Posted on the approximate anniversary of my initial conversation with Flavia – the story’s contents were obsoleted by the arrival of a second wave of infections.

I spoke to Flavia Puoti for the first time last April, on a bright, blustery Friday. Tuscany had gotten over the worst of its COVID outbreak, and New York, two weeks behind, had just come off its peak. The city of Florence went into shutdown on March 8th, as did its most well-known trio of museums, famous for their collections of Renaissance art: the Palazzo Pitti, the adjacent Boboli Gardens, and the Uffizi Gallery, on the opposite bank of the Arno River.

Puoti, 34, has been a conservator of metal and organic materials at the Palazzo Pitti since 2018. Earlier that morning, Puoti recorded her walk through the Palazzo Pitti’s Treasury of the Grand Dukes as she made her regular checks of the exhibit’s objects. In Puoti’s video, the Treasury is illuminated but dim. Vitrines, spaced at regular intervals on the floor of the public hall, resemble small coffins of light. They contain the Medici Treasure: some 3000 pieces of silverware, precious metals and stones, jewelry, and relics dating from the 14th c. The only sound, apart from the ambient hum of air conditioning, is the click of Puoti’s footfalls.

At the beginning of the shutdown, she and four other colleagues (specializing in paper, stone, and painting preservation) were placed on a rotating schedule of weekly checks. Mostly, they worked from home, making progress on database and digitization projects that they normally wouldn’t have time for. Twice a week, Puoti walked to the Palazzo Pitti from her apartment in Florence’s historical center, carrying a note from Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi, to present to any police officers who might stop her in the deserted streets. Once at the Palazzo, she made her rounds of the mezzanine and first-floor rooms of the Treasury, checking for pests and any signs of damage, before leaving for the Restoration Lab, near the Boboli Gardens.

I visited the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, and Boboli Gardens in 2018, at the height of the summer, and was dazzled by the lightness with which Florence bore the evidence of its history. The Uffizi was a center of bureaucratic power in its early days, in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it housed the city’s guilds and magistracies; on the opposite, southern bank of the Arno River, the Pitti and Boboli Gardens belonged to a wealthy merchant, Luca Pitti, before they were purchased by Cosimo I de Medici in 1550. The Medicis filled both the Uffizi and Pitti with their treasures. The buildings, as much as their contents, are museum pieces.

Two months later, I started a research fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where I learned that large cultural institutions are never truly empty, and that collections managers and curators are the engine behind their day-to-day maintenance and lumbering progress. For museums dedicated to non-living artifacts, the living are a constant encroachment: In the halls of the AMNH’s entomology department, glue traps were placed sans irony next to collections cabinets full of study specimens of cockroaches, and the entire wing smelled overpoweringly of mothballs. A mouse made frequent appearances in the office I shared with two students from the Richard Gilder Graduate School; we named it Mr. Muscles, in a nod to Mus musculus, its scientific name.

The illusion of stopped time, strengthened by quarantine, is shattered by the simple physics of entropy. The natural end of canvas, animal tissue, and plant-based paints is a dusty oblivion, hastened by exposure to sunlight, oxygen, and the oils excreted by human skin.


Six hours ahead of New York, in the light of a Florentine afternoon, the facade of the Palazzo Pitti glowed yellow; a locally-quarried sandstone called pietra forte lends the building its distinctive color. Puoti cast her phone camera about the empty sweep of the Piazza Pitti, the sloping stone apron abutting the north side of the Palazzo, ordinarily busy with museumgoers waiting at the Palazzo’s public entrance. She walked past the manicured hedges of the Boboli Gardens and opened a door set into the side of the Pitti’s hulk. Birds chirped and gusts of wind translated, over my speakers, as a series of hollow flapping noises. Puoti peered inside before turning back to me.

“There can only be one conservator here at a time,” she said. For that reason, she wouldn’t need to wear a face mask.

The Restoration Lab occupied two floors in a large, warehouse-like space, its roof supported by a truss of exposed wooden beams. Computer workstations were located on the upper floor; long, rectangular lamps with hinged reflective panels on tripods stood next to workbenches arrayed along two sides of the lower floor. Paintings undergoing restoration were propped against the wall, behind white paper shrouds.

At her workbench, Puoti donned gloves and goggles with magnifying lenses and removed paper coverings from two large, brownish shapes. One was a bronze crucifix, by the 18th c. Florentine sculptor Giovanni Foggini. The other was a tarnished reliquary, Puoti explained, containing the relics of the cane and cloak of Saint Joseph – the patron saint of immigrants, engineers, and happy deaths, among other things. She’d been in the process of cleaning its gilt silver surface and applying a protective topcoat during her previous rotation in the lab.

I watched her begin work on the reliquary of Saint Joseph. Using a cotton swab, she dabbed at dark splotches of oxidation with a solution of water and a powderized abrading agent. She worked quickly, with small, precise strokes; these were modern materials, she explained, so she approached their restoration with no trepidation.

