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Debate over Raphael Loan Leads Entire Scientific Committee of Uffizi Gallery to Resign

Facts

In February, the scientific committee of the Uffizi[1] resigned en masse.  They objected to the director’s decision to loan Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X to a temporary exhibition in Rome, and raised general concerns over the role and nature of scientific committees within museums in Italy.

In their letter of resignation, the (now former) members of the committee claimed that they had been involved in months of research aimed at identifying artworks in the Uffizi’s collections that should not be moved. Last October, the committee finally approved a preliminary list of iconic pieces that would fall within that category. On 9 December 2019, the committee voted against a loan of the painting by Raphael to an exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome because the artwork was included on their list of artworks that should not be moved. Ignoring the committee’s advice, the museum’s management decided to loan the portrait.

The resignation followed a press conference organised by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage to present the exhibition. During the press conference, Mr Eike Schmidt (the director of the Uffizi), enthusiastically stated that, “the Uffizi, which holds the world’s largest collection of paintings and drawings by Raphael, is delighted to take part in the organisation of this pivotal anniversary celebration, in order to offer a new and deeper vision of the master artist, particularly during the period of his life he spent in Rome. […]”[2].

Following the scientific committee’s resignation, the director insisted that the loan of Pope Leo X was critical to the commemorative exhibition. He maintained that there are no conservation issues, as the painting had just been restored by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure Conservation Institute. Moreover, the list of artworks that should not be moved was adopted pursuant to Art. 66.2 of the Italian Cultural Heritage Code, and applied only to exporting art outside national borders.

Legal Background

Under the Cultural Heritage and Landscape Code of 2004, the loan of artworks in Italian public collections was subject to authorisation by the competent body within the Ministry of Culture (i.e. the Directorate General or the so-called ‘Soprintendenza’).  The scientific committee of public museums was tasked with identifying artworks that should not be moved.  The Code includes two relevant provisions: a provision applicable only to exportations and a rule applicable to loans in general.

  • Art. 66.2 of the Italian Cultural Heritage Code, as correctly cited by the Uffizi director, provides that the following artworks may not be exported even on a temporary basis: a) artworks that may be damaged during transportation or find themselves in unfavourable environmental conditions; b) artworks that are the main asset of a specific and integral section of a museum, paintings’ gallery, art gallery, archive or library or of an artistic or bibliographic collection.  Pursuant to that provision, museums have identified iconic or particularly fragile artworks that should not be exported.
  • There is another article of the same Code dealing with the authorisation required before loans are made of artworks in public collections.  Art. 48 provides that a loan to a temporary exhibition must be authorised.  When authorising the loan of an artwork in a public collection, account must be taken of the condition of the artwork and public access; it shall be subject to the adoption of measures guaranteeing the integrity of the artwork. Authorisation is subject to certain conditions set out in a ministerial decree.

    The relevant ministerial decree (issued by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage on 29 January 2008[3]) includes a list of reasons to grant or deny the loan of an artwork. The decree also provides that each museum shall keep a register of artworks whose transportation may constitute a risk of a “material or cultural nature”. The register is prepared by the scientific committee of the museum, and inclusion in the list constitutes a fundamental element when deciding the outcome of any loan application. The list must include at least two sections, namely (i) a section including those artworks which shall not be loaned under any circumstances (for instance, pieces of a prestigious or iconic nature within a museum/gallery) and (ii) a section including artworks that can be loaned only if certain conditions are met.

    The Ministerial Decree was followed by a series of recommendations by ICOM Italy on the subject of loans for temporary exhibitions.  One of ICOM’s recommendations was that the advice of museums’ scientific committees should be followed and not overruled by other considerations[4].  

While some institutions have published on their website the list of artworks that should not be moved (e.g. the Pinacoteca of Brera and the MArTA – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto), others (such as the Uffizi Gallery) do not share such document with the public. 

The Director’s Powers and the Role of the Scientific Committee

More recently, the loan approval process has been significantly amended, particularly for museums with scientific, financial, accounting and organisational autonomy[5] such as the Uffizi.

Starting from 2017[6], directors of museums with special autonomy have been granted the right to approve loans (within national borders) of any artwork from the museum’s collections. This means that – while the criteria indicated by the Ministerial Decree of 29 January 2008 have not been revoked – the decision to make or deny a loan to other Italian institutions[7] is no longer tied to the Ministry of Culture’s opinion but rests solely with the director of the museum.  The scientific committee retains an advisory role.  This principle is restated in museums’ by-laws. The Uffizi’s by-laws are no exception, although its by-laws appear to give more authority to the scientific committee by stating that “the scientific committee shall assess and approve the Uffizi loan policies and the exhibition planning”[8].

Raphael - Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals c.1517
Raphael, Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals c.1517

Conclusion

The scientific committee of the Uffizi has argued that ignoring the fact that an artwork features on its list of iconic pieces that should not be moved, “calls into question the existence of the committee itself”; yet the director argued that he is free not to follow the committee’s advice, as the final decision on whether to make the loan is his.   Both arguments have merit. The statutory criteria guiding the Ministry’s decision as to whether to make a loan or not remain applicable, and give the lists prepared by museums’ scientific committees considerable weight.  The fact that the decision to make the loan no longer rests with the Ministry but with the museum’s director does not mean that the scientific committee can be ignored. At the same time, the fact that the role of the scientific committee is advisory and non-binding means that the director can make his own decision. The inclusion of the artwork under consideration on the list of artworks that should not be moved is one amongst other considerations the director is expected to take into account.

In the case at hand, considering the calibre of the exhibition and the event it celebrates, as well as the state of conservation of the painting, the decision of the Uffizi director to allow the loan does not seem without merit. The scientific committee may have overreacted, or there is more to the story than meets the eye.  “Today we learned from the press,” the committee said, “that the painting is already in the Rome exhibition space”.  The fact that the committee learned from the press that its decision had been ignored suggests that communications between management and the committee are somewhat lacking, and there might lie the root of the issue.

By Francesca Barra


[1] The committee was composed of art dealer Fabrizio Moretti, art historian Tomaso Montanari, and scholars Donata Levi and Claudio Pizzorusso

[2] The press release is available at the following link: https://www.uffizi.it/en/magazine/raphael-uffizi-scuderie

[3] http://musei.beniculturali.it/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/DM-29-gennaio-2018.pdf

[4] http://www.icom-italia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/ICOMItalia.Racc1_.Raccomandazione-sui-prestiti-per-mostre.pdf

[5] Museums listed in Annex 2 of a ministerial decree issued by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage on 23 December 2014

[6] In particular, following Circular No. 3 dated 19 January 2017

[7] Only when an exhibition is organised abroad the director shall preliminarily consult the relevant public authority, i.e. the Italian Directorate-General of Museums

[8] file:///C:/Users/franc/Downloads/Statuto%20delle%20Gallerie%20degli%20Uffizi.pdf