Since the Mona Lisa affair was reported, other petitions and protests have emerged. Earlier this month (September 17) the protests agains the huge cruise ships that pass through the lagoon in Venice were renewed with vigor. The invaluable Tomaso Montanari has organized a petition against the privatization of the Brera in Milan. At the beginning of the month, in the United States, the New York Times demoted Allan Kozinn, one of its more intelligent music critics, who has been writing for them since 1977 and a staff member since 1991. He is now a “general cultural reporter.” Norman Lebrecht, who announced the bad news, received an avalanche of mostly angry and disgusted comments. Petitions were organized on Facebook, urging the Times to change their mind…but to no avail. Kozinn’s gone. For some years it has been hard to imagine that once upon a time Paul Griffiths wrote music criticism for The New York Times, and both he and Andrew Porter for The New Yorker. The decades when cultural events were so fashionable that these mainstream publications thought it worthwhile to employ writers of exceptional learning and talent are long gone. The shedding of one their epigoni is only a further step in the process. Some years ago I wrote about the widespread elimination of specialized critics from newspapers around the country. Kozinn is not the first music writer to be demoted to cultural reporter. The ongoing process reached a head a few years ago when Don Rosenberg of the Cleveland Plain Dealer suffered a similar humiliation, although for a different reason. This and other firings from redundancy, like Mr. Kozinn’s, were vigorously protested by the members of MCANA, the music critics’ professional organization. (Click here for the background, and here.) It is curious that they haven’t said a word about this most recent event.) Now the waters have risen to The New York Times, which has maintained a preeminent reputation for its arts reporting so far, although its deterioration has been favorite subject of ticket-line gossip for years.
There is another video on YouTube taken by an American tourist from the deck of one of these cruise ships. It will give you an idea of the scale of these vessels. At first I thought it was taken from a helicopter! Otherwise it is not informative, except for the idiotic remarks of the people on deck.
If I write about petitions with a note of cynicism, it is not because I don’t believe that they are effective or agree with the causes. On the contrary. I have signed some of them myself. I am happy report that the petition concerning the old master collection in Berlin has achieved a small procedural concession from the responsible authorities. Another petition which I have not found time to discuss, arose from the widespread outrage over the renovation of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, one which will eliminate most of the stacks, which hold the lifeblood of the Main Reading Room, i.e. a great many books. This has achieved a partial concession from the management, financed by a substantial donation. Anthony Grafton, a board member of the library, who previously wrote an article in The New York Review of Books in favor of the renovation, applauded the turn of events — a notable volte-face from his earlier position.
The petitions will roll on, as long as bad situations and bad decisions persist…and they go back to Adam and Eve! I innocently boarded this roller-coaster last December, when I embarked on a modest update to Msgr. Gallagher’s article on Vasari’s anniversary and the Sala del Cinquecento. Please excuse me now, if I get off. There are some very beautiful and important exhibitions I;ve wanted to write about for months.
The Italian newspaper La Stampa has reported that the Italians have once again requested the return of the Mona Lisa, specifically to the Uffizi. The Comitato Nazionale per il Patrimonio Storico, Culturale e Ambientale has gathered 150,000 signatures on this petition addressed to the Musée du Louvre. The President of the Committee, Silvano Vincenti, had already presented a formal request in advance to the French Minister of Culture and Communication, Aurélie Filippetti. Since Francis I purchased the painting in 1518, it is difficult to surmise the grounds for restitution, although many Italians apparently believe that the painting was looted by Napoleon like many other Italian art treasures. An Italian worker at the Louvre, Vincenzo Peruggia, in fact stole the Mona Lisa in 1911, at first keeping it under his bed in the Paris boarding house where he lived, and then carrying it to Florence, where he offered the painting to the Uffizi. There was some interest in exhibiting the Mona Lisa at the Uffizi last year in commemoration of the event.
