The complex of urban elements in Florence which includes the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace (and therefore some of the world’s most important art) offers a remarkable counterpoint, in almost every aspect, to modern architecture and modern museums. The museum, more than other building types, has an inherent conflict or tension between the “internal” requirements of the program (e.g. security, display, light controls, etc.) and the “external” requirements of the urban context. Since modern architecture has been primarily concerned with the former it is not surprising to find most modern museums to be isolated, introverted, and de-nuded versions of the museum as a mechanism for storing and displaying art, with little regard for the public realm.

    The bias towards the program, and the predilection for free-standing Platonic solids are both part of a tradition with roots extending back as far as the beginning of Neoclassicism in mid-eighteenth-century France. It was this period that marked the beginning of modern scientific archeology art history, and the concept of the public museum, as we know it today. Unfortunately once the stylistic overlay of Neoclassicism was stripped away by modern architecture there was nothing left to mediate between the program of the museum and the larger urban context.

    The urbanistic and programmatic success of the buildings in Florence may be partially attributable to the organizational type, but it is probably also of some significance that none of these elements was originally designed as a museum per se. Rather, over a period of approximately four hundred years various architects were asked to design, renovate, or make additions to a continuous building fabric that extends over three thousand feet and connects the two parts of the city separated by the Arno River.

    The elements of this fabric include:

      a town square (the Piazza della Signoria)

      a city hall (The Palazzo Vecchio)

      an office building (The Uffizi)

      a bridge (the Ponte Vecchio)

      a covered walkway (Vasari’s corridor)

      a church (Santa Felicità)

      a residence (The Pitti Palace)

      a garden (The Boboli Gardens)

    This “megabuilding” comprises a series of discrete buildings connected by Vasari’s Corridor. Each building has its own identity and internal logic but is also simultaneously a fragment of a larger urban organization; thus each is both complete and incomplete. And though a given building may be a type, it is always deformed, never a pure type. Neither pure object or pure texture, it has characteristics of both — an ambiguous building that was, and still is, multifunctional. All of this contributes to a rich and magical world where spaces are like buildings, buildings become bridges, and distant objects form an integral part of the composition.


    The beginning of the museum sequence, the Piazza della Signoria, can be seen as an anteroom to the Arno River and as a large outdoor theatre with the Palazzo Vecchio as its proscenium. The characteristics of the piazza are essentially medieval in that the space derives its energy primarily from the dominance of the Palazzo Vecchio and to a certain extent from the Loggia dei Lanzi rather that the quality and regularity of the defining surfaces. The irregularity of the space is contrasted, however, by the precision of the line of sculpture in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. Functioning either collectively, in sets, or individually, these figures perform multiple perceptual roles beyond their own intrinsic value as art and serve to activate, clarify, or deceive one’s reading of the space.

    Perhaps the most important sculptural group is that which defines the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio. Here the four figures appear to form a deep perspective funnel of space leading to the reentrance-the front figures operating on the scale of the doorway. It is this phenomenal portico (the actual depth is only a few feet), which defines and continues the axis of the street into the building and through the courtyard to its conclusion in the Salone dei Cinquecento.

    The essence of both the building and the space is therefore the contrast between this precise central sequence and the loose accommodating perimeter. Simply, the outside and the inside do not correspond. And because the major interior spaces are a function of the urban scale they make an abrupt contrast to the small rooms that fill the rest of the plan. Thus the building can be seen as urban poché to the exterior space, and the small rooms serve as poché to the figure of the primary sequence. The deformation of the building around its perimeter allows for contextual adaptation and produces an ambiguous building that can be interpreted as either figure or ground. Only the front, or oldest, part of the building rises above its surroundings to appear as an articulate and possibly free-standing object. To the rear it simply aligns with the street pattern to become part of the texture.


    The Uffizi, unlike the adjacent Palazzo Vecchio, does not rise above the surrounding texture, nor does it have clearly identifiable limits. As the antithesis of the free-standing building, the Uffizi is Neoclassical French hotel turned inside out, the deep façade of loggias defining a Platonic void and concealing the separate system, or promenade architectural, of highly particularized and varied rooms behind. This schism between inside and outside, between the regular space formed by Vasari’s loggias and the irregular texture behind, allows the building to function more or less independently at both the urban and private scales. It also tends to accommodate continual change and adaptation of the private periphery while the public center remains fixed and unchanging.

