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Blockbuster Raphael show opens in Rome amid coronavirus angst, conservation row

Raphael’s "Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de Medici and Luigi de Rossi" on display at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome.
Raphael’s "Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de Medici and Luigi de Rossi" on display at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. © Alberto Pizzoli, AFP

An exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death opens in Rome this week, with experts hailing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to admire the Renaissance artist’s greatest works in a single show. But the event’s opening has been marred by the coronavirus outbreak sweeping Italy and a row over a treasured portrait some feared was too fragile to move.

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The paintings, drawings, tapestries and sketches on show at the Scuderie del Quirinale – the most ambitious collection of Raphael's works to date – are collectively insured for €4 billion ($4.4 billion) against theft, vandalism or other damages.

But no amount of money can guarantee that Italy’s outbreak of coronavirus, the largest in Europe, won’t play havoc with the three-month run in Rome of this year's eagerly-awaited art blockbuster.

The Roman gallery has sold almost 70,000 tickets in online sales even before the doors open to the public, a record for such an exhibition here, but the government battle to halt the infection could yet wreck the event.

Among the measures that ministers are considering is a ban on public gatherings and ordering people to maintain a distance of at least one metre from one another – a constraint that is hard to imagine in the confined space of a major art show.

"We are just keeping our fingers crossed and praying it can go ahead as planned," said a senior official at the Scuderie as workers put the finishing touches to the exhibition, which opened on Thursday and runs until June 2.

More than 3,000 people in Italy have come down with coronavirus in less than two weeks and the death toll has passed 100.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known in the English-speaking world as Raphael, was born in 1483 and died just 37 years later after a sudden illness in Rome. He was one of the most celebrated artists of his age.

The exhibition covers not just his famed paintings, but also his involvement in archaeology, architecture and poetry, as well as prints, sculpture and tapestry.

The curators have managed to bring together 204 works of art, including 120 by Raphael himself and other pieces that give an insight into the times he lived – a period now known as the High Renaissance, an enlightened age marked by a renewed interest in classical antiquity.

Raphael's masterpieces are found today in museums around the world, and many of them, including Madrid's Prado, London's National Gallery and the Washington National Gallery of Art, have sent their priceless art work to Rome.

"I am sure we will never see again such a concentration of works by Raphael together in one venue as we do here," said Eike Schmidt, the director of Florence's Uffizi museum which itself offered up nine paintings and 40 drawings.

Showing the passions that Raphael's work engenders, the entire scientific committee at the Uffizi resigned last month to protest at Schmidt's decision to loan one of its paintings to the Scuderie in defiance of their recommendation.

The committee said the portrait of Pope Leo X was core to the identity of their collection and should never be let out of Florence, arguing that the work was too fragile to be moved. Schmidt overruled them, deciding that such an iconic painting deserved to return to the city it was created in.

Marzia Faietti, who curated the show, spent three years trying to persuade other museums to give up their treasures.

"We got more than we thought we would get. I am so grateful. It just shows the friendships in place between Italy and all these other galleries," Faietti told Reuters. "This is the only time and the only place where you can get to see them all."

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)

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