Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Uffizi in Technicolour

Colour and the Evolution of the Uffizi*

Chardin's Boy Building a House of Cards, 1735, now displayed in the Foreign Artists' Gallery at the Uffizi
It is impossible to write a post on the art in the Uffizi Gallery. That is a job a) for more learned people and b) for people with more time on their hands. So I shall offer some thoughts on one aspect of the gallery which is prompted by recent changes: the colour of its walls.

This historic gallery started life as a commission by Cosimo I de' Medici to house the Florentine magistrates' courts and administrative offices as well as the state archive. It was called the Uffizi, the offices, for that reason, and it was in effect the hub of the Medici power structure. 
Ironically, the layout of broad galleries overlooking a long, narrow courtyard on one side and lined on the other with a series of doors leading into mysterious, labyrinthine inner chambers, evokes, to anyone who has experienced Italian bureaucracy, the ageless, dusty, echoing corridors of state institutions haunted by long-suffering citizens seeking information, permission and justice, who sit and stand before numbered doors awaiting uncertain outcomes. Kafka anyone?

Yet the analogy ends there, for the 'offices' were gradually transformed into an art gallery, starting with the construction in 1584 of the Tribuna, the octagonal room lined in deep red which was to house the most important paintings and sculptures belonging to the Medici dynasty. Gradually other parts of the offices displayed the family's growing art collection. According to Vasari, the Uffizi of his day became a meeting place for artists. From 1737 the collection was made public and became a must-see destination for all those taking part in the Grand Tour.
Johan Zoffany's depiction of the north-east side of the Tribuna degli Uffizi, (1772-1778). Now in Windsor Castle, it was painted for Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, neither of whom ever visited Italy. All the spectators are British; the only Italian in the room is the gallery curator (centre, holding Titian's Venus of Urbino)
When Giorgio Vasari, architect, art critic, maker and breaker of artistic reputations, designed the gallery, he must have had such a function in mind, for he dictated from the start the appropriate colour scheme to display works of art. His was a neutral palette, comprising the grey of pietra serena or grey sandstone and the white walls. This two-colour background was reproduced faithfully over the centuries until it was criticised by the latest (now former) director of the Uffizi, Antonio Natali, as a "generalised whiteness which risks evoking an infirmary rather than the dignity of abstraction."

'...risks evoking an infirmary'? Some infirmary. The walls are white, the door frames and skirting boards or balze (which in Tuscany are painted, not in wood) grey, and the floor tiles grey and white
Hence, in 2006, when ample extensions to the Gallery were announced, in areas outside Vasari's original territory, a new colour scheme was planned. One might argue that the colour scheme of the walls is hardly of vital importance: what undeniably matters is what hangs on or stands before those walls. Yet in the event, it does matter and in my humble opinion the results of this colour experiment are mixed.
The Tribuna as it is today, still in red and still displaying some of the original works
What is the impact of the new colour schemes, which are not in fact confined to the latest sections, but have also infiltrated the traditional two-colour domain of the original Gallery?
Filippo Lippi: Madonna with Child and Two Angels, 1465
The answer is inevitably subjective. Perhaps least controversial are the different red or crimson backdrops now in vogue in the new Florentine sixteenth century rooms (opened in 2012) as well as in certain panels in the original collection. The crimson and Pompeian red in the new rooms is recognisably a colour of the Medici (and was used in the Tribuna) while the red of the second floor is, in my estimation, a trifle too light.

Michelangelo's Tondo Doni or Holy Family is now backed by a light crimson which contrasts with and picks up the colours of the fabrics in the painting. But this is not a fashion show!

More difficult to understand is the choice of a hard azure blue in the new Foreign Artists' Studios. Why azure blue should represent the foreign artists is a mystery. On the Uffizi's official website the director writes: "...I asked that a more vibrant, or frankly bright, colour be taken into consideration...the choice fell on blue which in terms of culture and taste appeared to be best suited to the works for which these rooms have been conceived." 
Excuse me? In terms of the French, Dutch, Spanish and Flemish cultures, all together? And whose taste? Theirs or ours or that of the Director of the Uffizi? The colour chosen is perhaps a bit too bold.

Frans Van Mieris the Elder, Elderly Couple at a Table, 1650-55
However Natali raises some interesting questions. Why all this fuss about the colour of the walls? Because colour can distract, detract from and even alter the object of our attention. Admittedly it can also enhance, but should it be doing that? We are not involved in interior decoration here: this is an art gallery. Would the artist have wanted his work enhanced? Ultimately it is immaterial since the artist relinquishes his rights once he sells his painting, but it would be interesting to know if Michelangelo approved of a light crimson backdrop for his Tondo, or Caravaggio of warm yellow for Bacchus.

Gentile da Fabriano's magnificent Adoration of the Magi, 1423 now placed before a discreetly coloured wall
The former director of the Uffizi asks, provocatively: "whether a reflection is not called for on the aversion to colour which has afflicted us all for so many years. We need to discern its historic origins..."
He goes on to say that even the colours of Florence are lacklustre. Here I would beg to disagree. The neutral tones of its facades are what gives the city its aura of elegance and classicism. Florence in technicolour would not be Florence. So are its great art collections diminished or enhanced by being associated with such bright colour palettes? I leave this up to individuals to judge.
Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano, (detail) 1435-60 placed against classic, plain white
The white marble of this Roman sculpture of Apollo Playing the Cithar undoubtedly benefits from being set against a deep Pompeian red

Raffaelo Sanzio's self-portrait, 1504-6
Tiziano's Flora, 1515-17
However I agree with Antonio Natali that our modern eyes tend to forget that in the past important buildings, inside and out, and sculptures were brightly coloured and highly-decorated while paintings were brighter than we see them today. For a start, think Pompeii, the Gates of Ishtar, most medieval and baroque church interiors; the white sculptures that we revere as classical were in fact highly coloured to make them resemble their models as closely as possible.
Caravaggio's Bacchus, 1596-7
Red, blue and yellow walls link us more closely with these ancient aesthetic traditions.

Jean-Etienne Liotard, Portrait of Marie Adelaide of France Dressed in the Turkish Style, 1753

In the future it will be interesting to hear what the newly-chosen director of the Uffizi, the German art historian Eike Schmidt, will have to say about his gallery's colour schemes.

*Apologies for the quality of the images: digital photography of interiors has its limits and the colour reproduction and definition is at times poor, notably in the coloured wall examples and certainly does not do the art, nor its backdrop, justice.


  1. A very interesting report which throws up challenging questions. Brave and timely to introduce some colour to venerable at least certain Uffizi walls.

  2. An excellent report including a selection of very great art with most interesting information and opinions.I agree that in some galleries the wall colours are open to question,e.g the use of a very vibrant blue.However The Uffizi is one of the very great galleries of the world and a visit to Firenze would not be complete without a visit to this magnificent art collection which is a Tuscan Jewel.


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