FLORENCE'S 400-year-old Uffizi art gallery reopened yesterday, 24 days after it was badly damaged by a huge car bomb.
Craftsmen at the world's finest collection of Renaissance masterpieces have worked round the clock since last month's blast, which killed five people living behind the museum.
'Opening so soon sends a message that we will not be beaten by terrorism,' said Antonio Paolucci, Florence's cultural heritage director. 'The Uffizi is an international symbol of culture and civilisation. It was our patriotic duty to be back in business as soon as possible.'
The bomb has officially been blamed on the Mafia - an attempt to strike back at the state after a string of defeats. But some believe the attack was organised by reactionary political elements opposed to Italy's political renewal.
Nearly 440Ibs of explosive packed into a stolen van parked behind the Uffizi's west wing blew up on May 27, opening great cracks in the walls and causing severe structural damage which will take months more to repair.
Of 30 pictures damaged in the blast, three were destroyed: two by Bartolomeo Manfredi, a follower of Caravaggio, and one by the Flemish painter Gerrit van Honthorst.
Special bullet-proof 'anti-vandal' shields saved other masterpieces like Michelangelo's 'Tondo Doni' medallion of the Holy Family from flying glass in rooms ripped by the blast.
One picture was on show to illustrate the extent of the damage. The blast tore off all the paint from a still life by Bartolomeo Bimbi, leaving only a bare brown canvas.
Restoration experts had to search through a pile of broken glass littering the floor of the gallery to find the missing shreds of paint and then reassemble them like a jig-saw puzzle.
Only 60 per cent of the gallery reopened to the public. Several works, like the Michelangelo, were moved out of the damaged west wing for display in the East wing.
Although visitors can see the most important works in the collection, the musuem's courtyard remains full of rubble, cranes and fire engines - vivid reminders of the bomb - and corrugated iron fences guide them to makeshift exits.
Uffizi director, Anna Maria Petrioli Tofani, said normally slow bureaucratic procedures were snapped into top gear to speed up restoration. 'This time the state has really been behind us,' she told reporters.
Italian President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, and Senate speaker, Giovanni Spadolini, who both visited the gallery during the weekend, have called the speed of restoration work miraculous.