Corridoio Vasariano: The cohorts of princes, nobles, ambassadors and commoners who took part in the grand celebrations organized at the end of 1565 for the marriage of Prince Regent Francesco de' Medici to Princess Giovanna (Joan) D'Austria, were astonished not just by the way the artists of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno decorated the route the Princess and her courtiers were to follow from Porta al Prato to Palazzo Vecchio, but also by the incredible new structure through which the marriage procession progressed.
Those of us who are lucky enough to live in Rome know about the elevated passageway linking the Vatican with Castel Sant'Angelo. It's rather plain, about 800 meters long, and steeped in history -- Pope Clement VII scampered down the "passetto" from the Vatican to the fortress during the 1527 "Sack of Rome". The passetto is pretty much a strait shot, reflecting its purpose as a route for quick escapes. The Florentine version, completed just in time for Prince Francesco's wedding, had an entirely different purpose. "Il percorso del Principe" (the Prince's path, or passageway) was designed to impress visitors and for the leisurely commute of a retired ruler to his son's office. Maybe that's why, unlike the Vatican version, the Florentine passage tends to meander.
The Corridoio Vasariano was built by Giorgio Vasari between March and September 1565 on commission from Grand Duke Cosimo I. It linked the Medici court's political seat of power, the Palazzo Vecchio, with its private residence, Palazzo Pitti. The Palazzo Vecchio was the place from which successive Florentine governments had ruled for generations, and in 1540 it had been taken over by the Medici, who moved there from their older palace on Via Larga (now Via Cavour). The move was an ostentatious display of Medici autocratic power: republican memories, centered on the Palazzo Vecchio, were to be buried beneath the trappings of princely autocracy. The point was easily made, but, as time went by, the court outgrew the Palazzo Vecchio and expanded across the Arno to the Pitti Palace, which was bought by Cosimo's wife, the Grand Duchess Eleonora, in 1550.
Francesco was the first son of Cosimo and Eleonora. Although Cosimo lavished a splendid education on him, Francesco's behavior and lifestyle were a continuing source of parental disappointment. Cosimo described Francesco's life as "unkempt": his existence was full of pseudo-scientific experiments, and unexplained wandering about town. Francesco has often been described as a closed, melancholy, and solitary character, but that didn't prevent extra-legal entanglements with women, some of them long lasting -- even after his marriage. Despite his unease about his son's behavior, Cosimo made Francesco Prince Regent several years prior to Francesco's wedding to Giavanna. Cosimo withdrew to his private residence in Palazzo Pitti, from which he continued to watch over and suggest the course to be followed by his son, who still had apartments in Palazzo Vecchio.
There was therefore a need for a direct link between the two palaces, which could provide normal communication, parental guidance when the old man thought it was necessary, and, of course, safe passage in the case of political upheavals or natural disasters -- the Arno River occasionally floods. Out of this need arose the beautiful Corridoio, a one kilometer elevated route that crosses Via Ninna, passes through the renowned galleries of the Uffizi, parallels the Arno supported by "Roman" arches modeled on those of aqueducts, and crosses the river on the Ponte Vecchio above the shops of Florence's celebrated jewelers and goldsmiths. It then wraps around one side of the tower of the Mannelli family, supported by concrete braces, and continues into the Oltrarno, over and through the Church of Santa Felicita and buildings owned by the Guicciardini family, and thus reaches Palazzo Pitti's Boboli Gardens.
This new aerial route was more than a simple demonstration of Cosimo's part of the power his family held over Florence. It was a means of astonishing foreign guests, by inviting them to see the precious artwork the Corridoio contained and to admire unusual views of the city. It also made the people of Florence feel the constant fatherly but firm presence of the Medici government. Even now the numerous round windows with protruding wrought-iron grills seem like eyes spying on Florence.
As the centuries passed, the Corridoio passed from the Medici to the House of Lorraine, then to the House of Savoy and to the government of modern Italy. It was opened to the public for the first time in 1865 to celebrate the naming of Florence as Capital of re-unified Italy. The corridor was severely damaged during the World War 2, again by the 1966 flood, and yet again by the bomb that rocked the Uffizi on May 27, 1993. After the Corridoio's post-bomb restoration was completed, it was once again opened to the public -- but only with advance reservations.
The very first part of the Corridor can be seen while touring the Palazzo Vecchio, but a locked door just past the point where it passes over the grand "audience" of he palace blocks the way to the remainder of the corridor. Access to the tour of the rest of the corridor is in the Ufizzi Galleries -- there is another locked door, this one an entry, between rooms 25 and 34.
The tour is divided into five sections.
The first section of the tour, consisting of the entrance and two halls, contains primarily Caravaggesque works; among the most interesting are Guido Reni's David and Goliath, and Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith. This part of the Corridoio was badly damaged by the bomb and the guides will point out some of the damaged paintings.
Section two continues down Lungarno Archibusieri, and contains works from the 16th and 17th centuries, grouped by regional schools. Of particular interest are Guercino's Sybill, Reni's Susanna and the Old Men, Albani's Rape of Europa, Carlo Dolci's portrait of Ainolfo de'Bardi, and Baciccio's portrait of Cardinal Leopoldo de'Medici.
The third section crosses the Arno above the shops of the jewelers, and this longest straight section contains the collection of self-portraits by Italian painters that was begun in the 1500s by Cardinal Leopoldo and that has been expanded over the centuries; artists still send their portraits today. The section begins with Vasari's self-portrait and Empoli's Saint Eligius, patron of the goldsmiths below, and, beyond the magnificent views of the city offered by the windows over the river and circling the Mannelli Tower, has self-portraits of foreign artists, including Rubens, Van Dyck and Velasquez.
The fourth section has a beautiful balcony overlooking the nave of Santa Felicita, from which the Dukes could attend Mass. Vasari sloped the corridor upward to pass above the portico of the church. This section contains 12 cases of miniature self-portraits, and the elf portraits of more recent artists, including Canova, Fattori, Ingres, Corot, Delacroix, Chagall, Balla and Severini.
The fifth and final section of the corridor features portraits of Italian and foreign nobles and royalty, and offers a superb overview of the fashions from the XVI to the XVIII centuries. The passageway continues into the Pitti Palace, but the tour exits down a stairway to a door beside Buontalenti's Grotto in the Boboli Gardens.
Near the exit is the small Boboli Gardens shop, which has souvenirs of the Pitti Palace, the Gardens, and the Corridor including a small guidebook to the corridor with parallel Italian and English texts and lots of pictures.
So how do you get to visit this marvel? There's a number to call for reservations (39-55-2654321) but you have to be persistent. As with many other services in Italy, it may be easier to arrange a tour through a good travel agent or, if you will be staying in a Florence hotel, through the hotel's tour service. Don't expect to make arrangements after you get to Florence -- weeks or months in advance is recommended.
There are dozens of Internet sites that give information about the corridor: many of them in Italian only. Use your Internet search engine to search for the phrases "corridoio vasarianao" or "vasari corridor" or the words percorso and principe.
Two of the better sites, with pictures and English text are: http://www.thais.it/citta_italiane/firenze/index/corridoio_vasariano/pag_01.htm and http://www.mega.it/eng/egui/monu/ufd.htm
There are hundreds more easy-to-find web sites on Florence, but one that I found interesting, because it covers the "Oltrarno", a part of Florence that is largely ignored, is at: http://www.firenze-oltrarno.net/english/
Go to http://www.mmdtkw.org/Veneto2002.html for other articles.