The Uffizi Gallery extension - background on the 'Uffizi Nuovo' project

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About the 'new' Uffizi Gallery, Florence - Il Progetto dei nuovi Uffizi

The Uffizi is one of the world's oldest art galleries in the world, and it's certainly on everyone's list when they visit Italy ... a detour to the Uffizi in Florence is a must for anyone with even a passing interest in the Italian Renaissance. Because the greatest ever flowering of European artistic and cultural talent not only happened here in Florence, it hangs on the walls of one of the world's great galleries.

There's just one problem - the medieval Palazzo degli' Uffizi (literally 'the palace of the offices') a rambling collection of admittedly beautiful buildings next to the River Arno, just isn't big enough. At any given time only a fraction of the collection, which began to be amassed by the all-powerful Medici family in 1581 and which went open as one of the world's first public galleries in 1765, can be seen by the public. There are just too many masterpieces and not enough space. And with a collection including works by Lippi, Botticelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo, that is something of a cultural crime. And the paintings are just one element of the collections. As well as Piero della Francesca, Giotto, Masaccio, Paolo Uccello, Mantenga, Bellini, Titian, Raphael and Caravaggio, there is important antique sculpture, mostly of the Roman period.

Since the end of World War II, if not before, the Florentine authorities have been agonising over how to make more of the Uffizi collection. By the 1990s, visitors were beginning to complain about the number of closed rooms, the interminable queues and the general unfriendliness of the experience. And where were the artworks you'd queued up to see? Well some of the best statuary would be in the Bargello, with lots more loaned around the various Florence museums and galleries. The lustre was further dimmed by a car bomb explosion in 1993, which killed five people and severely damaged parts of the museum, including the Niobe room and its neoclassical interior.

A design competition was launched, with a brief to open up much more the building (a necessarily constrained space in the heart of Florence) while respecting the 'perfection' of Giorgio Vasari's original 1560s building. The first elements of the 'Nuovo Uffizi' emerged in 1998, with newly restored and repaired artworks, and work has continued, slowly, steadily ever since. Recent additions include a new wing, cafe, bookshop and multimedia information centre. The current stage of the project is an expansion of exhibition space from 6000 square metres in 2006 to 13,000 in 2008. All the while, the city fathers have aimed to 'enhance the extraordinary intrinsic qualities of Vasari’s geometry, enhancing its compositional rigour'. But you don't double a medieval building in size without upsetting some people ... and there has been considerable controversy over some of the plans. The creation of new stairwells and lifts in the core of the Uffizi, the seven-storey 'bed frame' designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki to replace the existing bottleneck of an exit.

But then you don't undertake a thoroughgoing renewal of Italy's museums and galleries (the Uffizi is just one of dozens currently on the go, with Italy determined to supplant the Louvre and the Prado at the top of the European cultural tree) without upsetting a few people. By mid-2008 there were still large turquoise areas on Nuovo Uffizi plan still marked 'not in use'. There is an awful lot of development and fun in store yet (April 2011 - there are some signs of life - see blog post.

Another update - the 17th of December 2011 will see the official opening of 8 rooms of the 'Uffizi Nuovi' - see blog post here.

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