The Uffizi is a must-see destination for anyone visiting Florence, particularly for stays of two days or more. Commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici for the administrative and judicial functions of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Uffizi’s construction began in 1560 under Vasari’s direction. It wasn’t long before its governmental role expanded to include showcasing the Medici family’s art collection.
This initial transformation into an art gallery is attributed to Francesco I, who was Grand Duke from 1574 to 1587. The gallery has undergone numerous modifications and enhancements over the centuries and continues to evolve today with ongoing renovations and new openings that highlight its priceless collections.
For first-time visitors, we’ve curated a list of 10 essential works that are the highlights of the Uffizi.
1. Maestà di Ognissanti by Giotto
Crafted between 1305 and 1310, when Giotto had already established his fame across the Italian peninsula, the Maestà di Ognissanti (Madonna con Bambino e Angeli) encapsulates the artist’s foremost insights and innovations. The Virgin, both imposing and majestic, is seated upon a throne of Gothic design, cradling the Child who blesses onlookers with his right hand and clutches a scroll, emblematic of wisdom, with his left.
Surrounding them are saints, some presenting gifts, and at the throne’s base, two angels kneel proffering vases brimming with roses and lilies, symbols of purity and charity.
This altarpiece, with its tempera hues and golden backdrop crafted for the chiesa di Ognissanti in Florence, showcases Giotto’s prowess in lending body and dimension to the scenes he depicted.
The drapery of the Madonna’s robes contours her form, and the intricately adorned throne projects an illusion of three-dimensional depth. The golden halos, which dissipate into the background past the silhouettes of the saints, intimate additional ranks of the blessed extending beyond the spectator’s view.
Particularly striking is Maria’s visage, her features natural and humanized, a stark departure from Byzantine tradition, and her countenance: the Vergine here seems to convey a subtle smile, perhaps the earliest in Italian painting.
Giotto, a disciple of Cimabue, pioneered a more naturalistic approach in his art, a fact underscored when contrasted with his teacher’s work. Also housed within the same room of the Uffizi is Maestà di Santa Trinita by Cimabue: a piece that, though influenced by Giotto, remains a testament to the enduring Byzantine stylistic idiom.
2. Duchi di Urbino Federico da Montefeltro e Battista Sforza by Piero della Francesca
A short walk from the masterpieces of Giotto and Cimabue, in an adjacent room, one can admire the dual portrait of the Duchi di Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza (circa 1473-1475), crafted by Piero della Francesca. It is believed that the artist produced this diptych amidst his tenure at the court of Montefeltro in Marche, simultaneously innovating and adhering to the portraiture conventions of the fifteenth century.
The ducal pair are portrayed in profile, positioned as though caught in a mutual gaze. The portrait, rich in detail – note the intricate depiction of the duchess’s attire, coiffure, and necklace – captures a striking resemblance, yet their visages remain devoid of emotion. A shared landscape melds into the backdrop, uniting them both visually and symbolically.
The landscape demonstrates the work’s originality through its application of linear perspective, a technique favored by the artist, as well as its meticulous naturalism.
The verso celebrates the couple’s virtues, embellished with a triumphal scene and Latin epigraphs.
3. Primavera by Botticelli
Love, peace, and rebirth are the enduring metaphors woven into the canvas of Primavera by Sandro Botticelli (207 x 319 cm), a work that, since 1480, has captivated viewers and, alongside its counterpart, the Nascita di Venere, stands as a crowning achievement of the early Renaissance.
Set within an idyllic garden, mythological figures accompany Venere: Zefiro, the wind god, is depicted in a tender embrace, breathing life into the nymph Clori, while Flora, the goddess of spring, delicately scatters blossoms, treading barefoot upon the verdant ground.
Venere, the epitome of beauty, assumes a subtle prominence in the background. Above her, Cupido, the love god, is caught during the shooting of an arrow. Adjacent, the three Grazie perform a barefoot ballet of elegance, and Mercurio, with his caduceus raised, clears the skies of clouds. The figures seem to levitate against the tableau, almost devoid of weight. The dark-hued flora bursts into life, reflecting at least 138 plant species indigenous to the hills around Florence of Botticelli’s era, possibly influenced by the gardens of the Medici Villa at Careggi. While the profound allegorical significance of this masterpiece may elude us, its grace, majesty, and compositional delicacy render it indelibly memorable.
