Napoleon intended Brera Pinacoteca to be the Louvre of Italy.

Dr. James M. Bradburne is a British-Canadian architect, designer and museum specialist who is the newly appointed Director General of Pinacoteca di Brera e Biblioteca nazionale Braidense in Milan. His aim is to put Brera back at the heart of Milan.

The Courtyard at Brera

The Napoleonic Courtyard at Brera

The Italian Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, has nominated 20 new directors for the 20 top Italian museums, and you are one of them?

Yes, he nominated 7 directors of first level for the Museums of Brera in Milan, Gli Uffizi in Florence, L’Accademia in Venice, La Galleria Borghese in Rome, Capodimonte in Naples, La Reggia di Caserta, and Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM) in Rome. And then 13 others of a second level. The Directors of first level report directly to the General Secretary, then the Minister.

You came from Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and were nominated for Brera?

Yes, there was an international competition in January 2015. Over 1,200 people applied, 86 non-Italians, of which the Minister created a list of 10 candidates for each of the museums. We had interviews, the Minister made selections. I was called for Brera. The Minister asked me if I was prepared, and I said yes, that it was my first choice.


But why your first choice?

For two reasons. When I went to Florence in 2006 from Frankfurt, after years of working with Italian colleagues, they said to me it is easy to do things as you did in Amsterdam or in Germany, but in Italy it is hopeless.

And so what?

When I went to Florence in 2006, after winning the competition to direct the Palazzo Strozzi, I was lucky, it was one of Italy’s first autonomous public/private foundations so you could create innovative exhibitions of the highest quality, and we did. For instance, in 2014 our exhibition “Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino” was awarded as the best exhibition of the year in the world by Apollo Magazine, and in 2015 our exhibition “Power and Pathos” was recognised as the best exhibition in the “Global Fine Arts Awards”. So we did it.

27_Brera_sala napoleonica

Napoleonic Room, Brera

Why Brera?

My colleagues said what you could do in Florence you won’t be able to do in a State Museum. It will be hopeless.

And so?

I want to show that Italy’s museums can be as good as any other museum in the world. Not only in terms of their collections, but also of visitor experience.

What is Brera, and why is it so little known internationally?

The answer is in part that Milan, even if it is the second most visited city in Italy, is not known as a city of art. It is a contemporary city, known for its fairs, design, furniture, fashion, finance. Except for “The Last Supper” of Leonardo da Vinci it is not known as a city of art. Brera used to be the Jesuits’ headquarters and at the time of Maria Teresa of Austria the Braidense Library was created with an extraordinary collection from the 12th century on. Then next door there is the botanical garden (the Orto Botanico) and then the Observatory (the Osservatorio Astronomico) that was created in 1770 to 1790, and we have one of Italy’s most important art schools where, for instance, Vanessa Beecroft was a student.

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) Cena in Emmaus 1605-1606 olio su tela cm 141 × 175

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), Cena in Emmaus, 1605-1606, olio su tela, cm 141 × 175

And what about the Pinacoteca?

At the time in which Napoleon ran Milan, in 1808 he issued a decree and baptised Brera “Palazzo Reale delle Scienze e delle Arti” and he intended the Pinacoteca to be the Louvre of Italy.

What is so exceptional about the collection?

The Pinacoteca was born out of the needs of the art academy and only became an independent institution in the late 1800s.

Andrea Mantegna Cristo morto nel sepolcro e tre dolenti 1470-1474 tempera su tela cm 68 × 81

Andrea Mantegna, Cristo morto nel sepolcro e tre dolenti, 1470-1474, tempera su tela, cm 68 × 81

What are the masterpieces in Brera?

They are countless. For instance Raphael’s “Sposalizio della Vergine” was acquired in 1806. It was seen by Franz Liszt in 1837 and became the inspiration for his famous “Second Year Pilgrimage”. And then the “Cristo Morto” by Mantegna, the Caravaggio “La Cena di Emmaus”; and then there are Tintoretto’s, Bellini’s, Titian’s, Veronese and so on, so forth. The past Superintendent of Brera, Franco Russoli who died in 1977 when he was only 54 years old, had a great esteem for modern Italian art, and he put together two major Milanese collections: Jesi and Vitali. Russoli organised the first Picasso exhibition in Italy in 1953. Russoli was a bit like Brera, revolutionary, but not so well known in the world.

How many visitors come to Brera?

About 300,000 a year, but, if things go the way I hope, we can expect to double it.

Do you have new exhibitions in mind?

For the first three years we are reinstalling all the 38 rooms of the museum progressively in groups of five rooms, and we are beginning with our first “dialogue” between Perugino and Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin – never seen together before. The second dialogue will be between the Dead Christ of Mantegna and the painting of the same name by Annibale Carracci.

Raffaello Sanzio Sposalizio della Vergine 1504 olio su tavola cm 170 × 118

Raffaello Sanzio, Sposalizio della Vergine, 1504, olio su tavola, cm 170 × 118

After a few months of your new experience are you pleased?

I am not discouraged. It is much more difficult than I had imagined. It is very, very difficult to change State Museums in Italy.


Because even given the new autonomy, there is still a very strong top down Soviet-style bureaucracy, which if it is not resisted it has a tendency to strangle every new initiative. If to do something very simple, like to lend an object to another museum, requires twenty signatures from twenty different people before the object can move, clearly this is a disincentive to doing things. Happily the new reforms from Minister Franceschini are cutting through bureaucracy.

Francesco Hayez Il bacio 1859 olio su tela cm 112 × 88

Francesco Hayez, Il bacio, 1859, olio su tela, cm 112 × 88

Who has kept Italy from realising the full potential of its State Museums?

Nothing more or less than unnecessary bureaucracy and the lack of full autonomy. Franco Russoli, about whom I was talking before, the former director of the Pinacoteca wrote an essay with the title “300 against the Dragons”. But we think we can defeat the dragons.

Do you still buy new paintings?

Yes, we do. If Russoli had not died we would have had a comprehensive collection of contemporary in addition to Modern art. Unfortunately, forty years after his death, the train has left the station. Brera is not and can no longer be the center today for contemporary art in Milan. But we can continue to collect Modern Italian artists that will expand the collections we transfer to the Palazzo Citterio in 2018.

Umberto Boccioni Rissa in galleria 1910 olio su tela cm 74 × 64

Umberto Boccioni, Rissa in galleria, 1910
olio su tela, cm 74 × 64

What is your goal?

We want to make Palazzo Brera a world cultural destination, and for this we have big plans.

So what are you going to change?

There are two missions. The first to put Brera back in the heart of Milan, and the second to put the visitors back at the heart of the museum.

The Courtyard at Brera

The Napoleonic Courtyard at Brera

What does it mean to put Brera back in the heart of Milan?

To give back the original identity as a “Palazzo of Arts and Sciences” by making the grand entrance in the Napoleonic courtyard the entrance to the world of art, including the Pinacoteca, including the Braidense Library and the Accademia, adding new seating, new lighting, new signage, new shops and a café. The entrance to the scientific institutions will be instead a “Grande Allee des Sciences” (Viale della Scienza), with a new entrance in Via Fiori Oscuri giving access into the Orto Botanico and the Osservatorio, and in 2018, we will open the Palazzo Citterio for the modern art collection. This means more space for the antique paintings, the old masters in the actual premises and Palazzo Citterio will become a showcase for Italian modern art, especially Milanese collections.

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10 March, 2016

Brera Pinacoteca


All images by kind permisssion.