THE MAN WHO SAVED POMPEII. For seven years Massimo Osanna was Director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. He is now Director General of all the Italian museums. A professor of archaeology at the University of Naples, he has held many important responsibilities within the Italian Ministry of Culture.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Professor Massimo Osanna, are you nostalgic for Pompeii, the famous archaeological park where you made remarkable achievements and led the most extensive excavations since the Second World War?
I’m really nostalgic. Pompeii has to do with our identity. It is a place that has influenced European culture since the 18th century. We were involved in a huge effort of maintenance and restoration in order to make the ancient buildings of Pompeii safe again, but after this period we started new research, excavations, and discoveries. For me as an archaeologist Pompeii was paradise.
If I am not wrong, in this extraordinary adventure of maintenance and restoration you used European funds on a large scale and in this you were helped by the branch of the Carabinieri who assist the Ministry of Culture in combatting arts and antiquities crimes in Italy?
You are right. We used the European fund of 105 million euros in a good way, and quickly. General Nistri, the head of the Carabinieri, and I arrived in Pompeii in 2014. The “Great Pompeii Project” began before us, but they didn’t use the money. In two years we started all the restoration projects. The European Community agreed with us that we needed more time to finish the restoration work and the knowledge plan that we were organizing. This was really a huge effort and very important work for the archaeologists and a team of technicians alongside the Carabinieri.
Why were the national gendarmerie of Italy involved Professor?
Two reasons. First of all, Nistri was the head of the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, who specialise in safeguarding the Italian heritage. He was not a commissary who arrived without knowledge and without experience of our heritage. The presence of the Carabinieri in this complicated territory was very important for our work and was also conceived in order to prevent Mafia infiltration in the process of using the European money.
It is a world heritage, and we have to show it to the world.
Female head in polychrome terracotta. Taranto. 4th Century B.C. The National Archaeological Museum of Taranto tells the story of Southern Italy through the objects that belonged to the people who inhabited this area. Produced from a mold, the woman’s head has a headdress embellished by a tiara, a typical element of female jewellery in the Greek world, and is amazing for the beauty of her features, emphasized by the traces of colour and, at one time, by precious earrings. This is probably what has been preserved of a fictile funerary statue, portraying the deceased as a heroine, to whom the tiara conferred a status of outstanding importance.
Massimo Osanna, Pompeii is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. How many people visit Pompeii?
We have to refer to 2019, because since the covid pandemic everything has changed. In 2019 Pompeii received a massive four million visitors. In the years between 2014 and 19 the visitor numbers grew from 2 million to 4 million, and that is thanks to the great project, the communication of the great project, and the attention the government and the ministry paid to the Pompeii archaeological park.
Thanks to you we can visit Pompeii online virtually and have access to Pompeii from America, China or Timbuktu. Now you’re trying to do the same thing with all the Italian museums, since you were nominated as their Director General by the Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, in July 2020. How did your new job begin in this very difficult time?
I started my new job in September, in the middle of the pandemic. Museums were getting no money from ticketing, so we were in a critical situation and the government made an enormous effort to finance the museums without visitors. It was very important to continue to follow best practice in the closed museums, to continue all the maintenance, all the research, and all the communications about the museums. Our museums made a big effort to propose virtual programmes to visitors. They may be closed but we are working, because this is a world heritage.
How many museums are under your general direction?
450. Quite a lot. Very famous museums like Pompeii, Uffizi, Brera, Capodimonte, but also others like Palazzo Farnese, also known as Villa Caprarola, in Viterbo. That is an incredible huge Renaissance palace. Nobody knows about it, but it is one of the most beautiful palaces in our territory. This very important museum with not so many visitors is also difficult to maintain, as you can imagine: a huge palace with paintings, decorations and furniture. Maintenance is a key task for us.
You are in charge of all sorts of museums, including the Villa Borghese in Rome, the Accademia in Venice and the Egyptian Museum in Turin. How many people does it take to handle all these museums?
The problem at the moment is the number of museum staff we have who are working on different tasks with the expected level of expertise. We are lacking a minimum of 6,000 persons. There are 10,000 working, but we need 6,000 more. Minister Franceschini is making a huge effort to meet this need for human capital by opening a competition to bring architects, archaeologists, art historians, and anthropologists into the museums. In the last few years thousands of young specialists have started work, but we need more. For 10 years it was impossible to hold competitions for new personnel in public administration. Now it really is the right time to invest in such a scheme.
