A GREAT MUSEUM OF THE WORLD. Angelo Crespi succeeded James Bradburne as the Director General of the Pinacoteca di Brera in January 2024. The main public gallery for paintings in Milan is an outgrowth of the cultural program of the Brera Academy. It shares the site in the Palazzo Brera with the Braidense Library, the Schiaparelli Astronomical Observatory, the Botanical Garden, and the Lombard Institute founded by Napoleon, which is the Academy of Science and Letters. There is also the Lombard Historical Society, and the Ricordi Historical Archives. These are the multiple units within the Brera complex.

Angelo Crespi, as the new director, are you responsible for both the Pinacoteca di Brera and the Braidense Library?

Yes, the Braidense Library is one of the three or four most important libraries in Italy. Founded by her will by Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-1780) it was previously a separate institute, but was put under the Autonomous Museum of the Pinacoteca di Brera in the 2014 Franceschini reform, along with the Uffizi and Capodimonte. Since then the director’s job has really changed, so much so that he is increasingly called a cultural manager and no longer an art historian.

Did Napoleon want to make Brera a small Louvre?

The Pinacoteca officially opened on Napoleon’s birthday, August 15, in 1809. The collection expanded with Napoleon, because during the Kingdom of Italy Napoleon abolished religious orders, and by stripping all the northern and central Italian churches of their most important paintings Napoleon’s idea was to establish a kind of small Louvre.

“If we manage to get the idea of the ‘Grande Brera’ across we position ourselves as one of the very great institutions globally.”

Angelo Crespi

Pinacoteca di Brera, the Courtyard of Honour. In the middle of the courtyard is a bronze statue of Napoleon. It was cast in 1809 by Antonio Canova, a Venetian sculptor, and shows the French emperor as Mars the Peacemaker. A number of other statues in the courtyard honor artists, scientists and patrons of the arts.

Angelo Crespi, did Brera originally belong to the Jesuits?

In 1200 the Brera complex was owned by the Humiliati, and when that religious order was abolished in 1571 it was given to the Jesuits. From the 1500s to the 1700s it was a Jesuit College, evidenced not only by the large library but also by the Astronomical Observatory and the Botanical Garden, where essences were grown for the pharmacies of Milan. The Jesuits’ idea of education was culture through books but also through science. Even today the Brera building, by encompassing so many institutes, perfectly exemplifies their idea of a single place in which there is great art but also science and a great library.

Valuable books that Umberto Eco acquired were recently added to the library. Are there many very rare items?

The library contains about 1,800,000 volumes, from manuscripts to incunabula (early printed books) to 25,000 cinquecentines (16th century books), so a huge amount. There are some extremely valuable books, such as the Polifilo, perhaps the book most desired by bibliophiles. We have more than one copy, because we also acquired one through the Umberto Eco Fund. The Manzonian Fund which contains all of Alessandro Manzoni’s manuscripts is one of the most valuable: there is the draft of Fermo e Lucia, the draft of I promessi sposi, corrected by hand by Manzoni himself. The library continues to expand, and also functions as the legal depository of all Milanese publishing. As the writer Marguerite Yourcenar said, libraries are the granaries of our civilization, and this very significant granary contains everything important that our civilization has done in the last five hundred years.

Which are the masterpieces in the picture gallery?

Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ, and we have some wonderful paintings by Bellini, including a moving Pietà. We have the best of the Italian Renaissance: Piero della Francesca, Raphael, Bramante. We have great paintings from the 1600s: Caravaggio, Rubens… We also have an important section dedicated to the 1800s with the painter Francesco Hayez, who worked here with Canova. One of the symbols of the picture gallery is the bronze sculpture in the Cortile d’Onore (courtyard of honour) that was carved by Canova as a tribute to Napoleon, depicting him as Mars the Peacemaker. It is said that on the one hand Canova did not like Napoleon very much and on the other hand that when Napoleon saw the statue he did not recognize himself in such an important figure as Mars.

Is it your ambition also to make the restored Palazzo Citterio part of Brera?

