On the first floor of the Uffizi Gallery there is an unremarkable door that provides entry to the Vasari Corridor.
The Vasari Corridor was reopened for viewing in 2010 and closed again at the end of November 2016, for renovations. It has a non-specific opening date of 2018. More than that, it seems the corridor is undergoing quite a bit of re-organization, completely changing the way it has looked for hundreds of years.
We were lucky to visit the corridor in 2012 and see it in its original state so to speak.
Entering the Vasari Corridor was like stepping onto another dimension – the atmosphere was quiet and silent, almost unreal and completely different from the rest of Uffizi Gallery. Unfortunately no photos were allowed and the group was escorted by Uffizi staff. So no photos of little bears running up and down the corridor 😦
The collection of artwork displayed along the Corridor’s consists mostly of works from the 16th and 17th centuries as well as a special and unique collection of artists’ self-portraits. More than 1,000 paintings from the 16th century to modern day grace the walls, from artists such as Diego Velázquez, Marc Chagall, Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn. The collection was added to by subsequent generations of Medici, and artists have been known to donate portraits as well. Many paintings and self-portraits that are a part of the collection are actually not on display for lack of space along the corridor’s walls.
The collection of art in the Vasari corridor was unique in that it was organised chronologically, often in the same spot where various members of the Medici family had originally displayed it. Some self-portraits – such as one portrait where the artists is painting himself in a mirror – reveal an eccentric flair not typically seen in 16th and 17th century portraiture, while others make significant statements about gender and allow insights into artistic identity. For example, there were very few women painters at the time, and many of the self-portraits have more humour or cheekiness than was often displayed in works of the period.
There are three different collections in the Vasari Corridor, and the collection of portraits is one of the most famous and complete collections in all of Europe. The first collection begins at the doorway to the Uffizi Gallery and ends as the corridor turns toward the Ponte Vecchio. It contains paintings completed by Italian and European 17th and 18th century artists including Guido Reni, Gerrit van Honthorst, Empoli, and Guercino.
The second collection is a famous collection of self-portraits arranged chronologically beginning at the Ponte Vecchio. Cardinal Leopoldo started this collection in the early 17th century with 80 portraits and some of the early pieces collected by the Medici family were later added to Leopoldo’s collection. Some of the portraits on display in this section of the Vasari Corridor include those of Giorgio Vasari, Titian, Correggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velasquez, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Antonio Canova, Delacroix, John Singer Sargent, and Carlo Levi.
The last group of paintings in the corridor is displayed where the Corridor turns toward the Boboli Gardens, and is part of a collection of Medici and Hapsburg/Lorraine family portraits.
Like most of Florence’s key attractions, the story of the Vasari Corridor is linked to the powerful Medici family, who rose to prominence in the 15th Century. Cosimo I de’ Medici, then the second duke of Florence, purchased the Palazzo Pitti in 1549, and up until the completion of Versailles in Paris in the early 18th Century, Palazzo Pitti was considered the most opulent palace in Europe.
There was just one problem for the Medici family: to travel from their new home to both the Uffizi administration offices where Cosimo worked and the Palazzo Vecchio, their previous home, the Medici had to cross Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s main pedestrian bridge above the Arno River. Today tourists encounter a gauntlet of flashy jewellery shops, but back then the bridge was occupied with butchers and tanners who needed to be close to the river for their businesses.
Cosimo’s solution was bold. He would simply build an overground passageway above one side of the Ponte Vecchio, reaching from the Palazzo Pitti to the Uffizi offices.
Designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1564 and spanning a length of 1.2km, officially the passageway was created for the celebration of the wedding of Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christina of Lorraine.
A section of the corridor passes through the upper balcony of the church of Santa Felicita, which allowed the Medici family to attend mass without having to mingle with commoners or potential murderers.
To build the corridor several medieval towers located along its way were quite literally crossed. All owners were forced to consent to give the space through their properties for the passageway… all consented except for the Mannelli family that firmly opposed having the corridor pass through his home. It seems that Cosimo appreciated the courage the family had to stand up to him and thus permitted them to withhold entrance into their home and the corridor was built around the tower.
