CASTAGNO Dâ€™ANDREA, Italy â€” This tiny hamlet with a population of around 300, located 40 winding miles northeast of Florence, has never been on Italyâ€™s must-see A-list. Its main claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of the Renaissance painter Andrea del Castagno, who left as a child, most likely before he was old enough to doodle on the local walls. (If he did, there are no remnants of his scrawls.)
But this summer, cultural tourism here sharply increased after the Uffizi Gallery lent the village a recently restored del Castagno fresco depicting the poet Dante Alighieri. The loan coincides with national celebrations for the 700th anniversary of Danteâ€™s death, as well as the 600th anniversary of the artistâ€™s birth.
The frescoâ€™s arrival was one of the first actions in a program called â€œUffizi Diffusi,â€ or â€œScattered Uffizi,â€ an initiative concocted by the galleryâ€™s director, Eike Schmidt. Uffizi Diffusi aims to build stronger ties between the famous Florentine museum and towns scattered throughout the surrounding Tuscany region by lending them artworks usually kept in storage.
â€œAs with all big museums, what we have on view is only a small partâ€ of the collection, Schmidt said in a telephone interview. But few other museums can claim to have so many masterpieces that they can keep a Botticelli locked away from view. (The Uffizi can.)
Instead of following in the footsteps of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which opened a branch in Dundee, Scotland, or the Louvre, which opened an outpost in Lens, France, Schmidt said that he wanted to go in â€œa slightly different direction and really activate the entire region,â€ using the Uffizi brand as a calling card.
â€œYou couldnâ€™t do that in all parts of the world,â€ Schmidt said. â€œBut I think, in Tuscany, itâ€™s a perfect opportunity,â€ he added, because of the collectionâ€™s connection to the region. To bolster visibility, the Uffizi is using its popular social media accounts to plug the venues participating in the initiative.
The del Castagno fresco is one of the earliest surviving portraits of Dante, and exhibiting it in Castagno dâ€™Andrea was â€œa dream come trueâ€ for Emanuele Piani, the mayor of San Godenzo, a nearby town that includes the hamlet in its jurisdiction.
The fresco has been installed in the first room of what local officials have called a â€œvirtual museumâ€ of del Castagnoâ€™s works, consisting mostly of photographs of the artistâ€™s greatest hits, reproduced on a shrunken scale. The museum is inside the visitorsâ€™ center of the areaâ€™s national park, whose ancient beech forests were added in 2017 to UNESCOâ€™s World Heritage List.
â€œTourism to the area is usually linked to the national park,â€ mostly drawing trekkers and cyclists, Piani said. The loan of the fresco â€œis a vehicle for other kinds of tourists to get to know our territory,â€ he added.
That works with Schmidtâ€™s view of the initiative. â€œWeâ€™re really hoping to promote a new form of tourism which encompasses both the cultural and the natural landscape aspect,â€ he said.
About 30 miles south of Castagno dâ€™Andrea, a fairy-tale castle towers over the town of Poppi and has long drawn tourists to this part of Tuscany, a valley nestled in the Apennines known as the Casentino. Begun in the 13th century, the castle â€œhas always been a center of power, so it has always been well preserved,â€ said Poppiâ€™s mayor, Carlo Toni.
When Toni heard about the Uffizi initiative, he wrote to Schmidt offering the castle â€” where Nazi troops had hidden some works looted from the gallery during World War II, like Botticelliâ€™s â€œThe Birth of Venusâ€ and Michelangeloâ€™s â€œDoni Tondoâ€ â€” as a venue.
The result is the exhibition called, â€œIn the Sign of Dante, the Casentino in the Divine Comedy,â€ which runs through Nov. 30. Six of the seven works on display â€” including four drawings by the 16th-century artist Federico Zuccari â€” are from the Uffizi.
â€œThe castle attracts visitors on its own,â€ said Toni, â€œbut if there is value added, more people will come.â€
The Uffiziâ€™s curators and scholarly staff work with local curators to help select the works on loan. â€œYou need to present a historically interesting and correct narrative,â€ Schmidt said. â€œWe donâ€™t just put the name of the town into the database and say the painting was there, so letâ€™s bring it there.â€
This year, other loans were given to an exhibition in Portoferraio, on the island of Elba, commemorating 200 years since the death of Napoleon, and to the towns of Prato, Pescia, Montespertoli and Anghiari.
When Schmidt announced the project last year, he had â€œtons of letters and phone callsâ€ from local officials and the directors of smaller museums, he said. A working group from the Uffizi began touring the towns â€œto look at what we can do, and whether the locations would be appropriate.â€
So far, about 60 towns have asked to participate, and about two dozen projects are in the pipeline for 2022 and 2023. â€œEvery year,â€ Schmidt said, â€œthe idea is to grow it a little more.â€
Loans will take different forms: Some will be as part of temporary exhibitions, others for longer periods of time. Longer arrangements would be favored â€œwhen works of art can actually return to their original location,â€ Schmidt said.
The Tuscany regional government is working on a law to help finance major projects under the Uffizi Diffusi umbrella, like the restoration of the Villa Ambrogiana in Montelupo Fiorentino, near Florence. As part of that initiative, some of the hundreds of paintings from the villa that the Uffizi has in storage are set to return there.
â€œThis year, because it was very, very important to me to start right away, we used the most tested and traditional means,â€ Schmidt said.
But now, the skyâ€™s the limit. This month, Schmidt gave Elon Musk and his family a private tour of the Uffizi and told Musk, the SpaceX founder, that he would happily consider an Uffizi Diffusi project, should a space station ever open up on Mars.
â€œIf we look long term, I think works of art will be traveling to other planets,â€ Schmidt said. â€œI think that if human kind will be settling on another planet, I think that art will be a very essential part of it, and that works of art will need to be there.â€