27 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 66

Orvieto's secret

Alasdair Palmer on how a bureaucratic wrangle kept a town's treasures hidden

Small, but perfectly formed: for once, the cliché is apt. The museum of the Opera del Duomo in Orvieto in Umbria has one of the choicest collections of mediaeval sculpture and painting anywhere in Italy. It contains, among other things, two exquisite figures carved in stone by Arnolfo di Cambio; several wonderfully graceful statues by Andrea Pisano; a sumptuous (and extremely rare) panel painting from around 1270 by the great master Coppo di Marcovaldo; a gorgeously rich polytych by Simone Martini; and a large

and elegant painting of Mary Magdalene by Luca Signorelli.

These and many other glorious works are all housed within an exceptionally beautiful building: the papal palace, built in the 13th century, and located on one side of the cathedral square in Orvieto. In the early 1980s, it was specially adapted as a museum after a decade-long restoration.

Unfortunately, the museum is now closed — as it has been for nearly 15 years. In fact, the papal palace closed soon after the building had been refitted and opened as a museum. Some of the sculptures have not been seen for 20 years. No one has been allowed to view the Opera del Duomo's treasures, which have been left to gather dust.

When I was lucky enough to be taken round on a sneak visit by Dr Lucio Riccetti — a historian who works at both Perugia and Rome universities, and who also is the curator of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo — he ushered me into a splendid stone-vaulted room, the great hall of the papal palace. It was full of large boxes. 'Take a look at this,' he said as he opened one. He then pulled out a marvellously delicate stone statue by Arnolfo di Cambio. 'If you don't like that,' he suggested, 'try this!' — and he revealed a wooden panel on which there was a painting of the Virgin and Saints by the 14th-century master Lippo di Vanni.

Opening other boxes, apparently at random, Dr Riccetti produced an extraordinary series of masterpieces: paintings, fragments of detached frescoes, wooden sculptures, drawings, embroidered fabrics, ceramics, bronzes and intricate intarsia work. The wealth of wonderful objects left me gasping. `Ah,' Dr Riccetti said at one point as he opened another storage cupboard, 'I am very fond of this one.' He held up a particularly lovely stone carving of the Madonna and Child: the pose was extraordinarily natural and intimate, with the Infant Jesus stretching out a hand to touch the veil covering his mother's head. We don't know exactly who carved it,' Dr Riccetti explained. 'The artist was certainly one of the sculptors employed to carve the reliefs on the façade of the cathedral between 1305 and 1310. But no one knows his name.'

Dr Riccetti directed me into another room. This one was full not of boxes but of life-size, and larger than life-size, statues: saints and angels in twisted baroque poses, drapery billowing around them, as they writhed in agony, in ecstasy or in whatever. Most of them were covered in plastic sheeting. 'These sculptures come from the early 16th and 17th centuries,' Dr Riccetti explained. 'They used to be in the cathedral, They were taken out and put in storage in the 19th century when the cathedral was "restored" to what 19th-century enthusiasts thought it looked like in the Middle Ages. It was a pity. Some of the statues are extremely fine.' Some of them certainly are — particularly, for instance, the ecstatic Angel of the Annunciation by Francesco Mochi.

The experience of looking at so many supreme masterpieces left me feeling not un-ecstatic myself. That feeling was, however, tempered by profound puzzlement at the fact that so many gorgeous works could be hidden for so long. Deliberately to shut away such a collection of treasures is a serious aesthetic crime — a crime of which everyone who loves art is a victim. Who could possibly do such a thing? What on earth could be the point? It isn't as if anyone could benefit by shutting up the magnificent collection. Indeed, any museum in the world would have paid a lot of money merely to exhibit the Opera del Duomo's treasures. Why, then, are they in the dark, inaccessible to view?

I tried to find out. No one really knew. The basic facts seem to be these. There was an argument between the two artistic authorities in Orvieto: the Opera del Duomo, to whom the works of art belong, and the Soprainteridenza, which is supposed to have control over Umbria's artistic heritage. Back in the 1980s, after the papal palace had been specially rebuilt and refitted as a museum, the Sopra-intendenza removed some of the statues for restoration. They shut the museum and then took an inordinately long time over the job — several years in fact. Officials from the Opera del Duomo — especially the former president, Professor Romolo Tiberi, and his successor, Dr Aldo Mattioni — wanted to reopen the museum. The Sopraintendenza was not willing to relinquish what it believed was its right to control the museum, and so, since then, there has been deadlock.

It seems to have been the kind of pointless bureaucratic wrangle over precedence which should have been cleared up in a couple of weeks. Instead, it has kept the museum shut for a decade and a half, There is hope, however. After intense lobbying, Dr Riccetti and his colleagues seem to have managed to arrange to open a portion of the museum to the public again. 'From the beginning of October, visitors will be able to see its greatest trea sures,* explains Dr Riccetti. 'They will be exhibited in two special rooms. Anyone will be able to book a visit by going to the website museo@opsm.it. Those who buy tickets should be reassured to know that their money will be used to fund the eventual reopening of the whole museum.'

I cannot recommend the masterpieces of the Opera del Duomo highly enough. Anyone who loves art should book a ticket for the temporary exhibition, and get out to Orvieto the moment its treasures are available once again to the outside world.

Alasdair Palmer is public policy editor of the Sunday Telegraph.