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Shaking Up Italy’s Most Popular Museum
AUG. 17, 2016

FLORENCE, Italy — Eike Schmidt, the new director of the Uffizi Gallery here and the first non-Italian to hold the job, took what seemed a logical step. In the spring, he set up loudspeakers warning visitors about scalpers and pickpockets who target tourists waiting in the perennially long lines outside Italy’s most-visited museum, famous for its magnificent treasures by Botticelli and Raphael.

But not everyone was grateful. A few days later, three Florence police officers with local media in tow arrived at his desk and handed him a fine of about $329, for broadcasting without proper city authorization. “Initially I was a little bit angry,” Mr. Schmidt, a German art historian, said recently over a glass of wine. But he quickly spotted an opportunity, telling them he would pay the fine out of his own pocket. The next day, when he did, journalists were there snapping photos, making him an instant local celebrity.

Florentines began approaching Mr. Schmidt on the street to express their support. “Some initially said: ‘Don’t stop. Finally someone takes these problems seriously,’” Mr. Schmidt said. “There are other people who actually try to give me money,” he added with a laugh. Once seen as a naïve foreigner, he had earned public respect.

The clashing reactions to the loudspeaker experiment point to a fundamental challenge facing Mr. Schmidt. As he fights to manage the crowds, generate more revenue and improve the museum experience — including its chaotic ticketing system and long lines — will he continue to marshal popular support and prevail against a morass of bureaucratic restraints, vested interests and political intrigue?

“It’s like playing multiple chess games at the same time,” Mr. Schmidt said.

Last year, the Uffizi, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens merged into one entity, and 3.4 million people visited, resulting in 17.3 million euros, or about $19.2 million, in ticket revenue for the state, making it the most profitable museum in Italy. Mr. Schmidt’s goal is to improve the museum’s flow; oversee a building renovation; reorganize the administration; rationalize a haphazard exhibition schedule; foster serious scholarship; rewrite wall labels; and find innovative ways to showcase a collection that has more than 12,000 paintings, 3,500 ancient sculptures, and 180,000 prints and drawings, including works from Latin America collected over the centuries but rarely shown.

Overseeing the Uffizi, with its world-class holdings and public-sector staffing, is a bit like running the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at the same time.

But things are changing in Italy. Mr. Schmidt, 48, was hired last year from his job as a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art as part of a sweeping reform that gave 20 Italian institutions greater autonomy from the Culture Ministry in Rome, which funds and staffs them.

In what was perceived as a bold move, the Ministry opened directorships, for the first time, to an international search, eventually hiring seven non-Italians. Mr. Schmidt, a scholar of the Medici collection that formed the basis of the Uffizi, had lived in Florence in the past.

The reform, advanced by the culture minister, Dario Franceschini, was intended to bring in fresh talent and give these “super museums” — including the Capodimonte in Naples, the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan and the Accademia in Venice — more control over their budgets, exhibitions and services like cafes and bookshops, to become more self-sustaining at a time when Italy’s economy is stagnating.

The change is dramatic for Italy, where the ministry has traditionally run the country’s museums. Since the 1990s, some museum functions, including temporary exhibitions, were outsourced to private companies, creating a confusing overlap of jurisdictions that the reform hopes to untangle.

“The decision to appoint 20 directors at the same time is very courageous,” said Umberto Allemandi, the editor and founder of the Giornale dell’Arte, an Italian arts monthly. “I’d almost say it’s reckless, but it’s necessary, because if you don’t do things in a clamorous way, you run the risk that another 20, 30, 40 years will pass.”

Foreign museum directors are common elsewhere, including at the Met in New York. Appointing a German to the Uffizi is a powerful statement in today’s Europe, where Germany dominates, but Mr. Schmidt plays down that dynamic, noting that in past centuries, the Medici imported a police force from Germany because it was seen as neutral, without local loyalties.

The question facing Mr. Schmidt — can Italy change? — is the same one facing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, 41, a former mayor of Florence who is deeply invested in the museum’s fate. He came to power in 2014 promising reform but now sees growing resistance. Creating the autonomous museums is a key part of his legacy. Both are in play, if not in jeopardy.

I observed the challenges up close one day in late June, when I attended a staff meeting with Mr. Schmidt, who was sitting in front of Botticelli’s “Annunciation,” a Renaissance jewel in the collection, displayed temporarily in a room where Dante once gave speeches.

In fluent Italian, Mr. Schmidt was discussing how to open to the public one of the museum’s most prized features, a corridor designed by Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century Italian artist and author. It is now open only to small tours run by private companies that often profit more than the museum does.

The Vasari Corridor begins inside the Uffizi, once the Medici seat of government, in an area damaged by a Mafia bomb in 1993, and traverses the Arno River via the top floor of the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s famed 1345 bridge. The end point is the Pitti Palace, where the Medici once lived and which now houses other museums.

The Uffizi has the world’s oldest and largest collection of self-portraits, and since the 1970s, the corridor has been lined with more than 700 of them. There are Annibale Carracci’s portrait of himself on a canvas on an easel and ones by Titian, Delacroix, Ingres, Sargent, Morandi, even Rauschenberg, up to the present day. There are also rarely seen self-portraits by women, from Angelica Kauffmann and Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun to the lesser-known 18th-century figure Violante Beatrice Siries of Cremona and Rosalba Carriera of Venice.

