blending the old and new in italian palazzi
I try to see as many art and design exhibits as I can here in Italy in small galleries and palazzi (old buildings build for aristocratic families in centuries past), because I am often disappointed by the larger museums. A great post on another blog about the incorporation of contemporary art into chateaus in France made me think about one of the aspects of these small galleries that I like the most — the perfect eye that curators and exhibit designers often bring to mixing and contrasting the old, history-laden spaces with new art, new creativity, and a hyper-modern way of presenting it. I always find that the shows I like the least are those that try to stay all historical, or all contemporary. Neither exists without the other, and a country like Italy or France has a unique ability to incorporate this into exhibits that galleries in the US unfortunately do not.
One of the best examples of this I’ve seen was an exhibit held for just two days in Milan’s Palazzo Marino last year by Dolce & Gabbana to celebrate 20 years of their menswear collections. Elegant rooms with painted and sculpted ceilings, frescoes and portraits and marble covering every inch, were filled with slick chrome and glass walls, multimedia displays flashing through their history in images and quotes, as well as interactive photo galleries and huge books to flip through everywhere. The exhibit celebrated Dolce & Gabbana, their cutting edge style and quality of craft, but framed this perfectly in the context of the many centuries that Italy has been at the greatest heights of art and design and embellished details, renowned for its tradition of valuing beauty.
Embedded in plexiglass around the halls were dozens of iPads for flipping through the image galleries at your own pace.
The old, delicate details of the old palazzo were also contrasted by rough, mismatched wood used in these book stands.
My favorite detail of the exhibit though was how they very literally brought the nostalgia of craftsmanship together with modernity: in a side room a tailor sat on a very slowly turning platform, working on finishing a hem or buttonhole or other details, as people passed through and watched. Next to him on a little table a radio played those classic, instantly recognizable Italian songs from the 50s and 60s, and around the room were finished tuxedo jackets on mannequins, patterns pinned up, all the accoutrements of a classic tailor’s shop. Something you can still see in fact if you happen to pass by an open sartoria door today. The whole thing might seem a little kitschy I suppose, but personally I found it sincere, a tribute to the often forgotten detail work, which in a lot of ways is what has made this country great. I guess I had a personal attachment as well though, as once upon a time I studied pattern-making and sewing in night classes in New York.
One of the somewhat controversial blendings of old and new in Rome however is the Museum of the Ara Pacis. It is an “altar to peace” from ancient Rome, amazingly preserved, which several years was housed in a very modernly designed museum, designed by American architect Richard Meier, to protect it from the elements. Romans are understandably finicky about adding anything to change drastically the look or character of their city, particularly when it comes to their ancient architecture, but I think that the simplicity of the design — all glass, metal, crisp white walls and neutral stone — is a fitting way to house the monument stylishly without detracting from it, allowing much of the altar and sculptures to still be visible to anyone walking by. A beautiful fountain in front of the museum has turned it into a gathering place as well, especially beloved by children exhausted by the hot sun.
The Museum of the Ara Pacis, Rome.
A few days ago I was in Bologna, seeing my aunt and uncle who are traveling in Italy with friends, and again the museum which stands out as most successful in my mind is the Palazzo Fava: a beautiful old house famed for its Renaissance frescoes showing the story of Jason and the Argonauts and Medea, but which filled much of the rest of its space with contemporary art. I particularly liked a series of sculptures of cypress trees, a quintessential feature of the central Italian landscape, in blocky marble, wood and even one made of thin blades of rusted sheet metal. On the top floor of the palazzo there was also a small exhibit about the design of a new concert hall being built, which itself takes its asymmetrical shape from the old outline of the city walls of Renaissance Bologna: a perfect tribute to history.
Cipresso e la sua amica pioggia, by Angelo Micheli, 2009, at Palazzo Fava, Bologna.