ENRICHING OUR CULTURAL HERITAGE. Anna Coliva was the Director of the Galleria Borghese museum in Rome for 27 years. With paintings by Raphael and Caravaggio, the leading sculptor of Galleria Borghese is Bernini, and Antonio Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix is iconic. Anna Coliva  left her post in 2020, but she will still do exhibitions and also teach art history master classes in Italian universities.

Anna Coliva, how did you feel about leaving the Galleria Borghese, which has been your passion and your life for so many years?

It’s a very challenging place. To manage a place like that, especially with limited personnel and funds, takes up all your time. But I really enjoyed myself.  I was able to apply a theoretical idea from my years at university as a student and professor, to use what I call “applied art history”; art history that has a purpose. To practice art history in a place like a museum you have to come up with specific activities for that place.  I decided to make visible in some way all of the general administration, like cataloguing, research, restoration, studies, archiving, and publications. I did this by a series of exhibitions that, little by little, focused in on one of the problems that I’d found in the museum. Because you have sponsors exhibitions give you the opportunity to carry out research. This is something that wasn’t done in Italian museums before. I hope it’s done more regularly today.

How many exhibitions have you done over the years and which do you remember as being significant?

There are about twenty-four. What I remember are the discoveries made in the first, which was the most complete exhibition on Raphael ever done in Italy. It was enormous, and we discovered new things about Raphael, which was something we absolutely could not have imagined because this was well-covered territory. To hold an exhibition like this, you need to carry out two or three years of research. And as Picasso said, “He who seeks finds.” We discovered never-before-seen documents and, more important, completely new processes used by Raphael. The same goes for Bernini, Correggio and Canova. Then there’s the exhibition that was the greatest source of satisfaction for me, and something that may never be repeated, which was in collaboration with the Louvre. The aim was to bring back to the Galleria Borghese some of the 500 or so pieces of the collection that Camillo Borghese, the husband of Pauline Bonaparte, sold to Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century. We brought back 85 pieces, and put them where they were originally placed. This was a massive undertaking and was certainly a milestone for research, even for the researchers from the Louvre who study the Borghese collection.

“The Villa Borghese is a place of absolute wonder”

Anna Coliva

Azzedine Alaïa. Couture-Sculpture. Exhibition 2015

Anna Coliva, the Borghese collection was created by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 17th century. Is it correct that Villa Borghese was never a home that he lived in with his treasures?

His idea was to have a place to bring together all his treasures. It was conceived as a showcase, so there aren’t living spaces. There weren’t the Galleria delle Statue, usual in Renaissance-era palazzos. The Borghese archaeological collection, the most beautiful in the world, was created as an actual museum. That’s why Napoleon wanted it for himself, as a symbol.

In 1806 Napoleon bought the collection. In this case he didn’t steal it. Is this an important historical point? 

Absolutely. Camillo Borghese was infatuated with Napoleon, like all the “young” people (ideologically or age-wise) of that era. He was the revolution. Legend has it that Marcantonio, the great Roman prince, died of a broken heart because his son Camillo burnt the family crest in the square as a revolutionary gesture. Whether this is really true or not, we know that Camillo was a Napoleon sympathiser, and Napoleon wanted to be the master of the ancient because his ideologies were based on that. In fact he only bought the archaeological part of the collection.

Is a visitor to Villa Borghese struck by the building in and of itself, or by the whole collection, or by certain masterpieces like in the big museums? 

The Villa Borghese is a place of absolute wonder because of how it was conceived, with the most sophisticated features and materials, in order to create an absolute marvel. From floor to ceiling, there isn’t a centimetre that isn’t decorated. One is captivated by the colours, the themes, all of it together. It is the only example of its kind that has been maintained and decorated so consistently, filled with the most beautiful collection in the world. The Borghese collection isn’t large and was chosen piece by piece. This is where a sense of taste comes into play as a new element in art history. It isn’t arbitrary. It is a critical, fundamental element. In the Galleria Borghese, it conquers all. It wins out over the pedantry of philology, over iconology. The concept of taste wins out over everything. All the works are masterpieces and unique at the same time. They are neither banal nor the classic pieces you’d expect to see from a specific artist.

Is the sculpture by Canova of Pauline Borghese Bonaparte as Venus Victrix the Mona Lisa of the Borghese?

Exactly. It was the last masterpiece to enter, in 1808, but due to its overwhelming figurative strength it has become iconic, a symbol. The Galleria Borghese is a large, wonderful theatre where the major arts, the minor arts, paintings, sculpture, all play a role together in the great Baroque composition. In this wonderful theatre, the works of art shouldn’t just be hanging on the wall and studied philologically and documented, or even photographed for Instagram or via virtual reality. My idea was that they should be put into play, to act and react. For each exhibition I wanted to create a stage where the chosen artist or work reacted upon the wonderful backdrop of the Galleria Borghese. 

“We are the only museum to have six paintings by Caravaggio”

Anna Coliva, you are presently holding a show featuring the English artist Damien Hirst curated by Mario Codognato.  Should contemporary artists be included in spaces featuring classical or ancient art? 

