The upstairs galleries of the Muscarelle Museum echo with emptiness, the rich red walls bare and the space scattered with hollow glass cases.
Not for long.
In a matter of weeks, the elevator doors will start to empty thousands of people into galleries containing 26 works by Italian painter Sandro Botticelli and his colleagues.
Once inside, gazing upon the paintings, it will be hard to think of anything but their beauty and scale. But an extensive amount of thought precedes a show with the significance of "Sandro Botticelli and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting between the Medici and the Bonfire of the Vanities," opening Feb. 11.
"The concept and the very early talks began as early as two years ago," said Melissa Parris, the Muscarelle's head of collections and exhibitions.
At that point, chief curator John Spike would have developed a list of works. And not just any list.
"Because we're a university art museum, in addition to educating and entertaining the public, which is what all museums wish to do, we specifically want to advance the known knowledge about the topics that we address with original works of art," said Spike, who is an expert in Italian Renaissance art.
This exhibition in particular seeks to examine the arc of Botticelli's career, which included a notable change in style.
With the concept created, the negotiations began. Parris and Muscarelle Museum director Aaron De Groft partnered with Italy's Associazione Culturale Metamorfosi, a traveling exhibitions company, to negotiate with lenders: in this case, museums and churches in six Italian cities.
"My perspective is how do we build and develop a relationship at a very respected and high enough level to be even able to have the chance or the possibility to ask for loans?" De Groft said.
He described several factors that help, including personal relationships with lenders, a track record of significant shows and scholarship and the history of the museum's home: The College of William and Mary.
During negotiations, Parris said the lending institution's director, curators and conservators would look at whether the piece is safe to travel. That's the starting point on both sides, and a concern that remains throughout the entire process. In this case, the Muscarelle also needed clearance from Italy's culture ministry.
Eventually, negotiations bear contracts.
A big part of the process, Parris said, is accommodating couriers. Each institution sends a courier, sometimes more than one, to safeguard the loan.
"There are a lot of negotiations about who gets to travel with it, how they travel with it, how long they're here in the U.S., how much per diem do they get," Parris said.
Though still working out the number, Parris said up to 10 couriers could be coming with the Botticelli works.
Parris finds it fascinating to think about what sometimes travels beneath passenger planes.
"You have horses and things traveling on a plane," she said. "It's not just art."
But in staging an international loan exhibition, the art has to get here somehow. Parris said some pieces will travel across the ocean in cargo planes. Those that fit fly over in passenger planes beneath the feet of oblivious travelers.
Transportation of such significant art is no small endeavor, and the Muscarelle Museum uses specialized fine arts transit companies, or "white glove" services. Examples of such companies include Artex Fine Art Services and U.S. Art.
"The fine arts company will go to the museum, spend time with the art, measuring it, talking to conservators to understand the best ways to transport it," Parris said.
Then, the company crafts a custom case or crate that does much more than provide a protective shell. Parris said these cases contain micro-climates that insulate paintings from extreme temperatures. Needless to say, the cases are an expensive piece of a costly process.
Once the crates clear customs, the white glove service loads them into trucks headed to the Muscarelle—trucks that, according to museum standards, usually have air ride suspension, climate control and at least two drivers, said Parris. For security purposes, the unmarked trucks, each equipped with satellite, travel at night with a schedule known to few. Sometimes, they're followed by armed vehicles.
"Generally, for a very high value show like this — I mean, this is one of the world's greatest painters and one of the most important artists in art history — you can assume that we will give it the top-notch, top-level in every instance that we're able to," Parris said.
Once pieces arrive, installation begins.
Parris, facilities and exhibitions manager Kevin Gilliam and a very small staff team will don nitrile gloves and spend one long week in the galleries unpacking and mounting the pieces, always under the watchful eye of couriers.
With the layout already decided by Spike, Parris and her team know exactly where to place each work, and they do so one by one.
The object, once transferred from crate to table, undergoes a condition report, as the installation team inspects each piece for changes. Rarely do they find anything, Parris said.
Then, the piece moves from table to wall or case. The process, though direct, moves slowly.
"We don't do anything fast," Parris said. "We can look over a painting for a very long time with a light and a magnifying glass to go over every bit of the surface of the painting to make sure no changes have occurred, and we measure it two or three times before it makes its way to the wall."
No matter the preparations, the process is rarely perfect. Gilliam enjoys the problem solving.
"Oftentimes, and this show's going to be no exception, there are certain works that have problems that get a little more involved and may require actually fabricating something or figuring out what needs to be done in order to make it function as far as being in the exhibit," he said.
For the Botticelli exhibition, Gilliam plans to build a few bases and architectural environments to support the paintings.
"Until you actually have the work in hand, it's always a big question mark," he said.
But having the works in gloved hands, such intimacy with each piece, is an incomparable experience.
Parris recalled what it was like handling the Da Vinci drawing displayed at the Muscarelle in 2015.
"In a way, it can become very overwhelming," she said. "I just remember that from Leonardo. Just holding it and inspecting it and thinking, 'This is crazy.'"
It will be the same with Botticelli. For the better part of a year, Parris has experienced most of the paintings only as pixels on a small screen.
"It's a bit like Christmas when you're opening the crates," she said.
Want to go?
"Botticelli and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting between the Medici and the Bonfires of the Vanities" opens Feb. 11 at the Muscarelle Museum. Tickets are currently available at muscarelle.org.