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The international Artistic Treasure of the Medici

Myth, Glamour and Responsibility


By promoting and supporting the arts, science, and architecture, they contributed to the blossoming of the Renaissance. They built whole Florentine neighbourhoods and created an art collection that, today, fills the halls of many a museum. The building hosting the modern Uffizi Galleries was built by architect Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century. Thanks to the generosity of Anna Maria Luisa, the last heir of the Medici family, the collection was turned into an open and unsaleable cultural good.

Art as brand building: the Medici portraits

Nothing was left to chance during the Medici’s reign. Take their portraits, for example, painted at court. The cover of this edition depicts one of them. On the painting by court painter Agnolo Bronzino we can see Eleonora von Toledo and her son Giovanni. Eleonora von Toledo was the wife of Cosimo I. de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1539, the 17-year-old was married off to Cosimo I, who’d been bestowed with the title of Duke only recently. The support of his father-in-law, then one of the most powerful men on the Italian peninsula, couldn’t have come at a better time. He profited from Eleonora’s dowry by, among other projects, using it to create the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Bronzino delivers an artistic result which has the attributes of mediumistic foresight, depicting the Medici and their political and cultural propaganda. Even the portraits of Eleonora von Toledo and her son Giovanni capture his skill with finesse. The portrait is limned by the majestic and divine aura of the couple. The clothes, jewels, and the aloof stance speak of their majestic aspirations, while their divinity is embodied by the theme – mother and child – as well as the colour of the background. Exclusivity and divinity are connected by ultramarine, a colour derived from lapis lazuli, an expensive material. The portrait was painted around 1545. Nearly one century before this period, one of their ancestors already knew about the pleasure and beauty of art.

Lorenzo I. de’ Medici was born on 1 January 1449. Lorenzo took over his deceased father’s business at the mere age of 20. He was extremely rich as his family managed the Banca dei Medici bank. As a patron, he supported politicians who represented and carried out his interests. His savvy strategies ensured the City of Florence wasn’t taken over by the Church State and, for that reason, he was awarded the honorary title of ‘Il magnifico’ Lorenzo The Magnificent. Lorenzo was smart enough to surround himself with a posse of artists, philosophers, architects and writers who he supported financially. Among them feature painter Sandro Botticelli, whose most famous work, The Birth of Venus, is a symbol of the Renaissance. Instead of representing Christian saints, as was customary in the Middle Ages, he depicted ancient goddesses who knowingly put their beauty on show. By picking up art from the past, he brought about a wholly new conception of what mankind should look like: not only God, but man takes centre stage. The individual being becomes important. This change of perspective was just as clear in the David by Michelangelo Buonarotti. Even Michelangelo, the Renaissance’s most famous artist, was part of the Medici’s inner circle.

The Medici succeeded in keeping the myth and legend surrounding their family alive to this very day, more than half a millennium after they first set foot on the international scene. The art collection in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is mostly behind this as it’s developed into a pilgrimage site for art. We met Dr Eike Schmidt, the Director of the Uffizi in Florence and spoke with him about the development and challenges of this unique heritage in the whole world. A cultural good that keeps on growing and doesn’t only engage with art from the past but also with its contemporary counterpart.

Portrait Eike Schmidt

The Uffizi Gallery – the Medici’s heritage that became into a pilgrimage site for art

Dialogues with MilionArt Kaleidoscope

The Uffizi host a gigantic artistic treasure – which pieces are your favourites?

Thankfully, I always discover new favourite works of art. All I need is to be in a room that I’ve already seen countless times and look in another direction. I’ll discover something new and be completely blown away by it. I’m always enthralled by world-famous works: Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni, for example – not just because it’s a work that will stop you in your tracks, epitomising a whole era, namely the High Renaissance, in just a smattering of square centimetres, but also because everything Michelangelo painted in detail on the Sistine Chapel had already been painted two years before, in 1506, on the Tondo Doni. As if that weren’t enough, we also have the original frame. Fascinating!

You weren’t the only new museum director appointed by the Italian Government: in 2015, twenty posts were filled in order to bring in a breath of fresh air to the national museums. Did you meet the government’s expectations?

You can definitely feel a breath of fresh air in the Uffizi: just ask any of the visitors or even the staff working behind the scenes. However, as soon as wind blows, we have to expect a counter current and, now and again, a small storm – that’s just how nature works. Right now, we’re being blown in all directions.

How did you master the headwind?

Willpower and patience are, naturally, needed – that goes without saying. There was always tension between Florence and the Ministry in Rome. That’s characteristic for Italy, because the national spirit isn’t as strong as elsewhere. However, its absence means that we have a very strong and deeply-rooted local spirit. What is decided in Rome is always seen with complete scepticism. This state of affairs hasn’t made my job any easier. What has done so was the manifold processes at the museum with no apparent logic to them. Staff had reached a breaking point and were incredibly frustrated. Hierarchical organisation was at the heart of everything and initiative was stymied by this reality. Many core issues hadn’t been addressed for a good three, or even four, decade. There was a feeling of overall resignation in the Uffizi. However,there still were some colleagues who were ready to get back on track and tackle the new challenge.

If someone were to imagine the financial aspect of such a demanding museum, what would it look like? Is everything financed by public funds or do you have other sources of income?

