunday of every month is free museum day. Started a few years back as an initiative to bring locals into the museums that surround them, these “free days” have been a blessing to me and my fellow students who can’t shell out 20-30 euro to see every museum in Florence (which is FULL of museums). This past “first Sunday” which happened to be Easter Sunday, I decided to venture into the Uffizi gallery. My mom was in town to visit me over the holiday, and though she’s been to Florence before, she’d never been inside the museum said to contain the greatest collection of Renaissance art in the world. Though the queue must have been roughly an hour long, we patiently waited our turn to enter a museum that, had we paid, should have cost 50 euro for the two of us.
Not having a tour guide and not wanting to pay the 20 euro for an audio tour, I downloaded the ever-informative “Rick Steve’s Audio Guide” and followed it around as we were walked from room to room of the museum. Now, if you’ve never been in the Uffizi before, you’re truly doing yourself a disservice. The place is full to the brim with art from some of the greatest painters, sculptors and general artists that have ever lived. The collection features famous works of Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo. Though the pieces by the latter aren’t ranked among his best works, I found them to be some of the most telling and fascinating inside the museum.
One theme of the renaissance, and Florence as a whole is the idea of the “human”. That man can be celebrated without the assistance of God, and that all the human form is something to be admired rather than disgraced. Walking from the beginning halls of the museum to the closing ones, you’ll find this transition from the medieval style, which depicted Mary’s and angels as generic beings free from bodily realism or distinction, to the humanistic paintings of Michelangelo and Galileo. These painters used human models, showing the realistic human form to have beauty in its uniqueness, in its earthly flaws. This departure from the medieval style is what helped to define Florence and the greater Italian renaissance, and why I was so fascinated with the Galileo paintings.
The Annunciation of Mary, the first of the two paintings, depicts the moment that the angel Gabriel comes to Mary telling her that she is to bear the Christ. In some medieval depictions of the event, there is no expression on Mary’s face (one might argue she actually looks pained at the idea). She simply accepts the message without any sense of human quality. You can actually see one of these medieval paintings at the beginning of the museum, it’s almost comical in the blank expressions on the angel and Mary’s face. Leonardo, however, takes a much different approach. He paints Mary reading, dressed in flowing robes, the angel kneels and makes the sign of peace, which Mary returns, not taking her finger off of the book that she was reading. Assuming she just heard the news the angel brings, you can almost see the fear and hesitation in her eyes. She’s not a perfect, blank specimen. She’s a human, with realistic proportions and a rather accurate reaction to having an angel appear out of thin air to let you know that you’ll be carrying the Son of God. Even the halo above her head is faint, letting us know that she is more human than divine, more connected with us. A bridge if you will. And that theme is something that can be found throughout the renaissance city of Florence, a bridge over the water, a bridge between the North and South of Italy, but more importantly, a bridge between time. A city that still can show us the age where transition away from the church and towards man began. A city where we can still study the original work of the men (and women) who helped humanity of Europe realize there is beauty not only in heaven, but on earth as well. And if we’re being honest, nothing captures that beauty like the Uffizi.