Renaissance-Era Florentine Frescoes Spent Centuries Hidden in Plain Sight

Renovations at the Uffizi Gallery revealed two overlooked paintings of Medici dukes, among other intriguing finds

A white plaster-walled room with one archway, over which a large square fresco hangs, depicting a man in black garb standing in front of a luxurious background
Workers at the famed Italian museum discovered two long-lost 16th-century frescoes while conducting renovations. Pictured here, a life-sized portrait of Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici depicts the ruler towering over two female figures who act as allegories for the cities of Siena and Florence. Uffizi Gallery

In non-pandemic times, tourists flock to Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery to gaze upon such Renaissance masterpieces as Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. The museum owes its staggering collection to the House of Medici, the wealthy Italian banking dynasty that founded the institution in the 16th century. Cosimo I de’ Medici himself commissioned the building and its elevated passageways, which were once reserved for use only by elite members of the Medici household.

Today, construction workers undertaking major renovations at the museum are unearthing fascinating traces of the Uffizi’s storied history. Most recently, reports Tom Kington for the London Times, employees discovered a full-length fresco portrait of Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo II de’ Medici hidden beneath white plaster in a long-neglected storeroom.

Workers happened upon the fresco while installing a new ticket office and cloakroom in the museum’s west wing. The suite of restored rooms will function as a new entrance when the Uffizi reopens on May 4, after its third Covid 19–related shutdown, reports Colleen Barry for the Associated Press (AP).

Experts attribute the portrait to the circle of Mannerist painter Bernardino Poccetti, a late 16th-century Florentine who specialized in frescoes. Cosimo II, who ruled Florence between 1609 and 1621, appears standing tall next to two seated female figures. The women represent the cities of Florence and Siena, both controlled by the Medici family during this period; they sit next to a lion and other allegorical symbols of power.

Renaissance-Era Florentine Frescoes Spent Centuries Hidden in Plain Sight
A view of renovation work currently ongoing in the Uffizi's basement, where the Medici once housed their elegant stables Uffizi Gallery

“It was normal to have paintings of rulers over the doors in government offices and this one shows the young Cosimo showing off Florence’s conquest of Siena,” Uffizi director Eike Schmidt tells the Times. (Before the building opened as a museum in the 1760s, it housed the family’s legal and administrative offices, per the Uffizi website.)

In the same room, workers also uncovered a smaller fresco depicting Cosimo’s father, Ferdinando I, who ruled Florence between 1587 and 1609.

“We had absolutely no idea [the frescoes were there],” a museum spokesperson tells Artnet News’ Naomi Rea. “That was total surprise.”

Nearby, workers discovered hidden 18th-century motifs of plants that decorate the gallery’s walls and ceiling vaults.

Archaeologists have also been working to restore the 16th-century stables in the Uffizi’s basement. Members of the Medici family kept horses in the space when they used the building as their residence. While cleaning out debris that had accumulated over the centuries, workers discovered a medieval-era wall and the skeletons of three people who were likely buried in the cemetery of a church that stood on the Uffizi’s grounds hundreds of years ago.

“It’s amazing how this building was adapted to new needs down the centuries,” Schmidt tells the Times. “Each room tells a fascinating story.”

Renaissance-Era Florentine Frescoes Spent Centuries Hidden in Plain Sight
Cosimo II de' Medici (left) and Ferdinando I de' Medici (right) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking with Artnet, the Uffizi spokesperson says that the Cosimo II portrait survived due to the efforts of an individual who “protected” the work before it was covered in thick white plaster.

“Maybe this unknown savior wanted it to be preserved for the future generations,” the spokesperson adds. “Obviously our researchers are already trying to figure out the story behind this.”

The string of discoveries arrives amid the museum’s ambitious Nuovi Uffizi, or New Uffizi, renovation project. Led by architects Chiara Laura Tettamanti and Francesco Fortino, the endeavor aims to create a new grand entrance for the museum, per Artnet News.

Organizers also plan to add 21,000 additional square feet of space and refurbish 43 unused rooms in the cavernous building, including many on the ground floor and in the basement, reports Sophia Herring for Architectural Digest.

Attendance will be limited when the museum reopens in accordance with Italy’s Covid-19 protocol.

“Actually, to visit the museum now and over the next few months will mean you will really feel even more as if you are part of the de Medici family,” Schmidt tells the AP. “Especially if you come in the early morning, you might [have] the Botticelli room to yourself for two or three minutes before someone else arrives. That never, ever happens.”