Your own private Uffizi
There is no doubt that Florence’s museums are at their best during the off-season (November, January-February). There is nothing like a leisurely stroll through the Uffizi Gallery, stopping to contemplate masterpieces but also interacting with some of the lesser known (but equally as stunning) paintings by Renaissance masters. The reality, however, is that most people travel to Florence during the peak season when places like the Uffizi can feel overwhelming, hot and crowded.
Finding some peace, quiet and privacy during a high-season visit to the Uffizi is possible, especially if you let yourself be taken in by stories that you won’t find in the guidebooks. The rediscovery and restoration of the Rape of Proserpina by Giuseppe Grisoni is one such tale.
Picture the scene: Florence, 2002. Palazzo Serristori. Antonio Natali, director of the Uffizi Gallery, notices something wrapped in plastic and rolled around a lamppost. He calls over restoration expert Muriel Vervat and together they unroll it, discovering that it is a painting, its colors obscured by thick, dark mold. The smell is overwhelming.
The painting's subject incomprehensible, they search for any identifying qualities, anything that might give them a clue as to what may be below the layer of black mold, but they find nothing. Then, a breakthrough: a small tag with an inventory number. The records entry reads ‘Painter from the XVII century; Pluto kidnapping a nymph.'
Now cross the river to the Uffizi Gallery. Room 42, the Sala della Niobe, in need of restoration. The splendid room was built in 1770, by order of Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorraine, to house the statues of Niobe and her children, which were discovered in 1583 in the Tommasini vineyards in Rome. The statues depict the myth of Niobe—the proud mother who boasted of having more children than the goddess Leto. Enraged by Niobe's pride, Leto punished her by sending her own children, Apollo and Diana, in to kill all of Niobe’s sons and daughters.
According to the first official guide to the Uffizi, the Real Galleria di Firenze, written by Luigi Lanzi in 1782, the statuary was flanked by a group of monumental paintings, including ones by Rubens and Justus Suttermans, as well as The Rape of Proserpina by Giuseppe Grisoni. The Rubens canvases had been restored and rehung after they were damaged in the 1993 mafia bombing. Then restoration of the Suttermans canvas in 2001 had triggered the desire to see the entire Sala di Niobe returned to its original splendor—a room that, according to Lanzi, emanated regal magnificence and rivalled the salons of other European royal courts.
The only hold-ups to the complete restoration of the Niobe Room were funding and the fact that the Grisoni canvas was missing. Without the immense 6m x 4m painting, the room would be out of balance, its original harmony lost for good. It was then that the pieces of the puzzle began coming together. Could the ruined canvas from Palazzo Serristori be Grisoni's masterpiece? The period, seventeenth century, and subject, ‘Pluto kidnapping a nymph,' were right.
Enter Countess Simonetta Brandolini d'Adda-founder and president of U.S.-based nonprofit organization, Friends of Florence-who received a phone call from Natali. Could she come by the Lungarno palazzo to have a look at something they had just found?
With the tar-colored canvas now laid flat, and with Brandolini and Natali looking on, Muriel Vervat carefully took a gasoline-soaked cotton rag and began to pat at the mold on the top layer of the canvas.
What emerged was striking: it was the terrified face of Proserpina, who, in Vervat's words, seemed to be crying out ‘Please, help me!' Thanks to uncharacteristically detailed archives, Vervat discovered that Grisoni's work had been commissioned by the Medici in 1731 not as a painting but as a tapestry to be woven in the family's workshop. Indeed, we can still find the exact replica of Grisoni's Rape of Proserpina as a tapestry hanging in Palazzo Pitti. The fact that the tapestry's model was then hung in the most prominent gallery in Florence, rather than being destroyed once the tapestry was complete, is testimony to its stunning character.
After two years and countless hours of work, Grisoni's Proserpina was brought back to life. The restored masterpiece was unveiled in 2004, transformed from a blackened, ruined canvas to a brilliant painting bursting with energy and color that stands as a testimony to tenacity, courage, collaboration—and faith.
Next time you are in the Uffizi, get off the beaten path with a visit to Proserpina in Room 42. She’ll be all yours.
This post was adapted from an article that appeared in The Florentine (Issue No. 88/2008).
Alexandra Lawrence bio
After studying Italian literature at graduate level, Alexandra made her permanent home Florence where she teaches art history, contemporary Italian culture, and travel writing courses at several local universities. A member of the council of advisors for the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, she is particularly interested in women artists and patronage in Florence and Tuscany. In addition, she has written on several of the city’s most important restorations and has enjoyed getting to know many of the experts in the restoration field. She is a licensed professional guide for Florence and its province and is the editor-at-large of the English language newspaper, The Florentine.
Text and photo credits: Alexandra Lawrence.
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