New display for self-portrait collection started by Medici

The Uffizi owns over 1,600 works; these are rarely accessible in their current home—the Vasari corridor

FLORENCE. The Uffizi is developing plans for a redisplay of its unparalleled holdings of self-portraits which is by far the greatest such collection in the world. Its 1,630 works represent the world’s earliest collection, started by Leopoldo de’Medici in 1664.

The main display of self-portraits is in an unusual setting, the Vasari Corridor. Built for Cosimo de’Medici in 1565, it is a one-kilometre elevated walkway linking Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno river.

The corridor’s exterior is deteriorating, and an 18-month restoration project starts this month. Replacing the plaster and upgrading the windows will cost E233,000.

The covered route passes successively through the Uffizi building, above a street on the bank of the River Arno, on an upper level of the Ponte Vecchio over the main crossing and gold shops, and then past a viewing balcony looking down into the Church of Santa Felicita to exit in the Boboli Gardens. The designer of this audacious venture was architect, artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari.

The Vasari Corridor is today one of Florence’s most exclusive sites. Its interior is only accessible to small groups (for security reasons), and escorted tours have to be booked months in advance. The normal charge is around E50 a head.

The self-portraits naturally start with the Italian masters, presented

in chronological order, beginning just before the Ponte Vecchio.

The earliest is a picture

of three Gaddi artists, done in the 1330s (although now considered to be portraits,

not self-portraits). Sub­sequent Italians in­clude Lippi, Andrea del Sarto, Annibale Carracci, Tintoretto, Giordano, Carriera, Reni, Bernini and Batoni.

After the Vasari Corridor crosses the Arno, the foreign artists start. The highlights include works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Ingres, Velázquez, Reynolds, Leighton and Corot. At the end of the present display are 19th-century Italian and

foreign artists.

Although the interior is not being restored, plans are being made to add a good representation of 20th-century works. At present there are only around ten post-1900 artists, including Carl Larsson and Maurice Denis. Most of these are from early in the century, and the only exception is Chagall, who presented his self-portrait in 1976, at the age of 89.

At present the self-portrait display stops towards the Palazzo Pitti end of the corridor, and from there onwards there are Medici family portraits. Curator Giovanna Giusti is keen on using this space to display over 100 20th-century self-portraits, and she hopes they will be hung next year.

There is certainly no shortage of works. Numerous modern artists have donated works, no doubt spurred by the honour of being represented in an historical collection with so many great names. Most of these were given in the 1980s. In addition, a group of 300 self-portraits assembled by Swiss collector Raimondo Rezzonico was bought by the Uffizi for E1m in December 2005.

The 20th-century works are almost all in storage. Important examples include Carrà, de Chirico, Tàpies, Annigoni and Rauschenberg. Hopefully a new presentation would encourage leading international artists to donate self-portraits.

A second plan under consideration is to convert a large room in the main Uffizi into a self-portrait gallery, with a dense hang

of historical works. Comprising several hundred paintings, this would give an idea of how

the Medici collection was displayed in the 18th century. It would also mean that a large number of the most important self-portraits would be accessible to all Uffizi visitors.

The historical room would be part of the “New Uffizi”, a E55m project to double general display space and provide much needed public facilities (including a new exit). The scheme has been under discussion for over a decade, but is now scheduled for completion in 2011.

At present only 400 or so of the Uffizi’s 1,630 self-portraits are hung, but if both the 20th-century and historical displays proceed, then the number would probably double—and half the collection would be


Martin Bailey

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