Threat of coronavirus hangs heavily over Rome Raphael spectacular

ROME (Reuters) - An exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Renaissance artist Raphael opens in Rome this week but the show risks being overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak sweeping Italy.

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The Scuderie del Quirinale gallery has sold almost 70,000 tickets in online sales even before the doors open to the public, a record for such an exhibition here, but the government battle to halt the infection could yet wreck the event.

Amongst the measures that ministers are considering are banning public gatherings and ordering people to maintain a distance of at least one meter (yard) from one another - impossible to imagine in the confined space of a major art show.

“We are just keeping our fingers crossed and praying it can go ahead as planned,” said a senior official at the Scuderie as workers put the finishing touches to the exhibition, which is due to open on Thursday and run until June 2.

More than 2,500 people in Italy have come down with coronavirus in less than two weeks and at least 79 people have died.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known in the English-speaking world as Raphael, was born in 1483 and died just 37 years later after a sudden illness in Rome. He was one of the most celebrated artists of his age.

The exhibition covers not just his famed paintings, but also his involvement in archaeology, architecture and poetry, as well as prints, sculpture and tapestry.

The curators have managed to bring together 204 works of art, including 120 by Raphael himself and other pieces that give an insight into the times he lived - a period now known as the High Renaissance, an enlightened age marked by a renewed interest in classical antiquity.

Raphael’s masterpieces are found today in museums around the world, and many of them, including Madrid’s Prado, London’s National Gallery and the Washington National Gallery of Art, have sent their priceless art work to Rome.

“I am sure we will never see again such a concentration of works by Raphael together in one venue as we do here,” said Eike Schmidt, the director of Florence’s Uffizi museum which itself offered up nine paintings and 40 drawings.

Showing the passions that Raphael’s work engenders, the entire scientific committee at the Uffizi resigned last month to protest at Schmidt’s decision to loan one of its paintings to the Scuderie in defiance of their recommendation.

The committee said the portrait of Pope Leo X was core to the identity of their collection and should never be let out of Florence. Schmidt overruled them, deciding that such an iconic painting deserved to return to the city it was created in.

Marzia Faietti, who curated the show, spent three years trying to persuade other museums to give up their treasures.

“We got more than we thought we would get. I am so grateful. It just shows the friendships in place between Italy and all these other galleries,” Faietti told Reuters. “This is the only time and the only place where you can get to see them all.”

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Angus MacSwan