So what was the Vasari Corridor and how did it differ from the older parts of the Ponte Vecchio? A spacious corridor, nearly 1k in length, was built in 1565 by Giorgio Vasari. Vasari was just the man for the commission – he was an architect, to be sure, but also a painter and an art historian. And his finest building was Florence’s Uffizi which he had built as recently as 1560.
Ponte Vecchio, inc Vasari Corridor (top storey), seen from the Arno
*It linked up the Pitti Palace, where the Duke Cosimo I de Medici of Florence (1519–74) resided, with the Uffizi/offices where he worked. The timing was excellent since Duke Cosimo’s son Francesco de' Medici (1541–87) married Joanna of Austria, youngest daughter of Ferdinand I Holy Roman Emperor, in a glittering ceremony in Dec 1565. But there is also the clear suggestion that this art loving duke was also an authoritarian ruler who secured his power through brute force. Secrecy and secure movement served Duke Cosimo I well.
The Vasari Corridor (and Uffizi) agreed with the idea of a nervous Cosimo, but they added another suggestion. The idea was to get the thirteen Guilds and Magistrates who administered the city under one roof, and in close proximity to Cosimo so he could control them better. As a collateral benefit the Medicis were to get the top floor for their art, theatre etc without extra costs.
As you can see in the map below, the Corridor goes on top of the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge over the River Arno that linked the Uffizi on the north bank with the Pitti Palace on the south bank. On the south side, the corridor actually passes through the interior of the church of Santa Felicita, over the top of the Guicciardini family’s houses and gardens, and ends at the Boboli gardens and Pitti Palace.
Self-portraits section of the Vasari Corridor
Even if you have seen every gallery and cathedral across Europe, and even if you have shopped till you dropped on the Ponte Vecchio, the probability is that you will never have visited this art space. Organised tours begin in the Uffizi itself. Small group are taken from room to room, then the guide opens a modest door into the Vasari Corridor.
The corridor itself is unadorned. But the collection of art is impressive and the views through the windows are even better. A Florentine in Florence has wonderful photos of the views from the small oval windows. Apparently the windows were built into the corridor so that Duke Cosimo I de Medici could walk across his parts of the town safely AND see what was going on from the vantage point well above Ponte Vecchio. These days, if the visitor looks out, he will see nothing more subversive than hordes of tourists and shopkeepers, haggling with each other.
Vasari's own self-portrait c1567
The art contents of the Vasari Corridor are not a mere continuation of works hanging in the Uffizi's galleries. Rather there are two very interesting collections in the Corridor that deserve separate attention. The smaller collection is of charming miniature paintings, amassed from over the centuries of art history.
The larger collection is of artists’ self portraits. This gallery includes 2000 works from all important artists, including many of the masters whose works appear on the walls of the Uffizi eg Titian, Giorgio Vasari, Antonio Canova, Bernini, Jacques-Louise David and Chagall.
Museums of Florence say that this unique group of self portraits was created by Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici in the mid 17th century, although it is still receiving regular additions to the collection. Three Pipe Problem connects to a fine BBC video where Andrew Graham-Dixon examines the development of these art objects over the generations. A corridor is therefore a fitting shape, since the very best way to discuss a linear progression would be via a long, straight line. My favourite self portraits weren't even painted when Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici assembled the first works: Rosalba Carriera 1709, Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun 1790 and John Singer Sargent 1907.
expanding map, Uffizi-Ponte Vecchio-Pitti Palace
I have walked all over Florence many times, and had never heard of the Vasari Corridor until my son went to a wedding there. In any case the corridor was only restored and reopened to the public in 1973, and even now it can only be visited in groups who plan well in advance.
As the corridor will be closed for 3 years from late October 2011 for a major restoration work, I recommend that would-be viewers book quickly. For those who cannot get to Florence, I recommend the book by Ann J. Reavis called Walking in the Footsteps of the Duke: The Vasari Corridor in Florence, 2003.