Broke Italian museums

May 12 2014

Image of Broke Italian museums

Picture: Wikipedia

News that the Galleria Borghese's air conditioning system has broken down reminds me that I've been meaning to post a rant something about my recent trip to Rome, and the art galleries there. First, here's what The Guardian reports about the Borghese's climate crisis:

Concerns have been raised about the preservation of one of the world's finest art collections after it emerged that a cash-strapped museum in Rome had resorted to opening its windows to reduce humidity.

Home to masterpieces by Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael and Rubens, Rome's Borghese Gallery has been without air conditioning in one section for two months due to a funding slowdown, just as Rome sweats through a hot spring.

While most of the world's most prized art is increasingly housed in climate-controlled rooms to shut out humidity and pollution, guards at the gallery are opening windows to try to lower the temperature.

"We have been in the grip of this emergency for two months," the museum's director, Anna Coliva, told Italian daily La Repubblica. She said the air conditioningwas worn out after years of scant maintenance, with requests over the past few years for a new system falling on deaf ears.

Built in the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese to house his burgeoning art collection, the Borghese Gallery boasts such works as Caravaggio's Boy with a Basket of Fruit and Titian's Sacred and Profane Love, as well as sculptures by Bernini and Canova.

Custom built for the cardinal's collection, the frescoes on the ceilings of the building echo the themes of the works of art beneath them.

Opening windows might bring in cool air now, but with summer approaching, the race is on to get the air conditioning working again. In the meantime, the paintings risk exposure to humidity and pollution from Rome's heavy traffic.

The fact that Italian museums are feeling the pinch comes as no surprise, given the austerity regime there at the moment. But what should be surprising is the fact that major museums like the Borghese, with their priceless Berninis, Titians and Raphaels, cannot even get the basics right like climate control. When you've got large panel pictures, a stable environment is pretty crucial, and simply leaving the windows open won't do.

The sad fact is that Italian state-run museums are often hopelessly and ineffeciently run. Useless websites, arbitrary opening times, optimistic labelling (beware anything which says 'Titian'), and idle staff all combine to leave you yearning for the UK's impeccably run and free museums. Sometimes you wonder if there's more than a hint of corruption involved. A favourite job-creation trick, for example, is the ticket selling and ticket checking routine: one person sells you a ticket at the entrance, and then, just a few inches away, another person then has to check it before you are grudgingly admitted. You may have first had to go through a security scanner, but of course nobody seems to care if it goes beep. If you're lucky, all the rooms in the museum may be open, but usually they're not, and woe betide you if you dare ask for a partial refund, on the not unreasonable basis that only a fraction of the place is actually visitable (like the Palazzo Venezia, in my case). It's no accident that by far the best art gallery in Rome is the privately owned and run Palazzo Doria, where not only can you can get a handy picture-list and an audio guide, but there's even a shop and a cafe.

Finally, a few words of advice to anyone wanting to go to the Vatican museums:

  1. Never , ever go in the morning - the queue goes on forever, and there's literally a giant, seething scrum to get in. Only do this if you've been to Eton and excelled at the Wall Game (I didn't, so ran away).
  2. Book your ticket first online, and go for the last available slot in the day, usually 3.30pm. 
  3. Go round the route slowly, so that you're at the end of hordes, and get a little more space than usual.
  4. Ignore the touts at all costs. 
  5. Take binoculars, to look at all the frescoes.
  6. Take some form of guidebook - there are no labels.
  7. Don't forget the Pinacoteca, go there first.
  8. Spend more time in the Raphael rooms than the Sistine Chapel - they're better, and haven't been wrecked by "conservation".

But despite all this, there's probably no finer city in the world to visit, from an artistic point of view. I loved it. It's my new favourite place.

Update - a reader has much better advice:

Rome is glorious despite the infuriating closures, queues, exhaustion and heat. Your advice is sound- but I recommend a totally different policy: GO IN JANUARY. I strolled straight into any museum or gallery I chose- and never saw a queue.  At the Vatican the people were so spread out that it was easy to see, to linger and to go back. The café was half empty and as the dusk crept through the corridors and the lights went on, it became so quiet that I was afraid I had been locked in. Reaching the main door with half an hour before closing time, I set off around again. As the last entries had already hurried off towards the Sistine Chapel, I had endless vast classical galleries, dimly lit, entirely to myself.  Cold but sublime.

Another reader adds:

And in Italy a small gratuity will encourage museum guards to open a closed gallery or two.

Regarding the Villa Borghese collection, It is important to recall that most of these works sat in uncontrolled climatic conditions for three centuries. Now the buildings are leaking and crumbling around them especially in southern Italy..    

I am truly delighted that you share my opinion of the Sistine Chapel which was produced while on endorphins from painful working conditions. Buonaroti was a great sculptor. Visit St pietro in Vincoli in Rome to see his Moses.

Another suggests a private tour:

If you pay 2 or 3 hundred euros, you can have a quasi- private viewing in the evening with only about 6 other people.

Worth it, no doubt.

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