Uffizi revamp shows off masterpieces in new light

The Uffizi Gallery, Florence’s treasure trove of Renaissance masterpieces, is experiencing its own renaissance of late.
After a much-awaited renovation, the art museum’s signature attractions, Botticelli’s “Spring” and “The Birth of Venus” can be seen in a new light, literally. The exhibition spaces, which are generally referred to as the Botticelli rooms, in homage to the iconic works by the early Renaissance painter, were given a months-long overhaul with the goal of improving the visibility of the paintings they host and better channeling the flow of visitors who inevitably clump around the two paintings.
The framed paintings are now displayed in niches, cleverly designed to resemble frames themselves and to help keep viewers’ attention focused on the artworks. The lighting seems more natural, and in part it is — filtering down from above through a newly created false ceiling.
An added bonus are two additional Botticelli works on display just beyond the “Spring” and “The Birth of Venus” room. One is a 21-foot wide fresco, the artist’s interpretation of the “Annunciation,” which he painted in 1481 for the Hospital of San Martino in Florence. Visitors can compare this work to another Annunciation scene by Botticelli, a painting on wood, which the artist did for a church about 10 years later.
What’s happening at the Uffizi — and several of Italy’s other renowned art museums — is close to revolutionary.
That’s because the directors now in charge of them were chosen after a search that for the first time reached out across the globe. . Italy’s museums are part of a very clubby world, and while many an Italian curator has gone on to work in prestigious art institutes around the globe, the nation itself had long been fiercely nationalistic when it came to selecting the heads of its own state museums.
So when Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, announced that 20 of Italy’s top museums’ top jobs were up for grabs, including at Milan’s Brera painting gallery and Venice’s Accademia, and that qualified candidates from abroad were encouraged to apply, many in Italy worried that somehow that their art institutions would somehow lose character, go too commercial or betray the country’s deep appreciation for its centuries of masterpieces.
Eventually, seven of the 20 jobs went to non-Italians, as Franceschini looked for candidates with creative visions, eager to update the country’s museums. The appointment receiving the most fanfare was the director at the Uffizi, Italy’s premier art museum and its top draw, attracting more than 2 million visitors in 2016.
Chosen to head the Uffizi was Eike Schmidt, a German art historian whose resume included positions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angles, a stint at Sotheby’s London, and head of the decorative arts, textiles and sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Part of his academic perparation included deep scholarship of the Medici collection kept at the Uffizi.
Visitors stand a decent chance of seeing him. When the Uffizi’s air conditioning system broke down one day during Italy’s 2017 seemingly endless heat wave, Schmidt came outside to explain to the crowds who had to leave, and those who couldn’t get in, what had happened, and how they could get refunds or obtain fresh tickets.
Schmidt is aware that the Uffizi’s stellar popularity could also be its drawback. Tourists quickly fill up the space outside the entrance, in lines waiting to buy a ticket, although, for a price, tickets can be purchased in advance for timed entrances.
Shortly after he took up his post, he addressed crowds, though a loudspeaker, warning them to be on the lookout for pickpockets. For his trouble, he paid a price: the city of Florence fined him nearly 300 euros for ”broadcasting” without a license! He won over Florentines by paying the fine out of his own pocket.
Schmidt has made clear he wants to discourage the kind of visits he likens to consumers who dash inside some eatery to grab fast food on the run. In the Uffizi’s case, that means tourists who come really just to see the Botticelli twin masterpieces and not much else.
Schmidt recently announced the Uffizi’s new pricing regime — which might please those willing and able to pay for more leisurely viewing but which might make those on more careful budgets wince.
He hopes the new new pricing strategy will encourage tourists to linger, exploring the collections not just in the Uffizi, but also in all its galleries, including Pitti Palace across the Arno and the Boboli Gardens.
Starting in September the cost of a one-day entrance ticket was set to jump from 8 euros to 12 euros during “low” season in winter, and surge to 20 euros the rest of the year.
But the Uffizi is also starting three-day passes, to the Uffizi, Pitti Palace and gardens, which date back to the 16th century, and which delight with its grottoes, statues and fountains. Cost of a three-day pass will range from 18 to 38 euros, and includes priority admission.
For those who can’t get enough of Florence — or the Uffizi, a year’s pass will be available, at 50 euros.
While the prices are steep, under Schmidt’s direction, the Uffizi is trying hard to please. For six months, visitors this year were given the opportunity to admire Leonardo da Vinci’s “Adoration of the Magi” on display after a five-year-long restoration, which brought to light unexpected shades of color and details, including pencil tracings by the master, as he worked out the drawings perspectives. The work, which was commissioned to Leonardo by monks in 1481, but he didn’t complete the painting. The painting is on display till Sept. 24.