The exit from the corridor (for the tour) is a discrete door near the grotto in the Pitti Palace’s opulent Boboli Gardens.
Cosimo had a clear vision for the use of architecture in his Dukedom: he wanted it to bring harmony to the urban fabric, but it was also intended as an unmistakable expression of his absolute political power. In the 1540’s he was already planning to unite all the various offices of government in one administrative centre, and in 1546, he opened up a street down from the Palazzo Ducale to the river, beginning the demolition of many houses and workshops in that densely-populated area, all with an eye to building the new government offices there. In the February of 1549/50 Eleonora got the opportunity to acquire the new home she had wanted: 9,000 gold Scudi from her dowry were used to purchase the Palazzo Pitti over the river in Oltrarno.
The 15th century property had never been fully completed, and a great deal of work would be necessary to bring it up to the standards required by the Duke and Duchess, who intended to expand it to be a suitable home for their growing family, and a fitting official residence for themselves and their retinue, set in beautiful terraced gardens reaching up onto the Boboli hill behind. Now Cosimo needed architects to serve him.
It was the death of Pope Julius III in 1555 which gave him the opportunity to bring his vision for the architecture of Florence into being. The Pope’s death freed two individuals from his service: Giorgio Vasari and Bartolommeo Ammannati. Cosimo sought Vasari as both artist and architect, and Vasari introduced Ammannati to the Duke for his skills as both sculptor and architect. Cosimo took them both into his service, and while Vasari began work on the Palazzo Ducale, Ammannati was engaged on the Palazzo Pitti. In Cosimo and Vasari we have one of those perfect meetings of minds between artist and patron, and Vasari is at pains in his writings to stress the rapport between his artistic ideas and the will of the Duke. The two developed a lifelong close relationship, and Vasari acted as Cosimo’s Superintendent of Works in the modern sense.
This was what Giorgio Vasari was later to describe as the “great corridor”, the ‘umbilical cord’ that was designed to link the official residences of father and son with the new seat of government, by passing right over the Ponte Vecchio. He gave his name to it: it is now known as the Vasari Corridor. The reason for this corridor takes us back to the Pazzi Conspiracy and the death of Allesandro de’ Medici in 1537. Cosimo himself survived several assassination attempts, dealing with the culprits brutally, and his own agents had caught up with Lorenzaccio in Venice in 1548, stabbing him to death in public. To an absolute ruler like Cosimo, this risk of assassination was ever-present, and when he went around in public he wore a mail shirt beneath his doublet and was surrounded by an armed bodyguard. How much simpler then, to have your own aerial walkway raised safely above street level, keeping you out of the mud of the streets and the inclement weather, and without the need to arrange an armed retinue to accompany you, horses to ride, or even a carriage?
Considering Cosimo’s great vision for the development of the Uffizi and his official residence over the river, the decision to physically link them must have pre-dated the betrothal of Francesco and Joanna, but the planned celebration of those nuptials in December of 1565 meant that the project had to be completed in record time. The newlyweds were to move into the Palazzo Ducale after the ceremony, which was to be linked to the Uffizi by a single arch on one side, while the main part of the corridor was to run down the lungarno, across the Ponte Vecchio, and through Oltrarno to the Pitti, a distance of nearly 400 metres.
