Uffizi Diffusi in its third year: a review of the project

In the summer of 2021 the Uffizi Diffusi project departed, and with the series now in its third season and director Eike Schmidt's term nearing its end, the time is ripe for a review of this important experience.

It took shape in the fall of three years ago the idea of circulating the works of the Uffizi in the territory, among local communities, in places less known to tourism: we were in the midst of the forced cohabitation with Covid, ideas for more sustainable, quieter exhibitions, closer to small towns, were chasing each other, and almost everyone was talking about a relationship with the territory and a return to the province. Then the pandemic ended and a large part of all those good intentions drowned in a return to business as usual: the Uffizi, however, was one of the few entities that followed up on their intentions, and a few months later, in the summer of 2021, they were kicking off Uffizi Diffusi, the series of exhibitions that brought the great museum of Florence to all of Tuscany. Of course, contingent needs due to the singular historical period in which the project was born were not, in themselves, the driving force: not since the day before yesterday there have been discussions about mending contexts, strengthening ties with the territories of origin of the works as well as those between museums and communities, and finding forms of sustainability for the exhibitions. The Uffizi Diffusi, in taking up these urgings, have tried to offer their own solution, pointing out a possible way forward for the exhibitions of the future.

As the third year of exhibitions comes to an end, and as the term of director Eike Schmidt, who strongly believed in this project, draws to a close, the time is ripe for an initial assessment: some 30 exhibitions, from July 2021 to the present (partly produced together with Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze as part of the “Terre degli Uffizi” project), now constitute a broad and useful basis for an evaluation of Uffizi Diffusi as it began and has continued to date. It should be said at the outset, as Schmidt himself mentioned in an interview with this writer last winter, that already Antonio Paolucci in the 1970s had posed the problem of interaction with the territory: then, towards the end of the 1990s, Paolucci again together with Rosanna Caterina Proto Pisani initiated a plan to reorganize many small Tuscan museums, which was then ideally continued in Fondazione CR Firenze’s Piccoli Grandi Musei project, launched in 2005 (the last exhibition was instead in 2015) and aimed at enhancing the museums of the territory with exhibitions on themes related to the suburbs. The concept behind Piccoli Grandi Musei was later taken up by the series La Città degli Uffizi , which, from 2008 until 2014, once or twice a year gathered a certain number of museum works and organized exhibitions outside Florence. The Uffizi Diffusi is the “modern” heir, so to speak, to these projects, from which it differs in several ways: its capillarity (apart from Pisa and Prato, it has reached all the provinces of Tuscany), its temporal extension (from the thirteenth century to the twentieth), its versatility (from more structured exhibitions, capable of counting even about twenty works, to exhibitions of a single work), and its venues (not only museums but also, as happened in Pontremoli, institutional venues). The most intimate reason for the project, as Schmidt himself explained, is to be found in the desire to reconnect the works to the territory: “it may be a painting that was in that place in the past, it may be that the artist came from there, it may be that a work depicts a saint who is venerated in that place, there may be thematic, historical connections and so on, because only in this way is the identity value of the art also best communicated.”

Curiously, the Uffizi Diffusi did not start from the mainland: the first exhibition in the series, Nel segno di Napoleone (In the Sign of Napoleon), was held from July 9 to October 10, 2021 at the Pinacoteca Foresiana in Portoferraio, moved by the idea of reconstructing, through a selection of works from the Uffizi and the Pinacoteca Foresiana itself, Napoleon’s exile on the island of Elba. If the “thematic connection,” to use Schmidt’s own expression, in the case of the inaugural exhibition was self-evident, more tenuous, on the other hand, were the reasons that underpinned the second installment of the series, Dante and Andrea del Castagno Return to San Godenzo, from July 27 to August 23, 2021, an exhibition where the relocation of Dante Alighieri depicted by Andrea del Castagno for the cycle at Villa Carducci in Legnaia was sustained, one might say, by the desire to offer the public a suggestion, namely, the presence of a famous Dante effigy in the last location in Tuscany touched by the Supreme Poet before leaving his homeland for good.

