Modern Forms speaks to Sergio Risaliti, Director of the Museo Novecento, Florence and founder of the Rinascimento+ Award about contemporary art patronage, fostering a vital contemporary art scene in one of the birthplaces of Western art and his recent, citywide blockbuster Jenny Saville exhibition.
Modern Forms (MF): Sergio, it seems from your groundbreaking initiatives that we cover in this interview, namely your on-going series of multi-venue, citywide exhibitions of leading contemporary artists and the Rinascimento+ Award you founded, that your aim is not only to foster a vibrant contemporary art scene in Florence, but also to connect the contemporary cultural moment with the city’s storied past. What drives this ambition for you? What is it you would like to achieve, overall with these multiple initiatives?
Sergio Risaliti (SR): The first reason for this project is a response to the need to see the museum dynamically, in relation to its ability to delocalize, both within the main building and by extending the action outside, especially in a city like Florence where the educational function of a museum must necessarily interface and collide with heritage, and thus with the past and its presence. A strong presence, undoubtedly. This serves to unlock certain prejudices, certain distrust or disinterest in modern and contemporary art. Florence is a city resting on the greatness of its heritage and past, which attracts millions of people from all over the world and has undoubtedly proposed almost unsurpassed models of beauty and perfection. This dream is shattered not to diminish the value of the past, which will remain a point of reference in the history of Western society, but to stimulate constant updating, a confrontation with the present, without which there can be no sharing and exchange with the rest of the world. It also means instilling courage and curiosity and a principle of tolerance so as to be open to confrontation with the other, the unseen and the different. And a museum has this mission to interpret and carry out. To do it outside the building and to enter into direct confrontation with the forms of the past, whether Beato Angelico in San Marco or Brunelleschi in the Pazzi Chapel, or Michelangelo in Casa Buonarroti or Donatello in Palazzo Vecchio and the piazzas, just to name a few examples, means being able to realign in a dimension where vis-à-vis the artist of today and the artist of yesterday is possible. Creating an interplay of similarities, differences and contrasts. This leads to regenerating the past through new readings that arise from the comparison between the two dimensions, that of today and yesterday, and keeping awake the interest in what is happening in current art.
MF: The Rinascimento+ Award is now in its third edition and Modern Forms’s founder Hussam is one the recipients this year, in a distinguished group that also includes the likes of Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and Patrizio Bertelli of Fondazione Prada. Can you tell us about the genesis and purpose of the award? What characteristics in patronage do you especially want to recognise and highlight with this initiative?
SR: The idea is to keep a tradition alive. Florence is the city where modern collecting and patronage was born, in a dimension that did not exist before. I refer to J. von Schlosser’s seminal essay, Art and Curiosity Cabinets of the Late Renaissance, a story that went on for centuries until it also characterized Florentine culture and society in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It should also be remembered that it was from private collections that the great Florentine museums were born, such as the Uffizi, the Bargello but also the Bardini and the Stibbert Museum. Not least the Museo Novecento itself, which grew out of the ribs of the Alberto Della Ragione Collection. This, too, is part of a strategy aimed at giving continuity, to a sort of editorial line that has continued over the centuries and that today we want to return to emphasize and enhance through the Rinascimento+ recognition, which is intended to reward those who have distinguished themselves for their patronage and support of contemporary arts at the international level.
MF: Your recent, extraordinary, Jenny Saville exhibition (30 Sep 2021 – 27 Feb 2022), staged across five museums and venues in Florence received global acclaim. Can you tell us what the show meant for you and its audience?
SR: The Jenny Saville exhibition was very important for us, for the city and especially for the Museo Novecento. After two years of Covid the museum was, of course, in crisis as people couldn’t visit for so long. However, with two exhibitions, the first of Henry Moore and the second of Jenny Saville, we attracted people back into the museum. I think Jenny Saville is one of the most important artists of our time because her work is both very popular and accessible and very sophisticated. She has two levels, so to speak. One level is for the art specialists and devotees who have a profound understanding of the history and language of art. The second level is very broad and accessible because her work also speaks in a universal language. She embodies archetypes and fundamental subjects like: the female body, violence on the female body, maternity, eros and sexuality.