The project began in March 1564/5: Tommaso de’ Medici, Florentine patrician and Knight of the Order of Jesus Christ drew up an agreement in the name of Duke Cosimo, with “Maestro Bernardo Esquire son of Antonio, alias son of Milady Mattea, builder.” Maestro Bernardo was in fact the Ducal Builder, who Vasari says worked on all his projects “with great excellence”. In the agreement he was committed to: “bring to perfection and to build by the end of September next [in the] future [year] 1565 a corridor that is able to pass from the principal Palazzo in the Square of His most Illustrious Excellency as far as the Palazzo de’ Pitti, in this form: that it needs to have two arches, one that crosses the street where the wall of the Customs Office meets that of the church of San Pier Scheraggio, and the other [passing] over the said church; and continuing with another arch from the house where Signor Traiano Boba lives, the Gentleman in Waiting of His Excellency, and following the Lungarno, with a corridor with arches and columns as far as the Ponte Vecchio, and then continuing over the botteghe and houses of the said bridge, on the flank of the bridge towards the Ponte a Rubaconte [ie the upstream side], passing over them on stone corbels, and [also for] the small turn around the tower of the house of the heir of Matteo Mannelli, upon which tower should be supported another arch over the Via de’ Bardi; and continuing it should rest upon the tower of the Parte Guelfa, which is in front of the said house of the Martelli, and continuing it should go in the direction of the alley which is behind the houses which are on the main street [Via de’ Guicciardini] arriving next above the steps of the church of Santa Felicita, above those steps it needs to have a loggia, to which should be attached another corridor on columns, which should stretch along the cloister of the priests of Santa Felicita, and descending there it should finish on the flat area where today there is the nursery of the garden of the Pitti. And the said corridor and work in its entirety should be covered by a roof, all tiled, with wicker for the ceiling of the roof, with rough and fine plastering, according to the order, design style and model which step by step will be given to you and communicated by the Magnificent and excellent Maestro Giorgio Vasari, painter and architect of the aforementioned His Most Illustrious Excellency: as declared by the said Maestro Tommaso, in his name, who will be held responsible in this project for alleviating all difficulties which might be caused to the said Maestro Bernardo, for the most part regarding the particulars of the owners of the edifices, over and beside which he will have to guide that project and fabric.”
The construction of the Corridor had a cost for others, and not just in the form of taxes. It has been estimated that around thirty houses were demolished in the course of building the corridor, and the owners and tenants of the botteghe and houses on the bridge had to put up with the construction of the corridor right over their properties, and the tops of those buildings must have been levelled to allow the corridor to pass. An anonymous diarist confirms that along the course followed by the corridor, there were “very great damages to the artisans who had houses and botteghe there; and further damages of many citizens who had beautiful houses there…” The diarist put the number of houses flattened at three hundred in total, but this would also have included the area where the Uffizi were built, so it’s quite believable. People were compensated: where the corridor trespassed into a small part of the house of the Ricci family on the corner of the Via de’ Bardi, they only received the amount of fifty gold Florins, but in the same street the “old house of the Paganelli” was purchased outright for the much larger sum of two hundred gold Scudi.
Ponte Vecchio was the bridge at the very narrowest part of the whole course of Arno river through Florence, and so the bridge where the pressure of the water was greatest. It was the first bridge built over the river and it was the only bridge over the river for over a thousand years.
The Ponte Vecchio of today is not the original bridge. The flood of 1177 destroyed one Ponte Vecchio, and the flood of 1333 destroyed another one.
In August 1220 the Ponte alla Carraia was completed with wooden decking, and the monks of the nearby monastery of Ognissanti were given the right to levy customs dues on the traffic crossing the bridge. Some 1,270 years after the first bridge was built across the Arno here, there was finally more than one bridge spanning the river. With the building of the ‘Ponte Nuovo’ (the ‘New Bridge’), the other one naturally became known as the ‘Ponte Vecchio’: the ‘Old Bridge’.
In very short order there was a third bridge. In 1237, Villani tells us that another bridge was constructed, this time upstream of Ponte Vecchio. Ponte Rubaconte (later called Ponte alle Grazie) was built entirely of stone, with nine arches, and being at the widest part of the river, it was about 215 metres long, which was about twice the length of Ponte Vecchio.
In 1252, and with considerable urging from the powerful Frescobaldi family, a fourth bridge was built between Ponte Vecchio and Ponte alla Carraia, connecting the Palazzo Spini on the north bank with the Palazzo Frescobaldi in Oltrarno. Because the church of Santa Trinita was close to the north end, the bridge was called Ponte a Santa Trinita.
