Closed by Covid, Italy's Uffizi finally reopens its doors

Florence (Italy) (AFP) –


After 77 days locked away due to coronavirus restrictions, the Michelangelos, Raphaels and other treasures of the Uffizi Galleries went back on display Thursday when the museum reopened to the public with great fanfare.

The mayor of Florence was among those present when the heavy wooden doors were finally pushed open, following the longest closure of the museum since World War II.

"It's really time to reopen, to give direct access to these great works of art that really belong legally to every single Italian -- and that ideally belong to mankind," director Eike Schmidt told AFP.

Among the first visitors waiting eagerly to get inside was 28-year-old William, an Irishman living in Florence.

"To come out and relax and to see the paintings, and get inspiration -- it's good," he said, taking in the view of the Ponte Vecchio from one of the windows.

"It gets rid of the stress of being basically locked in your apartment for two months."

Tuscany, the region that includes Florence, was put under partial lockdown in November and again over Christmas in a bid to stem the spread of Covid-19.

But it is now one of only a few Italian regions allowed to reopen its bars, restaurants -- and museums.

- Semi-deserted halls -

The galleries are almost deserted, the usual throngs of tourists absent and even those outside Tuscany barred from visiting due to travel restrictions.

William was glad of the calm, adding with a smile: "They just need to get some seats around here and then you can sit and relax and look at the paintings!"

But he added: "It'll be good to see museums packed again because that means the culture is working, society is working."

Further inside, Michele Diana and Anna Ghelardini, two Florentines in their 20s, said they felt reassured by the precautions against coronavirus, from hand sanitiser stations to social distancing and temperature checks at the entrance.

"I've never been before," admitted Diana, as his friend headed straight for Michelangelo's "Tondo Doni" depicting the Holy Family -- which she dubbed "the most beautiful of all".

- A small step -

For all those who cannot visit, the Uffizi's masterpieces can be viewed online, where at least art lovers can peruse the works without being questioned by journalists.

"Enough, let us admire these works in peace," implored one Italian trying to enjoy Botticelli's "Primavera", or "Spring", amid a swarm of media brought in for opening day.

But with everyone wearing masks, it was hard to ignore the pandemic that has killed more than 83,000 people in Italy.

The Uffizi is still far from back to normal, opening only from Tuesdays to Fridays for now and with significantly reduced numbers of visitors, who are urged to pre-book.

Schmidt said visits last year were vastly down. Finances took a hit -- to the tune of four million euros in lost revenue for every month closed, according to a museum source.

But Schmidt said the gallery had reserves and received government support -- and gradually, it hopes to welcome back more people from Italy, Europe and beyond.

Italy's Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said earlier this week the decision to partially reopen some of Italy's world-famous museums was designed "for residents, to give back to the community the possibility of safely enjoying their own cultural heritage".

"It's a small step, a sign of reopening."