As the lockdown in Italy is being lifted, Italians are beginning to rediscover their stunning artistic patrimony… without hordes of tourists. Before the pandemic, with 7.5 million visitors annually to the Colosseum, Italy’s most visited monument, Romans did not want to tackle the long lines and crowds. Likewise, the locals avoided the Vatican where 29,000 visitors a day formed queues that could snake around for up to a mile.
In Milan, la Pinoteca di Brera reopened on June 9, exactly 70 years after it had reopened following the bombing during World War II. The reopening took place in compliance with requirements for masks, disinfectants, sanitization and social distancing. The maximum capacity is 152 people, divided into rooms according to size and following a single direction without the possibility of going back. Visitors must book online and then receive a link to a “Brera Box,” with activities and personalized information to better prepare their route. At the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, there are staggered entrances to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper: 5 people every 15 minutes. It’s an opportunity for Italians to fully enjoy the masterpiece, detail by detail, appreciating the emotional reactions and gestures of the apostles.
At the Uffizi in Florence, black dots have been glued to the floor in front of the most popular paintings—works by Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio—to guide social distancing. The gallery has halved the number of people who can visit at any time, from 900 to 450, and capped guided tours at 10 people. The Uffizi’s director, Eike Schmidt, says, “It would be wonderful if the model of relaxed tourism that we are experimenting at the Uffizi in this particular historical moment would become the model for tourism in the future.”
In Venice, it was Venetians who thronged the piazzas. The alleys, rivas and porticoes reverberated with Italian and the Venetian dialect. The absence of cruise ships reduced acqua alta and enabled locals to take their small boats and kayaks out on much cleaner waters. Venetians even gathered to protest a new dock that would bring boatloads of tourists through one of Venice’s last livable neighborhoods.
But this new-found freedom has a steep price. Gondoliers are seeing very little action, and tour guides throughout Italy have almost no work. In fact, flash mobs of guides and organizers have staged protests in front of the Pantheon in Rome and throughout other cities to raise awareness about their plight. With 63 million foreigners travel to Italy annually (more than 1 for every citizen), tourism accounts for more than 13% of Italy’s gross domestic product. About 3.5 million people in Italy depend on tourism for their livelihood, including restaurateurs and waiters, hoteliers, language teachers, tour guides, and taxi drivers. Many people work on a freelance basis.
The directors of many cultural institutions are worried about the loss of revenue from ticket sales. Special exhibitions had to be cancelled. Even the loss of revenue from trinket sales is hampering the preservation and enhancement of Italy’s artistic treasures. “It’s a disaster,” said Massimo Osanna, director of the Pompeii archaeological site, which attracted nearly four million visitors last year. From 40,000 visitors a day at the peak, the site is now capped at 400 a day and sometimes only 250 people show up. “It was like being in a surrealist painting,” he said. “We won’t be able to carry out many of the projects we had planned. Now we are focused on things that can’t be postponed, like ordinary maintenance.”
It would be nice to have a balance. Maybe after tourism returns, Italy could preserve one day a month just for Italians to explore and savor their own museums and monuments.