The German Gabriel Zuchtriegel is now at Pompeii, and Eike Schmidt is director of the Uffizi. The Frenchman Sylvain Bellenger is at Capodimonte, and the Anglo-Canadian James Bradburne is at the Brera in Milano. Was this another important reform, quite new for Italy, to open its museum doors to foreign directors?
Yes, we have opened our national museum system to the world. The internationalisation of our museums is our goal, because we can’t continue to consider our heritage as just our heritage. This is a world heritage, and we need specialists from other cultures, from other nations, to shape different skills, undertake tasks, and also improve our approach and methodology in museum studies, in museum management and so on. 90% of the works of art in Italian museums are in store rooms.
Every museum in the world would like to be able to borrow Italian masterpieces to put on show. Are you in favour of international loans of Italian art which up to now have been so very difficult to realise?
Loans are possible, and I appreciate all the efforts being made to improve the loans. When the condition of masterpieces is good, then it is possible for them to travel. Once a restorer says it’s no problem from the preservation point of view, then it is not a problem to share our heritage with the world. As I have said, it is not our heritage. It is a world heritage, and we have to show it to the world.
We need a new approach, to stimulate Italians to rediscover our identity.
Massimo Osanna, it must be difficult and expensive to run so many museums all around Italy. How do you work? What is your job?
We have to resolve all the critical aspects. Human capital is the most important thing, and the second is the maintenance programme. Except for the big museums with their own funding, like Pompeii and the Colosseum, we lack a maintenance programme. I am trying to understand how much we need in order to maintain our entire heritage. Does that mean 100 million, 150 million per year that the government has to give to the museums each year in public funding? Without a maintenance programme it’s difficult to organise loans of our heritage, exhibitions, programmes for visitors and so on. It’s really important to resolve that lack of a maintenance programme. When I arrived at Pompeii the situation was so bad because for decades there had been no such programme. Without ordinary maintenance we can’t give our heritage to the next generation. This is really a huge responsibility.
You have millions of visitors to the star attractions like Pompeii and others, but not so many people go to other less well known but spectacular museums. How can you distribute visitors better?
It’s important to create a network of museums to distribute all the visitors. One way to reorganise tourist programmes is with a card, so if you take a ticket to one museum you can also visit another important museum with fewer visitors, like San Martino in Naples or Castel Sant’Elmo. When Pompeii went from two to four million visitors it was thanks to a new policy of communication. When I arrived we opened social media like Twitter, Instagram, built a new website, and started doing interview programmes on television about discoveries and new offers. A lot of people arrived, because they saw Pompeii in the newspaper or on television, because we organised an enormous communication effort. In the past nobody knew about new archaeological discoveries. The archaeologists were jealous of them, only thinking about scientific publication, not the general public. To start new communications about the public museums we also need public/private partnerships, to make a common effort to announce our heritage.
Can museums make money?
Yes. Pompeii, for example, had ticket sales of 40 million euros. Of this 40 million we gave 20 percent, so 8 million, to the Ministry to redistribute to the poorer museums. The same is true for the Colosseum and the Uffizi. The big museums give a lot of money to the Ministry for the other museums, and of course we also need a new policy of private/public partnership from the government.
How many of your museum visitors are Italians and how many foreign tourists?
When I arrived at Pompeii 20 percent were Italian and 80 per cent foreign, mostly from France, Germany, England and the United States. Asia is going up. By 2019, the number had changed to 50 percent Italian, 50 percent others. Our new offers, new discoveries, new exhibitions, attracted more Italian visitors. It’s important that the communities in our territory understand what we are doing, so we also have to communicate with them, not just with the foreign students. We need a new approach, to stimulate Italians to rediscover our identity.
The Archaeological Park at Paestum is a complex of ruined ancient temples to Hera, Athena & Neptune, plus an amphitheater & a museum.
Canova’s statue of Paolina Borghese in the Galleria Borghese, an art gallery in Rome, Italy, housed in the former Villa Borghese Pinciana. ®Carlo Romano
The Villa d’Este in Tivoli, with its palace and garden, is one of the most remarkable and comprehensive illustrations of Renaissance culture at its most refined. Its innovative design along with the architectural components in the garden (fountains, ornamental basins, etc.) make this a unique example of an Italian 16th-century garden. The Villa d’Este, one of the first giardini delle meraviglie , was an early model for the development of European gardens.
