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The world famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence presents an unrivaled collection of works by great names of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. However, its director believes that this is not enough and believes that it is now crucial for museums to play a role in highlighting today’s issues and confronting the “toxic social structures” of the past rather than simply glorify its artists.

Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Galleries since 2015, is renowned for its modernization and, in a radical departure from the norm, he organized a pre-Christmas exhibition aimed at reflecting the violence women suffered at the hands of abusers male – starting with one of the greatest sculptors of the 17th century, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Alongside the contemporary portraits of Ilaria Sagaria featuring women victims of acid attacks was Bernini’s bust of Costanza Bonarelli, a marble portrait of her lover that the artist carved months before he does not order his servant to cut off his face in a fit of jealousy about his relationship with another man. .

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

“It’s a world famous bust, but hardly anyone beyond the specialist world knows its history,” Schmidt said.

“The bust shows her in a very personal situation, her hair is undone and she is wearing a semi-sheer dress with open buttons. So it is clear that Bernini did this when they were lovers. But not even a year later, he became jealous because she was with another man and therefore had his cheek cut off. This is exactly what is happening to so many women today through jealous ex-partners.

Bernini gets away with a symbolic fine while Costanza is banished to a monastery.

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

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

It has the world’s largest collection of works by female painters active before the 19th century, but before Schmidt’s arrival the works were not exhibited much. He has organized a series of exhibitions devoted to historical female artists, including Lavinia Fontana, the first professional female painter in Italy, and their contemporary counterparts.

“A lot of people don’t even know there were women painters before the 19th century,” he said. “But their marginalization was really a phenomenon of the 19th and 20th centuries, they weren’t marginalized in their time.”

He wasn’t afraid to use controversial tactics, like working with one of Italy’s biggest fashion influencers, Chiara Ferragni, to attract a younger audience. Ferragni was at 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 that his followers visit the museum. .

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“It was a little provocative and we knew it would be,” Schmidt said. “We had around 1,000 complaints but 8,000 more subscribers, so in the end it was a big win for us.”

Schmidt was the target of controversy when he was named the first non-Italian director of the Uffizi. Along with the foreign directors of some other cultural sites, his position became precarious during the short-lived government between the Five Star Movement and the far-right League, which tried to reverse museum changes made by the previous government. But after the coalition collapsed in August 2019, Schmidt backed down from an offer to head the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and his term was extended.

Six months later, Schmidt faced the long shutdowns brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, delivering a heavy blow to revenues. But he used this time to strategize to tackle pre-pandemic issues, such as overcrowding, before visitors return, while making the museum’s treasure accessible to people living beyond Florence.

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

This year he started to share some of the works of the Uffizi with museums in other parts 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 off all of the treasures we have,” he said. “So it made sense that the works were exhibited near people’s places of residence. The idea was to spread tourism throughout the region of Tuscany rather than having everyone in Florence.

And in a deal worth over € 2million (£ 1.7million) signed in November, the Uffizi Gallery will loan some of its masterpieces to the One Art Bund Shanghai Museum for a series of exhibitions, starting with Botticelli in spring 2022.

“We have to consider that the Chinese have not been able to travel to Europe for almost two years,” Schmidt said. “There is value in sharing works of our culture with people from across the globe. But before even thinking about what we are sharing, we need to see what condition the works are in, and if they are not fit to travel, they will not travel.


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