The way Israel Museum director James Snyder told it Tuesday, the debut appearance in Israel of Sandro Botticelli’s “The Annunciation of San Martino alla Scala” was never in doubt.
Forget about those reports 10 days ago, claiming Italy’s Culture Ministry was not, after all, sending the 15th-century fresco, due to “geopolitical and logistical concerns” stemming from the then-anticipated US-led military intervention in Syria. Never mind the talk of Israel’s Culture Minister Limor Livnat working “behind the scenes intensively,” according to her aide Meir Bardugo, to convince Italy the work would be safe. According to Snyder, the exhibit had come to pass exactly as planned.
“We had organized this for the 17th, just in advance of Sukkot, and here it is, Tuesday, September 17,” Snyder said, and gestured with his hands to the masterpiece — framed by a deep red wall, and set in its own gallery — just outside the museum’s “Color Gone Wild” exhibit.
“I know we have the media here,” he said happily to a room crowded with journalists, “but don’t always believe what you read.”
And with that, Snyder moved away from any notion of a possible cancellation or, heaven forbid, art boycott of Israel, preferring instead to talk about the wonders of an exhibit consisting of just one, remarkable, work — a Renaissance-era fresco, originally displayed at an Italian hospital, showing the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, with a view of what just might be the Galilee’s Mount Tabor in the background.
“It’s very important in the unfolding of Judaism and Christianity,” said Snyder of the fresco. “Look at that view and you see the landscape here, of the ancient land.”
Italy’s ambassador to Israel, Francesco Maria Talo, gazed upon the Uffizi’s treasure, making its debut appearance in the Holy Land, with a look of wonder. Having the Botticelli in Israel, where it will be on exhibit for four months, he pronounced, was like “having a piece of Italy.”
Actually, there had been a bit of a hiccup for the Botticelli — just not one that seriously threatened its journey here.
According to Simonetta Della Seta, director general of the Italian-Israeli Foundation for Culture and Arts, and one of the people responsible for bringing the artwork, that hiccup began when the fresco arrived back in Italy in July from a visit in China. It underwent the usual examination and then, said Della Seta, “someone asked to have a second scan.” The someone, she said, was a senior expert, a member of Italy’s preservation authority that handles loans of artworks of particular resonance such as this.
Della Setta did not indicate that this second scan revealed anything problematic. But, she said, the fact that it was requested at all underlined the well-known sensitivity and reluctance by Italy to lend out its masterpieces. Imagine, said Della Setta, if Israel was asked to lend one of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“That’s what happened,” she said, after the China loan: “The experts were against lending it [again], because it’s so important to the country, to everyone.”
Della Setta also allowed that it was just possible, given the atmosphere following President Barack Obama’s talk of potential military action against the Assad regime, that someone in the preservation authority may have said something about withholding the loan to Israel because of the regional situation.
But, she said, it wasn’t the authority’s decision, and the Italian government, including the Culture Ministry and the union of Italian museums, had already signed off on the loan to Israel.
And so, the two-piece fresco, each panel weighing 65 kilos, was packed into two crates, and dispatched after Yom Kippur, said Della Seta. It traveled via Innsbruck to Lieges, where it was loaded onto a cargo plane for Tel Aviv — watched all the way by trained technical staff and armed guards.
She said “The Annunciation” was selected by the superintendent of the Florence museum circuit, Cristina Acidini, because it bears all “the elements of Renaissance aesthetics, from prospective to draping, as well as because the history of the masterpiece actually happened in these lands. This is an important connection.”
Artworks such as “The Annunciation” are Italy’s best calling card, the best way to introduce the country and its culture to the world, added Della Seta. “People in the world don’t think of Israel as a [leading home] of art, but the Israel Museum is considered one of the museums in the world,” she said.
“This is a gift that we are giving Israel,” she said, “for the 65th anniversary of its birth. It is a gift for the Jewish New Year… and especially Sukkot.
“We should say a Shehecheyanu,” quipped Snyder, referring to the blessing of thanksgiving said when encountering something new and remarkable for the first time. Amen to that.