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The Uffizi Gallery in Florence has become Italy’s most visited cultural site for the first time after years of innovation under the direction of German-born director Eike Schmidt during which it even branched out into the contemporary art.

Once a bastion of slowly evolving tradition, it was announced on Monday that the institution famed for its Renaissance masterpieces overtook the Colosseum in Rome, the ruins of Pompeii, the Vatican Museums last year and other well-known sites in terms of visitor numbers, attracting 1.7 million visitors last year, according to Il Giornale dell’Arte. The Colosseum was second with about 90,000 fewer visitors.

Under Schmidt’s leadership, the Uffizi changed the way it sells and schedules admission tickets, added more modern pieces to its collection, celebrated female artists, exhibited works from its permanent collection in museums regional Tuscans, upped their game on social media, opened previously closed-up parts of its sprawling complex and weighed in on contemporary social topics.

“We’re on the rise again,” Schmidt, an art historian who has held the post since 2015, said in a TV interview on Monday. “It’s a good sign for the future.”

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence named the most visited cultural site in Italy for the first time |  Italy
Eike Schmidt at the museum during a coronavirus shutdown in 2020. Photography: Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images

The Uffizi can trace its roots back to the 16th century, beginning with the family collection of the Florentine political and banking dynasty, the House of Medici. As such, its collection includes many of the best-known works of Renaissance maestros, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Raphael.

Under Schmidt, the Uffizi worked to broaden its reach to include more female artists and those from underrepresented social, cultural, and racial groups. In December, for example, the director unveiled a special exhibition aimed at highlighting the violence inflicted on women by male attackers.

Its most visited show last year, attracting more than 435,000 visitors, focused on “poor art” protagonist Giuseppe Penone, who was part of Schmidt’s efforts to broaden the appeal of the Uffizi.

Schmidt said a big challenge was the Uffizi’s reputation as one of the world’s leading classical museums and visitor expectations that a ticket to was a unique way to see some of the Renaissance’s greatest hits, including The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, Annunciation by Leonardo and Andrea del Verrocchio, Medusa by Caravaggio and Doni Tondo by Michelangelo.

By contrast, Schmidt had some art critics scratching their heads a year ago when the Uffizi acquired a work by contemporary British street artist Endless, who had never had a major exhibition in a Museum. The director of the Uffizi called Endless’s work “an original fusion between punk and pop”. According to Italian media, the museum continues to seek out modern and contemporary pieces for its collection.

“There was a time when the exhibition of contemporary art was seen as an intrusion into the hallowed halls of the Uffizi,” Schmidt said. “But I want to show works that are relevant regardless of the historical period.”

The Uffizi has a long way to go to catch some of its global peers. Although it ranks first in Italy, it is only 20th globally, a list topped by the Louvre in Paris, which attracted 2.8 million visitors last year.

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