    The Uffizi was originally designed as an office complex to unite, under the central control of Cosimo I, all the public offices, guilds, archives, and court artists, and when Vasari began in 1559, work had already been progressing for four years on the construction of a street connecting the Piazza della Signoria with the Arno. Vasari then proposed the double loggia to line the space of the street and incorporate the foundations and remains of demolished houses where possible. The Church of S. Piero Scheraggio, near the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Mint, behind the Loggia dei Lanzi, were also absorbed into the new fabric. Thus from the very beginning the building had an urban and social role that controlled — even sponsored — the specifics of the functional program; and the incorporation of remnants of the past charged the organization with a prehistory or memory, as well as the characteristics for future change and development.

    In fact, the Uffizi has remained multifunctional after four hundred years, and is still undergoing change and adaptation. The building is generally zoned horizontally, with the State Archives on the ground floor, the superintendancy of the galleries on the first floor, and the art gallery on the upper floor. This arrangement seems destined to change, however, with the museum and related functions eventually taking over the entire building and therefore completing the functional transformation that began even before the initial building was completed. One fortuitous by-product of this projected change would be that the ground-floor rooms would again be opened to the loggia as public functions, after having been closed off in 1852 when the State Archives took over this area — thereby robbing the piazzale of its role as a social and spatial vestibule.


    Vasari’s street, or piazzale, is a typically mannerist space, existing in a delicate state of equilibrium between the finite closure of the Renaissance and the continuous spatial extension of the Baroque. The space of the piazzale is clearly defined by the two flanking palazzi, but the attenuated longitudinal axis tends to emphasize the ends rather than the center. Consequently, the space becomes dynamic rather than static, an urban connector instead of a closed urban room. Perceptually the space functions as an architectonic perspective which compresses distance and pictorially relates the Arno to the Signoria and even the Duomo beyond. (The visual relationship to the Duomo would not be possible were it not for the Uffizi and its curious angle to the river and the Roman grid.) The Uffizi is thus the most completely ambiguous building in this series. It exists literally and phenomenally in the in between, but with an important inversion. Conceptually the space it the figure and the rooms behind are the ground. Perceptually, however, the space becomes the ground, and the rooms of the building, and the rooms of the city, become figural.

    The Loggia dei Lanzi, although technically not part of the Uffizi, serves as the theatrical loggia for the Piazza della Signoria and as the beginning and end of the Uffizi sequence. Physically joined to the Uffizi, it juts out, transparently revealing the piazzale, and capturing the space of the via della Ninna between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi. From the Loggia the street penetrates the city fabric, framed by the arched bridge of Vasari’s Corridor connecting to the Palazzo Vecchio. The roof terrace of the Loggia becomes, in turn, the culmination of the gallery sequence above and offers spectacular views of the city and the piazza below.

    From the river end a similar condition occurs where the portico joining the two palazzi bursts out of the surrounding buildings, its façade reflecting the loggias and the space behind. The reverberations of the pressure are then extended to the river wall below, which is treated as a dislocated piece of the façade. The façade of the portico maintains the surface of the continuity of the buildings to the east, articulated by a tall slot, but protrudes into the street on the west side by the depth of the loggia. The outer surface of the portico is picked up by the free-standing portion of the Corridor, and the inner surface continues the line of the buildings to the west. Thus the portico reinforces the reading of the Uffizi as a discrete element while implying continuity by its inflection toward the Ponte Vecchio.


    By 1565 the construction of the Uffizi was well advanced, when Cosimo I moved to the Pitti Palace and turned the Palazzo Vecchio over to his son and daughter-in-law. Then, in order to link the Medici households, maintain control over the government, and provide safe passage into the city, Vasari was commissioned to build an elevated pedestrian corridor which would link the Pitti, the Uffizi, and the Palazzo Vecchio. The Corridor was completed in five months with open gallery of the Uffizi serving as part of the route.

    Vasari’s corridor (sometimes referred to as the “Crosstown Expressway”) is an extreme case of Renaissance intervention into the fundamentally medieval fabric of central Florence, but it is successful as an urban element for two reasons. Namely, it preserves and adapts to the existing context (apparently only one house was destroyed for its construction), and it operates simultaneously on several different scales, from that of the individual, using the Corridor (originally decorated with portraits of famous artists), to the larger scale of the fabric through which it passes. The resultant ambiguities allow for multiple interpretations of the Corridor’s various sections.

    After descending from the west gallery of the Uffizi to one level above the street, the Corridor emerges from the building mass, spans the street, and continues along the river edge to the Ponte Vecchio. This section of the Corridor is supported by an open arcade and the outside surface is flush with the river wall below, thereby unifying the three components and creating a larger reading is reinforced by the tall arches of the arcade and the square windows above each arch. (On the street side and to the interior of the Ponte Vecchio the windows are small and round, except for the ones at the corners.)

