A VERY SPECIAL MOMENT FOR MILANO. Gianfranco Maraniello is an art historian, contemporary art critic and curator. In May 2022 he was selected to be the Director of the Modern and Contemporary Art Museums in Milano, Italy, which includes Museo del Novecento, GAM Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Palazzo Morando | Costume Moda Immagine, Casa Museo Boschi Di Stefano and Studio Museo Francesco Messina.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Gianfranco Maraniello how do you work on all these different museums in Milano?
I have the privilege of playing an amazing role in a city that is at a very exciting moment, because Milano is between Expo 2015 and the next Winter Olympics in 2026. The city is frenetic and desired by so many people who are coming here. Everything is on the up and up, and it’s a real privilege to be working for a public institution at this moment. These museums play a social role that is focused not only on this specific exciting moment, but on previous and future generations.
What is the difference between Museo del Novecento and the GAM Galleria d’Arte Moderna?
The difference is very simple. GAM has a spectacular collection focused on 19th century Italian art and deals with all the art that was developed from neoclassicism to the beginning of the 20th century. Museo del Novecento is focused on the 20th century and starts with the avant-garde and Futurism, and we have an astonishing collection, comparable only to MoMA in New York. Many art critics now say that ours is probably the most important collection in the world.
Which are the major works of Futurist artists in the Museo del Novecento?
We have sensational masterpieces by Umberto Boccioni, such as the bronze sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio), which is a figure permeated by movement, by rotation in space, by a kind of osmosis between the figure and the environment. We recently acquired Boccioni’s painting Materia, a painting of his mother that must be his greatest painting. Then Gino Severini, Giacomo Balla, even the late futurists like Fortunato Depero, are all represented. We also have terrific masterpieces by the artists belonging to other movements or who found refuge in a solitary, lonely space after the disillusionment of the Second World War, Giorgio Morandi for example. It’s a huge collection and we have more paintings than we can show, which allows us to have important reciprocal lending relationships with international museums.
“Milano is an incredible city for art”
GAM Galleria d’Arte Moderna: The Fourth Estate (Quarto Stato) by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo
Gianfranco Maraniello, is Lucio Fontana very well represented?
Lucio Fontana is probably the master, and to him we’ve dedicated a space which is a huge glass showcase with a fantastic view of Piazza del Duomo, the main square of the city of Milano and the site of the cathedral. It seems as if the entrance to the cathedral is actually in the room where we have a neon light made by Fontana. It’s very spectacular, probably the most revered place in Milano for a selfie (laughs). Museo del Novecento is not just a museum, it is the epicentre of a new perspective of the main square of the city. Now we are working on a second building which is the twin of our museum. Both are located in the Piazza del Duomo, so we are connected to tourists and to religion.
Is Milano still perceived by the world as a city of trade and financial activity, not so much as the very important city of art that it is?
The fact is that Milano is an incredible city for art, and not only for modern art. There is a hidden Milano, and we have iconic masterpieces by the Renaissance masters. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (Il Cenacolo) is in Milano, as is the last Rondanini Pietà sculpture by Michelangelo. Mr Bernard Arnault has just bought the Casa degli Atellani and “Leonardo’s Vineyard” – an inner, hidden garden – where Leonardo da Vinci lived in Milano, and it’s remarkable that the leading figure in fashion and contemporary art chose to buy in Milano.
People say that Milano is a city that you don’t see, because inside the palazzos and the buildings there are very beautiful courtyards?
That’s the way it is, and part of our role is to help people understand it, and to get away from the historically secret and modest attitude typical of the bourgeoisie in this city. Private collections and properties are gradually being opened up to the public. We are living in a special moment of becoming aware of what we have here. And despite Milano having been an economic capital of Italy, except for after the Second World War the skyline of the city has never changed so much or so fast as in the last 15 years.
The private Prada Foundation is in Milano, but why is there no state museum of contemporary art?
