When Eike Schmidt took on the directorship of the Uffizi in Florence at the end of 2015, the world-famous museum didn’t even have a website. The first non-Italian to be appointed to the post has since catapulted the Uffizi from the 19th into the 21st century. How did he do it? We visit an indefatigable art historian.
Now there’s even an ice-cream cart – icebox at the front, bicycle in pale yellow and dark green at the back, the smart retro version of a vehicle that was once a common sight on Italian streets. But this one is parked on the terrace of the Uffizi’s café, on the roof of the Loggia Dei Lanzi with its postcard-perfect view of the cathedral dome and the Palazzo Vecchio. A traditional local gelaterie supplies the ice cream and “it sells so well that the cost of the cart and an extra employee were recouped within two days,” Schmidt explains – just as he had prophesied to the leaseholder. The cart was his idea and his visible pride in it could be bewildering. As director of the Uffizi in Florence, he also had very different reasons to be proud, such as having increased the museum’s revenues from 18 to 34 million euros; already more than 300 000 subscribers in its new Instagram account, or the fact that well over four million visitors came last year. But firstly, Schmidt loves good Italian food of every kind; secondly, he’s a perfectionist who keeps his eye on even the tiniest detail; and thirdly, the ice cream is essentially the best symbol for what his work is based on, and that’s the belief that art is something to be enjoyed.
But it was that very aspect of enjoyment that the museum had somehow lost. After the Louvre, the Uffizi is the world’s most famous museum. Its collection, which extends back well over 400 years to Francesco I. de’ Medici, includes some of the most precious works ancient sculpture and above all Italian Renaissance painting have to offer, so the museum is naturally one of the most visited. The trouble was that outside the U-shaped building, formerly the administrative headquarters of the Medicis, people had to wait in long lines for admission because the ticketing system was totally out of date. Inside, visitors lingered in front of the famous masterpieces – Botticelli’s “Allegory of Spring” and “Birth of Venus,” Michelangelo’s “Tondo Doni,” Caravaggio’s “Medusa” – creating bottlenecks, blocking each other’s view and at the same all the other, equally first-rate paintings hanging closely spaced beside them. Benches there were none on which visitors could take the weight off the feet for a while or immerse themselves in a painting, the only seating being a few folding chairs for the supervisory staff; also, the exhibit labels were rudimentary, and there was no website. Either you had a sound knowledge of art history and could find your way around on your own or you were one of the horde of selfie barbarians who weren’t worth bothering about anyway. “It’s really unbearable for me to see “Allegory of Spring” relegated to a supporting role by a not necessarily pretty or intelligent-looking face,” Schmidt’s predecessor, Antonio Natali, once said in a television feature.”
No wonder Schmidt describes his task as making the “leap from the 19th into the 21st century.” He has been overseeing the Uffizi since November 2015 – the first non-Italian ever to do so. He is one of the 20 new directors of state museums the Italian Ministry of Culture selected through an international competition – a brand-new approach – and appointed to serve for four years, granting them extensive administrative and economic freedom. It was a coup that brought a breath of fresh air wafting through the country’s museum landscape and broke down the old, feudal system, where rank was based on length of service. “Once, you would start out supervising a room in a museum and through an in-house competition rise to the position of curator. Then shortly before you retired, you were often made a director as a mark of appreciation for sacrifices made,” says Schmidt.
A tall man with a high forehead, he always holds himself very erect and can be casually scathing. His voice is deep, a little monotonous, and he always sounds almost as though he has a cold, which doesn’t quite match the energy with which he attacks his work.
The realm over which he presides is huge, comprising not only the Uffizi, but also the Palazzo Pitti, the Medicis’ former residence that now houses 13 museum departments, and the Boboli Gardens belonging to it. Both buildings have been connected since the Renaissance by the Vasari Corrido, a passageway 800 meters long that crosses the Arno River, but has long been open only to select groups and is also a catastrophe in terms of fire safety. Schmidt plans to restore it and make it accessible to a wider public; the building plans are complete and the funding from Rome has been approved.
Schmidt works quickly and decisively, plows through his lists of ever-new projects and shifting priorities, but in the end, nothing is too big and nothing too small that it can’t be taken in hand and implemented: setting up a website and an Instagram account, introducing live streaming, creating a social media department, increasing the didactics team to 30 (ten times the previous number), structural reform on the administrative side, series of concerts and performances in the exhibition halls, benches for visitors, modern sculpture exhibitions in the Boboli Gardens, and a summer film festival in the courtyard.