The past year has been a turbulent one in the world of old masters, at least in certain pools of it. In some quarters, it has been a year of angry petitions. This article concerns Italy, but I shall begin in Germany, since the most active center of trouble at the moment is Berlin, where the administration of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz plans to move the great collection of old master paintings from the Gemäldegalerie at the suburban Kulturforum in order to accomodate Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch’s collection of surrealist and modern art, which they have offered as a gift. A selection of the old masters will go to the Bode Museum on the Museuminsel, where they were originally intended to be from the beginning, but this facility is too small to house the entire collection. The remainder will go into storage until suitable gallery space can be found or built. This has not yet been planned, and funds have not been allocated. Several similar projects, planned after the Reunification, have become stalled over the years, and leaders in the field like Professor Jeffrey Hamburger of Harvard are concerned. He says, as quoted in The Art Newspaper: “I am not opposed to moving the Old Master collection back to the Museum Island. I am much more concerned about the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ than the ‘if’.” Hamburger continues: “In Berlin you have about €1.5bn worth of projects that are unfinished, and then they have the chutzpah to throw in another museum [the Bode expansion] for around €200m, when experience teaches us that not a single one of these projects has been built to budget and on time. The onus is on [the foundation] to put forward a credible plan in consultation with the appropriate experts.” Read Professor Hamburger’s petition here and Julien Chapuis’ reply here, and form your own conclusion. Whatever conclusion you come to, it is impossible to deny that the petitioners, of which I am one, are performing a valuable service in holding the Berlin administrators to account over this plan.
The Berlin collection of old masters, the nucleus of which was formed by Wilhelm Bode in the late nineteenth century, is one of the great monuments of early modern culture, not to mention nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship and collecting. It would be an act of cultural vandalism to reduce it to a selection of “highlights” designed to impress tourists, rather than the historical and aesthetic unity Bode intended. There is a certain political motive behind this as well. On an official level as well as among many individuals, the Germans are eager to erase or to correct the cultural remnants of the Third Reich. The Pietzsch’s raftload of Entartete Kunst is a convenient way to atone for the sins of the Nazis — to the detriment of one of the great German achievements in art history and collecting of an earlier, happier era. In Germany, as elsewhere, the interest in art created before 1900 has waned (even more radically in the case of the centuries preceding 1800), as ever more recent production which appears to be art or has been marketed as art acquires academic legitimacy.
It is all too possible that in the near future, as SPK administrators make their plans in a financially insecure economic climate, that a cost-benefit analysis will find more tourist euros in some other project, and the splendid old master collection will languish in storage for many years if not forever. Fewer medievalists and Renaissance specialists are being trained in graduate schools, as the interest of prospective students and the employability of such specialists rapidly wanes. As for the public, the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque galleries become emptier and emptier, as the works in them acquire an aura of alienness and indecipherability. For the vast majority of museum visitors and tourists, only some magical name can arouse them to raise their point-and-shoots and fire. (This heartfelt article by photographer Mark Dubuvoy tells more about this peculiarly pointless kind of trophy hunting.)
In Italian art these names are reduced to two, Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio, although perhaps Michelangelo has a little of his mojo left. Caravaggio’s mystique may stem more from his unpleasant personality than the quality of his work, although occasional discoveries of new works, some convincing, some not, and some ludicrous (like the bufala of the Caravaggio drawings “found” among the Peterzano drawings at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan) keep the fires lit. The 400th anniversary of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s early death was recently celebrated with a number of outstanding exhibitions, most of them in Italy, and we can say that we have actually learned something from the occasion. Monsignor Daniel Gallagher has discussed most of the Italian exhibitions in the Berkshire Review. As for Leonardo — in this guise I should properly refer to him as “da Vinci” — clichés learned in school, the fame of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, and above all Dan Brown’s egregious novel have made him the ultimate cultural superstar, vastly eclipsing Byron, Liszt, and Hemingway, although not Elvis or Jerry Garcia. These cults have proven extremely profitable for quite a few clever people, not only through the marketing of fakes and reproductions, but through popular books, tours, and other products and services. The inhabitants of Roslin in Midlothian have every reason to be grateful to Dan Brown. Objects or places indirectly associated with the pop-numinous exercise more power of attraction than straightforward possessions or creations of the great genius. This even becomes an attribute of those possessions and works. The Last Supper is a wreck, as it was soon after its completion. The composition is a part of our cultural heritage more through the countless reproductions which have been made of it, than from the original. We can’t really see the Mona Lisa very well either, through its discolored varnish and the thick glass over it, and most visitors see it even more indirectly, on the LCD screens of their point-and-shoots or their computers at home. Few of the people who have placed their bodies in the gallery actually look at the thing, and few people can tell you why the portrait of the strange feline lady has drawn them there.
The mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, is not the only one to find a source of funds for building restoration in giant billboards leased out to fashion companies and similar enterprises. In this way the San Marco crowds were able to enjoy this view of parallel reality, as they passed the time in the Piazza. Alan Miller and I have discussed this outrage elsewhere, also the focus of a petition from Venice in Peril, an organization that usually occupies itself with the floodwaters. When we first experienced the problem, we beheld gigantic images of a highly photoshopped Julianne Moore in the nude, with two stuffed wild cats using her as a bed.
The experience of the Grand Tour, once the exclusive privilege of the nobility, has trickled down and spread over the earth, so that almost anyone can get him or herself on a bus that will deliver them to the Louvre, the Vatican Museums, or the Uffizi, where they can stand in a gallery with two hundred other people and snap away at a “da Vinci.” Tourism has become Mass Tourism, an important industry for countries like Italy, which are rich in history and art — both to the enrichment and the detriment of the country and its people. In Venice, more than the population of New York visit a city that was built to support only around 200,000 residents. The good part is that the vast majority of the tourists remain in close proximity to the Piazza S. Marco and the Rialto. If you want to be alone, you have only to go into a museum. This costs money, of course, but there are still plenty of neighborhoods that escape the invasion. In Florence my friends and colleagues there often talk of avoiding the public spaces as much as possible and spending their waking hours lurking in the shadows of the Kunsthistorisches Institut or one of the other libraries. Even if an art-loving resident can’t enjoy the streets of Florence, the atmosphere is good for getting work done. Then there are the lines at the Uffizi…
Sustainable tourism may be well-developed in theory and in practice, but it is difficult to implement in the ancient, crowded cities of Italy, where old habits of hospitality and commerce have developed from the beginning of the industry. Tourism, art history, and conservation are inevitably linked in a country like Italy. Not everyone is happy about it. Younger Italian art historians, among them the outspoken Tomaso Montanari, believe that the pull of this economic motor has cheapened their profession. Italians must necessarily live with the duality of a vast treasure of monuments and artworks, all in need of either conservation or maintenance or both, and the limited funds available for this. The original functions of many of these buildings have long disappeared. They have no reason to exist other than because they are beautiful, instructive, and inspiring — they also enhance urban life by providing green space. The fairly steep admission fees of today help maintain the palzzi, churches, and museums, but not entirely. Today, of course, with our corrosive atmosphere, monuments cannot simply be left alone, as they were in the times of Goethe and Byron. Development, both legitimate and illegal, threatens the monuments, and so does garbage. Heaps of refuse have degraded the Via Appia, and now the Villa Adriana at Tivoli is threatened by an enormous new landfill for the city of Rome less than a kilometer away from it. This is the subject of yet another international petition, but it seems to have little influence on the politicians as they argue. The Villa Adriana is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and supposedly it is under their protection but so far they have done nothing. If they stand by while Tivoli is ruined, it will prove that their program means nothing.
In December 2011, another petition raised its head, when Prof. Montanari responded to the actions of Cecilia Frosinini, an art historian who heads the department in charge of wall-paintings at the Opificio dell Pietre Dure: she asked to be relieved of her duties as supervisor over a project intended to locate the remains of Leonardo’s wall-painting of the Battle of Anghiari in the Sala dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. (I have discussed this at length here.) The investigation involved the boring of several holes through the frescoes by Vasari, which presumably lie over it, if it still exists. As quoted in La Repubblica (November 29, 2011), Dottoressa Frosinini said, “my mission is to protect works of art, but in this case they are making an invasive intervention to the painting.” She was presented with a plan based on the choices of a local body (i.e. the major’s office) and the sponsor (National Geographic, which gave $250,000 towards the project in exchange for the exclusive authorization to film the work, and there was no willingness on the part of the engineer who was in charge of the project to engage in any debate or to accept any common agreement on the supplied facts. Italia Nostra initiated the petition, which was signed by Salvatore Settis and a great many other distinguished figures in the world of art, education, and culture. Alessandra Mottola Molfino, its President, also submitted a formal criminal complaint to the Procura at Florence, which made criminal allegations, since in Italy it is illegal to vandalize works of art. This uncooperative engineer is Maurizio Seracini, and this unwillingness to provide full scientific support seems to be typical of his modus operandi. The carabinieri promptly arrived in the Sala del Cinquecento, but Seracini’s work was not stopped until just a few days ago.
