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Angels among us
Priceless Italian masterworks from the Uffizi Gallery come to the Jepson Center for the holidays

Telfair Museums Executive Director Lisa Grove has been to a lot of museums in her time. But when she recently came face-to-face with the iconic works in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, "it gave me goosebumps," she says.

"We were invited to the Uffizi on a day it was closed to the public. The director greeted us and we had the museum all to ourselves," Grove says of her recent trip with members of the curatorial staff.

"It was amazing to walk right up to Botticelli's ‘Birth of Venus' with no guards or anything. It was just phenomenal."
Grove says "that experience to get up close to really iconic works of Renaissance art is quite a special opportunity. This exhibition provides the same opportunity to Savannah."

The Uffizi Gallery itself dates its roots back to 1560 as the repository of the expansive collection of Florence's famous - and occasionally infamous - Medici family

In a rare and significant honor, the Telfair is one of only four museums in the United States to host "Offering of the Angels: Paintings and Tapestries from the Uffizi Gallery," a special traveling exhibit of some of the Western world's most important works of art from one of Europe's oldest museums.

It opens this Thursday with a Jepson Center reception at 6 p.m., featuring a lecture by Linda Carioni of Contemporanea Progetti, the company charged with organizing and overseeing the exhibit.

(In case you're wondering, the other three museums are the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, the James A. Michener Art Museum outside Philly, and the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisc.)

Curated several years ago as a Christmas-themed show by Uffizi Director Antonio Natali, "Offering of the Angels" represents "his personal picks of works that have special meaning to the Uffizi," Grove says, including paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, Botticelli, and many more.

"These works have never left Europe. And after they leave Savannah they'll be going back there - and they won't be leaving again," she says.

"It's a really rare opportunity for people to see them. Savannah being the final stop on the tour just adds an extra special quality."

Not only that, but the timing of the show -- over the Christmas holidays -- makes the subject matter especially poignant. As is the case with virtually all fine art from the Renaissance, the works in "Offering of the Angels" are overtly Christian in nature.

A small minority of people may have some kind of issue with that, but Grove says "these works can appeal to people on many different levels. Those who seek religious meaning can find value at that level. Others can appreciate them as beautiful objects made by human beings to provide joy to others. The care that an artist took to make something of beauty that has lasted hundreds of years is at the very core of what a museum should do."

Grove says "the unique thing about a museum is it provides original works of art that people can come face-to-face with. A photo in a book or a JPEG online can't allow you to see that thin stripe of gold at the top of a painting, for example."

Telfair Curator Courtney McNeil takes us behind some of the process involved in setting up "Offering of the Angels."

"This is certainly unlike anything the Telfair has ever had an opportunity to present in the past," says McNeil.

"Back in the 1930s the Telfair showed a selection of Italian works from the Kress collection. These works from the Uffizi are traveling to the U.S. for the first time - you literally have had to go to Italy to see them before."

The American Uffizi tour is part of an Italian initiative - they've declared 2013 "Year of Italian Culture in the United States" - to further reinforce Italy's rich cultural heritage stateside.

"Culture is the main tool to enhance mutual understanding among people," says Adolfo Barattolo, Consul General of Italy about the exhibit. "And I personally consider it of essence in further strengthening the already solid ties between Italy and the United States, a country where a considerable Italian community is living and where almost 25 million Italian Americans have prospered and contributed to its greatness," he says.

In 2009, "Offering of the Angels" traveled to two cities in Spain - Madrid and Barcelona - before the stateside tour, both to crowds in the hundreds of thousands. However, the original Italian name of the exhibit - Il Pane degli Angeli - had to be altered somewhat for the U.S. tour.

"That literally means ‘Bread of the Angels,'" says McNeil. "It's a direct reference to the Eucharist. It was decided early on that maybe the literal translation would need to be changed for an American audience."

Some images are Old Testament representations that prefigure the life of Jesus, while others are "scenes of sacrifice, of the Annunciation, and a number of mother and child scenes that are really beautiful, and of course a classic Renaissance subject," says McNeil.

In addition to preparing and setting up the exhibit, the member venues each had specific segments they were responsible for. For example, one museum is handling the audio tour, to be used at all venues, and the Telfair oversaw the publication of the show catalog in English.

"It's not as simple as a straight translation," says McNeil. "There were some specific religious terms that were really more self-evident to an Italian, for example."

Above all, she says, "these works are all beyond replacing. They are of particular importance and fragility."
McNeil says the Telfair will for the first time experiment with timed ticketing, a fairly frequent practice at special exhibits in museums located in large metro areas.

Hopefully the crowds will be big and the timed ticketing will be needed, says Lisa Grove, who particular thanks Visit Savannah for their role in helping market "Offering of the Angels" to a regional audience.

"We're so pleased Visit Savannah wanted to partner on this. They can help make our marketing dollars go a lot further and reach out into markets outside where we traditionally go."

Offering of the Angels: Paintings and Tapestries from the Uffizi Gallery

When: Dec. 7-March 30. Opening reception Dec. 6, 6 p.m. featuring lecture by Linda Carioni of Contemporanea Progetti.

Where: Jepson Center for the Arts, 207 W. York St.

Cost: Museum admission; free to members