This is a crucial point that I’ve tried to take on in so many ways, and I don’t know that I’ve always been successful. I heard about this wonderful project Hirst has been working on secretly for ten years, an artist of his calibre was using both materials and techniques in a traditional way. In fact, all the works are created by hand using traditional materials. No 3D printing, no modern technologies, no virtual reality, only manual working methods of marble and stone, materials that are found in the Galleria Borghese. Our venue was the perfect destination for the 85 pieces that I selected one by one over three years. There were other things the artist wanted to add, but I put my foot down.

What was your objective?

Not to study Damien Hirst, but to study the place, the museum. A museum featuring ancient works doesn’t aim to study contemporary art, but the place in which it exists. If I can put it impolitely, I took from contemporary art in order to explain the place – not to make comparisons, which I don’t believe in. There is no parallelism between contemporary art and ancient art. It’s not true that art is always contemporary. The train of thought needs to be contemporary, not the art. This particular research into Damien Hirst was necessary for me in order to highlight the beauty of the materials that make up the gallery.

Recently, Giuseppe Penone was at the Uffizi, and Edmund de Waal at the Frick Collection in New York. Has it now become quite usual to show contemporary works in galleries and traditional museums?

This happens a lot today. In 2009 I did the first one in an Italian museum, ‘Caravaggio-Bacon’. I was accused of having paved the way for this trend, which only works if we don’t look at the museum as a “location”. The contemporary artist has to not be there as a way to make comparisons with ancient art, which doesn’t make sense. We have to have the need for the contemporary artist and not the other way round. In this case, Damien Hirst takes inspiration from archaeology and does what only the great artists are able to do. He brings to life and recreates this mythography that is absolutely on a par with the mythography invented by the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Italians, the history of art over the centuries. There is this extraordinary element that can only happen in a place like the Galleria Borghese. This is the great significance of this Hirst exhibition with a legendary collection, because he makes us believe in his fictional collector Cif Amoton II. It is in line with the legendary nature of Scipione Borghese who put together an amazing collection.

The Borghese has a room with masterpieces by Caravaggio. Does that exist in other museums?

We are the only museum to have six paintings by Caravaggio. They are there not because they were inherited, or wedding gifts, or purchased, but because they were all commissioned when Caravaggio was alive; and Scipione Borghese, who is dramatically linked to Caravaggio, managed to possess them. This is an amazing value-add that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Anna Coliva

I Borghese e l’Antico. Exhibition 2010

Anna Coliva

Damien Hirst. Archaeology Now. Exhibition 2021

Anna Coliva

Caravaggio/Bacon – Exhibition 2009

Anna Coliva

Bernini. Exhibition 2017

Anna Coliva

Giacometti. The Sculpture. Exhibition 2012

Anna Coliva

Damien Hirst. Archaeology Now. Exhibition 2021

“We need to be careful not to transform cultural heritage into an amusement park”

Anna Coliva, what is the purpose of the Caravaggio Research Institute that you created along with Fendi?

The idea is to create the largest and most complete digital archive of Caravaggio, with a great deal of theoretical and technological support from the Getty, which is the biggest centre of research for digital humanities. I originally created a digital archive for Caravaggio with support and encouragement from Salvatore Settis, who was the director of the Getty Research Institute and at Scuola Normale in Pisa.

Can the Borghese be visited virtually?

Absolutely. All of our digital platforms are now hyperactive! In 1997, we created the first virtual reality of an Italian museum. At that time I asked to go to the Galleria Borghese because it had been closed for fourteen years, but my colleagues were collecting signatures as a way to support me because they thought I’d been sent there as a punishment! You can imagine how people thought of museums at that time.

How many people visit the Galleria Borghese every year? 

We’ve always had a limited number, because of the fragility of the space and for security reasons people enter at specific times. The most we’ve had is around 600,000 visitors in a year.

Was your position as Director given to someone you trust?

I rooted for Francesca Cappelletti, who took over in September 2020. She has all the skills and qualifications. This is a great opportunity for the museum. She is her own person and will make some choices that are different from mine, and I certainly hope they are.

Are you pleased to be going back to teaching?

Art history from the 16th to the 17th centuries are my areas of expertise, but it’s more interesting to not teach pure art history. I’d like to focus on what I’ve been preaching, to show that aesthetics are also economics. Culture needs applied research in great research institutes that attract international experts and students. We need to be careful not to transform cultural heritage into an amusement park where you hop on a ride and then leave. We need to have people who want to not only visit Italy but to truly experience it and take it in, and even work here.

Has the role of sponsorship changed over the years? 

I first asked for funds from the European funds in 1998, when it was impossible. We were the first museum to have European funds. After having broken the ice, we began to see big Italian companies offer funds for research. They had a bit of an institutional obligation to do that, and it became obligatory for the local bank, etc. Targeted sponsorships, when the sponsor is truly interested in what we are doing, are more interesting. There are great patrons from the fashion industry, like Fendi which is supporting the Caravaggio project. And for this Damien Hirst project we had a generous donation from Prada, and it came with a great deal of interest in the exhibition. They are no longer sponsors out of institutional obligation.

These big sponsors from the fashion world are often collectors themselves. Is there a new type of patronage?

Before it was sponsorship, but now it’s true patronage. There’s participation, and an identification with the project that has to ring true for the patron.  

Do you leave with optimism and hope?

I am not optimistic by nature, but I do feel there’s an important change taking place. Some things can change and evolve in a very interesting way. We’ve lived through a horrible thing, but all the generations affected have in some way been enriched by it. I don’t want to be misunderstood, but it’s an opportunity.