    The piers of the large arches are pierced by smaller arches forming an intimately scaled pedestrian sequence at street level, which is then visually completed by the portico of the Uffizi. Even the large-scale reading of the Corridor arcade becomes a detail, or mediator, in the overall urban composition. Its overall height corresponds to the ground-floor portion of the Uffizi façade, transparently relating the two structures. This same height then continues through the piazzale of the Uffizi and emerges into the Piazza della Signoria as the piano nobile of the Palazzo Vecchio, thus subtly relating the three scales of the river to the three scales of the Piazza della Signoria.


    The Ponte Vecchio — at once bridge, street, corridor, and viewing platform — was transformed into one of the world’s truly memorable images by the superimposition of Vasari’s Corridor. Without it the bridge would have been merely picturesque jumble of mediaeval shops and houses, incapable of contributing to the urban scale. With it, the bridge and the Corridor combine to form a regular primary structure which controls and gives new meaning to the ad hoc array of small-scale, secondary elements protruding from the sides of the bridge. It is like a free-standing version of the Uffizi — regular on the inside, particularized on the outside — that dams the space of the river and connects the two halves of the city.

    As a continuation of the street, which links the Porta Romana and the Palazzo Pitti with the city center, the bridge is still the most important pedestrian route across the river. The interior space formed by the shops and the Corridor is closed to the river, however, except at the midpoint where the space opens to form a small square and give spectacular views up and down the river. Here the Corridor is supported by three arches and light columns, and on the west side the small round windows are replaced by three large ones above the arches, thus affording the Corridor the same articulation as the bridge below. The enclosed portions of the street are activated by the tiny shops, and the axis of the bridge is terminated at the north end by a view of the Duomo in the distance.


    At the south end of the Ponte Vecchio the Corridor passes around a medieval tower house and disappears into the building mass on the other side of the street before reappearing in front of the small church of Santa Felicità. Here again the Corridor performs multiple roles. As a loggia it increases the definition and closure of the piazza which would otherwise be rather ill-defined. At the same time the large arch over the side street, and the granite column to the front of the piazza, articulate and define the subspaces of the side spaces and the church itself. The three small arches then serve as a portico to the church, while the Corridor above opens directly to the interior of Santa Felicità.

    Next, the Corridor passes between the cloister of Santa Felicità and the adjacent mass of buildings, and snakes its way through a series of courtyards to the Palazzo Pitti. From this point on, it functions as an enclosing wall to the various gardens and is interpreted differently in each case. Sometimes the residual space under the Corridor has been taken over by the adjacent buildings, sometimes it is developed as a loggia at the end of the garden, and sometimes it is simply enclosed and screened by ivy and trees. The final section of the Corridor encloses one side of the entry garden to the Pitti at its northwest corner.


    Located below the Belvedere hill at the edge of Florence, the Palazzo Pitti was gradually transformed from a free-standing suburban block in the early Renaissance to the double-sided urban wall that it is today. Originally a residence with a private garden, it now contains five separate museums, and the Boboli is a public garden.

    The front of the building defines three sides of the Piazza Pitti and is flat, austere, and tough. In contrast, the garden side picturesquely builds up to the central block containing Ammannati’s romantically robust courtyard. These two spaces, piazza and courtyard, align with the main axis of the Boboli, thereby connecting city and garden — with the Palazzo Pitti as a mediator in plan, section, and stylistic references.

    On a still larger scale the garden itself can be seen as a mediator between the urban world of the city and the natural landscape outside the walls. As a metaphor of the city the Boboli is a dense green texture, analogous to the medieval fabric of Florence, out of which are carved streets, squares, and theatres. These urban references are then embellished with arcades, statuary, and fountains, as well as grottoes, mazes, and demonic suggestions of the darker world.

    The primary connection to the Pitti, however, is made along the main axis of the garden by an amphitheatre in the form of a Roman Circus. Thus, the Palazzo Pitti might be interpreted as a gigantic double proscenium serving the natural theatre on the one side and the urban theatre on the other. Or, alternatively, is the building the theatre with the city and garden as its stage.

    In any case, the Pitti and the Boboli, like the other elements in this sequence, offer a multiplicity of readings or interpretations in which they transcend their basic functions as urban fragments — about museums as cities, as about cities as museums.

    return to top