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Pioneering a new Renaissance at the Uffizi with Eike Schmidt

21st Century Renaissance

Eike Schmidt is a 21st century Renaissance man, and it is fitting that he’s the Director of the Uffizi Galleries. Arriving in 2015 in Florence, Schmidt pioneered a new era for Italian museums as the first non-Italian director of the Uffizi and one of 20 new super-directors handpicked by Italy’s Ministry of Culture to shake things up.  Over the past six years, the German-born art historian has ushered the Uffizi into an entirely new vibe – the digital age with gallery upgrades, art work shuffling, room openings, provocative exhibitions and, drum roll please, social media.

To be honest, the Uffizi never has needed any help. Since the Grand Tour, the galleries have been one of the world’s most visited destinations, always ranking in the top ten globally. In 2019, the Uffizi attracted over four million visitors (approximately 12,000 daily) eager to get eye to eye with masterpieces like Botticelli’s Venus, Leonardo’s Annunciation and Michelangelo’s Holy Family, and it shows on Instagram where it ranks no. 12 of the Top 20 most instagrammed museums in the world.  

Schmidt was well aware of the museum’s prominence when he took helm, and immediately instituted an ongoing program of renovations and rehangs to enhance visitor experience.

“The big masterworks were crammed together with secondary works. And in several parts of the collection was hung by topography of the artist’s birthplace, which didn’t really make a lot of sense, because you had to make time travels all the time,” details Schmidt. “We re-conceived the collection, re-installed it in a more chronological sense, and then, we created dialogues between paintings. If they don’t speak to one another, in the end, you don’t have a real experience. In Italy, for a long time, and actually amongst Italian intellectuals and art historians, this is still very strong today. The idea is that the museum should really be like a school and you should learn the facts about the painter. But that’s something that really works not even for 0.01% of our visitors.”

Eike Schmidt close to the enchanting Venere Italica by Antonio Canova. Photo courtesy of Uffizi Gallery

“The Uffizi should really give something to people and not take something, not test them. It’s not an exam.”

Let’s Get Digital

For Schmidt, it’s never enough. The Galleries have a preternatural social media savoir-faire, definitely a nod to Florence’s Renaissance heyday as hub of cultural and technological progress. Even before pandemic closed the Uffizi doors, the Director had already started an innovative dialogue effectively bringing the masterpieces and galleries to smart phones through Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. 

Uffizi on Instagram, 621k followers, is more than just pretty pictures, the Uffizi’ IGTV series puts voices to the art work, artists and collections, while the hashtag #uffizigallery has more than 100,000 posts from users. Uffizi on Facebook, 105k followers, keeps fans up-to-date with programming, exhibits and events. But it’s  Uffizi on TikTok where the Uffizi dominates with 75k followers awaiting the clever mash-ups of masterpieces and contemporary culture.

“[TikTok] is definitely from our other social media channels, we wanted to use a different language. We embrace the language that is typical for the channel. And that is a self-ironical way of dealing with works of art, presenting works of art to have contemporary rock music, and hip-hop music to illustrate works of art. Yes, once in a while, to make them virtually dance, why not?”, laughs Schmidt.

For art lovers of all kinds, the Uffizi has over 300 videos (consider them mini art history lessons) to complement visitor experience, meanwhile visitors from afar are  invited to virtual tours with Hypervision, bringing you into the galleries thematically such as Miraculous Healings, the art of shoe-making in the ancient world and the story of St. Francis.

Uffizi Gets Out

Along with the virtual, Schmidt has plans to take the Uffizi out of Florence, so to speak, and get art lovers moving around Tuscany. Uffizi Diffusi (scattered Uffizi) will showcase “”at least 60” works of art, Schmidt told CNN, from the galleries’ storage in “maybe even 100 exhibition spaces” throughout Tuscany, effectively transforming the region into an interactive museum. Locations include towns like Livorno and Viareggio and former Medici villas in the Tuscan countryside.  

To celebrate the 700th anniversary of Florentine poster poet Dante Alghieri’s death, the Uffizi co-curated a Giuseppe Penone sculpture in Piazza della Signoria. “Contemporary art in Piazza della Signoria has also known heated debates, since the time of Michelangelo’s David and Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus: this has always been a sign of the vivacity of the Florentines“. The Uffizi Galleries can’t stop, won’t stop.

Interviewed by Erica Firpo.

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