Italy moves to halt overtourism before travel restarts

Its founder calls it “the biggest shakeup in Italy” in the past decade, it’s been hailed as a “vital way to combat overtourism,” and now it’s ready: the region of Tuscany has taken the first step towards becoming one giant gallery.

The Uffizi Galleries in Florence — Italy’s most visited museum, and home to perhaps the world’s greatest collection of Renaissance art — has launched its Uffizi Diffusi, or “Scattered Uffizi” project, which will see works of art taken from the gallery and displayed around the wider region of Tuscany.

Up to 100 regional galleries will be created in the next five years, in a bid to put a halt to the overtourism that has come close to overwhelming Florence in recent years.

Artworks will be re-homed in small towns and villages, in a bid to spread tourists — and their spending, as well as their impact on the environment — around the region, instead of centering them around the Florence honeypot.

The future will see ancient palazzos, convents and crumbling turn-of-century spas converted into permanent exhibition spaces, but the project is launching this summer with five temporary exhibitions to be held in the area surrounding Florence.

An Italian ‘magical mystery tour’

Called the “Terre degli Uffizi” (“Lands of the Uffizi”) project, it will mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante, drawing links between the region and the poet, who was exiled from Florence for political reasons.

San Godenzo, a village in the mountains near the border with Emilia Romagna, was the birthplace of Renaissance painter Andrea del Castagno — and also the place where Dante was staying when he was condemned to death in absentia from Florence in 1302. He left San Godenzo, never to return home, and died in Emilia Romagna. The exhibition will link the two men with a fresco of Dante painted by Andrea del Castagno, which has been been restored and will be returned to his hometown from July 26 to September 5.

Anghiari — famous for a Renaissance battle which featured in a lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci — will host an exhibition on the culture of fighting and the self-made soldiers who went from being mercenaries to establishing their own, art-filled courts, such as Federico da Montefeltro, whose portrait by Piero della Francesca is one of the most famous works in the Uffizi.

Poppi, a pretty hilltop village in the foothills of the Apennine mountains east of Florence, where Dante wrote some of the “Divine Comedy,” will have a Dante exhibition centered round a painting of Paolo and Francesca, the most famous story of forbidden love in the poem (in which they were confined to the second circle of hell). By Nicola Monti, it is a recent acquisition by the Uffizi. The exhibition will be held in the hilltop castle of the Guidi counts, political allies of Dante himself.

There will be an exhibition of “Giottesque” paintings in the Valdelsa region in Montespertoli, a tiny hilltop village 40 minutes southwest of Florence. The painter Giotto — one of the most famous of the early Renaissance — influenced local artists, whose work will be shown in the rectory of the local church.

And the town of Castiglion Fiorentino will do an art swap with the Uffizi themed around St. Francis. Officials will send their flagship painting by Bartolomeo della Gatta to the Uffizi, where it will take pride of place in the 15th-century rooms. In return, the Uffizi will send its painting, “St. Francis Receives the Stigmata,” by early Baroque painter Cigoli, to the town.

The landscape that launched a thousand paintings

Although there are no superstar artworks in the exhibitions — previously the gallery has loaned works by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci to neighboring towns — director of the Uffizi Galleries Eike Schmidt told CNN that the project will deliver something equally valuable: an all-enveloping experience of the art.

“You don’t look at a work of art in isolation; you see it on a screen, in a book or in a museum,” he said.

“The bodily context and landscape context matters a lot, and this will give the opportunity to perceive these artworks in a very different manner.

“To see a work by Andrea del Castagno in the landscape where Andrea del Castagno came from — I think that’s worth a trip from California, Warsaw, Australia, or Barcelona.”

Schmidt has bigger plans for the wider project, though. Among other things he has earmarked the villa in Montelupo Fiorentino, half an hour west of Florence, in which Lorenzo de’ Medici, the most famous patron of the Renaissance, died, as a space to exhibit works by Botticelli. The villa will be renovated and serve as the heart of the project.

For now, he calls the launch projects a “magical mystery tour” of northern Tuscany. The towns are drawing up cycle and driving routes between them, to create mini art trails.

Schmidt told CNN that the urgency of the project — which was largely planned during lockdown — was a bid to avoid a return to the overtourism which has plagued Florence in recent years.

“At the height of the season, it wasn’t fun for a visitor, less so for a citizen, so now at the moment of reopening the city and country, we have to give a signal for a new kind of tourism,” he said.

“That means fostering a unity of landscape tourism, family tourism, food tourism, sports tourism and cultural and arts tourism.

“The reason for doing it now is that we need to transform tourism into something more ecologically and socially sustainable — and one that will be more fun, too. And that means the decongestion of hotspots such as Florence, by spreading the visitors around.

“Bringing the artworks back into the hills in which they were painted will help strike a balance.”

A ‘vital way to combat overtourism’

Those in the sustainable tourism industry have applauded Schmidt’s idea. Justin Francis, co-founder and CEO of Responsible Travel, called it “a beautifully simple idea.”

“In essence, everybody wins. Tourists and residents will get the opportunity to see remarkable art away from the crowds, businesses throughout the region will see revenues grow, and residents of Florence may get a little respite from the pressures of honeypot tourism,” he said.

He suggested that the concept could go global, calling it “a vital way to combat overtourism globally — it will be exciting to see how far the ‘scattered’ concept can be taken.”

The mayor of Castiglion Fiorentino, Mario Agnelli, told CNN that the Uffizi project would put the towns on the global map.

“I wanted to hold exhibitions before, but to do that you need insurance and transport — the costs were impossible for us as a small town,” he said. “Even if he [Schmidt] had given me a Botticelli, I’d never have managed.” The Uffizi umbrella has secured the necessary funding to help the individual towns, he said.

For his part, Schmidt says, “The numbers predict it’s set to be the biggest [cultural] shakeup in Italy in the past 10-12 years,” and says he “strongly believes” the model could be rolled out to other regions and countries, including Lombardy and areas of Spain.

He added that now, following the enforced pause of the pandemic, is the time to do it.

“Figures from the likes of Airbnb are showing us that the beautiful little hilltowns have actually sold out far before the cities, and in fact many of the hotels in big cities such as Florence, Rome, Milan and Venice have not yet reopened.”

Asked if it was a race against time before mass tourism returns to its previous levels, he agreed: “That’s why I put so much energy into it starting now and not in 2022.

“It’s important to have a new offering — a more convincing, higher quality one before we just get into the old mechanisms again.

“I’ve said for a year and a half that if we do not change our offerings, there’s a risk that people will just go back to their old habits.”

The Uffizi Diffusi project is also behind a Napoleon-themed exhibition on the island of Elba, where the French emperor was once exiled, this summer.

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