FLORENCE, Italy — Last Sunday evening, soon after the final visitor had trickled out of the historic Palazzo Pitti, Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi Gallery, gathered with other museum officials in the palace’s main picture gallery. They were there to remove two of its most illustrious occupants: portraits that Raphael painted around 1504-1505.
The two canvases, which show a Florentine merchant, Agnolo Doni, and his wife, Maddalena Strozzi, were gingerly carried through a nearly half-mile-long passageway that links the Pitti to the Uffizi. They were hung in Room 41 of the gallery which, as of Monday, became the museum’s “Raphael and Michelangelo Room.”
Room 41 is part of the rearrangement of the Uffizi collection that has been defining Mr. Schmidt’s vision for the museum. Next month, the museum’s three paintings by Leonardo will be installed in a nearby room. Together, these artists capture “a magic moment in the first decade of the 16th century when Florence was the cultural and artistic center of the world,” Mr. Schmidt said.
The Doni portraits are now presented in a standing glass case that allows visitors finally to admire the reverse side of the panels: a rarely seen sepia-colored diptych by the Master of Serumido, an artist in Raphael’s workshop, showing a mythological scene meant to wish the couple a fertile marriage. It depicts the Greek legend of Deucalion and Pyrrha, who repopulated the earth after a flood.
The portraits have been positioned next to a round painting of the Holy Family that Michelangelo made for the same couple a year later, known as the Doni Tondo, perhaps celebrating the birth of their daughter Maria. “I guess the wish worked,” Maurizio Catolfi, a museum official with oversight for security, said.
The new layout — which also places the Doni portraits next to two other earlier Raphael portraits — should give scholars fresh food for thought.
“By bringing works into new dialogue with others, you provoke new questions,” Mr. Schmidt said during a late-night interview at the Uffizi while workers delicately positioned the Raphael portraits and the Michelangelo roundel in their new home.
The Doni portraits, he said, “are Raphael’s response to Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa,’ ” in a moment when artists were always trying to surpass one another. The Doni Tondo evinces Michelangelo’s admiration for ancient art, he added. In one room, “you’re understanding the entire history of art.”
Speaking at a news conference here on Monday, Antonio Paolucci, a former director of the Vatican Museums and a longtime Florentine culture official, said that Room 41 gave visitors the “ability to understand everything that comes in the future, the development of figurative art in Italy and Europe for centuries to come.”
Modern technology was at work late Sunday night as technicians hoisted the oversized Doni Tondo into its new recessed niche, using a minutely calibrated laser beam to ensure that it was in the proper position. Sensors monitor its temperature, humidity and other “vital statistics” that are constantly available to Mr. Schmidt on his cellphone. “Once a minute it transmits the data; it’s like an airplane,” the director said. “This is state of the art.”
The protective glass case of the paintings is “anti-seismic, anti-terror, anti-everything and so transparent that it allows tourists to put their nose right up to the glass,” Gabriella Brindani, the museum’s social media and communications manager, said. Mr. Schmidt said that they had thrown a bicycle at the protective glass and it didn’t scratch it, “of course before we put a painting behind it,” he added.
“We want this to be a 22nd-century museum,” Mr. Schmidt said, saying that what the Uffizi has done “has gone beyond what the Getty and the Met have done,” in terms of this kind of technology.
The Raphael and Michaelangelo room is meant to capture a rare moment in Florentine history when the Medici family, the dynasty that ruled from 1434 to 1737 with a few interruptions, did not dominate the city’s politics and culture. Between 1498 and 1512, the family was in exile and Florence became a republic under Piero Soderini. Artists who once flocked to the Medici turned to other patrons “who competed to procure the most masterpieces,” Mr. Schmidt said. “It’s a reconstruction of the patrons who tried to outdo each other.” Apart from the popes Julius II and Leo X, only the Doni family managed to commission works from both Raphael and Michelangelo.
Mr. Schmidt has positioned a Hellenistic-era head known as the Dying Alexander next to the Doni Tondo, in part to accentuate Michelangelo’s relationship to antique sculpture. The Uffizi has one of the world’s greatest collections of antique sculpture, though it is often dwarfed by the richness of the painting collection.
Raphael’s “Madonna of the Goldfinch,” also in this room, was painted for the Nasi family, another prominent dynasty of the time. It has been moved here from a long corridor in the gallery so packed with paintings that many visitors paid it no attention.
The new arrangement also hopes to shed a fresh spotlight on Fra Bartolommeo (1473-1517), a Dominican friar and Raphael acolyte who “never had the same critical fortune” as his more famous contemporaries, Mr. Schmidt said. There are three works by him in the room, “another great artist of the time,” he said.
Placing masterpieces alongside lesser known works also creates a visual and intellectual rhythm, Mr. Schmidt said. “It’s like music in a symphony; you can’t play fortissimo all of the time,” he added.
The German-born Uffizi director began rehanging the museum’s headliners in October 2016 — his predecessor Antonio Natali also made changes in the museum — with a rearrangement of the rooms for Botticelli and other late-15th-century artists. In February this year, the Uffizi opened nine rooms dedicated to Caravaggio, his followers and other 17th-century masters, including Rembrandt and Rubens. The following month the museum refurbished rooms containing works by Bernini to Goya.
On Monday, grumblings were already erupting on social media that the Pitti — which has the world’s largest collection of Raphaels — has lost two of its superstars.
Mr. Schmidt has tried to appease critics by pointing out that three works by Raphael, “Portrait of a Young Man with Apple,” and portraits of Julius II and Leo X would be given in exchange from the Uffizi to the Pitti. (The director noted that he had chosen to transfer the paintings on the first Sunday of the month, when admission to the museum is free, because he didn’t want to put up with the complaints from disappointed visitors. “I’ve had people telling me ‘I’ve come from Canada to see the school of the master of whatever, and it’s on loan,’ ” he laughed. “I wanted to avoid all that.”)
During his time as director, which will end in December 2019, when he is scheduled to move to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, he has presented a series of initiatives to open the storied museum to more contemporary multimedia experiences including live performances every Tuesday evening. And he recently returned from a trip to China. Is a Shanghai Uffizi on the horizon, along the lines of the Louvre Abu Dhabi?
Mr. Schmidt said he thought not, at least for now. “There’s certainly strong interest in collaborations, but nothing is in the pipeline yet,” he said.
For the moment, he is focusing his energies on the new layout of Florence’s golden age.
“See if you like it,” Mr. Schmidt said of his project. “And if you don’t, it’s too late anyways,” he added with a grin.
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