This is very important, that Jenny’s art can immediately connect with general audiences and it also touches the minds of those immersed in the language and alive to the relationship between tradition and modernity in the history of art. This last point is very important. Academically we used to think of progress in art as being linear. Moving in one direction, but now when we delve into the history of culture, we uncover the deep connections between tradition and the avant garde. Our understanding of the interplay between modernity and tradition is more complex than it was ten, twenty or forty years ago. Now it’s possible to have a dialogue between the avant-garde and tradition.
MF: Is fostering this dialogue between the art of the past and present one of the main ambitions for these citywide exhibitions where you juxtapose contemporary art with Florence’s Renaissance masterpieces? You’ve previously staged similar multi-venue exhibitions with artists from the Arte Povera movement and German artist Wolfgang Laib…
SR: Yes. This is a particularly powerful model for staging contemporary art exhibitions in Florence, placing the contemporary within traditional contexts and bringing something like a revolutionary spirit to the city. Florence is changing but it’s important to make this connection between past and present because there remains a suspicion towards the contemporary here because the presence of the past is so incredibly strong.
MF: What was the reaction like to the Jenny Saville show?
SR: People loved it. They were so enthusiastic. I kept hearing viewers saying things like ”whoa, beautiful, magnificent, incredible” because Jenny’s paintings hit you in the gut, immediately, so to speak. From the first moment you see the installation of Jenny’s work in these contexts you intuitively understand connections in the history of art from the Primitive, through the Renaissance, the Baroque, Modernism and so on. It’s incredible. Each painting can take you on a voyage.
People connect of course with Jenny’s ability, who has the mastery of a Renaissance artist. I said to one journalist that a painting of Jenny’s is like a work by Rafaelo birthed inside the liquid forms of a Jackson Pollock! The figurative nature of Jenny’s is very important, because it connects with a very broad audience, some of whom are less comfortable with abstraction or conceptual art. She has worked in her career to discover more levels of expression within the language of figuration. In this respect she is a very avant-garde artist, very experimental. When she researches, she dives deep into tradition, not like many postmodern artists who just stay on the surface, quoting ideas.
NH: Was there any criticism or pushback of your juxtaposition of Saville’s work with a succession of the Renaissance masterpieces or placing her work in the Duomo?
SR: Well, the most challenging moment in the curation was in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo because in this room Jenny’s work was in immediate dialogue next to the Pieta Bandini by Michelangelo. This work is truly one of the great masterpieces of art. It’s like Beethoven’s 5th symphony or the summit of Everest in art terms. I proposed to Jenny that she show a site specific work in this room, in order to have a confrontation with the work by Michelangelo. The Director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, who is at once an art historian, a theological intellectual and a bishop, said, ”this is a fantastic idea, I like it Sergio! Let’s show Jenny in this room”. Audiences loved the juxtaposition because they understood immediately the relationship between Michelangelo’s pieta and Jenny’s pieta, not only intellectually but in souls and their bodies. They understood the humanity and deep empathy in her works. Jenny is a very neo-humanist artist.
NH: I can imagine the connections also between Jenny and someone like Michelangelo, who, like many of the great Renaissance artists, was trying to humanise the stories they depicted by making their works so life-like. In his pieta he made the marble into flesh. You can feel the weight of Christ’s body as you look at it. The empathic connection between the artwork and the viewer is made possible through its element of realism. Saville’s work operates in the same way I think. In her work that hung next to the Pieta Bandini there is an especially powerful combination of the archetypal, classical composition and contemporary dress of the figures, connecting the universal, the historical and the present.
SR: Yes, a perfect analysis. And I think the Pieta of Michelangelo and the Pieta by Jenny are also contemporary with each other in a sense. We don’t know if they are works from the past, the present or the future, because the tragedy of violence, of martyrdom and of sacrifice is universal. Each time it’s tragic but it continues and this is the reality. In thinking about violence, we think about gender because the history of violence is of the violence between men. And the last thing that’s very important to talk about I think, is the fact that Jenny is a woman and of the centrality of women today in the history of art. If you think of Florence’s art from the past, it was masculine: Donatello, Botticelli, Michelangelo and so on. The life of an artist was that of masculine artists and the presence of a woman within the frame of the history of art in Florence, is incredible. Jenny was the first woman to show work in Duomo. Before now it was not possible.