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Eike Schmidt: Could this German be Florence's next mayor?

June 20, 2024

Having woken the world-famous Uffizi gallery from its slumber, Eike Schmidt now aims to become the mayor of his adopted city of Florence.

a man wearing a purple tie looks askew from in front of a gold framed painting
The former director of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Eike Schmidt could soon be mayor of his adopted cityImage: Mauro Scrobogna/Zuma/picture alliance

The tall 56-year-old and former chief of Florence's revered Uffizi gallery could soon be calling the shots at City Hall.

In the first round of the Italian mayoral elections, challenger Schmidt, supported by the right-wing governing coalition led by prime minister Giorgia Meloni, won just under 33% of the vote.

He finished in second place — some 10% behind the center-left candidate, Sara Funaro. Now Schmidt will unexpectedly contest the mayoral run-off on June 23 and 24.

The art historian from Freiburg im Breisgau — who is half Italian and has an Italian passport — is a world-renowned museum manager. It all began when, as a child, he was sketching Gothic sculptures and fell in love with the beauty of bygone eras.

Having worked in museums in the US and at Sotheby's auction house in London, he obtained his doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 2009, before becoming director of the Department of Sculpture, Decorative Arts and Textiles at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In 2015, he became the first foreign director of the Uffizi

Painting by Alessandro Botticelli title 'The Birth of Venus.'
The Uffizi houses Renaissance masterworks like 'The Birth of Venus' (1485) by Alessandro Botticelli Image: Paolo Gallo/Zoonar/picture alliance

Can a museum director succeed as mayor?

But what qualifies a German arts aficionado for the office of mayor of a major Italian city?

Many have pondered this question since Schmidt threw his hat into the ring a few weeks before the election as an independent candidate, yet supported by the right-wing Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) party of prime minister Giorgia Meloni.

"The term of office in the museum ended automatically after two mandates," Schmidt recently told the German magazine, Der Spiegel. "When this became known, Florentines stopped me on the street in the summer and said: 'Why don't you stay here and stand for election as mayor?'"

That was before Schmidt moved to the Capodimonte National Museum in Naples at the start of the year.

A women with blonde hair and a white jacket foregrounds a G7 Italy flag
Eike Schmidt is running for mayor with the backing of right wing populist prime minister, Giorgia MeloniImage: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo/picture alliance

The native German feels at home working in Italy.

"I like the Italians' ability to react flexibly to the unexpected," said Schmidt. "You can experience that in traffic. Or when you're preparing an exhibition. In Germany or the USA, you can't change anything two months before the opening. In Italy, we hang pictures the evening before if it makes things better."

Revitalizing the Uffizi

It was precisely in this spirit that Eike Schmidt set about reinvigorating the famed Uffizi gallery. He inspired a greater internet presence, including posting photos of prominent guests on social media. A new work of art appeared on Instagram daily.

He soon put an end to the notorious queues of visitors in front of the Uffizi Gallery by introducing annual tickets, discounts during off-peak times, and online bookings.

"Uffizi Diffusi": Masterpieces on Tour

Schmidt also landed the fashion label Gucci as a sponsor as he crafted a more modern image. This helped visitor numbers to skyrocket, while earning the director admiration in the museum world.

Only he knows whether he was driven by a desire for change or by hard-nosed career calculations: Schmidt's near-move to the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna at the end of 2019 raised eyebrows.

Yet his cancellation at short notice, just one month before taking up his post in Vienna caused much consternation in Austria. 

Is the former Uffizi director flirting with the far right?

Many have questioned Schmidt's support from the Italian far right, with his mayoral run also supported by the right-wing populist Lega party. 

However, as he explained to Der Spiegel, what "always sounds like the far-right" in Germany is regarded as the "center-right" in Italy. He also called himself "very much a centrist" in an interview with The Guardian.

A man wearing a suit and tie foregrounds a large painting
He calls himself a centrist, but how much will Schmidt be influenced by his far-right backers?Image: Luca Bruno/AP/dpa/picture alliance

He is also a fan of his other backer, Giorgia Meloni, who started her political career in a neo-fascist youth organization. In line with her nationalist politics, Meloni railed against immigrants and the European Union during her successful election campaign.

Schmidt says he has been "positively impressed" with Meloni's time as prime minister since 2022. "I think she is a very strong and pragmatic leader, and many people would not have expected that from her before," he told The Guardian.

Should Schmidt move into the Palazzo Veccio, the former seat of government of the Republic of Florence, after winning the run-off election, the city may see some things return to the way they used to be — the candidate promises to tackle overtourism in the city and stop hamburger stands replacing Italian restaurants. 

The waiters in the surrounding cafes would likely be welcoming an old acquaintance, since the historic palace is in the direct vicinity of the Uffizi gallery. 

This article was originally written in German. 

Italy: Art against the far-right