The Tribune is considered to be the first real "museum" the West, in other words the earliest space ever designed specifically for the display of art in Europe in the modern era. It was devised by Francesco I de' Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, and his brilliant architect Bernardo Buontalenti in the 1580s to house and to display the most precious works of art in the Medici collection, including paintings, statues in silver and bronze, items in marble, rock crystal and semi-precious stone vases, examples of the goldsmith's art, blades with hilts studded with rare stones, medals and classical cameos. The idea of displaying a selection of works of art in a purpose-designed area separate from the ducal family's private apartments was without precedent. Previously the paintings had been hanging in Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government but also the family residence since 1540, while the objets d'art were quite simply not on display, being safely locked away in sumptuous cupboards such as the ones that Francesco I commissioned for his private study, the Studiolo, close to his private apartments in Palazzo Vecchio in c. 1570.
On the death of his wife Joanna of Austria in 1578, Francesco was finally free to marry Bianca Cappello, a Venetian noblewoman and his mistress of many years. Shortly after their marriage, the prince began to work with Bernardo Buontalenti on designing the Tribune as a space for housing his collections – a space different in shape, decoration and use from anything that had been seen before, where his paintings, statues and objets d'art would enjoy the highest profile, combining to create a wonderful ensemble in a perfect setting. Another astonishing innovation was his decision to situate the new room not in his private apartments but in the centre of the east wing of the Uffizi, the new and majestic building that his father Grand Duke Cosimo I had commissioned from Giorgio Vasari to house the "offices" of the city's magistrates (which, in the event, were confined to the ground floor).
Work on building the Tribune in the east wing of the Uffizi began in 1581. Francesco I had already had his classical statuary moved there and had arranged for the building to house the workshops of his goldsmiths, cabinet-makers and glaziers. The Tribune itself, completed in 1583, comprised a large octagonal room with high walls for hanging paintings and a series of shelves to hold objets d'art, bronze and silver statues and arms and armour. A niche was built to accommodate a cupboard with doors and drawers, while two smaller niches held wall-cupboards containing precious vases. The layout, which was completed by 1587, included in its centre a large round treasure chest in the shape of a tempietto, or tabernacle-like structure, made of precious materials and topped by a dome, to house medals and cameos, thus leading the visitor on a circular tour in which each item in the collection was on a par with the next in terms of visibility. Lighting played a major role in this system. Just like in a modern museum, the room was suffused with natural light from above through two sets of windows, in the drum and in the lantern. Two small oval windows in the thickness of the larger niche allowed the visitor to gain a better view of the items in the cupboard while at the same time creating a suffused glow exactly opposite anyone entering the octagon through its sole door, which gave onto the long gallery.
Designed as a container to house priceless works of art, Francesco wanted the Tribune to be an outstanding work of art in its own right. Buontalenti designed the floor to resemble a flower with petals made of polychrome marble inlays spreading out from its heart. A (now lost) plinth running along the base of the walls was decorated with painted fish, birds, plants and pebbles. The walls were lined in crimson velvet with gilt tassels; the ultramarine blue drum was adorned with a motif consisting of strip pilasters and plant volutes in mother-of-pearl and gold, while the golden window frames were adorned with putti, garlands and fantastic figures. The glittering dome shone with the reflection of a myriad mother-of-pearl shells set into a background painted with red lacquer on a layer of gold leaf. As it neared the top of the dome, the lacquer became increasingly transparent and the gold began to emerge ever more powerfully until it became the dominant element. The natural light pouring through the windows in the drum and lantern above was tinged with with gold as it reflected from shell to shell down into the room below. The lantern was topped by a weathervane which turned in the wind. Inside the lantern, a hand connected to the weathervane above moved across a painted compass rose. Period sources also mention a zodiac lit by a ray of the sun at certain times of the year. This decoration, which must have seemed astonishingly innovative to Francesco's contemporaries, reflected modern criteria inasmuch as there were no major painted areas to compete with the paintings or items on display, but each element in the extremely sophisticated decor was designed to enhance the treasures that were the Tribune's raison d'être.
Francesco was eager for the Tribune (just as he had been for his Studiolo in Palazzo Vecchio) to contain a clear reference to the Four Elements held to make up the universe: earth, alluded to in the polychrome marble floor; fire, represented by the red velvet on the walls; water, hinted at in the plinth with its painted fish and wetland birds, together with the decoration in the drum with its blue and mother-of-pearl hues and with the shells in the dome; and air, represented by the lantern open to the winds. But the allusion to the Four Elements, making the Tribune a symbolic depiction of the universe, was not the only hidden meaning. The mesh of interwoven meanings and symbols spawned a range of interpretations that still lie at the heart of scholarly debate even today. The octagonal shape, the colours and the decorations were not without their hermetic and alchemical references which have yet to be studied in depth. The octagon was a geometrical figure used for important buildings in the ancient world and for baptistries, or occasionally even for basilicas, in the Christian era inasmuch as it alludes to the day of judgement or resurrection: the eighth day after the seven days of Creation. The colours not only alluded to the four elements but also paid tribute to the House of Medici, whose family crest contains the colours red, white, blue and gold echoed in the red walls, the blue, white and gold drum and the red and white dome. But as in all truly successful works, the Tribune also contained other hidden meanings: its octagonal shape and large dome suggested a temple dedicated both to highlighting man's ability to transform and to ennoble nature's gifts with his art, and to extolling the magnificence of the Medici family and, in particular, the recent marriage of Francesco and Bianca, whose personal device was a shell – a motif which recurs time and again in the Tribune's decoration.
The Tribune has undergone many changes over the years. When Ferdinando succeeded Francesco after the latter's sudden death in 1587, he immediately had the ribs of the dome repainted. The paintings on display were frequently removed and replaced. In 1635 the tempietto in the centre of the room was replaced by a very fine octagonal semi-precious stone table, which was designed by Jacopo Ligozzi and placed in 1649 in the position it occupies to this day. Cosimo III had some of the classical statuary from the Villa Medici in Rome brought to Florence and placed in the Tribune between 1677 and 1680. One of these statues was the "Medici Venus", long held to be the most beautiful female figure ever produced in any medium. Its presence bolstered the Tribune's reputation as a magnificent home to some of the world's most sublime works of art, attracting an increasing number of visitors and arousing intense admiration. The Medici were succeeded in 1737 by the House of Lorraine, who rearranged the Tribune to reflect the now dominant Neo-Classical taste. Two side doors were opened to include the Tribune in the itinerary followed by visitors to the Uffizi Gallery, which at the time was a museum of painting alone. Thus the painted plinth, the semi-precious stone table, the shelves and their precious objets d'art were all removed and sent to new museums, in order to give pride of place to the old master paintings and classical sculptures left in situ. Further changes altered the Tribune's aspect down the centuries, most recently in 1970 when, among other things, the octagonal table was replaced in the centre of the room. The recent restoration and new arrangement completed in 2012 make no attempt to recreate the original Tribune, but rather to offer our own era's contribution to the magnificence and unbroken vitality of this superb room which continues to lie at the vibrant heart of the Uffizi.