It’s all topsy-turvy. Nothing is as you imagine. We aren’t financed at all by public funds, rather we finance the public coffers. Our profit has to cover running costs as well as our investments; on top of that, 20% of our ticket sales proceeds are funnelled back into the Ministry in Rome and used to finance museums in structurally weak regions; another 20% then goes to the city of Florence for implementing cultural and artistic measures, such as the renovation of the Baptistery. We also have private sponsors who support us. The most well-known and generous up to now has been Gucci. They provided us with the € 2,000,000 needed for restoring the Boboli Gardens. The Gardens are, as far as botany is concerned, a unique natural heritage, as different plants were brought to Florence in the 16th and 17th century to be planted on the grounds. After 70 years of investment drying up, we’ve now finally started to plant species yet again. One project I hope will continue well into the next generations.

Do the Uffizi purchase art or is the collection expanded?

Yes, we do, and not because we don’t have enough art but because we want to expand our collection’s quality. We purchase countless new pieces of art every year, including some really sigRomannificant ones. We care that the public knows we still purchase art, as we did in that past, because that’s partially what an active museum is all about. Hence, our two autumnal exhibitions will feature recent acquisitions. One is a bozzetto (sketch) by Luca Giordano for a fresco in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, while the other is a portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs, which depicts the children of the Great Duke of Tuscany Peter Leopold, who then went on to become Emperor. There are other portraits of his children in the KHM in Vienna and in the Madrid Prado, but we didn’t have any: this complements our collection. We also accept gifts by contemporary artists – tradition dictates these be self-portraits. The last two entries are self-portraits by Ai Weiwei and Helidon Xhixha.

What do you believe are your main responsibilities at the Uffizi?

The responsibility isn’t only having to choose which new works are to be part of the collection, but primarily to protect everything we have. In Italy there is a difference between ‘Tutela’ (protecting art) and ‘Valorizzazione’ (enhancing art). However, I believe they go hand in hand. The collection doesn’t only encompass the Renaissance, most of the Baroque, the time of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, and the most important works from the Italian Unity Movement, but it also contains some of the most important works from outside Europe. Take our Islamic rugs and carpets from the Middle Ages, but also the oldest documented works from Sub-Saharan Africa: carved ivory tusks, which were given to the Medici in the 16th century as diplomatic gifts from envoys in western Africa and have been conserved at the Uffizi ever since. Contrary to all the works of art that popped up since the start of the great African trend of the late 19th and early 20th century, these are unique art treasures that are incredibly significant for Africa’s cultural identity. Moreover, we also have Aztec works from Mexico, Chinese textiles, and a lot more from all sorts of countries. We’re a modern museum, if you will, and have been so ever since there have been things such as collections. This differentiates us from the Louvre or the British Museum, which only became international museums at the start of their colonial history.

What’s your take on the suggestion by Maurizio Seracini that a Leonardo da Vinci is hiding below Vasari’s painting?

As the test drills didn’t deliver any results, neither one nor the other side triumphed. What these non-results, however, allow us to say is the following: if there had been something below it, which we cannot exclude, then it can’t be seen with our modern technology. We need to be patient. As far as the probability is concerned, we have to consider two factors: Vasari, while still alive, knew that Leonardo was a far a far superior painter than he – did he ever paint over an existing piece? That’s questionable, to say the least. Then again, Leonardo loved to experiment, and a lot of his work has been lost and never reached us. We can posit that already during Vasari’s lifetime, there wasn’t much going around of Leonardo’s work. However, that will have to be determined by the next technological generation.

Which challenges do big museums have to face right now?

We’re facing plenty of challenges. One important one is to consider a museum’s original role. The Uffizi have existed as a princely collection for nearly 500 years, but for 248 years as a museum. When they were reinvented as a public museum, there was a very clear intention behind it, namely to research, teach, educate, instruct and be the impulse behind artistic inspiration. A large share of the visitors in the 18th and 19th century were artists. Thankfully, that hasn’t changed today. One of my favourite experiences is when I can take artists on a museum tour – and that’s not as rare as you may think. Everyone has their own point of view, but artists always have a very special one.

And what about the development of promoting art?

Everyone crosses the threshold of a museum, be they young or old, with specific experiences, desires, hopes, an own worldview, and a specific feeling. Promoting art only works when there’s a dialogue between the work of art and people: it has to be bidirectional. Art promoters need a deep knowledge of history of art but also of social history, philosophy, and music: only then can we guarantee the right conditions to create something new.

A city tour by Eike Schmidt in Florence: what can we expect?

First, I would start the city tour in the early hours of the morning, as everything takes on a different hue at that time. We get to experience a special light, and are free from the human flood cascading across the streets. Just like it was in the ’60 and ‘70s. For somebody who’s in Florence for the first time, I would start with a small museum. The Museo di San Marco, to be precise. You can’t understand who the Medici are if you don’t visit it. The first generations of the Medici exploited San Marco, as this is were they announced their orders for works of art and stocked their library. If you’re in this part of the city, I would continue towards the impressive Medici Chapels and the Church of San Lorenzo: Donatello and Michelangelo are to be seen here, as well as the funerary chapel, the Baroque resting place of the Medici. I would spend the afternoon in the Boboli Gardens. Incidentally, it’s one of the largest sculptural gardens in the world. The Uffizi would be the crowning highlight of the last day, as you come to a culmination of all you’ve experienced over the course of the last days.

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