The formula of the loan of a single work has characterized and continues to characterize many appointments of the Uffizi Diffusi, which around these loan occasions, capable of demonstrating all the agility and even informality of the project (sometimes the exhibitions have not been accompanied by a corresponding catalog, an aspect that does not necessarily constitute a defect: if there is nothing new to say around a work or around a theme, the information that the museum releases with communiqus, visitor guides and various apparatuses are sufficient), managed to create the aura of the event by spurring local audiences to participation: this was the case for several exhibitions. Some of them, still, from foundations that are not exactly strong: for example, The Last Seal at the Pinacoteca Comunale in Castiglion Fiorentino (from October 2, 2021 to January 6, 2022), which saw the arrival in Valdarno of Cigoli’s Stigmata di san Francesco , a work executed for a church in Foligno (the Pinacoteca reciprocated by sending to the Uffizi its main masterpiece, Bartolomeo della Gatta’s Stigmata ), or Francesco Hayez. The Portrait of Count Arese Lucini from the Uffizi, still on view at the Municipal Palace in Pontremoli (May 5 to Oct. 8, 2023), where one of the Uffizi’s most recent acquisitions was brought, the Hayez work that gives the exhibition its title, linked to Pontremoli simply because... one of the Romantic painter’s best-known masterpieces is set in the town of Lunigiana. Instances such as these have been sporadic, however, and in any case have reinvigorated the interest of local communities in their heritage, as well as in the Uffizi: the Pontremoli exhibition was a success, and the presence of Hayez’s painting (whose absence from the Uffizi’s tour itinerary, it must be said, has a relative specific weight: it is not, in short, like depriving the museum of Caravaggio’s Bacchus , to send it, moreover, to a wine fair) provided an opportunity to organize visits, meetings, conferences that were widely attended. Of course, better when the reasons for the project were more solid, but it cannot be denied that the work did not catalyze certain attentions.

However, there has been no shortage of one-work exhibitions that have been supported by firm foundations: for example, the exhibition Raphael, the Madonna of the Canopy is still running (from May 7 to October 1), which brought the Urbino’s work back to the church, the Cathedral of Pescia, in which it remained for a century and a half, between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, becoming an object of strong devotion by the faithful of the small town in the Pistoia area. Even earlier, with the exhibition A Renaissance Masterpiece from France to Bosco ai Frati. The Triptych of Nicolas Froment (June 1, 2022 to April 30, 2023), the French painter’s spectacular altarpiece was temporarily relocated to the convent that had guarded it for centuries. The Bosco ai Frati and Pescia exhibitions, for the first time, followed up on what appeared to be a provocation when Schmidt launched it: to return works that are part of the Uffizi collection to the churches from which they came. Obviously we are not talking about definitive returns, but the hypothesis is not to be ruled out in the future: Schmidt himself, again in the aforementioned interview, described as “possible and desirable” the idea that works, perhaps present in storage or in any case not having an important history linked to their museum, return to their contexts of origin. And still continuing on the chapter of one-work exhibitions, it will be worth mentioning Filippo Lippi in Val d’Elsa, which from April 22 to October 29, 2023 brings the Barbadori predella to Montespertoli to compare two different phases of Filippo Lippi’s production (the small Museum of Sacred Art in fact houses a splendid Madonna and Child by the Florentine artist), or Alpe di Luni, an exhibition of Andrea Markò’s Veduta del Monte Forato at the Museum of Sacred Art in Fivizzano (from June 30 to October 23, 2023), or again in Montespertoli, the arrival in 2022 of the 15th-century predella hospitalized, during the years of World War II, at the Montegufoni Castle, which made it possible to tell the story of the works sheltered from wartime theft, the theme at the center of a further exhibition, Michelangelo Kidnapped. Masterpieces at War from the Uffizi to Casentino, at Poppi Castle from July 20, 2023 to January 28, 2024.

At other times, the loans granted by the Uffizi have been oriented toward enriching the visiting itinerary of the host museum, always with a view to reconstructing contexts: among the most successful exhibitions in this sense (and with the presence of only two works), again in Montespertoli the exhibition Seguaci di Giotto in Valdelsa (from September 26, 2021 to April 3, 2022), or at the Poppi Castle the focus on the theme of maternity in the Renaissance, Nel segno della vita. Women and Madonnas at the Time of Expectation (July 7, 2022 to Nov. 1, 2022).

