Florence’s best-kept secret

Known by few and accessed by even fewer, the Vasari Corridor echoes with the footsteps of dukes and tyrants, and lays claim to one of Europe’s most exclusive art collections.

The Vasari Corridor is Florence’s ultimate velvet rope experience, yet few people know of its existence. A private overground passage that links the Uffizi Gallery with the Palazzo Pitti, the walkway has echoed with the footsteps of both royalty and tyrants. Hanging on its walls is one of Europe’s most exclusive art collections. And now, by special appointment, visitors can see it for themselves.

Like most of Florence’s key attractions, the story of the Vasari Corridor is linked to the powerful Medici family, who rose to prominence in the 15th Century. Cosimo I de' Medici, then the second duke of Florence, purchased the Palazzo Pitti in 1549, and up until the completion of Versailles in Paris in the early 18th Century, Palazzo Pitti was considered the most opulent palace in Europe.

There was just one problem for the Medici family: to travel from their new home to both the Uffizi administration offices where Cosimo worked and the Palazzo Vecchio, their previous home, the Medici had to cross the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s main pedestrian bridge above the Arno River. Today tourists encounter a gauntlet of flashy jewellery shops, but back then the bridge was occupied with butchers and tanners who needed to be close to the river for their businesses.

Medici’s solution was bold. He would simply build an overground passageway above one side of the Ponte Vecchio, reaching from the Palazzo Pitti to the Uffizi offices.

His motives for the corridor were twofold. Designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1564 and spanning a length of 1.2km, officially the passageway was created for the celebration of the Duke’s son’s marriage, but Cosimo was also a powerful man who craved privacy and feared assassination. A section of the corridor passes through the upper balcony of the church of Santa Felicita, which allowed the Medici family to attend mass without having to mingle with commoners or potential murderers.

Most importantly, the corridor was a private passageway that was built on public space, and pushed the limits of his power. Despite his immense political and financial power, some pushed back on the construction. The Mannelli family refused to have their small tower, the Tower dei Mannelli, demolished to make way for the passageway, and instead the corridor had to sweep awkwardly around it.

However, the corridor would be nothing without the treasures that lie inside it.

The passage is home to one of the world’s most important collections of artist’s self-portraits. More than 1,000 paintings from the 16th Century to modern day grace the walls, from artists such as Diego Velázquez, Marc Chagall, Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn. The collection was added to by subsequent generations of Medici, and artists have been known to donate portraits as well.

The Vasari Corridor is closed to the general public, so gaining access involves some pre-planning. The Uffizi Gallery oversees the passage and it can only be visited on small group tours offered by private operators such as Context Travel. Tours take around two hours, entering the corridor via the Uffizi Gallery and exiting by a discrete door near the grotto in the Pitti Palace’s opulent Boboli Gardens. No photos are allowed and groups are escorted by Uffizi staff.

For most visitors, the only disappointment is the limited amount of time allowed in the corridor (the Uffizi limits each group’s time in the corridor to one hour; the rest of the tour is spent batting through the Uffizi’s crowds to the entryway. You could stroll the corridor for hours trying to soak up the atmosphere and appreciate the artwork, but the paintings are hung so densely, many masterpieces are not even acknowledged, or afforded only a glimpse.

However, a guided tour offers critical insight into the importance of the collection. While most international curators often arrange their collections according to style, artist, medium or location, the collection of art in the Vasari corridor is unique in that it hangs chronologically, often in the same spot where various members of the Medici family had originally displayed it. Some self-portraits – such as one portrait where the artists is painting himself in a mirror – reveal an eccentric flair not typically seen in 16th- and 17th-century portraiture, while others make significant statements about gender and allow insights into artistic identity. For example, there were very few women painters at the time, and many of the self-portraits have more humour or cheekiness than was often displayed in works of the period. I.

Additionally, the centuries-old portraits have also watched over some of the most historic events of the 20th Century. On the evening of 26 May 1993, a car packed with explosives detonated near the Vasari Corridor. Five people died, many more were injured and sections of the passageway were heavily damaged in what was believed to be a Mafia attack.

In the 1940s, Mussolini had the windows in the centre of corridor (the section that lies over the Ponte Vecchio) widened to impress his guest, Adolf Hitler. Rumour, myth and innuendo have it that Hitler was so impressed by both the view down the Arno and the collection of art that it was the only bridge not blown up by German troops as they retreated during World War II.

Standing by the widened windows taking in the classic Tuscan view, it is interesting to see the crowds furiously snapping their own digital self-portraits on the street below. All the while unaware of the priceless collection of self-portraits directly above them.