The Director of the Uffizi Museum Supports the Return of Sacred Works to Churches

June 17, 2020

The director of the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy, interviewed on March 27, 2020 by The Art Newspaper, said that “many religious works of art currently in Italy’s museums and stores should be returned to the churches from which they came.” Causing an uproar which is creating some discomfort on the peninsula.

Eike Schmidt directs one of the most prestigious Italian museums. The curator suggests that one of the most famous medieval works, the “Rucellai Madonna,” painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna around 1275, should—like many other paintings—leave the Uffizi and be returned to the Church of Santa Maria Novella, from where it was removed in 1948.

This idea is part of a larger reflection led by the Uffizi museum, in order to respond to the challenges arising from the health crisis. Eike Schmidt and his team argue for the concept of a “wider museum,” where works of art would be accessible in their original places.

Of course, the Uffizi Director admits that there are many advantages to exhibiting sacred art in the museum. So, for the moment, the “Rucellai Madonna” is being presented alongside two altarpieces made by Cimabue and Giotto, facilitating the comparison of the three masterpieces of the Renaissance. But removing a work from its original destination “takes away an essential part of its history and meaning. Devotional art was not born as a work of art but for a religious purpose, usually in a religious setting.” It’s about time someone noticed!

The Uffizi Director is also president of the Fondo edifici di culto (FEC), the Italian religious buildings fund. This body, which reports to the Interior Ministry, is responsible for the maintenance of nearly 900 Catholic churches. Eike Schmidt “has discovered that there are around a thousand religious works of art” kept in the warehouses of many museums. “There is no proper catalogue and they are not easily available, even to scholars, so the current situation is highly undesirable.”

“Because most of the churches involved belong to the FEC, the legalities of giving back the art would be simple, as it would simply pass from one state body to another.”

The reaction to Eike Schmidt’s proposal is mixed. Even the prelate who runs the diocesan museum in Florence, Archbishop Timothy Verdon, told the Ansa news agency that he saw it as “a very positive, but unrealistic provocation.”

For his part Giuseppe Betori, Cardinal-Archbishop of the Tuscan capital, noted that “the proposal deserves to be noted and commended” but “every case would have to be considered on its own merits.” So be it.

But for an international specialist like Mark Jones, former director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, UK, there is no doubt that “anyone who is interested in art knows that it is better in its own context.” What are they waiting for?