Rome inaugurates new art spaces while reorganising the management structure and role of existing museums.
In mid-May a gleaming new art museum opened at Rome's long-abandoned health offices on Via Merulana, following a €5 million restoration project by entrepreneur Claudio Cerasi of the Roman construction firm.
In addition to funding the three-year renovation of the city-owned building, Cerasi filled Palazzo Merulana with the important early 20th-century art collection that he had assembled privately with his wife, Elena.
Under an 88-year lease, the public-private venture entrusted the management of the museum to Coopculture, Italy's largest cooperative in the heritage and cultural activities sector. It is clear that Cerasi spared no expense in refurbishing the four-storey palazzo, which was built in 1929 and several sections of which had been lying in disrepair for 60 years.
The Cerasi collection comprises 90 works by Italian artists – much of it dating from between the two world wars – including paintings from the Scuola Romana movement. The collection is displayed across 1,800 sqm of exhibition space and includes works by Balla, Cambellotti, Casorati, de Chirico, Donghi, Mafai, Pirandello, Schifano and Severini.
The museum's top floor is reserved for cultural events and press conferences such as the launch of the recent Monti Arte Design festival. Collaboration with Rome's artistic scene, particularly with cultural associations in the nearby multi-ethnic Esquilino area, is a central focus of Palazzo Merulana, which will act as a hub for theatre, cinema and music in addition to visual art. Its €4 entry fee and central location – a ten-minute walk from the Colosseum and served well by public transport – make it an even more welcome addition to the capital's museum circuit.
Palazzo Merulana opened six months after the closure of the once nearby Oriental Museum, which moved from Via Merulana to the Museo delle Civiltà, formerly known as the Museo preistorico etnografico Luigi Pigorini, in Rome’s southern EUR suburb. Established as part of culture ministry reforms in 2016, the Museo delle Civiltà houses the Museo delle arti e tradizioni popolari and the Museo dell'alto Medioevo, in addition to the Pigorini and Oriental museums. The ministry's decision to move the Oriental Museum centred mainly on the fact that its former 3,000-sqm base in the privately-owned Palazzo Brancaccio was no longer large enough to house its 40,000 artefacts, and that it would have an additional 7,000 sqm of space at Museo della Civiltà.
Later in May the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini, under the Beni Culturali, also had a pleasant surprise in store, opening 11 new rooms to the public after museum management came to an agreement with the Italian military officers’ club, which had occupied the space for decades. The opening of the rooms, which had never been accessible to the public, brought to an end a long-running saga dating back to 1949 when the state purchased the palace.
The new rooms overlooking the palace gardens are currently hosting Eco e Narciso, an exhibition of ancient and modern portraits and self-portraits from the collections of Palazzo Barberini and Rome's MAXXI Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI secolo. Along with 21 works by major names such as Holbein – Portrait of Henry VIII – and Raphael – La Fornarina – the exhibition features 17 pieces by prominent contemporary US artists Richard Serra and Kiki Smith, as well as Italy's Luigi Ontani and Giulio Paolini.
Speaking at the press conference to launch the new 750-sqm spaces, Palazzo Barberini director Flaminia Gennari Santori hailed the intervention of Italy's previous ministers for culture and defence, Dario Franceschini and Roberta Pinotti respectively, in resolving the dispute with the military. She was joined by MAXXI president and former Italian culture minister Giovanna Melandri, who acknowledged that successive culture ministers – herself included – had tried and failed to settle the affair.
The itinerary of the new rooms has another important novelty. On their way out, visitors now descend Borromini's helicoidal staircase serving the southern wing of the 17th-century palace. Until now the Baroque architectural masterpiece was not accessible to the public. Eco e Narciso remains open until October, after which the exhibition spaces will house the permanent art collection of Palazzo Barberini.
