Uffizi director calls on museums to confront society’s ‘toxic’ past

Eike Schmidt says it is also crucial to highlight issues of today rather than simply glorifying artists

People view Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci's The Baptism of Christ (L), Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi (C) and Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation at the Uffizi
People view Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Baptism of Christ (L), Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi (C) and Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation at the Uffizi. Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Angela Giuffrida in Florence

The world-famous Uffizi gallery in Florence displays an unrivalled collection of works by Renaissance greats including Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. However, its director believes that is not enough, and says it is now crucial for museums to play a role in highlighting the issues of today and confront the “toxic social structures” of the past rather than simply glorifying its artists.

Eike Schmidt, the director of Uffizi Galleries since 2015, has a reputation for modernisation and in a dramatic shift from the norm, he hosted an exhibition before Christmas aimed at reflecting the violence women have suffered at the hands of male perpetrators – beginning with one of the greatest sculptors of the 17th century, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Alongside contemporary portraits by Ilaria Sagaria featuring female victims of acid attacks stood Bernini’s Bust of Costanza Bonarelli, a marble portrait of his lover that the artist sculpted months before he commissioned his servant to slash her face in a fit of jealousy over her relationship with another man.

Bernini’s Bust of Costanza Bonarelli displayed with portraits by the Italian photographer Ilaria Sagaria of women disfigured with acid
Bernini’s Bust of Costanza Bonarelli displayed with portraits by the Italian photographer Ilaria Sagaria of women disfigured with acid. Photograph: Florence Museum Press Office/AFP/Getty Images

“This is a world-famous bust but hardly anyone beyond the world of specialists knows her story,” said Schmidt.

“The bust shows her in a very personal situation, her hair is undone and she’s wearing a semi-transparent robe with buttons open. So clearly Bernini made this when they were lovers. But not even a year later, he became jealous because she was with another man and so had her cheek slashed. This is exactly what happens today to so many women by jealous ex-partners.”

Bernini got off with a token fine while Costanza was banished to a monastery.

“I really wanted to make this connection between a work of art that is really naively admired and contributes to the fame of Bernini [and] the very problematic side of Bernini that was socially accepted at the time,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely our mission to tackle these social issues where we can, otherwise what is our sense?”

Schmidt has been widely credited with making the Uffizi’s art more accessible to all social classes, improving the visitor experience, cracking down on ticket touts and celebrating female artists.

It has the largest collection in the world of works by female painters who were active before the 19th century, but before Schmidt arrived the works were not given much exposure. He organised a series of exhibitions dedicated to historical female artists including Lavinia Fontana, the first professional female painter in Italy, and their contemporary counterparts.Advertisementhttps://ac83a7f288e5a3fa4109cfbf0c23fe1e.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

“Many people don’t even know that there were women painters before the 19th century,” he said. “But their marginalisation was really a phenomenon of the 19th and 20th centuries, they were not marginalised in their own time.”

He has been unafraid to use controversial tactics, such as working with one of Italy’s top fashion influencers, Chiara Ferragni, to attract a younger audience. Ferragni was in the museum in 2020 for a shoot with Vogue Hong Kong before an exhibition there, and posed for a photo in front of Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus before posting it on Instagram and recommending her followers visit the museum.

“That was a little bit provocative and we knew it would be,” said Schmidt. “We had about 1,000 complaints but 8,000 additional followers, so in the end it was a big win for us.”

Schmidt was the target of controversy when he was appointed as the Uffizi’s first non-Italian director. Along with foreign directors of some other cultural sites, his position became precarious during the short-lived government between the Five Star Movement and far-right League, which had tried to undo museum changes made by the previous government. But after the coalition collapsed in August 2019, Schmidt renounced an offer to take the helm at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and his mandate was extended.

Six months later, Schmidt was faced with the long closures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, delivering a significant hit on takings. But he used the period to come up with a strategy for tackling pre-pandemic problems, such as overcrowding, before visitors returned, while at the same time making the museum’s trove of treasures accessible to people living beyond Florence.

Eike Schmidt reopens the doors of the museum in January 2021 after it was closed because of the pandemic
Eike Schmidt reopens the museum in January 2021 after it was closed because of the pandemic. Photograph: Pietro Masini/AP


This year, he started sharing some of the Uffizi’s works with museums in other areas of Tuscany, as part of the “Uffizi diffusi”, or “Diffused Uffizi”, project.

“Even if we had the space to build another wing, or three, we still wouldn’t be able to show all the treasures we have,” he said. “So it made sense to have works displayed close to where people live. The idea was to spread tourism with the entire region of Tuscany rather than just having everyone in Florence.”

And in a deal worth more than €2m (£1.7m) signed in November, the Uffizi will lend some of its masterpieces to the Bund One Art Museum in Shanghai for a series of exhibitions, beginning with Botticelli in spring 2022.

“We have to consider that the Chinese haven’t been able to travel to Europe for almost two years,” Schmidt said. “There is a value in sharing works from our culture with people on the other side of the globe. But before we even think about what we’re sharing we have to see what condition the works are in, and if they’re not fit to travel, they won’t travel.”

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