4. Nascita di Venere by Botticelli
Within the same room as the Primavera, the Nascita di Venere (circa 1485) commands attention, not only for its narrative but also for its grand scale. Created using tempera on a canvas measuring 172.5 x 278.5 cm, the painting presents the goddess of beauty, Venere, poised on a shell gliding across the sea towards the shore.
The goddess is portrayed in the nude, her modesty preserved in the classical pose known as the modest Venere, with her long golden hair billowing in the wind, shielding her body. From the left, Zefiro, the god of the wind, is depicted descending from the heavens, wrapped in an embrace with Aura, the divine personification of the breeze. To Venere’s right, a female figure – likely one of the Grazie or the Ora della primavera – greets her with a cloak adorned with flowers.
In contrast to the Primavera, the setting of the Nascita di Venere extends into an endless horizon; the scene transitions from the dense woodland to the coastline, illuminated by a light that is almost celestial in quality.
Botticelli’s work once more captivates us with its tender execution, the elegance of its shapes, and in rendering Venere a cultural icon, transcending time to impact our cultural legacy and personal realms in numerous and occasionally debated forms.
5. Annunciazione by Leonardo da Vinci
Should you opt to follow the Galleria degli Uffizi’s recommended tour path, the Annunciation (1472) is the culminating artwork we advise you to appreciate before advancing towards the scalene Buontalenti. This piece stands as one of the early jewels in Leonardo da Vinci‘s oeuvre, painted while he was still honing his craft under the tutelage of Andrea Verrocchio.
Echoes of the master, known for the Battesimo di Cristo also on display here, resonate in the lectern’s design, mirroring the one Verrocchio crafted for the Medici tomb of Piero il Gottoso in Florence.
The Vergine is depicted during reading in a rare outdoor setting, acknowledging the Archangel Gabriele with a raised left hand, whilst her right hand steadies the pages of her book. The Angel, correspondingly, mirrors her greeting and presents lilies, emblematic of purity.
The tangible nature of their forms and their spatial existence is pronounced, vividly portrayed by the weight of the drapery, the play of light, and the shadows cast upon both the meadow and the wall.
A mountainous backdrop, structured with a central vanishing point, subtly foreshadows the innovative techniques that would characterize Leonardo’s later works. Intriguingly, the Vergine’s arm appears disproportionately long, an anomaly accounted for by the painting’s intended viewing angle: slightly from below and to the right. Observed from this vantage point, the perceived elongation is reconciled, bringing the figure back into proper perspective.
6. Madonna del Cardellino by Raffaello Sanzio
Leonardo’s impact is discernible in Madonna col Bambino e San Giovannino by Raffaello Sanzio, commonly referred to as the Madonna del Cardellino (circa 1506). This oil on canvas, conceived during Raffaello’s period in Florence, mirrors the pyramidal structure Leonardo embraced in the now-lost preparatory cartoon of the Madonna col Bambino e Sant’Anna once displayed in Santissima Annunziata. Raffaello’s application of sfumato, a technique that softens figure outlines and renders the artistic touch and the final image more delicate, also reflects Leonardo’s influence.
Raffaello’s Vergine is portrayed seated in the outdoors, attentively observing the young San Giovannino and the Gesù Bambino at play, while she gracefully holds a book in her left hand.
Her pose, reminiscent of the early-16th-century Madonna di Bruges by Michelangelo, imparts a distinctive softness and naturalness to the composition, a testament to the graceful elegance characteristic of Raffaello’s figures.
This painting, interweaving truth and idealized beauty, has a rather serendipitous history: originally commissioned for Lorenzo Nasi’s nuptials, it was tragically fragmented into 17 pieces due to the collapse of his residence. Fortuitously pieced back together and meticulously restored, it ultimately joined the Medici collections and found its way to the Uffizi.
7.Tondo Doni by Michelangelo Buonarroti
Agnolo Doni and his wife Maddalena Strozzi were the patrons behind what is today known as the Tondo Doni (1505 – 1506), the sole panel painting by Michelangelo Buonarroti that is known and has survived to this day.
The painting reveals Michelangelo’s plastic solidity through the tangible, almost three-dimensional presence of the figures. Maria is depicted sitting on the ground, her limbs drawn in, with a twist in her torso revealing her muscular armsas she receives the Son, passed to her from behind by San Giuseppe. Gesù Bambino is portrayed with a robust and defined presence, his foot placed upon Vergine’s shoulder in a pose both innovative and original.
