Raphael’s “Alba Madonna” is back in Italy for the first time since the 17th century. Photo for The Washington Post by Ginevra Sammartino

ROME — The once-in-a-lifetime exhibit took three years to come together. Organizers arranged for the careful transport of Raphael masterpieces loaned from London, Washington, Florence, Madrid. The insurance bill was $4.4 billion.

One 1510 painting, “Alba Madonna,” had belonged over the centuries to Spanish nobility, the emperor of Russia, and American banker Andrew Mellon, who acquired it in a secret Soviet art sell-off.

At last, it was back in Italy for the first time since the 17th century.

Just in time for the pandemic.

The exhibit marking the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death coincided with Italy’s coronavirus lockdown and was halted in early March after all of four days.

“It was as if the works were in a bank vault,” said Marzia Faietta, one of the collection’s two curators.

Even as Italy now moves to reopen its famed cultural sites, including the Raphael exhibit, the lasting restrictions of the pandemic have dramatically changed how widely they can be seen.

There has perhaps never been a better, or harder, time to experience Italy’s beauty and treasure.

Monuments such as the Colosseum require temperature checks and maintain tight entrance quotas. Wonders like the Sistine Chapel allow dinner-party-sized gatherings but not the usual arena-sized crowds. And exhibits intended as international events – like the one devoted to Raphael – have had to scale cut back their daily capacity, to roughly one-third of what was initially imagined, to adhere to social distancing rules.

Italy plans to lift its internal travel restrictions and open its borders to European tourists on Wednesday. But tourism is expected to remain low through the summer, leaving cultural sites to lucky Italians with masks and reserved tickets.

“This exhibit could have been a blockbuster – seen by thousands and thousands of people,” said Mario De Simoni, president of the government venue in Rome that is hosting the exhibit. De Simoni in 2010 helped put together a 110-day Caravaggio exhibit seen by 600,000 people. The Raphael exhibit, lasting 90 days, will likely be capped around 80,000 – groups of six entering every five minutes.

There is one upside, De Simoni said.

“Those who do see it will experience it under ideal conditions,” he said.

A worker prepares the exhibition space for its reopening at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome on June 1. Photo for The Washington Post by Ginevra Sammartino

Speaking on Monday near a meticulous replica of Raphael’s tomb, one day before the event reopened to the public, De Simoni was still searching for ways to expand access to even a few more people.

“If I have enough requests, I’ll keep the (exhibit) open until 2 or 3 a.m.,” Di Simoni said. “We could do that.”

The exhibition – at the Scuderie del Quirinale, a onetime carriage house that is an annex of the country’s presidential palace – looks much as it did in March. But now red and white floor stickers show a mandatory footpath and provide reminders of the distance people need to keep. The cafeteria is closed but the bookstore is open.

Given the cap on attendance, De Simoni noted that the experience for exhibit goers wouldn’t feel so different from the private tour he provided two Washington Post reporters and a photographer.

As De Simoni walked from one room to the next, he gave the broad strokes of the life of Raphael – a genius of the High Renaissance who died at 37 – while stopping at some of his favorite pieces in wonderment.

“This is maybe the most beautiful portrait of the Renaissance,” he said at one painting, of Baldassare Castiglione.

“Sublime,” he said at another, “Alba Madonna.” “There is no mistake here.”

He noted that Raphael, during his decade in Rome, had worked under two popes, Julius II and Leo X. Raphael painted portraits of both of them. They’re on display on separate floors.

In another room, De Simoni touched on something else: the logistics of bringing the paintings together.

“From Bologna,” he said, pointing at the first. “From Naples. From Florence. From Madrid, from Madrid.”

Originally, the paintings and drawings were supposed to be returned to museums across the world in June, when the exhibition was scheduled to end. But during the lockdown, organizers realized their only chance to relaunch the exhibit was to get on the phone, send emails, rewrite contracts.

The museums, including the National Gallery in Washington, were willing to extend the loans.

The fragile drawings had to be protected from light while the exhibit was closed. Photographed at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome on June 1, 2020.  Photo for The Washington Post by Ginevra Sammartino

The Scuderie del Quirinale then had to figure out a plan to take care of the art for an extended period. While the exhibit was shuttered, police continued to guard the doors. Once a week, an official made the rounds to check on the paintings. The exhibit hall was darkened, other than emergency lights, and drawings – the most sensitive to light damage – were placed under black protective sheets. Normally, after drawings are exposed for several months during an exhibit, they are placed in dark storage for resting time. Keeping them in the dark amid the lockdown was the only way to allow the exhibit to eventually resume.

“Deterioration exists even under the best conditions,” Faietta said. “Our task is that of making it so that the works’ natural life cycle is as slow as possible.”

On Monday, in preparation for the reopening, the black protective sheets were gone. The lights were back on. In the last room of the exhibit, which includes Raphael’s most well-known self-portrait, press official Federica Salzano noted that tiny thermometers that had been measuring microclimates within protective glass cases had been removed.

The following day, the people with tickets would arrive.

“I was telling everyone that we’ll make it, we’ll make it and reopen it,” Faietta said. “I wasn’t sure, but I was hoping we would. Ultimately, all this was like praying.”

The massive Raphael exhibit marking the 500th anniversary of his death closed in March amid Italy’s coronavirus lockdown and reopened this week. Photographed at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome on June 1. Photo for The Washington Post by Ginevra Sammartino


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