In just 39 years the number of bridges in Medieval Florence had gone from one to four, demonstrating not only the need created by a massive increase in population to around 60,000, but also the great wealth of the city, largely generated by the wool trade. Not having the same strategic importance as Ponte Vecchio though, none of the new bridges were fortified.
In 1333 Ponte Vecchio was destroyed again by another flood. It was what the river was carrying that posed a mortal threat to the bridge at this point. Massive amounts of wooden debris had gone into the river: everything from spars from floating mills, to beams from collapsed buildings, to baulks of timber carried by barges that had been wrecked, to whole trees uprooted by the flood. All of this had smashed into the bridge and built up against it, and…
“and then the Ponte Vecchio was crushed by the great amount of wooden debris in the Arno, and because of the narrowness of the channel of the Arno [there], which rose up to and flowed over the arches of the bridge, and [right] through the houses and botteghe that were upon it, it was overwhelmed by the water, and completely torn down and destroyed, save for two piers in midstream.”
Twelve years after the flood of 1333 – in 1345 – the bridge itself was rebuilt, but the buildings upon it took longer to be rebuilt.
The 16th Century saw Ponte Vecchio survive further floods that destroyed or damaged other bridges, and its structure had coped with the addition of the Vasari Corridor. The houses had returned, and in the following centuries the properties grew into the charming confusion that we see today.
In an eerie repeat of the great flood of 1333, in 1966 another flood struck the city on the same day, November 4th. The similarity was reinforced by the way in which the flood arrived. The river level was already rising on the November 3rd, with cellars flooding in the lower-lying parts of the city. The two hydro-electric dams of the Levane/La Penna system in the upper Valdarno were discharging some 2,000 cubic metres of water per second downstream. At 4am on the following morning, engineers were so worried about the structural integrity of the dams that they took the decision to relieve the pressure on them by releasing a great quantity of water: that water arrived at Florence in a surge travelling at around 60kph.
As ever, the lowest-lying parts of the city were hit first: at 7am the Arno burst over the lungarno at the Corso dei Tintori on the north bank, sweeping on towards Piazza Santa Croce, and on the south bank the waters began to flood Oltrarno. By 8am the Arno rose over the balustrade beneath the arches of the Vasari Corridor along the lungarno, and by 9am all of the bridges in the historic centre were impassable: Florence was cut in two, and throughout the morning the torrential waters of the Arno were once again hurling all manner of debris at the Ponte Vecchio.
In museums, churches and archives across the city, workers struggled to get priceless artworks and manuscripts to safety. At 1pm the Sovrintendente of Fine Arts, Ugo Procacci, arrived at the Uffizi. He was concerned with just one thing: to rescue the important collection of self-portraits hanging along the walls inside the Vasari Corridor. The force of the water was now so great upon the arches along the lungarno, and upon the Ponte Vecchio itself, that the corridor could have collapsed at any moment. Along with Umberto Baldini, head of the restoration department of the Soprintendenza, Dott. Procacci entered the corridor from the Uffizi. In his diary he wrote:
“The rescue of the famous collection of self-portraits was dramatic. The floor of the long corridor which runs from the Uffizi to the Ponte Vecchio was shaking continually beneath our feet as though from a violent earthquake, because below the water was pounding and swirling against the arches of the Lungarno of the Archibugieri.”
This wasn’t the moment for the usual painstaking care that museum staff normally employ when moving valuable and delicate works of art. According to Umberto Baldini, the two men lifted the paintings in their heavy frames from the walls, and then ran them along the Corridor, sliding them along the smooth terracotta tiles on the floor. These two brave men got around 70 paintings to safety in the Uffizi. Fortunately, the corridor and the collection did survive.
Ponte Vecchio also survived the flood, but the premises upon it took a terrible pounding. On the morning on the 5th, cine footage shot by the film director Giampaolo Lomi shows a scene of devastation in the bright sunshine. The flood had smashed straight through shops on the upstream side of the bridge, one having been impaled by a whole tree. Shutters were ripped from the shop fronts, and the street on the bridge was choked with debris and furniture brought from the shops. Yet once again, Ponte Vecchio – and Florence – had endured.