The Holy Family nearly fills the space within this round frame, a Tondo, the full significance of which remains partially concealed. In the periphery, a youthful San Giovanni is visible, and beyond him, five nude figures present an enigmatic tableau.
Circular paintings were a favored form during the Renaissance, often created for private celebrations, marking occasions like marriages or the birth of an heir. Regardless of its initial purpose, the Tondo Doni continues to captivate, with its metallic tones (notice the silver strokes on Maria’s rosy attire) adding to the dynamic and lifelike portrayal of the figures.
8.Venere di Urbino by Tiziano Vecellio
The Venere di Urbino (1538) by Tiziano Vecellio is a study in sensuality and vivacity, housed on the first floor of the museum. Its name stems from its original owner, Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, and it came to Florence as part of the inheritance of Vittoria della Rovere, the spouse of Ferdinando II de’ Medici.
Tiziano’s canvas captures a young woman reclining on an unmade bed adorned with plush pillows and tousled, spotless linens. Venere, presented in the nude, engages the viewer with a gaze that dances between innocence and allure: her right hand delicately holds a bouquet of roses, symbols of love, while her left hand discreetly veils her pubis.
In the backdrop, within a quintessentially Venetian aristocratic chamber, two maids are preoccupied with sorting attire suited for the deity, delving into an ornately detailed chest, a quintessential item of sixteenth-century decor. At the maiden’s feet rests a slumbering small dog, likely signifying loyalty and faithfulness.
In this work, Tiziano’s distinctively Venetian style is pronounced, a symphony of colors where the rich flesh tones of the figure contrast with the pallid whites of the crumpled sheets. The vibrant, rich red of the pillows is mirrored in the skirt of a maid in the background, and the verdant green of the heavy curtain separating the spaces complements the myrtle leaves perched on the sill.
This painting, both alluring and mysterious, stands as a celebrated masterpiece by the renowned artist from Cadore.
9. Giuditta decapita Oloferne by Artemisia Gentileschi
Seduction, as portrayed in the biblical tale of Giuditta, becomes a metaphorical weapon against the Assyrian general Oloferne. Tired from the prolonged siege on the people of Israel, Giuditta stealthily enters the enemy’s encampment. Post feast, the inebriated Oloferne succumbs to sleep, providing Giuditta the opportunity to wield a different kind of weapon – a real and deadly one – her scimitar, with which she decapitates him.
This intense moment is immortalized in Giuditta decapita Oloferne (1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi, epitomizing the unstoppable force of a woman artist who, undeterred by societal bias and personal tribulation, persisted in her craft.
The painting represents a pinnacle in Gentileschi’s career, capturing Giuditta’s resolve and vigor as she exerts the immense physical effort required for her deed. Oloferne, in his death throes, reaches out to his maidservant who tries to hold him down as blood profusely spills from his neck.
Illuminated by an inexplicable source of light, the characters emerge from the shadowy backdrop, charged with the same emotional intensity that Gentileschi admired in the works of another artist close to her heart, Michelangelo Merisi, also known as Caravaggio.
10. Medusa by Caravaggio
Beauty can manifest in myriad forms, even in the grotesque and terrifying depiction of death. Such is the case with Medusa (circa 1598) by Caravaggio, a representation of the dread both experienced by and emanating from the mythological creature.
Positioned as the final masterpiece in our top 10 list to behold at the Uffizi, this shield was commissioned to Caravaggio by Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de’ Medici.
In Caravaggio’s portrayal, the horror is palpable: Medusa’s head, freshly severed and oozing blood, is captured mid-scream. Her agape mouth, bared teeth, wide-eyed terror, furrowed brow, and the tangled mass of serpents that are her hair – all heighten the tragedy of her demise. Once a being who could turn onlookers to stone with her gaze, she has now been rendered powerless, transformed from the observer to the observed, from the living to the mere object of dread.
Caravaggio imbues this mythical visage with a human essence, bringing an earthy realism to the forefront as he does with his religious subjects. This stark naturalism was as much admired as it was critiqued by his contemporaries.
To visit the Uffizi is to embark on a comprehensive voyage that spans intellectual, emotional, and tangible realms, traversing the history of art from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century and up to our current era, with an extended interlude in the Renaissance. For those experiencing the museum for the first time, a blend of historical insight, which we’ve endeavored to provide, coupled with keen curiosity, serves as the ideal compass.
For a seamless experience, consider planning your visit and securing your Galleria degli Uffizi tickets ahead of time through BeCulture.