Monday, February 19, 2024


When I first saw the ceilings of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I was gobsmacked by their ornamentation -- nearly a hundred galleries dense with weird figures, mysterious symbols, grotesque creatures, bizarre landscapes and mythological tableaus, stretching as far as the eye could see.  (Virtual tour courtesy of Google Maps available here ).   

The ceilings on the Uffizi corridors were painted by teams of artists starting in 1579 and took hundreds of years to complete. But the ornate style originated in the ancient palace of the Roman emperor Nero, the inspiration of fresco painter Famulus.  With the passage of time, Nero's palace was buried under rubble and forgotten but it was accidentally rediscovered at the end of the 15th century when a boy fell through a hole in the ground and landed in a strange grotto surrounded by eerie painted figures. 

The rediscovered paintings became a sensation.  The greatest Renaissance artists, including Raphael and Michelangelo, were lowered down shafts to study them.   Around this time, the Medici family began constructing the Uffizi and decided to decorate the ceilings of the corridors in this latest fashion.  

During my first visit to the Uffizi it was impossible to linger over details or even take take a decent photo because other visitors, similarly gawking at the ceilings, kept bumping into me. But now I'm pleased to report that the nearly 100 ceiling galleries have been carefully photographed and catalogued in a book, Le Grottesche degli Uffizi by Valentina Conticelli.

The book enables us to see the details of these frescoes for the first time, and they confirm what we always knew: that you can't put that many artists together for that long without generating all kinds of mischief.

In the next detail, some long ago scamp subtly beheaded the figure on the left:

We also get a better look at the thousands of tiny, imaginative creations invented by hundreds of artists lying on their backs.

More than one artist turned their portion of the ceiling into an open air trellis.

Just as the frescoes on the ceiling of Nero's palace were buried out of sight for centuries, the frescoes on the ceiling of the Uffizi were hidden in plain sight for centuries, obscured by their height and by their overwhelming volume.  Valentina Conticelli's book corrects that, and puts these images at your disposal.


Movieac said...

Wonder how many of the artists toiling on their backs thought, “screw it those bastards will never notice this.”

MORAN said...

Awesome, but that book is very expensive.

David Apatoff said...

Movieac-- exactly! I don't think many of the wealthy Medici patrons climbed high up on a ladder to inspect the details of what was being done. I bet there's more than one face up there that strongly resembles somebody's girlfriend, and more than one enemy who is portrayed as having sex with an animal, or having his liver eaten daily by an eagle.

MORAN-- True, although it is a big and beautiful book. Besides, that's what inter-library loans are for.

Anonymous said...

Wonder what Drucker and Crumb would make of this . Not to mention many others . Al McLuckie

chris bennett said...

They remind me of Persian rugs in their overall look yet subtle asymmetry. However, so far I haven't come across any salacious or scatological details within our oriental carpets. It must be a ceiling thing.

Donald Pittenger said...

Oh dear. I've been in the Ufizzi twice and don't recall noticing those ceilings. Must have been looking at the paintings instead.

Richard said...

“screw it those bastards will never notice this.”

And just think how unfortunate those poor artists must have felt when just 29 years later Lipperhey invented the telescope.