They commissioned and collected some of the most pivotal artworks of the Renaissance, building a collection of art that has now been transformed into one of the best known museums in the world.
But Florence’s Medici family also collected works of art from other cultures. And now the Uffizi Gallery, which started as the family’s offices when they ruled the city, and is now Italy’s most visited museum, is opening a gallery-within-a-gallery to show off one such collection.
The aim? To appeal to a more diverse kind of tourism.
The Museum of Russian Icons, which opens January 2, will be housed in the Palazzo Pitti – the Medici family’s vast palace from which they governed much of Tuscany.
Four rooms, which have never been opened to the public, have been allocated to the museum, with their 17th-century frescoes restored, giving it a theatrical setting of trompe l’oeil columns, coffered ceilings and mysterious veiled statues lurking in niches.
The Cappella Palatina – a private chapel of the Medici family, which was previously open just once a year for Mass – will also be part of the museum.
The collection, said to be the oldest of its kind outside Russia, contains 78 icons from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
Some of the icons were painted by artists who usually worked for the Russian Tsars, and were send directly from Moscow’s Kremlin.
It was started by the Medici family, before being continued by the House of Lorraine, Austrian royals and rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled Tuscany after the Medici family died out.
The icons were first mentioned in an early-1600s inventory of the Medici’s possessions, and then again in 1761, by which time they were in Palazzo Pitti, with Holy Roman Emperor Francis I having expanded the collection.
But because of the extent of the Uffizi’s collection – which has tens of thousands of works in storage – they have been off display since the 18th century.
Highlights of the collection include a Madonna owned by the Medici family, and the Menologio – a calendar of orthodox festivals, divided into over 100 individual scenes painted in microscopic detail.
Uffizi director Eike Schmidt reckons this is a more intimate collection than other works of art commissioned by the Medici.
“It sets itself apart from other collections because [the icons are] mainly small and medium-sized, meant for private family worship, and designed to be portable,” he said.
Staff believe that the museum will tap into a post-pandemic desire to go off the typical tourist trail and see something different.
“It’s responding to the current need to widen our cultural offering for an ever more diverse public, who want to explore lesser known places,” said Daniela Parenti, curator of the icon museum.
Schmidt added that the museum would pave the way for the opening of the entire ground floor of Palazzo Pitti, whose frescoed rooms have never been open to the public.
“They’re incredible rooms, and the Grand Dukes [of Tuscany] lived inside them, but today they’re mainly used as offices and service rooms,” he said.