Given that Italy’s is generally considered the world’s richest cultural heritage, maintenance of its historic monuments and museum, with exhibits dating from the early Neolithic era through today’s avantgarde, is costly. But with international tourism virtually at the end for an indefinite period because of Covid-19, income to maintain the precious heritage is dangerously reduced.
The Roman Colosseum, for one example, attracts some 7.6 million visitors a year. Ticket sells for $17, meaning that solely during the lockdown months from March through April, income lost for maintenance and staff wages was well over one million dollars. Air traffic to Rome has shut down one airport altogether, Ciampino, plus the important Terminal One at Leonardo Da Vinci airport.
Given this situation, the nation’s top cultural associations have sent the government an angry open letter demanding better thinking and the reorganization of the cultural heritage, which is, yes, a source of income, but not only that, they say. Among the prestigious co-signers: the Association Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, Italia Nostra, Topografia Antica, Consulta Universitaria per la Storia dell’Arte, Emergenza Cultura.
The authorities, they say, must “seize the occasion to reorganize the system” so as to correct the “accumulated distortions of past decades,” when the focus has been upon “major projects” and “great attractions.” Future priorities should be analyzed with greater care. And instead of the simplistic dumping of funds (at any rate insufficient) onto “culture,” they call for protection of both the entire heritage and those individuals responsible for its care. So far as is known, the letter has received no reply.
Meantime Covid-19 shut down what was probably Italy’s most important exhibition of 2020, “Raphael 1520 – 1483,” celebrating the 500th anniversary of his death with 204 works on view at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. With 70,000 tickets pre-sold, the exhibition opened March 2 but closed one week afterward. Since then Scuderie lights have remained darkened to protect the drawings and paintings. The future too is dark: to postpone the closing date, scheduled for June 2, is complicated because of the many works on loan from foreign museums.
The Uffizi Galleries in Florence also organized an ambitious exhibition honoring the death of Raphael. “The exhibition is epochal, central to Italy and to art history, and difficult to repeat,” in the words of Uffizi director Eike Schmidt. But it was closed March 8, just three days after its inauguration. Slated to reopen May 18, it will not have the previous income deriving from international tourism. Schmidt remains hopeful: “Without international tourism this year, we shall have a public of local Florentines and Italians from all regions. During this period we plan to improve our informatics system so as to reduce long lines of people waiting to get in, and we shall arrange better protection for the most important pieces.”
Other temporary exhibitions, which reflect long and complex preparations, are postponed if not canceled. At the Palazzo Reale in Milan “The Europe of Light,” the first exhibition in Italy devoted to the great Baroque artist Georges De La Tour, was closed in February and will reopen May 18. Meanwhile, however, two months of ticket sales were lost. To postpone its scheduled closing date of June 7 is difficult because the 52 loans from foreign as well as Italian museums are currently being renegotiated.
If these are the showpieces, less prominent museums suffer even more. Giving up hope of income from foreign visitors, Flavio Enei, director of the Museum of Ancient Navigation at the historic Santa Severa Castle on the coastline north of Rome, said, “The Italian public must rediscover their own territory. We must make an effort for the systematic promotion of Italy for the Italians, get them to know their small nearby museums.”
At the town of Forli in Emilia-Romagna the exhibition “Ulysses, Art, and Myth,” with 200 paintings by Rubens, Beccafumi, De Chirico, Lorrain, and Fussli, was shuttered; and though it may reopen in late May, it too will suffer serious financial losses. And so does “Migrating Objects,” at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, where 35 works of indigenous art from Oceanic Africa and the Americas were shuttered and slated to remain open only through June 14.
Famous Italian opera houses and theaters are closed indefinitely. La Scala in Milan has been shuttered since February 25, and its employees left in difficulty. Francesco Lattuada, 47, who has played the viola in the La Scala orchestra for 20 years, is now “without a future on the horizon,” he said. He is presently playing on Facebook and in the courtyard of his home. In Rome, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei directed and designed costumes and sets for a production of “Turandot” at the Opera House to open March 25, but that is postponed for perhaps a year.
One bit of good news: after a half-century locked in the basement of a family palazzo, the stunning collection of antiquities from the 15th to the 19th centuries belonging to the Torlonia family in Rome was finally to be opened to the public at the Palazzo Caffarelli, part of the Capitoline Museums, April 4. That inauguration was postponed, but the museum is slated to reopen, and the exhibition of 96 marble statues, long desired by lovers of Italian art, is slated to remain open through January 10, 2021, before becoming part first of a traveling exhibition and then of a new Torlonia Museum. The collection of altogether 620 pieces was first created by Prince Alessandro Torlonia in 1875.
Judith Harris was born in Lakewood, Ohio, and began selling articles to the “Cleveland Press” of Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen. A graduate of Northwestern University she is today a regular contributor to “ARTnews” of New York and to “Current World Archaeology” of London. She lives in Rome, Italy, with her partner David Willey. www.judith-harris.com