The irony of this story is that Seracini participated in an earlier campaign in the mid-1970s, which was headed by the recognized Leonardo authority, Carlo Pedretti. At the time, few, if any art historians or conservators objected to the project, which culminated in the strappo (detachment) of large sections of Vasari’s frescoes — on the wall opposing the one favored by Seracini. The documents concerning Leonardo’s painting are open to different interpretations. The removal of the Vasari frescoes revealed nothing. Therefore Seracini has recently been trying the opposite wall. He has, however, never explained his rationale and his proposed methods in any scientific forum, only in popular lectures and to journalists. A scientific presentation to one’s peers should be the sine qua non of any project that involves any kind of physical intervention in a work of art. These should also be team projects with inbuilt differences of opinion and dialogue, typically involving an art historian specialized in the work at hand, a conservator, and finally the technician. I have never heard of such a project being run by the technician alone, the participant with the least preparation for making judgments on the preservation of the artwork and the progress of the work. For these reasons alone, it is impossible to approve such an undertaking. Carlo Pedretti, now in his eighties, is presumably not well enough to come to Florence to supervise Seracini, but it appears that they are in contact, or at least Pedretti has expressed his support. Standards in art research and conservation have changed since Prof. Pedretti suprevised that earlier campaign, however. Policies have become more conservative, and funds tighter. If there are important frescoes crumbling off their walls, and there are no funds to conserve them, if seems irresponsible to raise outside money for pure research. Given the shamefully sensationalistic promotion it has received from Seracini, National Geographic, and Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, one can only call this impure research.
Long after the unsuccessful conclusion of the earlier project, Seracini, who owns a private technical lab in Florence and has the title of Adjunct Professor at the University of San Diego, where he obtained his degree, has continued to pursue the search for the Battle of Anghiari fragment. Over the years he has had only minimal, if any success in obtaining approval or in raising funds. He finally found National Geographic’s $250,000 and an ally in Matteo Renzi, who has some authority over the physical fabric of building from which he runs the city, although he, too, is bound to respect the decision of the Ministero per i Beni Culturali (MiBAC), as he now has been compelled to do, loudly proclaiming that he will look forward to a change in government freeing him to resume the work. The uncovering of the Leonardo, presuming some traces of it still exist, has grown into a crusade for the mayor — one somewhat reminiscent of Chuck Tatum’s in Billy Wilder’s great film, Ace in the Hole. Renzi’s motivations may seem unclear to those unversed in Italian politics. Like Chuck’s accomplice, the corrupt Sheriff Gus Kretzer, he is currently running for reelection. (I wonder, does he keep pet rattlesnakes in his office?) In Italy, unlike the United States, where politicians lose votes by showing an interest in the arts, many Italian politicians vaunt their devotion to culture — or incultura, as a recent review of Renzi’s new book, Stil novo, observed. When criticized, Renzi merely accuses critics of cowardice and lack of imagination. Does he really think it that important to reveal what is likely to consist little more than a few indecipherable smears of decayed paint? Florence is the densest center of major art in the world. Does it need another tourist attraction? Does he envision long queues of tourists paying €20 a head to enter the Palazzo Vecchio? Why is a politician raging to accomplish a feat which inflames few Leonardo specialists beyond Professor Pedretti?
In this case, the petition and the discussion surrounding it achieved some indirect success months after it appeared. Yet another story of a petition — a sad one — came to my attention a few months ago, when I happened on a New York Times real estate article (May 30, 2012) about the Palazzo Busini-Bardi in Florence, specifically on one apartment in it. The title was “Sleeping in the Cradle of Opera.” (Ironically, the Times entitled their slideshow of the modernized rooms, “A Palazzo’s Rebirth.”) The palazzo of Giovanni de’ Bardi was the seat of a group of musical intellectuals, the Camerata, whose discussions led to the creation and performance of the earliest operas. While the article focused on the owner’s devotion to the apartment, his “restoration” of it, and the description, origin, and value of the contemporary furniture in it, it was clearly about the real estate — one of those presumably paid articles we find in the Times about fabulous properties around the world. While other digs in the Palazzo Bardi are for sale, this one is for rent — for €8500 a week in the high season. The owners attempted to turn a ground-floor buchetta into a two-car garage, but were denied a permit. Instead they opened a restaurant, a stylish one with surprisingly reasonable prices, specializing in raw fish and beef dishes. It is interesting that the authorities denied a garage and approved a modern restaurant, which is very much a noticeable element in the façade and the cortile of the palazzo.
