What’s the best time to visit Florence? Henry James, who lived there on and off, thought October, “when the Americans haven’t all arrived”. Which could seem a bit rich coming from a New Yorker, although, in fairness to the novelist, he did say “all” the Americans. Anyway, it was James’s perception that Florence spoke with a “soft, low voice” (“other cities beside it are great swearing and shuffling rowdies”) and he believed the place was most itself on “moist, grey, melancholy days” in autumn.
It’s a respectable claim. But could your Tortoise correspondent humbly mount a counter-argument for late February? This would be on the following three grounds.
- The crowds, American and otherwise, are particularly thin and it is still possible to walk in virtually a straight line and at your own pace across the Ponte Vecchio.
- The first spring sunshine is warm enough (if you’re lucky) for perching on the wall by the River Arno with your stracciatella ice cream from La Carraia, but not warm enough to melt that ice cream into an unmanageable mess right up to your elbow.
- Most critically, the official high season, which began with the start of March and lasts until November, has yet to boost the cost of your all-access ticket to the Uffizi gallery from a fairly standard €19 to a properly eye-watering and, frankly, opportunistic €38. James had a point about October, but you could say this for late February: what the streets lack in moist, grey melancholia they amply make up for in major savings on top-flight art interaction.
Of course, even in February, at basement prices, the Uffizi is by no means deserted. On a recent Thursday lunchtime, French school parties mingled in the long, sunken courtyard with Japanese tourists fresh off the train from Venice, and wandered indifferently between the stalls hung with hack paintings of the Duomo and caricatures of Marilyn Monroe. Meanwhile, across from the main entrance, four soldiers in camouflage outfits with automatic rifles stood loosely on guard in front of a camo-painted army truck with bull-bars, the presence of this hardware somehow having the effect of making you feel extremely safe, and also the opposite.
Even before our times raised the general threat level to permanent and universal, the Uffizi knew about terror. Early one morning in 1993, a car bomb, courtesy of the Sicilian Mafia, exploded in Via Georgofili, the narrow road between the gallery and the river, killing five people, demolishing part of the building and destroying five art works. And while we’re on the subject of destruction, the place has also suffered two bad floods, most recently in August 2007. The impact of climate change on the world’s great paintings is a subject perhaps under-discussed. But the tides are rising, clearly, even under Bronzino’s Portrait of Bia de Medici.
Still, a Thursday in February is light years from the summer crush. The Uffizi is Italy’s most popular gallery and the world’s leading collection of Italian renaissance art, and its visitor numbers rise yearly, reaching 2.2 million in 2017. Sometimes, though, it can feel as if most of those 2.2 million are there at the same time as you are. On the one Sunday in the month when entry is free, people start queuing at 7am, and in mid-summer, lines lasting up to five hours are not unknown, a testament to art’s enduring pull, and also to what people are prepared to endure to see it.
At the same time, computer studies have revealed that people spend an average of 45 minutes longer in the Uffizi on very hot days, perhaps squeezing value from the air conditioning. Apparently the average visit expands in rain as well, so clearly one should never entirely discount, in any summary of an art gallery’s appeal, its potential use as an improvised umbrella.
There is something magnetically ramshackle and rambling about the Uffizi. A gradual restoration and maintenance programme seems to have been going on for as long as anybody can remember and may actually now be cyclical, like the art world’s equivalent of the painting of the Forth Bridge. Despite the presence of priceless Botticellis and Filippo Lippis, there is something wholesomely down to earth about the place, too. The museum may bill its 16th-century, Giorgio Vasari-designed halls as “an everlasting wonder”, but it can sink your romantic heart to discover that “uffizi” is Italian for “offices”. For you, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with some of the prime specimens of Italian devotional art; for the locals, it’s just another day at the offices.
What feels undeniable about the Uffizi, though, is the presence in it of Florence. It’s there in the tall-windowed passages at the end of the corridors on each floor, with their real Florentine light and their real Florentine views across the Arno. It’s there in the rooftop café, where you can sit among the pigeons on the terrace directly below Giotto’s landmark bell tower, but which, in stark contrast to the high-end eateries opening in the world’s other major museums, feels like any local tabacchi, its counter stacked with Chupa-Chups and Ritter chocolate bars.
And it’s even there in the gallery’s low-lit ground-floor retail section. Yes, there’s a pop-up Salvatore Ferragamo boutique offering €180 handbags and an extensive range of silk ties, but the general merchandising vibe is more street market, tables piled with mountains of bracelets and sugar spoons, pencils and coffee cups, and there is somehow room in the high-ceilinged gloaming for a substantial and deeply serious art bookshop and, oddly, a fully operational post office.
The connection between the museum and what lies beyond it in the narrow streets is constantly restated. The Rijksmuseum may have a cycle path running through it, yet it still doesn’t feel like Amsterdam the way the Uffizi feels like Florence. Perhaps no other major art gallery feels so closely related to the city where it stands. And because that city is Florence, it means the Uffizi is not just some gilded warehouse, polished and separate, designed for art’s display, but instead is a place steeped naturally in the context of that art. And steeped in it for a long time – saturated, even. The Prado, the Louvre and the National Gallery are all more or less 200 years old – half the age of the Uffizi. This, we are continually reminded, isn’t just somewhere Michelangelo and Da Vinci are hung; it’s somewhere they actually hung out.
