Eike Schmidt shudders when he remembers how bad the crowds were in Florence before the pandemic. “To cross over the Ponte Vecchio, which was something I had to do regularly, you couldn’t do it in less than five to 10 minutes, just because there were so many people,” says the director of the Uffizi Galleries.

“There were people eating on the street, leaving their garbage; the cleaners couldn’t empty the bins fast enough,” says the German, who has been in the post since 2015. “So we reached the limit — and we even stepped a little bit beyond that in 2019. We definitely don’t want to go back.”

Schmidt’s plan to spare Florence — and to provide a model for other great honeypot cities — is the Uffizi Diffusi project, the name inspired by Italy’s alberghi diffusi, hotels in which the rooms are scattered among various houses, typically in a historic rural village. It will see artworks from the museum’s vast collection scattered to smaller venues around Tuscany, turning the region into one giant gallery.

Kicking off this summer with a handful of locations, the project is due to expand to as many as 100 venues by 2024, the intention being to draw tourists away from Florence and to the numerous overlooked towns and cities elsewhere in the region.

Those involved have their work cut out. In 2019, almost 4.9m visitors stayed in Florence’s hotels; nearly half of those visited the Uffizi. Some booked tickets months in advance; others queued for hours for their chance to glimpse showstoppers such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Da Vinci’s The Annunciation and Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

Then the pandemic hit, the museums closed — and there was time to think. Although Schmidt had tested the concept with previous Uffizi-led exhibitions in small Tuscan towns, lockdown was the catalyst for something bigger.

“The pandemic exacerbated the economic situation so people were open to thinking along new lines,” he says. “People also remember the situation before the pandemic — and for that reason they’re motivated to think outside the box.”

Alongside regional president Eugenio Giani and a team of experts, Schmidt has spent much of lockdown driving around Tuscany, scoping out sites. There are few internationally known names on the resulting list of destinations, rather his vision is to regenerate the places that need it most. And many of the venues themselves require renovation, to be funded by local and regional authorities as part of the scheme.

Montelupo Fiorentino, on the Arno 20km west of Florence, will be the hub of the operation — something Schmidt calls a “game-changer” for the town. The building selected is the riverside Villa L’Ambrogiana, one of the region’s numerous Medici villas, built for the family that dominated Tuscany from the 15th to the early 18th centuries. A vast pseudo-castle, its has original frescoes and renaissance gardens but until four years ago was being used as a psychiatric hospital; the stables were a high-security prison. Restoration will take time, but Schmidt audibly brightens as he talks about the “truly amazing” potential.

“We have hundreds of works in storage that originally belonged to the villa, so we’ll bring them back to their original location,” he says. “And the garden will be ideal for families.” Trumpeting social media as the way to lure young people towards culture, he’s already earmarked the 16th-century grotto as an Instagram spot. An existing bike trail will be extended to link the site to other Medici villas and venues-to-be. Bus routes will be changed to make a car-free Uffizi Diffusi tour possible.

Bringing new life to old buildings is one of the project’s cornerstones, alongside regenerating areas that have seen better days. Take Montecatini Terme, a town whose thermal waters made it the height of fashion when its graceful Art Nouveau buildings went up, but which has plummeted from favour in recent decades.

“There’s already an infrastructure — thousands of hotel beds which haven’t been used for a while,” says Schmidt. “Once we have a venue, I think there’ll be a very strong impulse for local investors to restore them and create a new sort of tourism that combines the beauty of the landscape, the spa and the art.”

In Livorno, they plan to tackle urban decay by demolishing a flyover and renovating another turn-of-the-century spa complex lying derelict since the 1960s. “It’ll recreate the original piazza between the spa and the train station — old photos really show how beautiful that was,” he says.

Each venue will get appropriate art — Schmidt wants the buildings to “tell stories”. The spas will host contemporary works and he lets slip that the Medici villa at Careggi, where Lorenzo de’ Medici died, will get some Botticellis.

The idea is to “narrate the history of Tuscan art . . . to learn chapter by chapter”, partly by taking works back to their roots. Last year, he took a landscape by Leonardo to Vinci, to show the work against its own backdrop. In July, he’ll move a newly restored fresco of Dante by Andrea del Castagno to Castagno d’Andrea, the forest-wrapped, mountainous village birthplace of the 15th-century artist.

Schmidt hopes being part of the project will give a boost to Castagno — prime hiking territory but little known to foreigners. His vision is for tourists to stay near the smaller venues, taking daytrips to Florence. “Then they’ll return to where they’re staying, and they’ll be able to do so much more — sports, hiking, culinary offerings. There’s a great quantity of that already in the countryside; it just needs to be combined with the art.”

The Tuscany of Schmidt, the Uffizi’s first non-Italian director, is not the one that launched a thousand postcards. A native of the Black Forest, he rhapsodises about the ragged Apennines in the north-east of the region — “it feels like home” — as well as the coastline and vine-plaited hills. “It’s extremely diverse and all bound together by its history,” he says, explaining that Cosimo I de’ Medici unified Tuscany in 1569 and built the Uffizi (“Offices”) as the duchy’s HQ, before adding an art collection.

“The territorial connection is really in the Uffizi’s DNA,” he says. “If we open up the landscape around Florence, we can grow in a sustainable way.” He hopes the project might be a model for other over-touristed areas, flagging Lombardy and Puglia as regions where he thinks it would work well.

The pandemic might help: bookings for this year in the Italian countryside are up, while cities are struggling. Slow, uncrowded travel is on our minds. “It would have been far harder if we’d tried to do it two years ago,” he says. But he feels an urgency. “Once this is all over, the interest and pressure [on Florence] will be even greater. We have to prepare for that now — we can’t waste time.”

Schmidt thinks visitor numbers will be back to pre-pandemic levels in 2024 but by then, all being well, he should have 100 venues, including strategic locations near cruise terminals and airports.

The initial line-up of venues will be announced next month — rumour has it that a venue on the island of Elba will be among the first to open, to mark the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death on May 5. Schmidt also mentions Poppi, where a medieval castle crowns a chocolate-box hilltop village, and a former monastery in Montespertoli, between Florence and San Gimignano.

In every place, he says, the “artistic narration” is key. Works will be returned to their place of origin; venues will be linked with the art inside them. And while there may not be a Michelangelo in every hilltop town, he says these aren’t third-rate paintings. “We just don’t have the space to show them in the gallery. To share them with other towns, and through that, with the world, is the right thing to do.

“Wine shouldn’t stay in the cellar; it needs to be drunk, and art was made to be seen.”

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