November 28, 2023

CASTAGNO D’ANDREA, Italy – This tiny hamlet of around 300 residents, 40 kilometers northeast of Florence, has never been on Italy’s must-see A-list. Its main claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of the Renaissance painter Andrea del Castagno, who went away as a child, probably before he was old enough to scribble on the local walls. (Once he’s done, there are no remnants of his doodles.)

But cultural tourism picked up here that summer after the Uffizi Gallery loaned the village a recently restored Del Castagno fresco depicting the poet Dante Alighieri. The loan coincides with the national celebrations marking the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death and the artist’s 600th birthday.

The arrival of the fresco was one of the first actions in a program called “Uffizi Diffusi” or “Scattered Uffizi”, an initiative of the gallery’s director, Eike Schmidt. Uffizi Diffusi aims to build stronger links between the famous Florentine Museum and the towns scattered around Tuscany by giving them works of art that are normally kept.

“As with all large museums, only a small part of the collection can be seen here,” said Schmidt in a telephone interview. But few other museums can claim to have so many masterpieces that they can ignore a Botticelli. (The Uffizi Gallery can.)

Rather than following in the footsteps of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which opened a branch in Dundee, Scotland, or the Louvre, which opened an outpost in Lens, France, Schmidt said he wanted to “go in a slightly different direction” and really do the whole thing Activate the region ”, with the Uffizi brand as a visiting card.

“You couldn’t do that in all parts of the world,” said Schmidt. “But I think it’s a perfect opportunity in Tuscany,” he added, referring to the collection’s connection to the region. To increase visibility, the Uffizi is using its popular social media accounts to clog the venues participating in the initiative.

The Fresco del Castagno is one of the earliest surviving portraits of Dante, and his exhibition in Castagno d’Andrea was “a dream come true” for Emanuele Piani, Mayor of San Godenzo, a nearby town to which the hamlet belongs.

The fresco was installed in the first room of a work by del Castagno called the “virtual museum” by the local authorities, which consists mainly of photographs of the artist’s greatest hits, reproduced on a reduced scale. The museum is located in the visitor center of the region’s national park, whose ancient beech forests were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2017.

“Tourism in the region is usually linked to the national park,” said Piani, who mainly attracts hikers and cyclists. Borrowing the fresco “is a vehicle for other types of tourists to get to know our territory,” he added.

That fits with Schmidt’s view of the initiative. “We really hope to promote a new form of tourism that encompasses both the cultural and natural landscape aspects,” he said.

About 48 km south of Castagno d’Andrea, a fairytale castle towers over the town of Poppi and has long drawn tourists to this part of Tuscany, a valley in the Apennines known as Casentino. The castle, begun in the 13th century, “has always been a center of power and has therefore always been well preserved,” said the mayor of Poppi, Carlo Toni.

When Toni heard about the initiative of the Uffizi, he wrote to Schmidt and offered him the palace – in which Nazi troops had hidden some works looted during the Second World War, such as Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and Michelangelo’s “Doni Tondo” – as a venue at .

The result is the exhibition entitled “Under the sign of Dante, the Casentino in the Divine Comedy”, which runs until November 30th. Six of the seven works on display – including four drawings by the artist Federico Zuccari from the 16th century – are from the Uffizi.

“The castle alone attracts visitors,” says Toni, “but if there is added value, more people come.”

The Uffizi Gallery’s curators and academic staff work with local curators to assist with loan selection. “You have to present a historically interesting and correct narrative,” said Schmidt. “We don’t just put the name of the city in the database and say the painting was there, so we bring it there.”

This year further loans were given to an exhibition in Portoferraio on the island of Elba to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death and to the cities of Prato, Pescia, Montespertoli and Anghiari.

When Schmidt announced the project last year, he said he had received “tons of letters and phone calls” from local officials and the directors of smaller museums. A Uffizi working group set out to tour the cities “to see what we could do and whether the locations would be appropriate”.

So far, around 60 cities have applied to participate, and around two dozen projects are planned for 2022 and 2023.

Lending takes different forms: some are offered as part of temporary exhibitions, others for longer periods of time. Longer arrangements would be preferred “if works of art can actually return to their original location,” said Schmidt.

The regional government of Tuscany is working on a law to finance major projects under the umbrella of the Uffizi Diffusi, such as the restoration of the Villa Ambrogiana in Montelupo Fiorentino near Florence. As part of this initiative, some of the hundreds of paintings from the villa that the Uffizi Gallery kept will return there.

“Since it was very, very important for me to start right away this year, we used the most tried and tested and most traditional means,” said Schmidt.

But now the sky is the limit. This month, Schmidt gave Elon Musk and his family a private tour of the Uffizi Gallery, telling SpaceX founder Musk that he would be happy to consider a Uffizi Diffusi project should a space station ever open on Mars.

“If we look long-term, I think works of art will travel to other planets,” said Schmidt. “I think when humanity will settle on another planet, I think that art will be a very essential part of it and that works of art have to be there.”