FLORENCE, ITALY — THREADING his way among the tourists admiring the Uffizi Gallery's collection, Antonio Russo steps up to a temporary door and inserts a key. He lets a reporter into Room 25.
Inside where a Michelangelo and other paintings once hung, there is nothing but bare wall. Glass plates that once covered the paintings rest against the walls. Fresh air streams through what was the skylight.
This room and others in the museum remain closed after a devastating bomb blast on May 27. Certain sections, however, have been reopened since June 20.
Mr. Russo, a member of the museum's technical staff, moves through room after room of similar scenes of desolation.
He stops in the old night- watchmen's quarters to survey the courtyard below where the car bomb went off, killing five people. Nearly two months after the blast, terra-cotta roof tiles lie broken on an adjacent roof, windows remain without glass, and workers continue to clear away rubble. The room is littered with pieces of plaster, brick, and glass. A broken window rests against one wall.
"After the bomb, we were speechless," Russo says. "The next morning it seemed like Beirut or Sarajevo." But in a burst of organization and efficiency that stunned even the Italians, the museum was reopened to visitors in three weeks' time.
Squads of volunteers were mobilized to take down the most precious works, to protect them from the threat of rain, and to clear the museum of rubble, especially glass. They also worked shifts to guard the damaged areas of the museum, which could easily be entered by thieves and unwanted visitors. (Art theft is a serious problem in Italy. A recent government study estimates that the country is deprived of the equivalent of a museum a year on account of it.)
Complete restoration of the Uffizi will cost millions of dollars, Russo says. He remains impressed by the support of his co-workers.
"In my opinion, in these moments you find the real character of a person," he says. "And I found some extraordinary people." Russo continues toward the museum's exit. Outside, a touch of mugginess is descending, but the tourists, speaking in a cacophony of languages, don't seem to mind.
Russo shifts the conversation from art and restoration to politics. The attack on the Uffizi occurred on the eve of mayoral elections in cities throughout Italy and followed a referendum in which Italians voted overwhelmingly in favor of political change. It was seen as an act of intimidation and an attempt to halt reform.
Various culprits are suspected in the bombing, Russo says (in fact, it has still not been determined who was responsible): the Mafia, or politicians, or the Mafia in collusion with politicians, or deviant elements in the secret services.
Whoever was responsible, the museum decided that the best response was to reopen immediately.
"It was fundamental for a number of reasons," explains museum director Annamaria Petrioli Tofani. First, she says, the staff was guided by the philosophy that it was necessary to return things to normal as soon as possible "to show how futile this attack was."
"An attack on art anywhere is a mistake, because it won't produce the desired results," Ms. Tofani says.
The staff also felt it was important to reopen the Uffizi Gallery quickly because of its role as an instrument of world culture. And too, the museum is important to Florence at a time of economic difficulty in Italy. The longer it remained closed, the more social tension it might cause in an already difficult period, Tofani says.
As she speaks, work continues on both repairing the section of the museum that is still closed and restoring damaged works of art.
The latter is delicate work, she points out, and can in no way be hurried. But when a room is ready, it will be opened. "I think by the end of this year it will be possible to open the rest of the museum," she says.
All the attention that has been called to the Uffizi in the wake of the bombing has rekindled discussion of expanding the museum from its present third-floor quarters into the second and first floors as well, which until 1988 had been occupied by the Italian state archives.
Six rooms on the second floor have already been restored and are used for special exhibitions. Tofani wants to renovate the buildings in harmony with their history (they were begun in 1560), but it must be done without closing the museum.
"The Uffizi buildings are a work of art themselves," Tofani says.