Uffizi Expansion: Making Room for Art

By 7 a.m. on a winter's day in the heart of medieval Florence, the queue for the Uffizi Gallery's ticket booth already winds around the block. Bundled against frigid winds off the nearby Arno River, thousands of tourists wait outside for two hours or more for a glimpse of the world's best collection of Renaissance art. In the summer, the weather is better and the lines even longer; the wait just to get to the entrance can easily exceed four hours. For a hefty premium, tourists can skirt the queue with a reservation. But they still can't beat the press of the crowds inside—melding into what can only be compared to Dante's "Inferno"—as nearly 5,000 people a day jostle through the ancient galleries for a glimpse of masterpieces by Cimabue, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Giotto and Raphael. "Right now the experience could be a lot better than it is," admits Marco Fossi of the superintendent's office of the Uffizi. "The overall crush does not enhance the value of seeing the art."

Improving that experience is precisely the goal of the deafening jackhammers, towering cranes and grinding cement trucks now transforming the palazzo built in 1560 by the Medici duke Cosimo I. They are part of a massive €50 million, five-year expansion and renovation aimed at giving the Uffizi display spaces worthy of its collection. Though the top floor has been a gallery for the private Medici collections since 1581, the horseshoe-shaped building was never intended to accommodate millions of visitors each year. The expansion will double the museum's exhibit areasto nearly 13,000 square meters, making room for more than 800 masterworks—including Manfredi's "Carita Romana" and Guido Reni's "David With the Head of Goliath"—now collecting dust in a storage warehouse nearby. It will also nearly double the daily capacity for visitors to more than 8,000. "The expansion is not just about making it bigger in size or outdoing the Louvre or Prado," says Fossi. "It's about making it a better experience."

But Florentines are far less concerned with the satisfaction of museumgoers than with the preservation of their city. Protesters have been demonstrating against the presence of a 50-meter yellow crane in the courtyard, blaming the construction for ruining everything from the air quality to the cobblestone streets. The Benetton clothing group, which is co-sponsoring the project along with the Italian government, had to replace many of the advertisement-clad barriers it installed to shield the unsightly construction after protesters vandalized them.

Already local opposition has prompted extensive changes to the project. The original plans, drawn up in the late 1990s, called for Japanese architect Arata Isozaki to build an ultramodern seven-story loggia at the entrance. But after Florentines complained that the addition would block the view to the Arno from the Piazza Della Signoria, Isozaki's design was rescaled to better blend with the medieval cityscape, and moved to the back of the museum. Plans for extra stairways to help streamline the flow have also been scrapped to save the remnants of the ninth-century San Pier Scheraggio church, where Dante delivered several speeches.

Even longtime champions of Renaissance art have misgivings about making the Uffizi more accessible. Former curator Anna Maria Petrioli Tofani, who spoke out against the expansion until her retirement two years ago, worries that upgrades like proposed modern stairwells and elevators will substantially change the feel of the museum. "These interventions are gravely disrupting the historical context," she says. "They are varying the aspect of the building, which itself is a monument."

Others argue that the 1,200 works currently on view are overwhelming enough without adding 800 more. But hard-core art lovers believe nothing should stand in the way of showing the art. The first phase of the expansion aims to give the works more breathing room. Currently, paintings are crammed two or even three high on some walls, including in the cupola-capped octagonal Tribune. The walls will be repainted lighter hues to complement the works, and many will be repositioned to give them more space and accentuated with better lighting.

The works will also be placed in a more logical sequence, says Fossi. Those predating the 1500s will go on the top floor. There will be a newly renovated room with skylights for the Botticelli collection and its jewels, "Primavera" and "The Birth of Venus." The rest of the works created after 1500 will be moved to new exhibit space on the first floor. On the ground floor, newer works and even a collection of contemporary art will be displayed, together with an extensive research library.

But none of the planned changes will actually make it any easier to get into the museum. Florentine museums saw an 8.2 percent increase in visitors last year over 2005. Yet beyond the bigger stairways and elevators, there are no plans to ease the flow into the Uffizi. And unlike some of Italy's other museums, like the Borghese Gallery in Rome, which limits the number of visitors by the hour, the Uffizi refuses to set an entrance quota. Right now fewer than 50 percent of visitors to the Uffizi make reservations, which must be booked at least three weeks in advance in the summer and entail a series of confusing steps to exchange vouchers for tickets. At peak times, the reservation queue can be almost as long as the general-admission queue.

When Dante, in his vision of hell, wrote "All hope abandon, ye who enter here," he could just as easily have been writing about the crowds outside the Uffizi. But there is no dissuading those determined to get in. And though the atmosphere inside the Uffizi may at times resemble the Italian poet's "Inferno," the walls are a whole lot prettier.