The biggest challenge was to sort out “the admission problem,” he says, in other words, to put an end to the incredibly long lines of visitors waiting outside the Uffizi. The sight of those lines had become a symbol of the strain not only on the museum, but also on the city, which groans under the sheer volume of visitors, especially in the summer months. Florence has a population of a good 380 000, but five million visitors added to that number in 2018 alone, and they spent most of their time in the historic old town. The Florentines “can only call their old town their own before nine in the morning and between November and February,” says Schmidt.
The lines of people waiting in the inner courtyard are already much shorter thanks to a modern, digital ticketing system and the Palazzo Pitti Pass that also includes admission to Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens. Different prices for the summer and winter season have been introduced to spread the load across the year, as well as annual tickets to encourage people to visit more frequently – they mainly benefit the Florentines. Unlike his predecessors, Schmidt is undaunted by the stream of visitors; he is simply better at gauging his cell-phone-wielding public’s time budget and knowledge of art and guiding them accordingly.
The exhibition rooms themselves are no longer as crowded as before, which means that people can move around more freely. That’s because the director is also redesigning the layout and clearing space in front of the pictures, as well as giving over a room to each of the star exhibits, “Allegory of Spring” and “Birth of Venus,” Michelangelo’s painting of the Holy Family, the “Tondo Doni,” and Leonardo da Vinci’s large, unfinished “Adoration of the Magi,” which was restored in 2017. The paintings are displayed in microclimate-controlled cabinets of antireflective, armored glass so that they can be viewed close up, and they are flanked by only a small number of other, corresponding works. They are hung according to thematic and stylistic references and “the idea that the way they are hung alone inspires comparison,” as Schmidt puts it. Now 120 people could easily stand in front of Botticelli’s “Venus” and each would still be able to view the work and not just the crowd of heads in front of it. In this situation, the beholder is simply overwhelmed by the beauty of pictures that no reproduction however bad, no souvenir however trashy, could ever diminish. The mild sense of intoxication visitors experience continues as they move through the series of remodeled rooms on the second floor, which showcase Caravaggio and his period, and the recently opened rooms devoted to the Cinquecento – Titian, Giorgione, Veronese and Tintoretto. Taking the tour, you even begin to feel a mild sense of grandeur yourself – reason enough to treat yourself to a handmade Florentine ice cream on the terrace afterwards? “So far it’s never happened,” says Schmidt, referring to the likelihood of a visitor strolling back into the exhibition with an ice-cream cone in his hand, and it sounds like he’s saying: You see, it works.
Schmidt was born in Freiburg, southern Germany, in 1968, and studied art history in Heidelberg, but his entire professional life has been abroad. In the 1990s, he spent seven years researching at the Art History Institute in Florence, then worked as a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and for a year at Sotheby’s in London as director and head of the European sculpture and applied arts department. His most recent role was that of head of the department of sculpture, applied art and textiles at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Coming to Florence, he brought with him an extensive background knowledge of the workings of modern, international institutions, including marketing know-how, sponsor liaison – and a fundamental optimism. From London, he brought an insight into the world of art dealership and basic business administration skills. But it was his time in Florence that gave him what predestined him for this role to at least the same degree as his extensive experience, versatility and dynamic doer qualities – and that is his understanding of the Italian mentality and culture. Schmidt is married to an Italian, art historian Roberta Bartoli, and he knows all about the red tape that abounds in Italian bureaucracy; he has a grasp of the country’s legal structure and was also prepared for the typical brusqueness of the Florentines, who are pretty much as sardonic and gruff as Berliners. “The people of Florence are skeptical on principle about every little thing – even among themselves and toward themselves. You have to be prepared for that,” he explains.
Returning 15 years after his first sojourn, he found Florence “very much changed.” That there’s a pedestrian zone in the center and the Cathedral and Baptistery are no longer surrounded by roaring traffic is, of course, an improvement, he conceded. But the lovely old stores, where the merchandise was always stacked on shelves reaching to the ceiling and had to be fished down with a long pole and laid out on the counter for selection, had suddenly disappeared. In their place are now “panini stores that ply their wares in English and Chinese.” Despite the disappointments, he still has one of those “I live in the most beautiful city in the world” moments “at least once a day,” and today it came in the morning, as he made his way to work from his apartment on the other side of the Arno, and everything was bathed in a soft golden light – “marvelous.”