More than an ambition. Palazzo Citterio is an incredible story: it was bought in 1972 by then Superintendent Dell’Acqua. The idea that it could be an extension of the art gallery came in ’73 from Franco Russoli, the next superintendent and director of the art gallery, from whom the idea of the “Grande Brera” (“Great Brera”) also comes. Due to a series of difficulties with the plans and many changes of mind it never opened, and at one point, around the 2000s, the thinking was to abandon the idea of opening Palazzo Citterio and do what was then called the “Brera in Brera” project by Mario Bellini,  to bring the whole museum inside the historic building. This did not happen either, and in 2014 they reconsidered the “Grande Brera” project with Palazzo Citterio, whose restoration was finished by the superintendency in 2018, but, since then, due to other unforeseen events including Covid, the opening has again been delayed. On my appointment, I was expressly mandated to make the opening of Palazzo Citterio a priority, and it will take place on December 7 of this year, 2024, also the La Scala opening night. The idea is to call this event “Prima della Prima”. This will not only complete Russoli’s project to expand the Brera Art Gallery, but also give us the opportunity to show art of the 20th century.

The collections of modern art that belong to Brera are now destined for Palazzo Citterio?

Yes. Russoli’s initial project, obviously modified over the course of fifty years, is to open Palazzo Citterio, allocating the spaces for the exhibition of two very important collections, Jesi and Vitali, which today partly lie in storage while some are exhibited temporarily within the picture gallery. These two very important collections contain masterpieces by the greatest Italian artists of the early 20th century, including Boccioni, more than twenty Morandi, and also Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Medardo Rosso, Marino Marini, and even some archaeological items. These two collections will be permanently displayed in the Palazzo Citterio to honour the legacy of the Jesi and Vitali families, who donated them to the Italian state.

When did they donate them?

In the 1970s. Soon after the building itself, these two important collections were also donated. The idea is to have two spaces for temporary exhibition: one is a hypogeum designed by James Stirling, also quite unprecedented, a large space all in concrete, late Brutalist, as was his style. The other is a very contemporary second floor space where large temporary exhibitions dedicated to modern art can be hosted in continuity with our modern art collection, or will be able to make comparisons between contemporary art and ancient art by taking advantage of the masterpieces of the picture gallery. The Palazzo will be a great novelty for the Brera district, because the passage between the historical building of Brera, the Botanical Garden and the garden of Palazzo Citterio can be opened up so, under the name of “Grande Brera”, there is a historical building, a renovated historical building, and in the middle a huge public garden, plus other institutions. Tourists and the citizens of Milan will become more aware of this incredible place that has been generating culture and value for at least five hundred years.

“Even large state museums need the communities around them.”

Angelo Crespi, Milan hosts the 2026 Winter Olympics, and with other events from furniture to fashion to design to literature is Milan now a beacon city for the world?

Milan is ranked in the top ten most attractive cities in the world. In the last decade it has become a tourist city. Last year it had the same number of visitors as Florence. The cultural demand has changed radically, and we obviously have to adjust the cultural offer. All in all, Milan is a small city. Almost everything takes place in the center, although in recent years Pirelli HangarBicocca and Fondazione Prada have opened by redeveloping suburbs, and they are a benchmark with which we have to compare ourselves. I have met with the president of the Triennale, Stefano Boeri, and the president of the Piccolo Teatro, Piergaetano Marchetti, and the idea is that the big institutions in the center of Milan, including La Scala, communicate the value of the city’s cultural offer together.

Would you say that Milan is both a cultural and economic powerhouse?

Along with Piccolo, La Scala and the Triennale, I boastfully say that the Pinacoteca di Brera is one of the most important museums in the world in terms of collection. If we manage to get the idea of the “Grande Brera” across we position ourselves as one of the very great institutions globally. The city of Milan and the Lombardy region is one of the most important engines of the economy, not just in Europe but also in the world. Lombardy ranks first in Europe in almost every sector, including culture. Lombardy is the region with the most UNESCO sites in Italy. Milan is the most important university city in Italy and has the most university students.

