Read how to pull together a Florence art itinerary
To see the best of Florence’s museums as well as private collections, join Friends of Florence or hire an art historian for a custom tour.
Bargello National Museum
Countess Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, founder of Friends of Florence and the Best in Italy recommends going to the “Bargello National Museum around noon to capture some of the world’s best sculpture when fewer visitors are present.”
Galleria degli Uffizi
Full disclosure: my first visit to the Uffizi was one of my greatest art and travel letdowns. I could not grasp how a museum that’s often mentioned alongside the Met, in New York, and the Louvre, in Paris, could get away with outdated galleries, uninspired audio guides, disgruntled staff, dimly lit halls and a maddening timed-ticket system that puts you on a line no matter how savvy your planning. And who thought that the array of unrelated shops, including a wine store and a Ferragamo boutique, you have to traverse before exiting was a good idea?
I eventually realized that enjoying the Uffizi entails managing expectations, ignoring the commotion and distractions and focusing on the extraordinary art. Most of the small rooms on the second floor interconnect in a horseshoe pattern, and mapping out a plan of attack is crucial. Don’t try to see everything; instead pick a handful of galleries, and read up on the works beforehand or bring a good guidebook along (the €5.50 audio tour is a complete waste of money). The busiest gallery is the one that holds Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus. Like the Mona Lisa, in Paris, these works always have crowds standing in front of them, but it’s worth waiting for your chance at an unobstructed view: they are stunning in their meticulous attention to detail. The da Vincis, Raphaels, Veroneses, Titians and Michelangelos also draw crowds. But don’t forget the other famous Renaissance names: Duccio, Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Lippi and Verrocchio. Closed Monday.
Read our list of tips on Getting into the Uffizi
Before visiting the gallery, read Irving Stone’s excellent historical novel The Agony and the Ecstasy, first published in 1961, a vivid account of the life of Michelangelo and the Renaissance art world. Besides the original of Michelangelo’s David, the Accademia also contains the sculptor’s famously unfinished Slaves and works by a slew of other Renaissance masters, including Botticelli and Lippi. As at the Uffizi, reservations are a must to avoid hour-long lines. Closed Monday.
Founded in 1771, this little-known museum near the Pitti Palace houses one of Florence’s most bizarre collections. It was originally conceived to display natural-science curiosities gathered by generations of Medicis. Today, visitors can still view some of these royal collections in the twenty-four rooms, in which turn-of-the-century glass cases display zoological specimens. They exhibits may be slightly dated, but coming across a life-size rhinoceros displayed in the middle of Florence still evokes the same wonder that 19th-century visitors must have felt when first seeing these displays. The last ten rooms are filled with 18th- and 19th-century wax anatomical models, which were commissioned by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo as a method of teaching anatomy. If you visit with children who may be afraid of the life-size bodies made of wax—they are truly works of art but also somewhat disturbing—it’s best to skip these rooms. That said, my children consider it their favorite place in Florence and love to bring friends here for the first time. Open every day except Wednesday, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Museo del Opera del Duomo
I’ve never understood why this museum, in the shadow of the Duomo, is somewhat ignored. Well organized and compact, it must feature more masterpieces per square inch than any other in the city. In the first room, you’ll find original marble sculptures taken from the bell tower of the Duomo’s cathedral (the four figures represent apostles and include Donatello’s St. John). One of Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietà, meanwhile, is located on a landing leading to the second floor. Observe the face of Nicodemus, the old man who supports Christ: it is thought to be of Michelangelo himself, and an intensely moving self-portrait of the artist as pain-filled and world-weary. Upstairs, don’t miss a pair of 15th-century choir stalls, by Donatello and Luca della Robbia, which are displayed above eye level (as they were originally meant to be seen in the cathedral). Open Monday to Saturday, 9:00 a.m.to 7:00 p.m.; Sunday, 8:00 a.m.to 2:00 p.m.
Dark terra-cotta floors, leaded glass windows and coffered ceilings set the scene at this museum in the Santa Croce neighborhood. A visit to this collection is akin to stepping back in time and being invited to the home of a Renaissance patrician. At the turn of the 20th century, Herbert Percy Horne, a transplanted British scholar, bought and lovingly restored the former Palazzo dei Corsi to its 15th-century splendor. Today it serves as the backdrop to Horne’s extensive collection of fine and decorative arts. The pieces, including masterful works from the 15th and 16th century, are displayed without labels or Plexiglas partitions, so you feel like you’re strolling through someone’s personal collection. Saint Stephen, a painting by Giotto, is a major treasure, as are two figurative works by Medici court sculptor Giambologna and a colorful tondo depicting the Holy Family by the Renaissance-Mannerist painter Beccafumi. Open Monday–Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. (summer hours: Tuesday, 8:30 a.m.to 11 a.m.).
Museo Salvatore Ferragamo
City Secrets is a series of innovative guidebooks whose contributors, from art historians and professors to novelists and architects, choose their personal “city secrets” to share. Read a Q&A with founding editor Robert Kahn. The following is a pick from City Secrets: Florence & Venice by Judith DiMaio, an architect.
…The large medieval palace at the end of the via Tornabuoni that is closet to the Ponte Santa Trinita… is the home of Salvatore Ferragamo, the great shoe designer. Although the store is wonderful, my true interest is in the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo. You must make an appointment at the store to visit the museum, which exhibitis all of his great shoe designs and their lasts (blocks or forms in the shape of someone’s foot). There, beautifully displayed on the top floor, are shoes that belonged to Audrey Hepburn, Wally Simpson, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, citizens and travelers who found their way to Ferragamo. It is a beautifully appointed museum, and if you love shoes you will not be disappointed.
This palace, begun in the 15th century by a rival of the Medici clan, hosts a wide variety of international exhibitions. In 2008, the shows included ControModa: Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as a comprehensive exploration of Impressionist painting techniques. From October 2005 through January 2009, the Palazzo Strozzi will feature an exhibit on Catherine and Marie Medici.
City Secrets is a series of innovative guidebooks whose contributors, from art historians and professors to novelists and architects, choose their personal “city secrets” to share. Read a Q&A with founding editor Robert Kahn. The following is a pick from City Secrets: Florence & Venice by Fred Wessel, an artist.
One of the visits that moves the romantics among us to tears is the little-known sotterraneo under the Sagrestia Nuova at San Lorenzo. Here are recently discovered wall drawings in the secret passageway where Michelangelo hid from the Medici for three days during the 1530 siege of Florence. Having sided with the Republic against the exiled Medici (another chapter in the love-hate relationship between Michelangelo and the most famous art patrons of all time), he feared the consequences of his perceived betrayal. While in hiding he took some pitch from a wall torch and, as he later wrote, “to forget my fears I fill these walls with drawings.” Closed on the second and fourth Sunday and first third and fifth Monday of every month. By appointment at the ticket office.