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Renaissance Now: Uffizi’s Eike Schmidt on HKMoA’s Titian Exhibition

Renaissance Now: Uffizi’s Eike Schmidt on HKMoA’s Titian Exhibition

Eike Schmidt, director of Florence’s Uffizi Galleries, discourses on contemporary cross-cultural exchange, fun facts about Titian and the wealthiest painter in the world.

Venice: shimmering meeting point between east and west … which sounds a lot like somewhere else we know. “In a way Hong Kong and Venice are very comparable. Hong Kong was the trade hub for different countries towards the West, and Venice was the trade hub for the Med, and works for the East via Venice,” says Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, on the opening of the Hong Kong Museum of Art’s Titian and the Venetian Renaissance from the Uffizi. It’s the first large-scale exhibition of Titian and the Venetian School of painting in the city, with many of the 50 exhibits never having been displayed in Asia before.

Titian’s Madonna of Mercy (1573)
Titian’s Madonna of Mercy (1573)

“So,” Schmidt adds, “they’re very comparative cities, dominated by trade, and their mindsets are very similar.” Schmidt is the game-changer at the Uffizi who’s been contemporising one of the world’s oldest museums, with a greater emphasis on women artists, the introduction of cooking shows on the institution’s TikTok channel, the use of influencers and an increasing awareness of the power – and reach of social media to grow the museum’s customer base by reaching out to Gen-Z.

Notably, it was a 21st-century information trade with Hong Kong’s Michelle Ong, chairman of the First Initiative Foundation – the charity that supports local educational initiatives to benefit the arts, community welfare and promotion of the city’s unique culture on the world stage – that bolstered Schmidt’s contemporary credentials during the staging of the HKMoA’s Botticelli and His Times – Masterworks from the Uffizi show in 2020, devoted to Sandro Botticelli. “She was a very convincing and energetic collaborator, so we talked about adding something educational to that event. We had the idea of getting a magazine involved, so we shot at the Uffizi with Italian influencer Ciara Ferragni for a special issue of one of the city’s leading magazines. She was behind that, and she has this great communicative power. She also wanted to use the exhibition to foster business between Italy and Hong Kong, so we were very much on the same page. That’s how our collaboration came about,” he says.

Eike Schmidt and Michelle Ong
Eike Schmidt and Michelle Ong

Ong hasn’t been so directly involved with the current show at HKMoA, but the insight gleaned from working with Ong has benefitted Schmidt’s approach. How does he assess the use of influencers or such marketing projects almost four years later? “It depends on the particular occasion,” he says. “You can’t do VIP marketing like in the 1970s. It’s no longer enough that people are famous – you have to pick the right person for the right event for the right institution. As a result, there are a number of people – singers, actors, influencers we’re working with.” Dua Lipa was one of the luminous cultural icons he showed around the Uffizi to much fanfare. However, Schmidt reminds us that what worked three years ago in the fast-changing world of social media and digital marketing may need a degree or two of tweaking in 2023.

“These days, everything’s been heading towards quiet luxury, stealth luxury, and that means you might think about sourcing a Nobel Prize winner to collaborate on an exhibition, or someone unexpected from a different field – of course, probably not showbiz and certainly not politics, and maybe not sport because it’s been done so often.” More likely, he says, is that the Uffizi might court some lateral member of a European aristocratic family, but one that doesn’t have immediate face recognition, thereby causing museum-goers to discover the story.

Titian’s Ecce Homo (1912)
Titian’s Ecce Homo (1912)

And in matters of face recognition, few artists can stand up to Titian – or Tiziano Vecelli. In fact, none. During the 16th century, portraits by Titian were the ultimate status symbol. He was the favoured painter of popes, emperors and princes because of his talent for representing the most intense facets of human sentiment – love, pain, desire, anger, pleasure, power and spirituality – and even down to the finest details, like the indication on a ruff. Titian often hid his signature in paintings in the ruff collars or cuffs of the wearer’s shirt, or even, on a pot of ink on a table.

He thus broke all the accepted rules of painting, placing central figures on the sidelines of his work and vice-versa, and his painting glowed with the “real-life” quality associated with the Mona Lisa’s eyes and smile. Models for Titian’s paintings would arrive on gondolas in Venice at his studio, and he’d paint them without any of the detailed sketching made by his contemporaries, thus embellishing his work with a seeming freshness and sensuality lacking in the work of his peers. It was once remarked of Titian – apocryphal tale or no – that such was his stature, the great Emperor Charles V honoured him by picking up a brush he’d dropped. All of which helped enhance the impact of Venice on art history.

The interactive installation AI Titian
The interactive installation AI Titian

Schmidt likes to stoke Titian’s allure. “Fun fact,” he says. “Did you know that Titian was the best-paid painter in history before Andy Warhol?” I had no idea, but he elaborates. “He was paid much more than even painters in Florence or Venice at the same time. He worked primarily for the Emperor. It was based on talent, but he was also a very good communicator and businessman. If we could recalculate in present-day sterling, I think he’d even outdo Damien Hirst.” All of which would seem to make Hong Kong the ideal market for Titian. And the Uffizi. Especially given that “for 16th-century Venetian paintings we’re probably the biggest resource in the world”, says Schmidt.

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Last year, the Uffizi Galleries and Shanghai’s Bund One Art Museum signed an agreement whereby the two museums would hold a series of exhibitions over five years. It began in September 2022, with the Uffizi Self-Portrait Masterpieces in Shanghai, which then travelled to the National Museum of China in Beijing. Schmidt reveals that from April 2024, Bund One will show a series from the Uffizi Galleries’ 18th-century masterpieces in Shanghai, many of them by female artists. “There were many prominent female artists at that time,” he says. “We have works by more than 40 women artists. The Uffizi holds the largest caucus of works by female artists before the 18th and 19th centuries.”

A view inside HK MoA exhibition
A view inside HK MoA exhibition

On the subject of China, Schmidt notes that one of the Uffizi’s most recent acquisitions, from a private collection is a work showing Pan Yuliang painted by her Italian teacher Umberto Coromaldi, at Academia di Belle Arti di Roma. “She was a very famous artist who was struggling in early 20th-century China, France and Italy, and when she was in Italy in the 1920s, Coromaldi painted her portrait. There was a film [A Soul Haunted by Painting, 1994] made about Pan Yuliang, starring Gong Li as the painter.” She was also portrayed by Michelle Reis in the 2004 TVB drama Painting Soul. 

Go see the Titian and the sensuous Venetian splendour, and marvel at just how influential the work of the former has been. Titian makes you feel like the Renaissance has never stopped. It’s sooo now.

Source: Prestige Online

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