When Schmidt arrived at the Uffizi, he didn’t introduce himself to his then roughly 420 employees (today they number over 500) with a motivational speech – “no way!” He firmly believes that reforms should not be imposed from outside, “as a general rule, and especially where Italians are concerned.” At the museum, he found randomly evolved groups tending to work against rather than with each other. He spoke with everyone individually, giving each the chance to “let everything out that they wanted to, which really was the most important thing.” Then he created departments based on specific functions and now meets with the various teams on a regular basis: the art historians on Wednesday mornings, for instance, the architects at eight in the morning, twice a week. “You have to be very, very patient during brainstorming sessions and very, very impatient at the execution stage,” he says. “After all, you have to complete the processes.”
At some point during the conversation, you get the feeling that Schmidt is not just one person, but many: museum director and curator, luxury hotel manager and psychologist, CEO, consultant and marketeer. The Uffizi are one of the very few museums in the world that are self-financed. They receive no state funding to cover running costs. “Thank God,” says Schmidt – he recognized the opportunities his two museums and the gardens offer with their fame, their icons and their splendid rooms, acted on them and so almost doubled revenues. The main sources of income are entrance fees, rentals and image rights. Some actions are still pending on the latter, “there’s more to be got there.” Palazzo Pitti is now also available for private events, at rentals upwards of 50 000 euros – world-market level. Gucci was permitted to stage a fashion show here in 2017 and in return has since contributed to the restoration of the Boboli Gardens to the tune of three million euros so far. In what was once the palace’s “silver museum,” visitor numbers have doubled simply because Schmidt renamed it “Treasury of the Grand Dukes” – which is also far more appropriate to its contents. And when the third Florence Rocks festival was held here in June, drawing 50 000 visitors, he invited the top acts – Ed Sheeran, The Cure, and Tool – and their fans into the museum via video and hashtag uffizirocks. “I mean, do you really know anyone who rocks more than our Caravaggio?“ he asked, standing next to the head of Medusa and directing the question at the camera. The Italian media were thrilled.
Some find his reforming zeal hard to take, feeling that he takes things too far, and he has had to listen to a great deal of criticism and polemics. But of all people, it was his most vehement opponents at the outset who were outraged by his announcement two years ago that he would be taking up the directorship of the Kunsthistorisches Museum (art history museum) in Vienna in November 2019. This is exactly when his four-year term at the Uffizi expires, and it is at least questionable whether Italy’s current populist government is likely to extend the contract. What’s more, Vienna is also “a unique opportunity,” as he says. Other challenges await him there. The museum arrived in the 21st century long ago, but its treasures are not nearly as well known as those of the Uffizi. “And yet it really is one of the richest, most important museums in the world,” says Schmidt with conviction – already in full director mode. He even has a mouse pad on his desk depicting Parmigiano’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1523/24), one of the masterpieces in Vienna.
Will he miss Florence?
“Absolutely,” he answers almost before the question’s out. “But it’s only a 90-minute flight away from Vienna.”
Eike Schmidt’s Museum Tips and favorite restaurants
A classic: This traditional restaurant close to the Mercato Centrale has been a family-run affair since 1922 and seems almost to belong to another age. First-class Florentine fare.
The best sculpture museum in town! And it’s still an insider tip, too. Located in the direct vicinity of the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi, it houses works by Donatello, Michelangelo, Verrocchio and Cellini. bargellomusei.
MUSEO DI SAN MARCO
This former monastery with its Fra Angelico frescoes and illuminating library is a good starting point for anyone wishing to gain an insight into the Florentine Renaissance. Waiting lines are rare.
This restaurant does full justice to its name thanks to its location right on the Arno and spectacular prospect of the river, the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi. Reservation recommended.
Like a chamber of horrors: The Natural History Museum not far from the Palazzo Pitti has some surprising life-size, anatomical wax models dating from the 18th and 19th century on display (refurbishment works begin in September).
The Medici family’s collection of original scientific instruments is exhibited here along with historical world maps and telescopes used by Galileo Galilei himself.