For a decades, if not centuries, Italy was home to the both world’s best art and its worst museums. Dusty, stodgy, impenetrable, uninviting…the art was magnificent, but often the setting was underwhelming, at best.
Over the past decade, however, the Bel Paese has been working hard to up its museum game, shifting from a somewhat apathetic institutional mentality to a more pro-active, almost entrepreneurial one. Many state-run museums and galleries have been renovated and reorganized to make the collections more approachable, offer incentives like kids’ programs to extended hours to attract a larger audience, hold the type of blockbuster temporary exhibitions that have been the bread-and-butter of US museums for half a century, and have brought on younger (often foreign) directors to shake things up a bit.
These welcome changes have meant that despite the crowds and overwhelming scope of many collections, a museum visit in Italy is a much more engaging experience than just a few decades ago, often going beyond the traditional chronological curation to use multimedia, group works by theme, or simply take long-stored works out of the basement. Even if you’ve already visited Italy’s A-list museums, now is a good time to circle back and take another look.
To begin, here is what’s new at the Grand Dame of old-school museums, Florence’s Uffizi Galleries:
Old dog, new tricks
When German Eike Schmidt was named director of the Uffizi Galleries in 2015, his appointment raised eyebrows. The first non-Italian to ever head this world-famous museum, Schmidt immediately went to work to drag the institution into the 21st century.
His goals were to reduce the lines to enter, increase revenue, and improve the overall visitor experience, and he has made many laudable changes over the past three years. He introduced live music and cinema in the evenings, pushed the galleries to open social media accounts and redesign the dated website, and renovated and reorganized a number of major exhibition spaces, beginning with the Botticelli rooms in late 2016.
Schmidt has announced that he will be leaving at the end of 2019, but innovations under his tenure continue to delight and surprise. The two most recent are the Caravaggio Rooms and the Contini Bonacossi Rooms.
The Caravaggio Rooms
In February, the Uffizi unveiled eight new rooms dubbed “the Caravaggio Rooms”, though they are home to around 50 paintings by a number of 17th-century artists, not just the rock star Baroque painter. Hung on dramatic Pompeii-red walls inspired by the deep garnet popular during the Baroque period and used in a number of paintings, the works are illuminated by a mix of theatrical lighting and natural daylight streaming in from newly re-opened lunettes and grouped thematically:
- Between Reality and Magic: paintings by 16th-century artists who led the shift away from the Mannerist ideals of the 1500s.
- Caravaggio and Artemisia: biblical subjects united by the theme of violence, including David and Goliath by Guido Reni and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, one of the most famous paintings in the Uffizi’s permanent collection.
- Caravaggio’s Medusa: the centerpiece of this gallery is Caravaggio’s striking painted shield, now displayed in a new case next to a Roman statue of Minerva, with the Gorgon head in marble playing foil to the two-dimensional depiction.
- Still-lifes: here, Caravaggio’s Bacchus is the highlight, surrounded by still-lifes by Velázquez and others who were inspired by the Caravaggio’s mastery of the genre.
- By Candlelight: perhaps the most interesting room, this gallery is dedicated to scenes illuminated by candlelight. Paintings include the Nativity by Gherardo delle Notti, Bartolomeo Manfredi’s Roman Charity, and Mathias Stamer’s Annunciation.
- European Masters: this room gathers portraits by some of the greatest Continental painters of the 17th century, including Rembrandt, Rubens, and van Dyck.
- Florentine Masters: after the European portraits, you can compare the skill of Florentine contemporaries in this collection of works, including depictions of Galileo Galilei and the Medicis—Cosimo II de’ Medici, Maria Magdalena of Austria, and Ferdinando II
- Florentine Epic: the final room is home to a number of paintings with literary themes.
The Contini Bonacossi Rooms
Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi and his wife Vittoria Galli amassed their collection of paintings, sculpture, majolica, and furnishings in the first half of the 20th century, bequeathing it to the Italian state in 1955. From 1974 to 1998, the collection of 144 objects was house first in Palazzo Pitti and then in a space on Via Lambertesca adjoining the main galleries, both of which locations could only be opened upon appointment due to lack of funding for staff.
The rooms were recently renovated as part of a project spearheaded by Amici degli Uffizi and Friends of the Uffizi Galleries, both run by Americans, and now the collection is open to the public. Most of the rooms in the main galleries of the Uffizi are dedicated to paintings, with the odd statue here and there, whereas the Contini Bonacossi rooms display the collection’s entire mix of paintings, statuary, majolica, and furnishings together, making it distinct from the rest of the museum.
- Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome in the Desert: This 15th-century painting is, along with the Bernini sculpture, perhaps the most important, and has been temporarily displayed in the past as part of other exhibitions in Florence and elsewhere. Now it can be admired as part of the permanent collections.
- Gian Lorenzo Bernini, San Lorenzo: This work dating from 1617 is an early work by the master sculptor depicting Saint Lawrence over the flames, and hints at the artist’s ability to render drama and naturalism that would fully develop over the following decades.
- Sassetta, Pala della Madonna della Neve: This polyptich once decorated the Duomo of Siena, but when 15th-century Gothic went out of style, it was moved to storage then sold to a series of private collectors before being purchased by the Contini Bonacossi.
- Andrea del Castagno, Madonna in Trono col Bambino, i Santi Giovanni Battista e Girolamo, Angeli e Due Fanciulli della Famiglia Pazzi: This fresco was originally from the Pazzi family’s private chapel in Castello del Trebbio near Pontassieve.
- Veronese, Ritratto di Giuseppe da Porto con il Figlio Adriano: This father/son double portrait dates from the 1550s and was commissioned by Giuseppe da Porto for the family’s palazzo in Vicenza.
- Also of note is the section dedicated to majolica, the only such ceramic collection in Florence outside the Bargello.