On the more structured exhibitions, on the other hand, the thematic thread was followed, with a couple of exceptions. Proceeding in order of time, in the summer of 2022 the Pinacoteca Foresiana in Portoferraio hosted a small selection of works by Giuseppe Bezzuoli, motivated by the fact that during his career the Florentine painter had visited the island of Elba accompanied by Alessandro Foresi(Giuseppe Bezzuoli, painter and friend of Alessandro Foresi, July 19 to November 2, 2022): it was, at the same time, a sort of preview of the large monographic exhibition that Palazzo Pitti later dedicated to Bezzuoli the following winter, and the idea of anticipating, through small focuses on the territory, the larger exhibitions broader scope that the Uffizi would later organize (or, as in the case of Pontremoli and San Godenzo, the idea of presenting recent acquisitions or new restorations in the territory), is another format, as they say, that has been successful and will surely have to be replicated. The second exception was an exhibition-tribute to Carlo Del Bravo, Jacopo Vignali and the Uffizi Galleries in San Casciano, which brought a nucleus of paintings by the great seventeenth-century Florentine painter to the Val di Pesa town in honor of the scholar who first dealt systematically with his production.

Few doubt a possible top 5 review of the Uffizi Diffusi project: we assign for the moment the “palm” of best exhibition of the series to Masaccio and the Renaissance masters in comparison , which was held in Reggello, at the Masaccio Museum, from April 23 to October 23, 2022 (the only one of the Uffizi Diffusi for which we have published on these pages anarticulate review), and we flank them, a little below, The Civilizations of Arms and the Courts of the Renaissance (at the Museum of the Battle of Anghiari, from August 31, 2021 to May 3, 2022), The Maremma of the Macchiaioli (at the Old Town Hall of Bibbona from July 14 to October 15, 2023), Masaccio and Angelico. Dialogue on Truth in Painting (San Giovanni Valdarno, Museo delle Terre Nuove and Museum of the Basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Sept. 17, 2022 to Jan. 15, 2023), and In the Sign of Dante. Casentino in the Comedy (Poppi Castle, July 17, 2021 to January 9, 2022). Insights of small size (the largest probably does not count more than twenty works), far from the idea of “exhibition” that usually fuels stereotypes, but perfectly consonant with the soul of Uffizi Diffusi, founded on solid and well-structured projects, and strong in the quality standards typical of the Uffizi (particularly interesting is the set-up of the Bibbona exhibition, designed by Antonio Godoli, architect of the Uffizi: sober, elegant, delicate, with the colors of the sea and sky of the Maremma, with a clear division between the part reserved for the works and that instead reserved for the illustrative apparatus).

Finally, as for exhibitions that focused on more recent periods, so far there have been only two experiments: I favolosi anni ’60s in Maremma (at the Polo Culturale delle Clarisse in Grosseto from June 16 to September 3, 2023) consisted of the loan of some items from the Fashion and Costume collection of Palazzo Pitti for a larger exhibition that could therefore bear the Uffizi Diffusi label, and Lo sguardo e l idea at the Museum of Sketches in Pietrasanta (Nov. 19, 2022 to Feb. 19, 2023), with the exhibition of some self-portraits of 20th-century artists along with sketches preserved in the Versilia museum’s collection, with a lunge therefore on the theme of creativity and the modern artist’s gaze.

On their third birthday, therefore, the Uffizi Diffusi can be said to be fully promoted because, apart from a few minor flaws that have been taken into account, they have shown that great museums can and must activate themselves to promote opportunities for in-depth study in the territory, which will always be full of spin-offs both for local communities and for the museum itself (if only for pure reasons of return of’image), have invented a malleable, well-adaptable and sustainable formula that can be replicated elsewhere, and have opened a possible way forward for the exhibitions of the future, which will be smaller, more spread out over the territory, closer to the local public but also designed to offer opportunities for those who choose a destination for their own trip to get to know it (such exhibitions also serve to increase the attractiveness of the territory: if I know that in a given area every year I will find one or more Uffizi Diffusi exhibitions, I will be more likely to choose it as my vacation destination).

A project that Schmidt’s successor will also have to continue and expand toward its natural developments: one imagines, in the future, a continuation of the line opened by Bosco ai Frati and Pescia (thus re-entries, temporary or perhaps even definitive in cases where it is possible to do so, of Uffizi works in their contexts), and the stable presence of venues on the territory of the Uffizi Diffusi, an objective after all already widely indicated by Schmidt himself (examples are two ongoing projects: the Uffizi del Mare in Livorno and the recovery of the Villa dell’Ambrogiana in Montelupo Fiorentino). With such a widespread presence of the Uffizi on the territory, with relationships now consolidated with local realities, some of which have always been present in the Uffizi Diffusi schedule since the beginning, with an increasingly attentive public towards the series, it is difficult, if anything, to imagine the project diminishing in intensity: the future runs ever faster on the road to diffusion.

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