Before coming to the Uffizi, she’d worked on archaeological excavations, where artifacts might be extracted from the soil in “a thousand pieces” and a wrong move might shatter them into thousands more. At the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at Clemson University in South Carolina, she’d worked on the restoration of the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that sank in 1864 with all eight crew members onboard, after torpedoing the Union warship Housatonic. The submarine was raised from the Atlantic Ocean in 2000. Puoti participated in the excavation of the crew’s remains and personal effects: clothing, candle sticks, pipes with tobacco still packed into their bowls.

After a year in South Carolina, she’d received notice of an open position at the Pitti, funded by the Italian government. She jumped at the opportunity.

“Conservation is a high-skill, low-pay job,” Puoti said, “depending on where you’re working.”

Conservators study a balance of art history, art practice, chemistry, physics, and biology, and compete for a limited number of jobs upon graduation. For the 2019-2020 school year, the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro, in Rome, accepted applications for 25 slots in its five-year conservatorship program. After completing her masters at the ISCR, Puoti worked as a freelancer for a time before heading overseas, to Clemson, to earn her spurs – experience abroad often lends itself to better opportunities upon return to Italy.

Puoti had finished removing tarnish from the reliquary of Saint Joseph, and had begun treating it with a protective coating of acrylic resin. Oxygen and sulfur in the air would wear down the protective topcoat in five to ten years, at which point the reliquary would require treatment again. Normally, a project the size of the reliquary would take her two weeks to complete. Under lockdown, with restricted access to the lab, she estimated that she was able to complete only a third of her usual restoration work.

Conservation is a slow, if not Sisyphean, process – the ideal outcome of restoration is a return to the object’s status quo, as it appeared on the day it was made; the worst might be its irretrievable destruction. Between restorations, an object spends most of its time hovering somewhere between those two extremes.

Puoti was in the process of writing guidelines for reopening when I called her. The Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti, as historical buildings, would require special attention when it came time to sanitize both. Where possible, unfinished surfaces – wood, stone – would be cleaned with a non-ionic surfactant, a solution of soap and water. Finished surfaces were to be treated with a solution of 70% ethanol. In lieu of cleaning certain areas of the museum, Puoti told me, the conservators might decide to simply cordon them off.

The Boboli Gardens opened on May 21, and the Palazzo Pitti on May 28th. The Uffizi opened last, on June 3. Eike Schmidt, the gallery’s director, announced in an April interview with the Guardian that the Uffizi would limit its capacity to 450 guests at a time, half of its usual 900, and encourage visitors to maintain at least a meter’s distance from one another. Ticket reservations would need to be made online in advance, to prevent queueing outside museum entrances. The first crowds to visit the newly reopened museums would be sparser, more local – mostly Florentines and other Italians, venturing out of doors for the first time in months.

I recalled how I’d gloried in the emptiness of the AMNH after hours, when the entire building seemed to relax into a vague, twilit version of its daytime self. With the public halls void of school groups and tourists, it was easier to imagine the museum’s invisible tenants, those specimens too fragile, too unwieldy, or too obscure to display on the public floors: the giant squid lying in its vat of ethanol on the fifth floor, say, or Nabokov’s butterfly collection. I asked Puoti if she’d miss the nearly-empty Pitti.

She paused. Admittedly, it was easier to move about the museum with fewer tourists around, she said. Mondays are museum holidays in Italy, and she had been accustomed, in pre-COVID times, to cramming particularly onerous tasks – photographing, dusting, or moving artwork – into those free days.

“Of course, I enjoy working around these beautiful objects,” she said. “Just for me, nobody else. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”

She was unnerved by the emptiness of the Palazzo’s grand halls. All three museums have long-standing contingency plans in the event of flood or fire (the original Restoration Lab had been moved from the Uffizi Gallery to avoid risk of flooding from the Arno), but a pandemic is a different kind of menace. It strikes the museum at its core – it affects the keepers of the collections.


The next time I spoke to Flavia Puoti, in early May, she’d returned home to Rome to visit family. The trains were running again, and she’d been able to make the one-hour trip from Tuscany to Lazio with no issue. Typically cheery, she seemed somehow more at ease now. The city was coming back to life by degrees, though restaurants were still closed; in simultaneous observance and defiance of the lockdown order, they’d taken to turning on their lights in the evenings, as though open for business.

We discussed the discovery, in 2013, of a mass grave of plague victims from the 4th c. in the basement of the Uffizi. Puoti mentioned, matter-of-factly, that she had observed bones unearthed by the excavation during routine visits to the basement to use the bathroom there, or to retrieve water bottles and other things tourists had dropped and neglected to pick up. I was reminded, then, of the timescale on which Florence’s historical memory operates, and the recordkeeping function that an art museum serves.

I thought of a portrait I’d seen of Saint Sebastian by Lorenzo Costa in the Uffizi’s digital archives. Long worshipped as a plague saint, the Sebastian of Costa’s painting is pierced by two arrows, in his chest and side. His face is oddly serene. (Sebastian is often depicted in aestheticized agony, the arrows a representation of the invisible assault of the plague.) There are many other memento mori in the collections of the Pitti and Uffizi; far from gruesome or morbid, however, they feel like a record of both museums’ ability to turn catastrophe into a thing of beauty, an ability I’d observed even from afar.

(the Uffizi reopened on May 28, and shuttered for COVID on Nov. 5, 2020)