ROME – The most enduring images of this city after the cataclysm were printed just over 250 years ago, by the artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. His “Ruins of Rome” engravings depict landmarks like the Pantheon and Castel Sant’Angelo, but his most famous images show rubble-strewn gardens and crumbling bridges, and gentlemen in tricorn hats wandering through collapsed temples and ossuaries overgrown with vegetation. For 18th century philosophers and nobles of the Grand Tour, the dramas of the âRuins of Romeâ underscored the transience of civilization – but they were, even more than that, a top-notch tour guide. The beautiful days have passed, but come anyway; Rome’s cooler with no one.
Recently, I’ve had my own Piranesian view of the Empty Eternal City: on Instagram, mostly, as Rome and other European capitals have reopened their museums and heritage sites (and, in some cases, their performance venues) to limited crowds. The inhabitants returned, in spurts. The tourists return, in small nets. But the generally crowded cultural institutions are a far cry from pre-pandemic attendance levels – and, like the isolated Grand Tourists of Piranesi in the Empty Forum, I thought I’d better see the rubble for myself.
At Palazzo Barberini, which houses the National Collection of Old Masters of Italy, I was the only visitor to the recently opened galleries hosting a major exhibition of Baroque painting and horology. In well over half of the halls of the Capitoline Museums, in the hillside plaza designed by Michelangelo, there was just me and the marble busts. Raphael’s Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, Caravaggio’s âCall of Saint Matthewâ in San Luigi dei Francesi, the late medieval mosaics of Santa Maria in Trastevere: everything belongs to me.
Devoid of most visitors, Rome is the world’s largest cultural stimulation program. But these museums and artistic institutions lost three quarters of their audiences during the pandemic year. Even as vaccinations increase and travel restrictions decrease, Roman museums and other European museums – some of which have become almost estranged from the local public as mass tourism peaked in the late 2010s – are facing challenges. financial deficits, canceled programs and even possible closures.
Question 1: How will they come back? Question 2: If you need a global health crisis to fully appreciate them, should they come back the same way?
Italy was the first European country to shut down, imposing strict travel restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Its 464 state-run museums, monuments and archaeological sites have not been spared; admissions increased 76% between 2019 and 2020, according to the Italian Ministry of Culture. The previously oversaturated Vatican Museums – technically not in Italy, and the fourth most visited museum in the world – saw an 81% drop in attendance, from 6.8 million in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2020 (and a million of them entered in the two months before the first confinement). Last year’s breathtaking Raphael exhibition here in Rome was seen by only 120,000 visitors; the Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, before the pandemic, was seen by 10 times more.
The Italian government authorized the reopening of museums in the “yellow zones” – which included Rome, as well as Milan, Turin, Venice, Florence and Naples – on April 26. At first, the doors were only open a few days a week, and with reservations required; now most of Italy is in a “white zone” and museums can operate their full summer hours. Yet one Saturday, I counted four other visitors to the most anticipated show of the year in Rome: “The Marbles of Torlonia: Collecting Masterpieces”, at the Capitol, presenting a collection of Greek and Roman sculptures. unseen for decades. It looked more like a vernissage, and also a kind of democratic disaster: so long in the shadows, and then no one catches them in the light!
Official data on Italian museum attendance for April, May and June will not be available until the next quarter. But at the Vatican Museums, which received an average of 22,000 visitors a day before the pandemic, only 3,000 come on weekdays and 5,000 on weekends, according to a Vatican spokesperson. On a Monday morning, instead of the usual hustle and bustle at the entrance, there were only a few selfie-stick vendors. Inside the Sistine Chapel, where in the past I was pushed and nudged by the crowd, about thirty spectators marveled at the frescoes of Perugino and leaned down to see Michel’s big muscles. -Angel on the ceiling. No pictures!
Mgr. Paolo Nicolini, deputy director of museums, described to me “an increase in visits and interactions of young people with the Vatican Museums like never before”, adding that Italians now constitute the majority of visitors for the first time in recent memory. Those list entries became paintings again, and the Romans I caught up with weren’t, diplomatically, not too upset by the lack of visitors.
Yet a public health crisis is hardly the ideal solution to overcrowding, and hundreds of millions of euros in losses are a high price to pay for a shorter line. If mass tourism is the problem, Piranesian crumbling pornography is not the solution.
The Italian government has stepped in with a cultural stimulus of 6.7 billion euros – around 8 billion dollars – much of which is aimed at improving the notoriously poor digital supply of museums. But the country’s museums have swung wildly between official neglect and tourist oversaturation, and need a new, stronger foundation to encourage scholarships, maintain audiences, secure funding, and direct visitors past the biggest landmarks in the biggest cities. .
“There are ways to involve an audience where tourists and the local public can go together,” said Annalisa Cicerchia, professor at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and co-author of a new report on Italian museums after the pandemic. With tourist groups absent, she said, Italian museums should use this time to expand their outreach and education efforts, highlighting recent successes for museums in Rome with programs for migrants and migrants. the elderly.
Above all, the pandemic is forcing museums to find a real purpose, a mission that the constantly increasing number of tourists has allowed them to keep unclear. âBasically, the question is the same: what is unique about a given museum? said Cicherchia. “Important for your experience and for your life?” Or for memories you will cherish in the future? “
There were clues to an answer to this question in a few Roman institutions, such as the National Museum of 21st Century Art, better known as the MAXXI. In her house designed by Zaha Hadid, there is a giant show by artists from the former Yugoslavia, as well as an omnibus exhibition of recent programs on technology and migration, which show how a Roman museum can highlight local and regional concerns while attracting an audience. (Cicherchia cited MAXXI’s new outpost in L’Aquila, where local visitors arrive in their thousands and local students have been trained as guides, as a particular success in raising public awareness.)
Or, for a darker vision of the future, there’s Damien Hirst, who has taken over almost every room in the Borghese Gallery with a show of counterfeit antiques from a fictional shipwreck. âBernini’s Daphne and Apolloâ, among the most delicately sculpted marble sculptures ever created, must share its gallery with three sculptures of chained slave couples whose finishes are reminiscent of polystyrene packaging. Spot paintings as bland as a vegan carbonara hung among the Raphaels and Renis, and false gods and heroes covered in barnacles dominate the true ancient statuary. This is one of the most perverse and outrageous exhibits I have ever seen; it sounds like an act of public masochism – and I think I might have liked it.
When I saw these fake antiques four years ago, I had the same reaction as almost everyone: excruciating. That point of view hasn’t changed – but in an empty Rome, still reeling from a year of cultural deprivation, I felt strangely moved by this catastrophic sham and the desperation of Hirst’s Roman vacation.
The Renaissance, after all, was also a time for imitations of antiques, when amidst plagues and upheavals, rich palaces of pleasures simulated the glory days of Rome. One does not even obtain the luster of erudition which the Borghese princes put into it; just that piranesian feeling that the good times are over and you are here to walk through the ruins.