Critic’s Notebook

Alone in the Temporary New Ruins of Rome

The museums are open. Few visitors have returned. It’s beautiful, but it can’t stay like this.

Rome’s museums and art institutions lost three-quarters of their public as tourism collapsed in the pandemic year.
Credit...Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

ROME — The most enduring images of this city after cataclysm were printed a little over 250 years ago, by the artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. His “Ruins of Rome” etchings depict landmarks like the Pantheon and the Castel Sant’Angelo, but its most famous images show rubble-strewn gardens and crumbling bridges, and tricorn-hatted gentlemen wandering through collapsed temples and overgrown ossuaries. For 18th-century philosophers and noblemen on the Grand Tour, the dramas of “Ruins of Rome” made a point about the transience of civilization — but they were, even more than that, a high-end tourist guide. The good days are over, but come anyway; Rome’s cooler with no people.

Recently, I’ve had my own Piranesian views of the empty Eternal City: on Instagram, mostly, as Rome and other European capitals have reopened their museums and heritage sites (and, in some cases, their performance venues) to limited crowds. Locals have come back, in spurts. Tourists are returning, in trickles. But usually thronged cultural institutions are nowhere near prepandemic attendance levels — and, like Piranesi’s isolated Grand Tourists in the empty Forum, I thought I’d better see the rubble for myself.

At the Palazzo Barberini, home to Italy’s national old masters collection, I was the only visitor to newly opened galleries hosting a large show of Baroque painting and clock making. In well over half the rooms of the Capitoline Museums, on the hillside piazza designed by Michelangelo, it was just me and the marble busts. Raphael’s chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo, Caravaggio’s spotlit “Calling of St. Matthew” in San Luigi dei Francesi, the late-medieval mosaics of Santa Maria in Trastevere: all mine.

Devoid of most visitors, Rome is the world’s greatest cultural stimulus package. But these museums and art institutions lost three-quarters of their public during the pandemic year. Even as vaccinations wax and travel restrictions wane, Roman and other European museums — some of which became almost divorced from local audiences as mass tourism peaked in the late 2010s — face financial shortfalls, canceled programs, and even possible closures.

Question 1: How are they going to come back? Question 2: If you need a global health crisis to properly appreciate them, should they come back in the same way?

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Credit...Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times
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Credit...Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Italy was the first European country to lock down, imposing strict travel restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Its 464 state-run museums, monuments and archaeological sites were not spared; admissions cratered by 76 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to the Italian Culture Ministry. The previously supersaturated Vatican Museums — technically not in Italy, and the fourth most visited museum worldwide — saw an 81 percent decline in attendance, from 6.8 million in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2020 (and a million of those came in the two months before the first lockdown). Last year’s blowout Raphael exhibition here in Rome was seen by just 120,000 visitors; the Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, before the pandemic, was seen by 10 times that many.

The Italian government authorized museums in “yellow zones” — which included Rome, as well as Milan, Turin, Venice, Florence and Naples — to reopen on April 26. At first the doors were open for just a few days a week, and with mandatory booking; now most of Italy is in a “white zone,” and museums can operate at their full summer schedule. Still, on a Saturday, I counted four other visitors to the most anticipated show of the year in Rome: “The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces,” at the Capitoline, showcasing a collection of Greek and Roman sculpture unseen for decades. It felt more like a private viewing, and also a sort of democratic disaster: so long in the shadows, and then no one catches them in the light!

Official data on Italian museum attendance for April, May and June won’t be available until next quarter. But at the Vatican Museums, which averaged 22,000 visitors a day before the pandemic, just 3,000 are coming through on weekdays, and 5,000 on the weekends, according to a Vatican spokesman. On a Monday morning, instead of the usual hurly-burly at the entrance there were just a few selfie-stick salesmen. Inside the Sistine Chapel, where in the past I have been shoved and elbowed by the crowds, about 30 spectators were awing over Perugino’s frescoes and craning to see Michelangelo’s burly musclemen on the ceiling. No photos!

Msgr. Paolo Nicolini, the museums’ deputy director, described to me “an increase in young people’s visits and interactions with the Vatican Museums like never before,” adding that Italians now constitute a majority of visitors for the first time in recent memory. These bucket-list entries have become paintings again, and the Romans I caught up with were, to put it diplomatically, not overly distraught at the lack of visitors.

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Credit...Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Still, a public health crisis is hardly the ideal solution for overcrowding, and hundreds of millions of euros in losses are a steep price to pay for a shorter line. If mass tourism is the problem, Piranesian ruin porn is not the solution.

The Italian government has stepped in with a culture stimulus of 6.7 billion euros — about $8 billion — much of it targeting improvements to museums’ notoriously poor digital offerings. But the country’s museums have swung wildly between official neglect and tourist oversaturation, and need new, more solid foundations to encourage scholarship, maintain audiences, elicit funding, and direct visitors past the biggest landmarks in the largest cities.

“There are ways to engage audiences where tourists and local publics may go together,” said Annalisa Cicerchia, a professor at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and co-author of a new report on Italian museums after the pandemic. With the tour groups away, she said, Italian museums need to use this time to expand outreach and education efforts — pointing to recent successes Rome’s museums have made with programs for migrants and for older people.

Above all, the pandemic mandates that museums come up with an actual reason for being, a mission that ever-climbing tourist numbers allowed them to keep hazy. “Basically, the question is the same: What does a given museum have that’s unique?” Cicherchia said. “Relevant for your experience, and for your life? Or for memories you will cherish in the future?”

There were hints of an answer to that question in a few Roman institutions, such as the National Museum of 21st-Century Art, better known as MAXXI. In its Zaha Hadid-designed home, there’s a giant show of artists from the former Yugoslavia, as well as an omnibus exhibition of recent programs on technology and migration, that point to how a Roman museum can foreground local and regional concerns and still draw an audience. (Cicherchia cited MAXXI’s new outpost in L’Aquila, where local visitors are coming by the thousands and local students have been trained as guides, as a particular success of public outreach.)

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Credit...Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Or, for a darker view of the future, there is Damien Hirst, who has taken over almost every room of the Borghese Gallery with a show of counterfeit antiquities from a fictional shipwreck. Bernini’s “Daphne and Apollo,” among the most delicately carved marble sculptures ever created, must share its gallery with three sculptures of chained enslaved couples whose finishes recall polystyrene packaging. Spot paintings as bland as a vegan carbonara hang among the Raphaels and Renis, and bogus barnacle-covered gods and heroes lord over actual ancient statuary. It is among the most perverse and outrageous exhibitions I have ever seen; it feels like an act of public masochism — and I think I might have liked it.

When I saw these fake antiquities four years ago, I had the same reaction as almost everyone else: atrocious. That view has not changed — but in empty Rome, still reeling from a year’s cultural deprivation, I felt myself oddly moved by this catastrophic imposture, and the hopelessness of Hirst’s Roman holiday.

The Renaissance, after all, was also a time for imitation antiquities, when amid plagues and upheavals the rich built pleasure palaces simulating Rome’s glory days. We do not even get the gloss of erudition that the Borghese princes put on it; just that Piranesian feeling that the good times are past, and you are here to walk through the ruins.