Two weeks ago I brought our wandering Giotto back home to North Carolina. Giotto di Bondone’s Peruzzi Altarpiece (c. 1315) was the star of TWO once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions in Italy: Giotto’s Legacy, Art in Florence between 1340 and 1375, at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (from June thru November 2008), and Giotto & the Fourteenth Century at the Vittoriano Complex in Rome (March thru July 29, 2009). Both of the exhibitions were wildly popular. The exhibition at the Vittoriano was extended for an extra month by popular demand and was even visited by President Obama and the First Lady (while in Rome for the G-8 Summit). To top it off, between those exhibitions, our Giotto was on display in “the greatest single gallery of early Italian paintings anywhere in the world.”
The Peruzzi Altarpiece is one of our most important artworks. This is the one and only time it has ever left the collection in the history of our museum. All of our artwork receives the best of care when traveling, but the altarpiece got the VIP treatment.
I served as courier on the trip which means I stayed with the artwork every step of the way from Rome to Raleigh, part bodyguard, part traveling companion, and part nanny…or maybe more like a team doctor in the NBA, or a manager for a world-famous rockstar. A courier handles the paperwork, monitors the environment, and basically makes sure that the other twenty or so people involved are doing their job (the other museum’s art handlers, registrars, airport cargo movers in two countries, customs in two countries, truck drivers, etc). It’s a bit stressful, but it helped that the Giotto was so well protected, with its custom-designed crate (designed and built by the fine staff of the NCMA, and packed on site at the Vittoriano by six art handlers, two exhibition coordinators, and two conservators). Not to mention the fact that the Giotto’s frame contains its own microclimate (thanks to NCMA Frame Conservator David Beaudin), protected from outside air. The exciting part was when the Giotto went sliding down the old museum’s numerous stone stairs on a nifty sled, of course guided by the loving hands of six big Italian art handlers (who said 600 year-old paintings can’t have some fun).
I didn’t need to babysit the whole time, though. While the Giotto was prepped for travel, I conducted research for my upcoming presentation on Classical Greek and Roman sculpture entitled: Nude White Gods Seek Colorful Past: Ancient Greek and Roman Sculpture Revisited, September 25 at Café Parizade. I met up with Eowyn Kerr, who interned in the NCMA conservation department in 2002. She helped with my research project and guided me around Rome, which was a real treat. Eowyn works and lives in Italy where she practices conservation, teaches art history, and works for one of the best tour companies in all of Rome. (She literally wrote the book on Rome.)
When it was time to fly, I grabbed the painting, lined up in security and tried to squeeze it through the x-ray machine for carry-on bags. Just kidding. After my 4 a.m. wake-up call, I met up with a dozen art handlers and coordinators to take the Giotto to the airport. I supervised while the altarpiece was lovingly prepared for the flight at the cargo facility at Leonardo da Vinci Airport. Twenty-three hours after leaving my hotel (and one last great cup of cappuccino), Giotto and I were back in Raleigh. NCMA art handlers and conservators unpacked the crate, inspected the work of art (not a scratch!), and welcomed our old friend back home.