A few days before the official post-Covid-19 reopening of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence on June 2nd, a comment made by its Director, Eike Schmidt, at the ceremony held in the Palazzo Pitti sent shock waves through Italy’s museum community.
“I believe the time has come,” he said, “for state museums to perform an act of courage and return paintings to the churches for which they were originally created… Perhaps the most important example is in the Uffizi: the Rucellai Altarpiece by Duccio di Buoninsegna, which in 1948 was removed from the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. Since the 1950s it’s been on display here with works by Giotto and Cimabue, but has never officially become property of the Museum.”
“As far as Florence is concerned,” continued Schmidt, “I’m not talking about works of art purchased over the centuries by the Medici and the Hapsburg-Lorraine Grand Dukes of Tuscany, often for conspicuous sums, and added to their vast ever-growing collections, but rather about altarpieces originally created for specific churches which have ended up in museum storages or which were put in museums temporarily, but have remained there for years without ever officially changing ownership.”
Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-60-c.1318-9) is considered one of the greatest Italian painters of the Middle Ages. He received the commission for the altarpiece of the enthroned Madonna and Child flanked by six angels on April 15, 1285, from the Laudesi, a lay confraternity devoted to the Virgin. It, the largest (4.5 meters by 2.9 meters) extant 13th-century painting panel, was to decorate the confraternity’s chapel in the then newly built Dominican church, Santa Maria Novella. In 1591 the painting was moved to the adjacent much larger Rucellai chapel, hence the origin of its present name.
“The altarpiece’s return home,” said Schmidt, “would not only be a due act of historical justice, but also a beautiful way to celebrate, in 2021, the 800th anniversary of the Dominican order’s investiture in Santa Maria Novella. In short, a commitment to the evermore fruitful dialog, both culturally and spiritually, between Church and State.”
“It’s obvious,” added Schmidt, “that in order to return to their original homes, these artworks’ safety from theft and vandalism, and with proper climate control, has to be guaranteed first. However, once re-situated, these works would regain their original spiritual significance….”
Some clerics and art historians, in particular Giuseppe Bertori, Cardinal of Florence since 2012, and polemical critic Vittorio Sgarbi, applauded Schmidt’s proposal. Sgarbi even pinpointed Titian’s “Annunciation” and Caravaggio’s “Flagellation”, both in Naples’ Capodimonte Museum, saying they should return to the Church of San Domenico also in Naples. Instead, Antonio Paolucci, the former Minister of Culture and former Director of the Vatican Museums, suggested that such drastic action would deprive museums of their important didactic role and thus all transfers should be decided on a one-to-one basis.
Although Schmidt’s proposal was not a new one, for the esteemed art historian Giorgio Bonsanti had already proposed it during the 1990s, many of Schmidt’s colleagues reacted indignantly. Marco Pierini, Director of the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, pointed out that “since churches are the favorite victims of thieves, it would be no joke to protect important works of art even during opening hours. A second problem would be acclimatization, for works of art long accustomed to a controlled museum climate would have to adapt to an often humid location and almost certainly suffer damage. A third problem would be the churches’ hours, much more restricted than museums’.”
The harshest criticism came from the prominent Florentine art historian Tomaso Montanari, who accused Schmidt of “conflict of interest”. For in October 2019 Matteo Salvini, still Minister of the Interior at the time, appointed Schmidt President of the Ministry’s FEC, Fondo Edifici di Culto, the Italian Government’s authority in charge of all church buildings, their contents, and other possessions such as gardens. “So, Dr. Schmidt,” he asked, “FEC or the Uffizi?”
Just as we had done with Schmidt, on May 29th my fellow journalists and I at Stampa Estera interviewed on Facebook Monsignor Timothy Verdon, Hoboken, New Jersey-born, but a resident of Florence for more than 50 years. He’s an ultra-distinguished art historian (Yale Ph.D. and Fellow at I Tatti, Harvard’s Center for Italian Renaissance Studies), prolific author on sacred art both in English and Italian, professor at Stanford University’s Program in Florence, a contributor to the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano’s cultural page, Director of the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Heritage and of Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the first museum to reopen in Italy after lockdown: on May 22.
Monsignor Verdon responded to Schmidt’s provocative declaration and more: “I believe,” said Verdon in impeccable Italian, “that Schmidt’s statement was a very positive provocation because the correct interpretation of works of art is always facilitated and enhanced by their appropriate context or location…Schmidt’s is a ‘revolutionary’–perhaps outspoken and unpopular– proposal because it’s exactly the opposite of museum policy during the last centuries. I agree with Schmidt but only if the chosen work-of-art’s subject is 100% ‘religious’. We all know that Schmidt’s proposal, if ingenious, would be almost impossible to achieve. Even if the Italian Government agreed, it would have to guarantee to the Church the artworks’ safety from theft, their correct acclimatization, lighting, and installation. Such a decision implies not only the desire for historical justice…, but the financial responsibility to look after their safety and conservation.”
Verdon’s love of art was inspired as a boy, by Caravaggio’s Four Musicians, painted in Rome, and especially by Carpaccio’s Meditation on the Passion, both in the Metropolitan Museum. Verdon went on explain why the Opera del Duomo had decided to open via advance booking its museum (on the former site of Michelangelo’s workshop), the cathedral, and the baptistery, before other monuments in Florence. “We sensed,” he said,” that people, scared and depressed after two months in isolation, needed to rediscover beauty and a strong spiritual significance. Museums, monuments and churches offer this possibility. Our inclination was right-on. In spite of having to sanitize their hands at the entrance, to wear a mask and gloves plus our scoop, a free-of-charge EGOpro Social Distancing Light on a necklace to ensure at least two meters between visitors, the public’s reaction was very encouraging; in only one week after reopening we had over 25,000 bookings. Of course, it’s a drop in the bucket of Opera’s usual 2,250,000 visitors annually, 750,000 of who visited our museum.”
Speaking of visiting museums, although Verdon’s prediction for at least another year is NOT optimistic, “on the positive side,” he continued, “we’ve come to understand the need to find yet another way to ‘circulate’ our cultural heritage, our works of art. We can no longer sustain ‘hit-and-run’ tourism. Those of us responsible for tourism will have to change the way people visit museums. It’s a challenge, but it’s the right moment to sustain another Schmidt proposal: ‘Slow Museum’. In the short term, Florence will suffer a deep economic recession in the museum, hotel, restaurant, and retail sectors. However, in the long run, the digitization of our collections during lockdown has opened the doors of our museums to the world and sparked people’s desire to visit them in person having been informed about their contents.”