500,000 visitors a year already pass through Brera. Are the numbers increasing?

Yes, we are growing, and with the opening of Palazzo Citterio can reach 600,000 visitors in 2025. This would make us the leading museum in Milan, and – if we exclude the big archaeological sites of Pompeii, the Royal Palace of Caserta and the Colosseum – Brera would be in third or fourth place among Italian museums. We will no longer measure the impact of Brera on the neighborhood and the city by counting tickets, but will count the flows that this building generates. A few million people come each year for study or pleasure, and we want to make the city aware of its impact and the economic value it generates.

Do the state and private individuals provide enough funds to achieve your goals?

I think so. The Art Bonus is an important tool that has existed since 2015 and gives a 65 percent tax exemption on donations made to museums, bringing us closer to international thresholds. In America, the tax exemption is 100 percent. The Art Bonus allows donors to have tax-deferral over three years of their contribution, and I have launched the Pact for Brera. I would like to find twenty entrepreneurs or twenty companies with CEOs who will sign this pact and accompany me during the first four years of my term, using the Art Bonus. So donating, but taking advantage of the tax exemption. Even large state museums need the communities around them. The stakeholders are obviously the visitors but are also the entrepreneurs who can support their development. Sustainability and inclusiveness have become values to be pursued, and the museum can help businesses and large corporations pursue social purposes which are increasingly necessary and priorities over profit.

Do many young people come to your museum?

Yes, and we are fortunate to have the Academy because state museums have significant freebies. Last year, 200,000 visitors were free or had very discounted access. More than 700 classes a year come to visit the art gallery, from kindergarten to high school. In the new building we will set up an educational laboratory, where fragile audiences – such as for example the visually impaired or audiences with disabilities – will find a space that is no longer just for visiting, but where we can offer a social function. The effort that the state makes by giving contributions to museums at the beginning of the year has to be returned to the community by our “enterprises”, as I like to call them, because in that term there is also the idea of courage and daring. Museums today are serious businesses with budgets comparable to those of large companies. The Uffizi’s revenues are more than 60 million euros. I have 150 employees.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is beloved and well-supported in that city. Does the Brera have such a place in the hearts of the Milanese?

There is a strong participation. The Friends of Brera historical association will be 100 years old in 2026, and hundreds of people donate to the museum every year through the Friends association, now chaired by Carlo Orsi, a great antiquarian and one of Milan’s leading figures in ancient art. Since time immemorial the great Milanese families, who often live in the neighborhood or near Brera, have supported this institution with donations or by purchasing paintings. In 1939 the Friends of Brera purchased Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. The Friends’ initiatives generate the vitality that the museum would not have if it failed to involve people from outside the museum management. My idea of involving twenty or thirty entrepreneurs also goes in this direction, and the first signatories of the Brera Pact are the Friends of Brera with whom we share our mission.

Angelo Crespi

Andrea Mantegna’s (approximately 1480 CE) painting Lamentation over the Dead Christ

Angelo Crespi

Rooms of the Brera Art Gallery

Angelo Crespi

Rooms of the Brera Art Gallery

Angelo Crespi

Braidense National Library, Sala Maria Teresa

Angelo Crespi

Palazzo Citterio, soon to be opened for 20th century collections

Angelo Crespi

Palazzo Citterio

“This idea of taking care of things is the highest value we can mediate through the work we do in a museum.”

Angelo Crespi, arriving here, what did you feel?

