Friday, 25 September 2015

Vasari's Corridor, Florence

Vasari's Corridor is the not-so-secret passageway between the Palazzo Vecchio on the north side of the green Arno river and the Pitti Palace south of the river. It was commissioned by Cosimo di Medici in 1564 and was designed and built by Georgio Vasari whose main claim to fame is that he is the biographer of all the artists of the Renaissance (see his 'Lives of the Artists'). He was also a painter in his own right and he has a large work in Santa Maria Novella.

The Corridor is exactly that - a corridor dotted with square and round windows. It's about three yards wide and four yards high and is just over a kilometre in length. It starts in the Palazzo Vecchio, crosses over to the Uffizi Gallery (which was originally government offices) and then runs along the north bank of the green Arno until it crosses on top of the shops over the Ponte Vecchio bridge, through the church of Santa Felicita (with a private balcony for the Medici's to attend services) and on into the Pitti Palace. On the south side it passes around some buildings where their owners refused to have holes knocked in them. It was originally a means of passing unseen between the different buildings with escape doors every so often in case the Medicis and their chums needed to get out quickly. Today it is an exclusive art gallery, an extension of the Uffizi. It's not generally open to the public but you can book to go on short tours with a guide and security guards to keep the paintings inside the Corridor safe.

The tour starts at the Uffizi entrance so, after going through security and up in the staff lift to the second floor, we were escorted through some of the corridors of the Uffizi to stand before a nondescript wooden door that was unlocked and opened to reveal a staircase heading downwards and we joined the Corridor with the wooden door locked behind us. This early section of the Corridor suffered bomb damage by a Mafia bomb in 1993 and some of the damaged paintings are still on display as a memory of the event.  Our guide, Lucia, explained the history and pointed out the interesting paintings. The place is full of them so you can't see them all in any detail.

The early paintings are a collection of 16th and 17th century works, none particularly grabbed my attention but there were some nice pieces. The real interest comes with the collection of self-portraits by artists from the Renaissance through to the modern period, a great collection of varying standards but it's interesting to see how different artists chose to portray themselves. They're hung in roughly chronological order filling all the available space. They're not all necessarily what they might appear - the self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci apparently has another painting underneath that uses paint that wasn't available until 100 years after Leonardo died. Ahem.

Strolling through the Corridor is a kind of time travel, seeing the faces and clothes change every few yards, seeing when beards and 'taches came in and out of fashion, ruffs making an appearance, wigs appearing and vanishing again, gradually moving forward in time. It was nice to see a surprising number of self-portraits of women artists, none of whom I've heard of, but they're represented in the collection. Many artists gave their self-portraits to the collection over the years so they'd feature in it even though their main works would never be part of the Uffizi collection. So many unheard of artists whose image is now part of the gallery.

In the middle of the Ponte Vecchio bridge section of the Corridor is a big window that gives a great view down onto the bridge itself and up-river to the other bridges spanning the Arno. It was apparently put in on orders of Mussolini to give Hitler a grand view when he visited Italy and so has the unfortunate name of Hitler's Window.

I was lagging behind the group when I heard Lucia mention a self-portrait by George Leighton who has his own gallery in London and my ears pricked up - that's Leighton House Museum, I thought, so let's have a look at the man himself. It's okay as far as it goes but of far greater interest was the self-portrait hanging beside it - Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema whose work I first saw in Leighton House earlier this year. What a coincidence! He did several self-portraits but this is my favourite, showing himself as any other man of the time wearing glasses and with creases around his eyes. I didn't realise that this is where the painting is. He looks like the kind of person you could sit down with a good cup of tea and have a nice long chat about anything.

Alma-Tadema and Leighton were mid/late-Victorians so we were speeding up in time by now and round another corner in the Corridor began the home straight of modern self-portraits from the early 20th Century onwards. Hung close together to cram in as many as possible, Lucia told us that it was around then that the Uffizi started to refuse to accept portraits that weren't of a suitable standard since it already had more than it could comfortably display or house.

The most famous self-portrait was one by Marc Chagall but it wasn't the weirdest by any means. Apparently he asked the Uffizi to choose one of several he presented them with and this is the chosen painting.

The Corridor continues into the Pitti Palace but the tour ends at the exit to the Boboli Gardens behind the Palace. It was quite warm in the Corridor so it was nice to exit down a few steps into the sunlight and gentle breeze beside the Grotto with some of Michelangelo's 'slave' forms writhing in the stone. The Grotto is closed to the public at the moment but I wandered into it ten years ago. Looking back to where we'd just exited all I could see was a closed grey door, a nondescript door that could lead anywhere or just be a storage cupboard. But I know it leads to treasures.

What a great adventure that was, to wander through time for an hour and a half, gradually moving forward until you meet the modern day again. So many paintings seen by so few people (relatively speaking). I thoroughly enjoyed the journey and would recommend it to anyone with some free time in Florence. Vasari's Corridor is one of Florence's many wonders.

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