What Happens at the Uffizi Stays at the Uffizi

Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

When I went to Italy in the eighties, I was part of a tour group of twenty people. We spent a full day visiting the Uffizi Museum in Florence, one of the most famous museums in the world. It has a large collection of unique works of art and masterpieces, mostly from the Renaissance Period, although it contains works from the twelfth century to the present. My favorite pieces were works by Italian artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, and Raphael.

Upon leaving the museum, I saw Maxine and Gwen, two elderly sisters, staring down at a grate in the sidewalk under the portico next to the building. Both had knitted brows and worried looks. I had just come out of the museum, and they didn’t see me yet. I told myself I should hurry on my way before they caught sight of me. Unfortunately, I just can’t pass by when someone needs help.

I went over and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I was changing the film in my camera,” Maxine said, “and the canister popped out and dropped into the grate.”

“Why don’t you just buy another roll?” I asked.

“I had all 36 pictures from the beginning of the trip until now. I really want them back.”

Together, we peered down into the grate.

A man walking by stopped and asked, “Is this another exhibit?”

“No,” we said.

He shrugged and walked away.

Actually, we could see statues and paintings beneath the grate, so we knew this must be part of the Uffizi.

“What can we do?” Maxine asked.

“Follow me.” I walked over to the entrance to the gift shop, which is the room everyone must go through before they can leave the museum. The operators hope, of course, that people will linger and buy souvenirs after seeing the artwork. A uniformed officer stands guard at the opening from the museum to the shop so people won’t sneak into the museum without paying.

I went up to her and asked, “Do you speak English?”

No. No Inglese.”

I tried to explain the situation in Italian, but she just kept shaking her head, so I motioned that we just wanted to go back in the museum. She grew more and more frustrated.

Fortunately, I knew the word for office in Italian, so I said, “Ufficio, per favore.”

She pointed behind us and said, “Exit.” She didn’t say, “Uscita,” since she could already tell we were Americans.

I stood my ground. “Ufficio, per favore.”

Once again, she pointed her finger said, “Exit.”

Ufficio, per favore.” I could keep this up all day if I had to. We would not leave without Maxine’s film.

Eventually, the officer sighed dramatically and pointed through the doorway she was guarding. She made climbing motions with her fingers and waved toward some stairs at the back of the museum. The two sisters struggled up the flight of stairs, out of breath by the time we found a receptionist behind a desk.

I went up to the woman and asked, “Do you speak English?”

No. No Inglese.”

Once again, my rudimentary Italian made it impossible for her to understand the situation, so she picked up her phone and spoke into the handset. When she hung up, she pointed to another set of stairs going upward, and we went up another flight, with the sisters stopping to catch their breath a couple of times.

An elegant woman stood in the office doorway at the top of the stairs. She spoke perfect English with a beautiful Italian accent. I explained the problem to her. She went over to her phone, spoke into it in Italian, and then said, “Follow me.”

We went down both flights of stairs and one more before we reached the basement. A handsome young custodian met us at the bottom. He was tall and broad-shouldered, looking quite fit in his blue uniform. A lock of black hair curled on his forehead like Superman.

The woman explained the situation to him in Italian. He smiled, nodded, and started looking around.

We all searched among the dusty statues and paintings for at least thirty minutes before Maxine examined her camera and said, “Oh, wait. It wasn’t the film that’s missing. It’s the battery.”

I said, “Oh, I saw a battery stuck in the sill of the grate while we were on the sidewalk.”

Maxine gave herself a face palm.

Gwen said, “Don’t feel bad.”

“We all make mistakes,” I said.

Her red face told us our words were little consolation.

The three of us thanked the woman and the man for their assistance. I told the woman we wanted to send a thank-you note to their superiors praising them for their willingness to help. She would not give me her name, saying she did not need to be thanked.

I turned to the man and asked, “Come ti chiami?”

“Fabio.”

I raised my eyebrows, opened my eyes wide, and asked in as sultry a voice as I could muster, “Fabio?”

He grinned and said, “Si, Fabio,” then raised both fists in the classic bodybuilder’s pose. I certainly would remember that name long enough to write a letter to his supervisor.

After we climbed back up the stairs and exited through the gift shop, Maxine and Gwen wanted to buy me lunch for being so helpful, but I declined. I realized that if I had not tried to “fix everything,” they would have found out a lot sooner that only the battery was lost.

But then I wouldn’t have met Fabio.