Immense gratification, like realizing a dream. Yet a museum is in perpetual transformation, and this institution has to confront reality and the dynamics of a city like Milan. From an exhibition point of view it iworks very well, and I do not feel the need to change the tour route, also because, as I said before, I had a mandate from the minister to open Palazzo Citterio. I am pleased on the one hand and frightened on the other about 40 million in funds tied up in restorations related to building the new palace, the arrangement of the offices and the arrangement of the Braidense. As director I manage the picture gallery, but also the media library in Via Moscova, which is now an abandoned place since, while books endure, CD-ROMs no longer exist and the idea of the media library has disappeared. I will have to find a new function to this wonderful place that is near Brera but not inside the building. There are so many projects. With the Istituto Lombardo I am studying the possibility of equipping Brera with an analysis laboratory for the diagnostics of cultural heritage. In September, Marco Leona, an Italian who has directed the Metropolitan Museum’s diagnostics laboratory for many years, and Francesca Casadio, who manages and directs the Fine Arts Museum’s diagnostics laboratory, will be visiting us. Equipping Brera with an innovative laboratory means changing the perception we have of a museum as a place of conservation to also being a place of research.

In the picture gallery there are spaces with paintings undergoing restoration, a laboratory open to the visitor’s gaze?

We are the only museum in the world that has restoration laboratories within the visitor route. This is essential. Prior to this role, I was the scientific director of the Botticino Restoration School, founded in 1974. The four Italian restoration schools are Botticino, Venaria, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence and the Central Institute in Rome. The young people who are trained over 5 years also study physics and chemistry; there are so many scientific innovations that help the restorer. Although of course it is not to my merit – because it was conceived by the then superintendent Sabrina Bandera – I am very proud of the idea of equipping the picture gallery with a restoration laboratory within the visitor path. As is typical of all museums, we also do on-site restorations, when a painting is restored without moving it from its exhibition venue, but the fact that we have hired restorers and an on-site laboratory makes Brera unique, where the idea of conservation is mediated to all visitors to help them understand what a museum actually does.

Are you taking care of a great reservoir of cultural heritage?

We are restoring a heritage so that we can pass it on to the next generation, taking care of it because we believe it is a reservoir of meaning and beauty, but also because it is a reservoir of identity for a country like ours, that finds itself in the great cultural history of its past. The basis of our civilization is taking care of things that are part of our identity as a civilization, but also things from other civilizations. I recently visited the workshops at the Met, where they are restoring a Japanese kimono from the 1800s. This idea of taking care of things is the highest value we can mediate through the work we do in a museum. The real value at the heart of the museum is not visitation. My goal is not to increase visitors, although that is among the goals of the ministry mandate, but to mediate the value underneath visitation, which is preservation. If I could convey that value I would have done what I needed to do.

Do you do a lot of communication?

My idea is to transform the museum from a broadcast to a media company. During Covid, every closed museum in the world came up with a series of digital events to continue communicating. All the museums in the world have turned into broadcasters, but there is still no museum in the world that is a media company. By this I mean that studies and plans communication integrated with the product, thinking about the product as a function of the communication that will come from it. This does not mean debasing or commodifying the product, because it is a symbolic product. If I could convey the values, not just the physical value but also the symbolic value, I would really have accomplished a revolution in the museum system. I am not the only one who is trying, but I am very clear on that goal.

Is there much communication between museums?

The first exhibitions at Palazzo Citterio will be in partnership with the National Gallery in Rome, and there is a strong connection not only with the directors of public institutions in Italy but also with foreign museums. We are all part of The International Council of Museums (ICOM), where regulations, disciplines and innovations in the international museum system are determined.

At this particular moment, is there an increased concern with security issues?

In the last year, for various reasons like the environmental and the MeToo movements, there have been numerous incursions. But if young people who want change deface our heritage or masterpieces of art it is a paradox. Today, museums have become almost sacred places. The moment worship declines, culture takes over. Suffice it to say that almost all the paintings in this picture gallery’s collection are worship paintings that were initially in churches. Then from worship we moved to culture. They are indeed our identity, so when people have to rubbish something and arouse disapproval they turn to these.

Have you put more protection in place?

Obviously, yes. There is more attention from the insurance point of view as well, to make sure that these things don’t happen, or if they do happen cause as little damage as possible. Some of our paintings are already in climate controlled boxes for conservation reasons. However, now there is extra attention, because the issue is on the agenda.

Thank you for our conversation in this magnificent place. I wish you well in achieving your goals.

Thank you.