Last year more than 1 million visitors marvelled at works which include Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Michelangelo's Holy Family - his only finished oil painting - in a vast collection of Renaissance art built up by Florence's Medici dynasty. Hundreds of paintings by the early Renaissance artists Giotto, Paolo Uccello, Andrea Mantegna and Filippo Lippi adorn the walls of the Uffizi, which was originally built as government offices. The blast blew out the 16th-century building's glass front and skylights and will force the gallery to close for several months, said the Uffizi's director, Anna Maria Petrioli Tofani.
'To close the Uffizi would do ir reparable damage to the whole of Italy,' the grief-stricken mayor of Florence, Giorgio Morales, said after he surveyed the damage. The worst- affected part was the Uffizi's western wing and the collection of self- portraits housed in the first part of the Corridoio Vasariano, the 16th-century gallery which branches out from the Uffizi and crosses the Ponte Vecchio bridge.
Every room in the western wing has suffered damage. The walls are cracked and the skylights have fallen in, but the most famous paintings were saved by plastic shields recently installed to guard against attacks by vandals. Only three works, by the little-known artists Bartolomeo Manfredi and Gherardo Delle Notti, were completely destroyed, but The Death of Adonis by Sebastiano del Piombo - a follower of Michelangelo - was severely damaged. Flying debris broke several statues. Some of the rooms have been transformed into 'emergency wards' where museum officials have moved some of the most damaged works.
Before any decision is made on reopening Italy's most famous art collection, experts will have to check the structural soundness of the building, whose main staircase collapsed. Ms Petrioli Tofani at first predicted that the entire museum would have to close for several months, but, after strong protests from Florence hotel- owners and Mr Morales, she said some parts might reopen very soon.
Florentine and Tuscan artists feature prominently in the Uffizi's collection but other northern Italian painters from the Venetian, Umbrian and Emilian schools are represented, as well as Flemish, French and German masters.
Rembrandt's Old Rabbi and portraits by Goya and Holbein are among the most famous paintings by foreign artists, and the collection also includes numerous sculptures. The last of the Medici, Anna Maria Lodovica, bequeathed the entire collection to the people of Florence, stipulating that it should not leave the city.
'When you're talking about the Uffizi, only superlatives will do - it is a stupendous collection,' one guidebook remarks. The Uffizi Palace was built in 1560-74 for Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Later members of the Medici family brought sculptures from the Villa Medici in Rome and paintings by Raphael, Titian and Piero della Francesca.
Museum officials, worried about damage from rain now that the Uffizi is without skylights, planned to remove all works of art, including 300 paintings, from the top floor yesterday evening.Reuse content