‘Beacon of the world’: ex-Uffizi chief vows to save Florence if elected mayor

The former director of the Uffizi gallery in Florence has promised a crackdown on crime and burger stands in his quest to restore the Tuscan capital to is former status as a cultural “beacon of the world”.

German-born Eike Schmidt, 55, is standing in the city’s mayoral election on a civic list backed by the prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy and its ruling coalition partners, in an unusual collaboration that has raised a few eyebrows in the world of art and politics.

In an interview with the Guardian, Schmidt defined himself as “very much a centrist” who during his eight years at the helm of the Uffizi steered clear of politicking while increasing ticket sales with exhibitions that tackled bold themes such as violence against women.

But he said he had felt compelled to throw his hat into the ring “for a city that I love” after being encouraged to run for mayor by Florentines, who he said stopped him in the street to vent their frustrations over issues such as rising crime, a shortage of affordable housing, graffiti, the perennial problem of overtourism – and fast-food stands.

Pledging to take action against the stands and mini-markets that have proliferated in the centre of Florence, Schmidt, who became an Italian citizen last year, said mass tourism was fuelling a “total deregulation” of the city’s food sector.

“In terms of tourism what we’ve seen is a lowering of the standards,” he said. “We have had dozens and dozens of restaurant licences being converted into burger stands, so people just sell hamburgers and French fries from shop windows.

“There are no tables, toilets, waste bins … people end up sitting down on any steps they find, on monuments or outside the homes of citizens … and throwing greasy papers on the street. It’s a hygienic issue and this total deregulation of the food service sector really needs to stop.”

Florence is one of Italy’s most-visited cities and while there is no silver-bullet solution to overtourism, Schmidt said he would adopt a strategy to spread visitors to undervisited areas of the city and the Tuscany region.

“We really shouldn’t have this concentration of all the tourists just in the centre,” he said. “Even considering a probable growth in numbers, the city should be able to master it, while also spreading the benefits of tourism to other areas.”

He hopes to revive Florence’s status as a “beacon” of art and culture by encouraging home-grown production, be it opera, theatre or exhibits. “We have seen, especially over the past decade, productions that have been purchased from elsewhere in the world, while hardly any have been exported.”

Schmidt’s candidacy in Florence, a leftwing stronghold for decades, spells a genuine challenge for Italy’s opposition, which in recent years has lost ground to the rightwing coalition in several key towns and cities in the wider Tuscany region. A poll in March put Schmidt eights points behind Sara Funaro, the centre-left’s mayoral candidate, which analysts said in Florentine terms was highly unusual.

“Based on the sentiment on the streets and based on surveys, which tell us that this is the first time in many, many decades that any party other than the left has a chance to win, I am actually very confident about the possibility of winning,” Schmidt said.

“Florence has really the best set of cards that one could imagine, we just have to play them.”

While at the Uffizi, Schmidt built a reputation for modernisation, efficiency and order while maintaining a sharp eye for beauty.

He first met Meloni after giving her a tour of the gallery a few years ago, and said he had been “positively impressed” by her leadership since she became prime minister. “I think she is a very strong and pragmatic leader, and many people would not have expected that from her before,” Schmidt said.

Meloni’s government has provoked controversy among many in Italy’s cultural sector for clearing out the old, often foreign leadership of some of the country’s most prestigious museums and cultural organisations and pushing for them to be replaced by Italians.

Critics have also accused her administration of wanting to bend the state broadcaster, Rai, to its will, with opposition parties calling last week for the European Commission to investigate allegations it is trying to turn its news channel into a “megaphone” for the ruling parties before the European elections.

Echoing favoured rightwing themes, Schmidt said one of his chief priorities would be tackling crime, something he claimed the left had “closed its eyes to”.

“Florence has big issues in terms of security – crime rates are rising across all 14 districts of the city,” he added. “We see it especially more in the periphery, where crime rates have been consistently rising.”

The Guardian