Prada is a fantastic example of several new foundations that are doing wonderful things. The fashion labels have a lot to do with the evolution of contemporary art, and they invest a lot of private energy in contemporary art events and exhibitions by leading artists. State museums are public institutions and have a different role, we have a heritage of collections that we have to organise in an organic way in cooperation with this private energy. We have very good relationships with the managers of these private organisations. We have to consider what we can offer overall, to people who live here and to people who come to visit the city, that’s why we have a completely different role. We don’t need a museum of contemporary art with space for temporary exhibitions – like those in Rovereto or in Bologna earlier in my career. We have the Palazzo Reale, a public museum which is near the Museo del Novecento, where we put on events.
How do you choose the exhibitions that your museums show?
For example, we are planning a big exhibition for next spring in the Museo del Novecento and the Palazzo Morando. This exhibition in two places will be dedicated to the Liberty style. We have discovered stunning connections between Futurism and the British arts and crafts movement. Futurism has influenced the designers of Liberty London from William Morris and Bernard Nevill right up to David Bowie‘s clothes, but the designs and patterns they used are also everywhere in this city. Milano has a lot of Liberty style buildings. We will also use the show as a spotlight to illuminate the city’s sights, to look at this influence and see its presence in our daily lives that maybe we didn’t realise.
“Italy has never thought about the sense of guilt the way German literature and philosophy did after the Second World War.”
Gianfranco Maraniello, for a long time Futurism was excluded from the art mainstream because of its connections with the Fascist regime. Is the importance of artists like Severini, Balla, Boccioni, Medardo Rosso now fully recognized or is there still reticence?
Italy missed the opportunity to buy important and fundamental works of Futurism, like those that you can now see in the MoMA in New York, because there was embarrassment about how we could buy works so ideologically linked to that shameful moment in Italian history. That was not a problem for Alfred Barr, the first Director of MoMA, and they bought them. Now we see that Futurism existed before Fascism so this is not the whole history, and next year we’ll have a new gallery called Controversial Modernism. It’s important because Italy has never thought about the sense of guilt the way German literature and philosophy did after the Second World War. We have removed that idea; and sometimes we even think that we won the War, because of the Resistance’s alliance with the American and British armies. Maybe it’s too late to consider the responsibility of Italy, but we can be more aware of what happened. It’s not possible to have such a general cancel culture about our history. But we must not only consider its degeneration. There are also values worth preserving, such as the spirit of the avant-garde and the idea that you have to change the world, to hope for a new society and new rights.
GAM has the very iconic painting The Fourth Estate (Quarto Stato) by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo that Bernardo Bertolucci used in his film 1900 Novecento?
Yes, it was made between the two centuries and it is a huge painting, more than five metres wide, in which we see crowds of people coming together and walking towards the future with optimism. There’s a renaissance perspective, because the focus is on three main figures in the centre. Not long ago we put this painting in the most important room of the museum, the huge room that was the dance hall of the beautiful villa that houses the Galleria d’Arte Moderna.
Why did the Italian contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan recently buy back one of his own works and give it to you?
Because he made this very controversial work from the ruins of the building after the terrorist bomb that dramatically destroyed the Museum of Contemporary Art 29 years ago in Milano. It was a terrible act, and Maurizio Cattelan put some stones in several bags and collected a very provocative readymade work of art. All Maurizio Cattelan’s works have to do with the end of illusion and being hopeless without the spirit of the avant-garde, that we are in a moment of tragedy and failure is the essential theme of his work, and I said to him, why don’t we show this work in the museum that was bombed, because that building was near the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM), in the same street, and with that bomb they also wanted to destroy a symbol of culture in the city.
This bombed building was the contemporary art museum in Milano?
Yes. The PAC Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, a fantastic pavilion conceived and designed by Ignazio Gardella, a very important architect. So on the one hand we have the painting by Pellizza da Volpedo, Il Quarto Stato, and on the other Maurizio Cattelan and the end of illusion, of hope. These two are the alpha and the omega of the 20th century: a century that begins with hope, aware of new possibilities in society, but at the same time it is the century of violence, of terrible wars, of the end of the illusion that is the late 20th century. This readymade work of art gives new values to the ruins of the museum and it is, again, a work of art. So it’s a kind of revenge, the idea that art wins against violence. Some of the guardians of the museum are very touched by this, because at that moment they were the ones whose museum was destroyed, and they were collecting and removing stones with their hands to see if there was something or someone to be saved. And so, this idea that these ruins are ruins but also as a work of art, in the same building, in the same museum, in the same street, once again in this city, is a very powerful symbol of the power of art.
