The director of one of the world’s oldest and most prominent art museums, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, has suggested that religious artworks residing in institutional collections should be returned to their respective places of worship. Eike Schmidt, who has led the museum since 2015, told the Art Newspaper that “devotional art was not born as a work of art but for a religious purpose, usually in a religious setting.”
Schmidt cited a specific example from the Uffizi’s own collection, the “Rucellai Madonna” painted by the Sienese artist Duccio di Buoninsegna in the Middle Ages. The gold-ground panel of the Virgin and Child enthroned, the largest painting on wood from the 13th century known to date, was removed from the church of Santa Maria Novella in 1948.
Viewing such a work in the context for which it was created, says Schmidt, is not just appropriate from an historical perspective, but could also connect the viewer with its spiritual significance.
“If we did not believe that context was important, the Italian state would not have the legal concept of the art of architectural fixture [vincolo pertinenziale], or practice contextual archaeology instead of an Indiana Jones-type scrabble for mere masterpieces,” Schmidt told the Newspaper. The idea of restoring religious art to churches is reportedly part of larger talks at the Uffizi, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, to distribute works beyond its galleries to reach wider audiences.
The suggestion that displaying religious objects outside of their original places of worship potentially de-contextualizes our interpretations evokes the discourse around the repatriation of cultural objects. A report authored by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and commissioned by the French government in 2018 found that around 90% of African cultural heritage resides outside of the continent, in major Western museums.
However, most Western religious artworks were not stolen during the colonial era; in fact, in many cases, they were stored in museums for safekeeping after World War II. According to Schmidt, who is the president of the Fondo edifici di culto (FEC), a fund that maintains Italy’s churches, an estimated 1,000 religious artworks were brought to Italian museums for safeguarding after the war. They are in many cases improperly catalogued, he said, and difficult for scholars and researchers to access.
Schmidt’s proposal has been received with hesitation, with the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, saying that “every case would have to be considered on its own merits.” Mark Jones, former director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, echoed Betori’s words, acknowledging that art is “better in its own context” but telling the Newspaper that decisions would have to be made on a case-by-case basis.