A Unique Opportunity
Visitors to Florence, Italy, know that to miss the paintings of Botticelli and Caravaggio in the Uffizi Gallery, the Ponte Vecchio with its famous gold merchants, and the gaudy splendors of the Pitti Palace is to miss three of Florence’s best-known sites.
What many tourists do not know is that along this same sightseeing path they also have a unique opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Renaissance nobility. Here they can view a vast collection of paintings usually reserved for the pleasure of a select few. It is called the Vasari Corridor.
The Vasari Corridor is an aerial passageway that connects the Palazzo Vecchio on one side of the River Arno to the Palazzo Pitti on the other. It passes over the roofs of the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, and through galleries, mansions and churches. Traversing over 800 meters (.49 miles), it is the longest single passageway of paintings and portraits in the world.
Those who travel in the footsteps of the Florentine Grand Dukes not only see a unique art collection, but also are shown a hidden route with exclusive views and unexpected secret glimpses of the classic Florentine cityscape while walking above the heads of tourists swarming the streets below.
In 2008, there are ongoing discussions about whether the Vasari Corridor will stay open or whether the collection in the Corridor should be taken down and tours discontinued due to security and preservation concerns. The facility is frequently closed for months at a time. The unique construction and length of the Corridor requires that tours must be undertaken in small groups accompanied by authorized tour guides.
History of the Corridor
In the 1540’s, Cosimo I, an enlightened despot who ruled Florence and all of Tuscany, lived with his Spanish wife Eleonora di Toledo and their children above the “shop” in the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florence City Hall. Eleonora was in charge of the family finances and disliked living in the Palazzo Vecchio. In 1549, she found the home of her dreams, and so purchased the Palazzo Pitti from the debt-encumbered Pitti family, rivals of the Medici clan. She had the palace remodeled and enlarged. The façade grew to over 670 feet in length, becoming the grandest of the Renaissance palaces and the seat of the Medici dynasty for the next 200 years.
Eleonora moved her family out of the city hall, thus forcing Cosimo to commute almost half a mile through the city streets to the government offices. A man with many enemies and one who did not mix well with the general public, Cosimo had to travel with a contingent of bodyguards. Each day they had to traverse a narrow chaotic bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, which in the 1500’s was lined with malodorous tanneries and butcher shops.
Using the occasion of his son Francesco’s 1565 wedding to Joanna of Austria as an excuse, Cosimo commissioned his architect Giorgio Vasari to design an above-ground walkway from his home to the offices. Vasari, a true man of the Renaissance –architect, painter, author and art historian — took only six months to design and direct the building of the Corridor. Cosimo did not own all of the property between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti. Vasari thus had to get permission to build the Corridor through other people’s towers, mansions and businesses. When the Mannelli family refused permission for the corridor to pass through their tower, situated at the south end of the Ponte Vecchio, Vasari designed the passageway to be built around, but attached to, la torre dei Mannelli.
Cosimo claimed that the architectural wonder was for the amazement of the wedding guests and to remind the citizens of Florence of his power and authority, but he also gained an escape route from either home or office and a way to spy on the Florentines from above many of the busiest thoroughfares. The Corridor was also eventually used as a nursery for many generations of Medici children; and the elderly, infirm and lazy could be wheeled through the corridor in basket chairs. Apparently, however, the stench of the Ponte Vecchio remained a problem because in 1594, Cosimo’s son Fernando decreed that the butchers and tanners would be ousted and replaced by goldsmiths and jewelers.
Touring the Corridor
The exit for the Vasari Corridor from the Palazzo Vecchio is from Eleonora’s Green Room, La Camera Verde, in the former Medici family apartments on the second floor. The Green Room is now part of the fascinating Palazzo Vecchio Museum and is usually not included in tours of the Corridor. A short sky bridge passes over Via della Ninna and enters the east wing of the Uffizi Gallery, which holds the largest collection of Italian medieval and Renaissance art in the world. Today, most tours of the Vassari Corridor begin in the Uffizi. Each participant receives instructions on what time and where to meet the tour guide, usually outside the Uffizi ticket office at Door No. Three on the west loggia (porch).
The main branch of the Vasari Corridor is entered via a doorway located near the beginning of the west corridor of the Uffizi Gallery. The passage drops down a long stairway flanked by paintings from the Medici collection and then traverses the top of the arcade on the north bank of the Arno. It turns left over the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, and continues on through to the Boboli Gardens of the Palazzo Pitti. Visitors exit into the garden.
Small windows all along the Corridor provide excellent views of the river and the city. The best view is in the center of the Ponte Vecchio through two large sets of windows that look west down the Arno. These windows were not part on the original design, but were installed at the direction of Mussolini in 1939, reportedly because Hitler and Mussolini wanted to look at the view while they held private meetings in the Corridor.
By some reports, Hitler’s fondness for the Corridor and the Ponte Vecchio spared both when the retreating Germans blew up all of the other bridges crossing the Arno as the Allies advanced on Florence in August 1944.
Near the south bank of the river, the Corridor passes through the interior of the church of Santa Felicita. A Corridor window looks over the gray and white pietra serena interior of the chapel, and a door enters a high rear balcony, similar to an exclusive box at the opera, where the Medici family attended services in comfort and privacy.
Past the church, the tour ends in the Boboli Gardens, next to the elaborate grotto designed by Bountalenti in the 1580s. Designed for Eleonora di Toledo by Niccolo Tribolo in 1550, the garden, with its many acres of walkways, mazes, lakes, views and decorative sculpture, is one of the finest examples of Italianate landscape architecture.
The Collection of Paintings and Portraits
The paintings in the Corridor are arranged in three major groups.
The first collection, which starts at the doorway from the Uffizi Gallery and ends as the Corridor turns on to the Ponte Vecchio, is a group of 17th- and 18th-century paintings by Italian and other European artists. Cardinal Leopoldo de’Medici at his death left a collection of 730 paintings, 318 sculptures, 1,245 drawings, 589 small portraits, and thousands of medals and other objet d’arte to his heirs. A small portion of his collection is displayed in the Corridor. Notable among the first group of paintings are pieces by Guido Reni, Gerrit van Honthorst, Empoli, and Guercino.
Next, as the Corridor starts across the Ponte Vecchio, there is the world’s largest collection of self-portraits, arranged chronologically, of Italian and other European artists. Cardinal Leopoldo, inspired to start the series, collected over 80 portraits in the 17th century. The set was then augmented by earlier pieces obtained by other members of the Medici family. Still more were added throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries by artist donation and acquisition by the Uffizi.
Only a portion of the total collection of self-portraits is hung on the Corridor walls at any one time. Those now on display include Giorgio Vasari, Titian, Correggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velasquez, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Antonio Canova, Delacroix, John Singer Sargent, and Carlo Levi. The last displayed, but not the last to reach the Gallery, is a self-portrait donated by Marc Chagall in 1976. A fake Leonardo da Vinci is also displayed: it was part of the Medici collection, but was found by x-ray to be painted over a 17th century Magdalene.
The last group of paintings, displayed in the Corridor where it turns toward the Boboli Gardens, is a collection of Medici and Hapsburg/Lorraine family portraits, many of them of the children. These give valuable insight into the attire and mannerisms of wealthy 17th and 18th century nobility.
Touring the Vassari Corridor has become relatively expensive in the past five years because the Uffizi Gallery privatized the service. Tours cost 65 euro to 110 euro depending on the tour provider. Tours are given in English. Reservations should be made well in advance.