Most visitors never get to see them, and Mr. Schmidt, who has also been a curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, also worries about their condition. In the corridor, he said, “they get deep-fried in summer and deep-frozen in winter.”

But how to adapt Renaissance architecture for modern-day mass tourism? At the staff meeting, technicians asked questions. Could they do what the Vatican did with the Sistine Chapel, and install a dehumidification system? But where would you put it? And how could you create fire exits? Mr. Schmidt said there was money to study alternatives.

Italy has pledged €58 million, or $65 million, to double the Uffizi’s exhibition space by converting offices into galleries, and to build a new exit for better flow. Mr. Schmidt hopes to move the paintings to a space in the Uffizi with climate control and to display Greek and Roman inscriptions that are less sensitive in the corridor, allowing visitors to cross from one museum to the other.

But with change comes resistance. Private tour groups don’t want to lose revenue. Marco Agnoletti, a spokesman for Florence’s mayor, said the director’s plan to open the corridor to the public “has created some perplexity.” In July, a prominent Italian architect who serves on the Uffizi’s advisory committee, Stefano Boeri, said in the press that he didn’t want to remove portraits from the corridor for aesthetic reasons.

After Mr. Schmidt announced in March that the hallway would close for renovations this fall, a union organizer filed a complaint, saying that if the corridor wasn’t up to code it should close immediately. The fire department shut it down but later said it could reopen on a limited basis until renovations begin.

“I’m fighting for it,” Mr. Schmidt said of his plan to open the corridor to visitors.

He points to other battles. He wants the guards to move from room to room, not just sit in one place. This involves potentially fraught negotiations with labor unions. Mr. Schmidt said he had been impressed by the team he inherited, but he and the other new directors want the power to shape their own staffs.

And then there’s that pesky ticketing system. Because of a complex resale market of the €8 ($9) base ticket, private tour groups wind up profiting handsomely from ticket sales. The state recently announced a new public bidding process to hire contractors to handle ticketing and other services.

To draw audiences to the Uffizi during nonpeak hours, Mr. Schmidt has begun offering live music inside the museum on Tuesdays, when it’s open late. He also signed an accord with the Maggio Musicale festival to bring opera to Pitti Palace and drew some criticism when the Pitti rented space for an exhibition on Karl Lagerfeld to coincide with the Pitti Uomo men’s fashion show in June.

Other Challenges

While the Uffizi has to contend with crowd control, other Italian museums have the opposite problem. Near the Uffizi is the Bargello, renowned for its Renaissance sculpture and one of the best collections of Islamic art in Italy. Its new director, Paola d’Agostino, who returned to her native Italy from the Yale University Art Gallery, is trying to set standard opening hours rather than the current ones resulting from state-employed guards who work complicated shifts.

The Bargello, which has merged with four other small Florentine museums, also lacks staff, a collections catalog and a database. Ms. D’Agostino inherited a €2 million, or $2.23 million, deficit. “I’m also the marketing department, development and H.R.,” she said. Still, the biggest success of the reform is “the fact that people talk about museums, cultural heritage all the time,” she said. “Even the critics.”

Some of the new museum directors say the single biggest challenge is not being able to hire and fire.

“The key to sustainability is to have a structure that gives complete autonomy over staff and budget,” said James Bradburne, the new Canadian and British director of the Brera in Milan, one of Italy’s most important collections. On his watch, the museum has reinstalled several galleries and asked writers including Orhan Pamuk to create wall labels. “We haven’t won any battles or won the war, but we’ve shown that the path we’re following is a legitimate one,” Mr. Bradburne said.

To attract visitors to the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, its new director, Sylvain Bellenger, who is French and came from the Art Institute of Chicago, set up a shuttle bus to take people from downtown Naples up the hill to the museum, which is in a park that has a stunning view of the Bay of Naples.

But old political habits die hard. There aren’t enough guards to keep all the rooms open because their contract grants them many days off. “Local interests, clientelism, the appearance of respect for democracy which is in fact clientelism might be the main obstacles,” Mr. Bellenger said, referring to Italy’s entrenched jobs-for-votes culture.

Mr. Franceschini, the culture minister, said he was pleased with how the changes were taking hold. “Such a profound reform will naturally meet resistance,” he said in an interview in Rome. “If the changes are real, they will meet resistance. If everyone likes them, they’re false.”

He said that in 2015, attendance to Italy’s state museums was up by five million visitors, to 43 million. The ministry is searching for new directors at nine more newly autonomous museums. For the first time in two decades, it is also holding a state competition to hire 500 more art historians and archaeologists for sites across Italy.

Back at the Uffizi, I asked Mr. Schmidt if he thought he had the support he needed from the Culture Ministry to push ahead. A small and slightly knowing smile formed on his face. “They brought me in to do the dirty work,” he said. “They’d better not abandon me now.”

A version of this article appears in print on August 21, 2016, on page AR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Can a Museum Change Italy?.



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