The Italian Almanac

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Niobe

Italian Art - May 26

One of the Uffizi Gallery's finest rooms and its most striking sculptoral group have been restored thanks to an American foundation whose donors include Sting and Mel Gibson.

The Niobe Room's original 18th-century layout and opulence have been recreated over two years to produce a "majestic 'international' beauty," said Florence artistic superintendent Antonio Paolucci. Its centerpiece, the statues of tragic mythical mother Niobe and her doomed family the Niobids, found in Rome in 1583, is "the most astounding group of classical staturary in the Uffizi."

The restored statues - probably 2nd-century AD Roman copies of Greek originals - are back in their once-familiar surroundings amidst a panoply of distinguished paintings. The restorations, made possible by a 300,000-euro grant from the Friends of Florence, gave experts their first-ever chance to conduct exhaustive studies of each statue, which would be "invaluable for future research," restorers said. For the first time, for instance, they were able to discover traces of another figure attached to Niobe s oldest son, thus confirming that originally it was a group of two joined figures.

The newly refurbished room and its freshly resplendent contents were presented to the press this week at a ceremony attended by US Ambassador to Italy Ronald Spogli, who called the foundation's work "a prime example of excellent collaboration between our two countries". Since its inception in 1998, the foundation of Florence-lovers headed by American-born Florentine businesswoman Simonetta Brandolini d'Adda has spent lavishly on several projects including Michelangelo's David, Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus and Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines in the Loggia della Signoria, and, most recently, Lorenzo Ghiberti s Doors of Paradise on Florence's Baptistry.

The Friends of Florence foundation brings together wealthy US art buffs and some of the cream of Florentine society. Its advisory members include Zubin Mehta, Sting, Mel Gibson and Franco Zeffirelli.