He Ran the Uffizi. Can He Run Florence?

Will he? Or won’t he?

It’s a question that’s been buzzing at dinner parties and on street corners in Florence, and throughout the Italian art world. The “he” in question is Eike Schmidt, who until last month was the director of the Uffizi museum, and who has hinted that he might run for mayor of Florence in upcoming municipal elections.

Since the summer, Schmidt has been toying — somewhat mischievously — with the idea of running with the Brothers of Italy, the hard-right majority party in the coalition that governs the country.

Even after he was appointed last month as the new director of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, a four-year posting set to begin this month, Schmidt has not clarified his intentions, except to say in an interview in an Italian newspaper that he would be unable to do both jobs at once.

On Wednesday, Italy’s culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, posted a photo on social media with Schmidt, and wrote in an accompanying post that there were “great plans and ideas” for theCapodimonte that he had discussed with the new director.

But many still believe that Schmidt has larger aspirations and that his candidacy in Florence remains possible. The former director of the Uffizi — considered one of the world’s great museums, with instantly recognizable works by Renaissance masters like Botticelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo — has said he would make a decision this month. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

“He’s a person who likes challenges,” said Giorgio Bernardini, who writes about local politics for Corriere Fiorentino, the local edition of the national daily Corriere della Sera. “And he’s a strong personality,” Bernadini added.

Florence attracts millions each year for its museums, historic palazzos and art-rich churches, and citizens complain that its downtown area has emptied of residents.Credit…Francesca Volpi for The New York Times

It wouldn’t be the first time that Schmidt has left the public hanging. In 2019, less than a month before was meant to leave the Uffizi to lead the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Schmidt announced during an impromptu news conference that he had changed his mind and would stay on in the job for another four years, prompting angry reactions from Austrian news media and lawmakers.

Though Florence has been a center-left stronghold for over 30 years, and the center-right has never polled more than about a third of the city’s voters in municipal elections, analysts say that Schmidt would have a real chance in the vote, which is expected in June.

Schmidt is not a typical candidate of the right. In an interview with the Rome daily La Repubblica last month, Schmidt described himself as a moderate, a distinction that would appeal to centrist voters, insisting that he “was and remained antifascist” and “anti-Nazi.”

Brothers of Italy, the party Schmidt would run for, was born from the wreckage of Italy’s failed experiment with Fascism, but its current leader, the prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, has firmly distanced herself from the party’s Fascist roots. “He’s an anomalous candidate with respect to the coalition that would support him,” said Alessandro Chiaramonte, a professor of political science at the University of Florence, adding that its typical voters would be less likely to vote for “a polyglot man of culture,” like Schmidt. But, Chiaramonte added, “that might be what appeals to the undecided and centrist voters.”

During his eight years at the Uffizi, Schmidt skillfully built a public profile, frequently taking the limelight by weighing into public debates. When vandals defaced a part of the Uffizi museum overlooking the Arno River last summer, Schmidt quickly condemned the act, and called for tough retaliation. “Enough with token punishments and fancy extenuating circumstances! We need the hard fist of the law here,” he said a statement. He then hired armed guards to monitor the exterior areas of the museum off hours.

Schmidt also played to social media, posing with celebrities and influencers visiting the museum in front of famous works from the collection. The consensus is that he ran the Uffizi well, renovating many of its galleries and boosting the museum’s brand.

“The value added for the right is that he’s shown to have great managerial abilities,” said Simona Poli, who reports on Florentine politics for La Repubblica. She pointed out that in past months, Schmidt had openly attacked Florence’s center-left mayor, Dario Nardella, on a number of issues, including security. “It was almost like launching a message: ‘If I were in his place, I’d do better,’” Poli said.

The Uffizi is considered one of the world’s great museums, with instantly recognizable works including Botticelli’s “Primavera.”Credit…Vincenzo Pinto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Florence today faces considerable challenges, including managing the effects of tourism. The city attracts millions of people each year for its museums, historic palazzos and art-rich churches. Locals complain that its downtown area has emptied of residents to become a warren of short-term vacation rentals, restaurants and bars that cater mostly to tourists, driving up prices and profoundly changing Florence’s character.

“It’s one thing to manage the Uffizi, another to manage a city of 350,000 inhabitants,” said Chiaramonte, the political science professor. Because Schmidt has no political experience, residents “would be taking a bet,” Chiaramonte said.

Born in Germany in 1968, Schmidt became an Italian citizen in December, making him eligible to run.

He came to the Uffizi in 2015 after stints as a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; and at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where he ran a department. After arriving at the Uffizi, he was also named president of a fund run by the interior ministry that administers publicly owned churches.

There are some who believe that Schmidt only floated the possibility of running for mayor to sure up the job at Capodimonte, another of Italy’s most prestigious museums. But Schmidt has said repeatedly that his intention, after a two-term turn at the Uffizi, was to remain in Florence, where he lives with his wife. “I will keep my apartment in the center of Florence for sure,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in October. “That’s no secret.” Some observers believe he’s holding out to become the director of the Accademia Gallery and the Bargello Museum when they merge next year, as part of a ministry reform. (Others ask why he’d want to run less prestigious institutions after the Uffizi.)

Schmidt was appointed as director of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples last month.Credit…Roberto Salomone for The New York Times

In the race to become Florence’s mayor, Schmidt, like any right-wing candidate, would run at a disadvantage, given that the city has voted for the left for decades. But that vote is fractured among various center-left political parties which have said they will not back a single candidate, giving a more united right an unexpected leg up. “These divisions are Schmidt’s best allies,” said Marco Valbruzzi, who teaches political science at the Florence campus of Gonzaga University.

That gives Schmidt a real chance, analysts agree, but the electoral system, which calls for a runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, would likely favor a figure from the left that the losing candidates would rally round.

That said, “he’s the best candidate the center-right has,”Valbruzzi said.

Whatever Schmidt’s decision, he has Capodimonte to fall back on, a parachute of sorts.

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