Other changes in Rome's museum administration have been bedded in successfully over the last couple of years. Palazzo Braschi, the city museum overlooking Piazza Navona, has cemented its prominent role in the capital's cultural scene and is now the largest municipal art space in central Rome. This follows the opening of its temporary exhibition spaces on the first floor in late 2016, celebrated at the time with a blockbuster show dedicated to Artemisia Gentileschi. The museum's elevated function coincided with the transfer of management of the Scuderie del Quirinale from the city to the Italian culture ministry. In terms of its exhibition programme, Palazzo Braschi now finds itself on a similar footing with the Scuderie, which traditionally would have hosted major shows such as Gentileschi, as well as the current Canaletto show.
Likewise the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna or GNAM, under the Beni Culturali, has undergone a radical shake-up since 2016, both in terms of its exhibition spaces and programming, all of it overseen by the gallery's director Cristiana Collu, who arrived in Rome from her previous post as head of MART (Museo d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto). The reorganisation of the gallery spaces involved opening up the central Sala delle Colonne to the public who can enjoy a coffee there even if they don't visit the museum's collection. The new approach has been broadly welcomed. However, last year's online beauty pageant, which involved voting for "Miss and Mister Galleria Nazionale" from 70 portraits in the gallery's collection, raised more than a few eyebrows in the Italian art world.
Looking to the future, a significant change is expected this autumn at MACRO, the city's Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Roma on Via Nizza, which will bypass its temporary exhibition programme to house Asilo, an experimental collective project. Asilo will give contemporary Italian and international artists space to work, perform and interact with the public, with a daily programme of art events. From October until the end of 2019, MACRO will not host any temporary exhibitions and will be open free to the public, thanks to an investment of €400,000 from the city.
Asilo was announced days before Christmas when Giorgio De Finis, the so-called "director-squatter" of the Museo dell’Altro e dell’Altrove di Metropoliz (MAAM), an illegally-occupied street art museum in Rome's Tor Sapienza suburb, was appointed artistic curator of the project by his school-friend Luca Bergamo, the city's deputy mayor and culture councillor.
Bergamo clarified that De Finis would not be the new permanent director of MACRO, a role which would have required a public tender. However given the fact that Asilo will be the museum's sole activity for 15 months, De Finis is viewed as the de facto director of MACRO, which has been directorless (some would say directionless) since Federica Pirani's contract expired two years ago.
Asilo will begin on 1 October, several months after the conclusion of the Pink Floyd exhibition, which opened with much fanfare in January but which closed unexpectedly early at the end of May, six weeks ahead of the original end date.
The MACRO network embodies two entities, both of which have recently come under the management of Azienda Speciale Palaexpo, a city-controlled body which manages Rome's Palazzo delle Esposizioni and Casa del Jazz. The shake-up also involves the former MACRO Testaccio, which has assumed the name "Mattatoio" in reference to the building's previous role as a slaughterhouse. Mattatoio is separate from MACRO in Via Nizza and is being steered towards a “performative” role in the city's art programming, as illustrated by its recent hosting of Outdoor, the interactive festival of urban culture.
Previous editions of Outdoor were held at the Guido Reni District venue – a vast former barracks in Flaminio close to MAXXI, which closed on 1 May after two years of crowd-pleasing exhibitions and festivals – as well as at the Ex-Dogana, once Rome's customs house, in the S. Lorenzo neighbourhood. The owners of the Flaminio barracks building, the Italian investment bank Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP), failed to renew the contract with Ninetynine Urban Value, the company which managed the 72,000-sqm space since 2016.
A question mark now hangs over two other similar temporary cultural venues in Rome, both owned by CDP, whose leases are up for renewal soon – the 23,000-sqm Ex-Dogana and the 11,000-sqm Palazzo degli Esami in Trastevere, which until recently had long lain idle.
Popular with a young crowd, the multi-faceted Ex-Dogana hosts concerts, festivals, workshops and contemporary art exhibitions, as well as acting as a night club. The smaller Palazzo degli Esami, whose title suggests its former function as a venue for civil service examinations, hosts widely accessible but light-weight exhibitions such as the Art of the Brick Lego show or interactive “experiences” such as Van Gogh Alive.
Regardless of their fate, nobody can deny that the last two years have been interesting and unpredictable for Rome's ever-evolving exhibition spaces, whose increased surface area is not always matched by the improved quality of the shows on display.
By Andy Devane
This article was published in the July-August 2018 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.