As the restoration of the Palazzo got underway in 2005, a group of distinguished academics, a mayor, and the Società Italiana Protezione Beni Culturali, signed an appeal to stop the “restoration” of the Palazzo Bardi on the grounds that documents and oral reports showed that the work went beyond the limits indicated by law. The palazzo, attributed to Brunelleschi, was erected between 1420 and 1427, and contains one of the very earliest examples of the Renaissance cortile d’onore. Even beyond the historical significance of the building as the “cradle of opera” — and also the first home of the Accademia della Crusca, it is an extremely important building. A conversion into an ordinary — if extremely upscale — condo seems like a desecration of a venerable palazzo for which a more appropriate use would be as a museum, cultural center, or school. (What a perfect home for a school and festival of early music! See below.) The appeal went unheeded, and the building was divided into 18 to 20 flats, including the one which occupies Giovanni de’ Bardi’s salone, which is unlikely ever to have been set up as a permanent theater, as the owner of the flat seems to believe. The owners are clearly very industrious couple. They are letting their apartment for a jaw-dropping rent, and are hopefully making a nice profit from the space they originally intended for their cars. As far as I know, three apartments remain unsold. The renovated (I won’t say restored) Palazzo Busini-Bardi is stimulating the exchange of euros, and it has brought more of the super-rich into Florence. Are ordinary tenants and small businesses in the neighborhood feeling the squeeze? I have no idea how easy it is for a student or scholar to walk in and get a look at the famous Brunelleschian cortile, but you can see it from the restaurant, where you can perhaps get away with ordering only a glass of wine at the bar. This arrangement is not unwelcoming as far as the neighborhood goes, but it remains to be decided whether the now private usage of the building is inappropriate, and I’m sure the two opposing sides remain entrenched.
I might suggest one way the owners of this sumptuous and historic apartment, Gabriella and Paolo Mazza, might salve their consciences. Why don’t they forgo a week or two of rent and make it available for an early music and opera festival? Italy has by no means filled its immense potential in this field, as the renowned mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who lives in Italy, has observed. The great Boston Early Music Festival could be a model, and its now frequent participant, the extraordinary keyboard player, Luca Guglielmi, could be its director! That would most definitely attract a certain kind of visitor to Florence, perhaps not the biggest spenders, but discriminating people who would appreciate the difference between the Mazza’s little ristorante and the Pizzeria Uno by the New England Conservatory, where BEMF attendees and participants find it convenient to congregate.
An foundation has been established to discuss these issues and others related to the controversies I have discussed, in the general context of economic development. It is called the Fondazione Florens, founded by the banker, Giovanni Gentile of the Intesa San Paolo and Confindustria Firenze. Every two years, beginning in 2010, it hosts a conference — this year Florens 2012 — to discuss artistic patrimony, both in terms of Italy’s great riches of monuments and artwork and in terms of the crafts and industries which have developed over centuries to their present in many ways vibrant state. Among its goals are proper funding for these resources so that the monuments can be properly cared for and the industries can continue to develop and remain competitive in the global economy. Over the several posts that follow, I shall discuss the problems that have been discussed in 2010 and will be discussed this November, as well as some of the recommendations that have and will be under discussion. It is by no means clear to me whether this elaborate fair cum conference really performs a useful task, or whether is is merely a very elaborate and expensive celebration of the status quo — endless interventi from executives and academics, dressed up with a equally tedious pageants in the streets — to judge by their publicity photos, there will be a parade in Florentine Renaissance costume over astroturf laid down around the Duomo and the baptistery. It looks like an exceptionally banal manifestation of Italian spettacolo.
What is there for these people to accomplish? The Italians have been brilliant at promoting their luxury goods and in developing ordinary products into prestige items, like wine and olive oil. While the conference organizers want to enhance the aura of “Made in Italy” on a global scale, that particular phrase chills the hearts of many Italians, because it sums up the cretinous materialism promoted by Berlusconi and his media empire for a whole generation, one which has buried the country’s lively intellectual life of the 1950s and 1960s under mountains of mass-produced consumer items…and, worse, the desire to own them.
Read the next installment – “Can statistics and digitized procedural rules create reality in the arts…perhaps with a bit of Barnumesque assistance? The Official Recommendations of Florens 2010…”