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Art: Revisiting an Era

Views from the Uffizi is a snapshot of Italian culture

By Laura James · July 16th, 2008 · Visual Art
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Botticelli's "The Adoration of the Magi" is part of the Taft Musuem of Art's Views from the Uffizi.

It's easy to get lost in the Uffizi. Florence's most prestigious art museum is large and full of some of the best known paintings in the entire world. These works often eclipse other paintings -- visitors rush by a breathtaking picture by Fillipo d'Angeli to see "Primavera" by Botticelli. It's the curse of the masterwork.

Views from the Uffizi, now at the Taft Museum of Art, deals nicely with this curse. The curator, Antonio Natali, is also the newly appointed director of the Uffizi. Walking through the endless rooms of paintings, Natali must indeed find it frustrating to watch visitors congregating around Leonardo's "Adoration of the Magi" while ignoring an annunciation scene by the lesser-known Lorenzo di Credi.

Not that Leonardo's unfinished work isn't deserving of such attention -- quite the opposite -- but di Credi deserves some looking, too.

The selection of works at the Taft (only a part of Natali's whole show) allows you to experience the Uffizi without feeling pressure to get to the masterworks.

There are some famous names -- Botticelli is represented by a landscape, as are Canaletto, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. But most of the names are more unfamiliar to most viewers.

There is a curatorial argument to the exhibition too: Following the progression of landscape painting in Florence allows contemporary viewers to understand cultural changes that swept through the city between the 1500s and 1850s.

In the first section, paintings dating mostly from the 1500s, we experience the moment when religious art begins to give way to mythology and politics. Before 1500, Italian paintings almost always dealt with religious iconography or portraiture. Even a nature study would be first and foremost a religious scene. But now Florentines like Francesco Granacci are painting about contemporary culture. His work included in Views from the Uffizi, "Entrance of Charles the VII into Florence," shows a crowded cityscape. People seem tense, looking over their shoulders, waiting for the new king to take power or destroy them. The perspectival lines are sharp, somehow adding to the tension. Granacci's attention to architectural details is phenomenal. It shows that architecture is an important "landscape" feature, proving Florentine supremacy.

Many of the paintings from the 16th century address work by the classical poet Ovid. "The Seduction of Europa" by Bassano the Younger, shows a curious organization. The focus, the foreground, is a careful painting of ordinary life: sheep and cows, their shepherd and baskets laze against the landscape. The artist is clearly more interested in retelling the story of his contemporary world than in retelling Ovid's mythology.

After the turn of the next century, however, artists cast aside references to the past as much as they could. Filippo Napolitano has two paintings in the exhibition: "Country Gathering" and "Picnic on the Grass," both of which show people in ordinary settings, albeit in a fantastically lush natural setting.

Paintings from the 1700s become darker and show nature in a wilder state. The artist Peruzzini's "Landscape with Hermits" is a dark place, a little mystical and very frightening. The idea of the natural world as untamed begins to grow. In time with that growth, images of the city get keener and tighter: "view painting," or painting specific sites to absolute detail, became popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These paintings are like souvenirs or postcards; snapshots before the camera was invented.

In Florentine painting of the period, landscape is used as a device through which a painter could explore a subject matter popular in his time. The short journey though these paintings should leave the viewer with an understanding of cultural change in these centuries, as well as a new appreciation for artists about whom he or she might never have heard. ©

VIEWS FROM THE UFFIZI is on view at the Taft Museum of Art through Oct. 12. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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