Are Museums A Sign of Hope for Italy?

As measures controlling coronavirus eased, museums have reopened their doors to the public in most of Italy.

Italy's reopened museums
After 77 days of closure — the longest since the World War 2 — the Uffizi Gallery reopened on 21 January. Photo: Lidija Pisker.

Red, orange and yellow. These colors have become symbols of the restrictions on life in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among many things it has entailed — from closed shops to restrictions on movement, the tricolor system of epidemiological measures introduced in November has closed cultural institutions across the country. And that has included museums.

Since then, the governmental decree of January 14 made the regions of Tuscany, Campania, Sardinia, Basilicata, Molise and the province of Trento ‘yellow’ zones (areas with medium-low risk of COVID-19 infection). This meant that, in those zones, and only on weekdays, museums and archeological parks could reopen.

The news delighted cultural workers and art enthusiasts. “We want to send a clear message: culture and schools are fundamental pillars of a society and crucial tools for the development and education of the younger generations,” Tommaso Sacchi, Florence’s councillor for culture, said at the time.

The long-awaited reopening of museums was hailed by Florence’s mayor Dario Nardella as a “sign of renaissance and hope for a challenge we all shall win together.”

“Culture is not an ornament,” Nardella said. “It is something settled, innate, deeply inherent in man. It is precisely from culture that we must begin a new life after the pandemic.”

However, since then, things have changed again. Tuscany has become ‘orange’, locking the doors of museums until at least the next ordinance. Nardella immediately asked the new government to reconsider. “Italian museums would be able to maintain security. My appeal to [Prime Minister] Draghi is to consider the destiny of museums, small or large, and to show that culture and art sites enjoy the same attention that has been shown for schools.”

Visitors are waiting to enter the Museo Novecento, a popular museum dedicated to Italian art of the 20th century (January 2021). Photo: Lidija Pisker.

Back on January 21, after 77 days of closure — the longest since the World War 2 — the Uffizi Gallery reopened its doors to the public. One of the most outstanding museums in Italy and the world, it preserves masterpieces by geniuses such as Giotto, Botticelli, Raffaello and Caravaggio. It’s no wonder that, during the week after opening, it welcomed approximately 7,300 visitors, despite the wider epidemiological restrictions.

Not understanding why museums were ever closed at all, I personally felt very excited to be able to see some of Florence’s masterpieces. “It’s January, it’s cold and there are no tourists at all,” I thought, “I’ll have the museum all to myself.” But I was wrong.

Apparently, Italians could hardly wait for the museums to reopen. The entrance line in front of the famous museum was of course not quite as long as it is during summer. It was long enough, though, to convince me to pay some extra euros to make an online reservation and return the next day. Luckily for me, Palazzo Vecchio just down the road — where you can see works of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello — was almost empty.

I recently read that between 40 and 70% of the world’s recognized art is located in Italy. This is, of course, an unscientific (and arbitrary) estimate. However, the truth is that Italy is home to some of the world’s most famous artworks. And a large part of that collection has been locked away in museums and archeological parks for much of the last year, far from the eyes of the audience.

Meanwhile, during my visits to museums in Rome last summer, I was impressed with how rigorously epidemiological rules were followed. In fact, museums and galleries were by far the places where I felt most secure.

Palazzo Vecchio museums in Italy
Palazzo Vecchio is one of the most visited museums in Florence. In January 2021, it has been unusually quiet. Photo: Lidija Pisker.

In the time of crisis, people need art more than ever, which is why the opening of museums signaled the beginnings of a return to normalcy. Visiting a few of them in Florence last month gave me a sense of comfort, a hope that life in Italy will eventually go back to what it used to be before 2020. Museums are a haven for people who have been living through isolation for months.

The opening of the museums may be a “sign of hope” for Italy, as Nardella put it. But the government needs to help keep the hope alive.

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