All of which makes this gallery a uniquely enticing prospect for the art-hungry tourist in search of an authentic, or at least partly unpackaged, experience. If you can’t feel it here, then where can you?
Botticelli’s new-born Venus smiles up at me from the bottom of the plastic crate into which I load my phone and jacket for scanning at the door, where strict regulations now operate with regard to gels and liquids and where gallery rules specifically state that “Only children are allowed to drink fruit juice in brick packs of max 250cl”. This seems generous to children (indulgent, even), yet the closing of the gap between gallery-visiting and air travel, one realises, is now all but complete.
Still, on this occasion it doesn’t take long, and, having cleared security, a steep climb up a semi-renovated staircase, clad partly in chipboard, leads me eventually to the second floor, where a man in a leather jacket unsentimentally rips my ticket in half, and my voyage through the peak years of Italian art begins.
Early on, there’s Ucello’s The Battle of San Romano, from somewhere between 1435 and 1440, which is an epic frenzy of clashing swords and splintering lances, and a precocious experiment in perspective and foreshortening. It is mostly successful, except that the deer and hares in the distant fields appear comically to have been tossed aloft by the fighting in the foreground.
Then, after the solemn glory of Piero Della Francesca’s Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, you hit a long run of Botticellis, including his Annuciation, in which the angel appears to Mary apparently in a five-star hotel suite with a plinthed, king-size bed, sumptuous curtaining and its own private terrace. Then there’s his even more exquisite Madonna of the Loggia, with the Virgin’s gold-speckled blouse and the impossible subtlety of the veil and her ear and hair beneath it. And because most people are clustering around and carefully photographing The Birth of Venus as she rises from her seashell (which is to the Uffizi what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre), you are unusually free to close in on the liquid eyes of the Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Medallion, from 1475, over to the right of it, and see how the touch of white paint which would commonly illuminate the pupils is here applied to the whites of the eyes, causing them to well.
Incidentally, according to the gallery label on the wall, Venus, as she rises from her seashell in that well-rubbed image, is attempting to “cover her charms” – surely one of the first public uses of that slightly oily euphemism in at least 40 years.
On it goes, though: Bellini, Mantegna, Roberti’s slightly polite depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, which is light on arrows (just two, compared with the peppering that later depictions would give him). And then you reach the rooms devoted to Leonardo Da Vinci, where the air conditioning kicks in and the temperature drops as it does in the supermarket freezer aisle, but where you will linger a long while, in any weather, over Da Vinci’s strongly shadowed Annunciation, his peculiar Baptism of Christ and his unfinished altarpiece depicting the adoration of the Magi, which looks pretty good now and will presumably look even better when it’s completed.
By now the top corridor is reaching its end and the distinct smell of coffee is drawing you out to the rooftop café, which means you almost miss Albrecht Durer’s Madonna and Child, from 1526, tucked modestly into a side room, being German rather than Italian, and one of the strangest pictures here – no halo or veil on the Virgin Mary, who has a centre parting and holds a plump, photo-real pear while the Christ child, sporting an early mullet, moodily bunches his fists.
And still downstairs, on the other side of a cappuccino and a parma ham panini, lie the darkened eyes and furrowed brows of Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac, from 1603-4; Rembrandt’s self-portrait from 1669; and an entire roomful of bloody beheadings, including Guido Reni’s David with the Head of Goliath and Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. To which, you assume, the Uffizi would be delighted to add Caravaggio’s painting on the same theme when it comes up for auction in France this summer, having been discovered getting damp in the attic of a house in Toulouse. Assuming, that is, the Uffizi has the spare €150m the painting is expected to fetch.
The chief peril, surely, in circumstances as abundant as these, is surfeit. Henry James clearly thought so. James preferred the much smaller Galleria dell’Accademia to the Uffizi because it was less full of what he called “pictorial lions, whose roar is heard from afar and who strike us as expecting overmuch to have it their own way in the jungle”. In the Accademia, he thought, “the impression is less pompously tropical”.
Moreover, Florence, James further pointed out, “is richer in pictures than we really know till we have begun to look for them in outlying corners”. This, too, is undeniable. The following day across the river from the Uffizi, in the Oltrarno quarter, I visited, almost at random and because I was passing, the Basilica di Santo Spirito, which is rather chilly at this time of year and whose walls are lined with giant 16th and 17th-century paintings. And there I was able to push a €2 coin into a metal turnstile and stand alone for some time in a large octagonal sacristy, on the wall of which was Alessandro Allori’s painting of the Miracles of Saint Fiacre and from the ceiling of which hung a small but perfectly formed limewood figure of the crucified Christ from approximately 1493. The artist responsible: Michelangelo.
It was an experience as likely to endure as any I contrived to have in the magnificent, if frequently impassable, Uffizi, “everlasting wonder” though that gallery clearly is. The truth of Florence (and beyond) may be – as James has it – that art breathes more freely in the “outlying corners”, and the viewer breathes more freely with it, whatever the month.
All photographs by Getty Images