Exterior of Museo del Novecento, Piazza del Duomo, Milano, Italy
Museo del Novecento. The Fontana Room (Sala Fontana)
Photo: Thomas Pagani, Museo del Novecento, Milano.
Copyright: Comune di Milano
Museo del Novecento. Galleria Futurismo. Umberto Boccioni. Bronze sculpture: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio)
Photo: Margherita Gnaccolini
Museo del Novecento. Umberto Boccioni: Materia, 1912, oil on canvas, 226 x 150 cm, Coll. Mattioli
Museo del Novecento: Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of the painter Frank Haviland 1914, oil on cardboard 73 x 60 cm, Coll. Mattioli
GAM Galleria d’Arte Moderna: Lullaby by Maurizio Cattelan
“Everything is new, both for contemporary art and socially, and children are our best helpers.”
Gianfranco Maraniello, do many tourists come to Milano to visit the cultural treasures?
We’re in a strange period because Bergamo, which is very close to Milano, was the centre of the COVID pandemic, and COVID touched this region before the rest of the world. We had the longest lockdown in Europe. For two years this put a stop to an amazing increase of visitors, but in the last six months our visitor numbers are even superior to the peak before COVID. We are talking about millions of visitors. To our surprise Milano, which has never really been a tourist city, is now a very popular one. Everywhere you see new hotels and new accommodation for newcomers. It’s become a leading tourist city in Italy, but I can’t imagine that it’s more so than Rome. We have tourists for pleasure and for culture, but it also really touches me that we have a lot of people who come to Milano in sad circumstances too, as we have some of the best hospitals. We also have 100,000 students who come from other cities. People stay for long periods, and this means that we have to think about museums and everything that is related to welfare, not only in terms of tourism, economy, art and culture, but we are in a broader and broader situation where we have to consider many social aspects. This city really is changing a lot.
What risks do all these changes bring?
One risk is that this city has never before seen such an increase in the cost of living. For example, it is becoming very expensive for younger people to buy a house or to rent in Milano. This is very dangerous, because we could lose a generation, and if it becomes a special place only for people who are rich enough to live here we risk having a life that is not sincere. I live in Milano, and I’m very happy to be in a place where there are a lot of new, fast changes. Demographically we have the Chinese quarter or the Eritrean quarter around Porta Venezia and I like to walk down the street and see the real life of people, not just arrangements for tourists.
Are there many foreigners living in Milano now?
Yes, and this is very new and we need to think about this demographic change. Countries like France or Great Britain are very used to social and political changes like these, but we are discovering all this. Our best cultural mediators for these social issues and for contemporary art are children, who don’t see the problems that older people like us see. They live their lives as they are. It’s important that through children who come from different cultures and who speak different languages at school, parents are interested in extending their social life. It is the same for contemporary art. Children have a very natural approach to contemporary art, and whether it be to Morandi or Penone their approach is not the same as that of the adult eye.
Do children enjoy museums?
Of course. They are curious. They experiment. Adults are much more distant. Children help us to connect with other people, to experience, to have a kind of new virginity. Everything is new, both for contemporary art and socially, and children are our best helpers. Not to explain, but to show us how the paradoxes we see are possible to resolve. The play a very important active role in museums, not just a passive one.
At the end of the day Is Milano having a kind of renaissance?
We need to focus on something that you cannot find anywhere else and that is rooted in the relevant culture, history and heritage. We do not need to invent something. We need to show what we already have, what we were and what we still are. This is something that Milano can do very well, so come and visit us!
Thank you very much.
Photo of Gianfranco Maraniello by Margherita Gnaccolini
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