The Royal Palace of Turin is a historic palace of the House of Savoy in the city of Turin in Northern Italy. It was originally built in the 16th century and was later modernized by Christine Marie of France in the 17th century, with designs by the Baroque architect Filippo Juvarra.
The Palazzo Reale or Palazzo Stefano Balbi is a major palace in Genoa.
Bargello Museum, formally National Museum of the Bargello, Italian Museo Nazionale del Bargello, is an art museum housed in the Palazzo del Bargello (or del Podestà), Florence, which dates from the 13th and 14th centuries. The museum was established in 1865 and is especially famous for its collection of Renaissance sculpture, including works by Donatello, Michelangelo, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Jacopo Sansovino, and Andrea del Verrocchio.
It’s important to create new contemporary art museums, and to promote the production of contemporary art inspired by the classical world.
Massimo Osanna, in the past many people said that Italian museums were not kept very well. How can you fix this when there are so many and the state doesn’t have enough money?
It’s true that we have an incredible amount of museums, of historical places and archaeological parks. Of course it makes it difficult to manage these museums and archaeological places. We need to make a huge effort. The huge amount of museums meant that by itself the government did not have enough money to manage every museum in the right way. But now with the recovery plan, with the new effort, with the Franceschini Reforms, we can change the situation. I want to transform small museums into places of contact, not just somewhere you go through to see a showcase of objects but also somewhere to stimulate your mind, your emotions, your knowledge.
In America, England, France, Germany, Spain, people form long queues to go and see an exhibition or visit a museum or a church. Do more and more people want to go to museums?
Yes, also in Italy. Thanks to the Franceschini Reforms, since 2014 the growth in visitors is incredible. Paestum grew its numbers by 50 percent in two years, and there are a lot of others like Paestum. This shows that we can have confidence in the museum as a cultural form.
Since people were not able to visit for maybe two years during the pandemic are you prepared for the many people who will absolutely want to come when things open up?
After all this period with Zoom and virtual reality, people want to come back to authenticity and the materiality of life. We are working to satisfy the expectations of visitors from everywhere in the world. It is important to be in contact with objects from the past in order to avoid social amnesia.
You are an archaeologist, but do you think that Italy has enough contemporary art museums?
No, not at all. Of the 450 museums under my general direction there is just one modern art museum, the so called GNAM (Galleria Nazionale di Moderna). Contemporary art museums like MAXXI in Rome are foundations and not under our direct control. It’s important to create new contemporary art museums, and to promote the production of contemporary art inspired by the classical world, as we do when we invite contemporary artists to Pompeii to produce new art inspired by Pompeii. We are doing this with Andrea Viliani, a contemporary art critic who was the Director of the Museo Madre in Naples. When I was in Pompeii we organised a huge exhibition called Pompeii@MADRE in the contemporary art museum. The rooms of the Museo Madre displayed furnishings and frescoes by Clemente or Kounellis, as if they were in a Roman domus with Roman furniture. We arranged all the rooms with beds and vessels and bronzes and so on. It was an incredible experience.
Just to mention two, there is an exhibition of Damien Hirst at the Galleria Borghese and an exhibition of Giuseppe Penone at the Uffizi. Are you ambitious for there to be more contemporary art museums around Italy?
Yes, for example I would like to open a contemporary art museum in Florence in the huge complex of the Manifattura Tabacchi. It is an incredibly interesting space from a contemporary art point of view. Big cities in Italy should realise new museums, because it’s important to understand that art is also a matter of generations. Every generation produces art.
The rest of the world looks at Italy as the country of arts and culture, and Prime Minister Mario Draghi has encouraged the preservation of the Italian patrimony: the beauty, the landscape, the museums. Is he very aware of the importance of both the culture and cultural heritage of Italy vis a vis the rest of the world?
Yes. We have a responsibility. In this sense, a huge responsibility. And I feel this responsibility.
As you said at the beginning, the Italian patrimony is not only Italian, but the patrimony of the entire humanity?
I think so. I know my new job is hard, but I have all the passion and skill needed in order to undertake it.
We wish you a lot of success, and thank you very much for being with us.
Photo of Massimo Osanna by Patrick Zachmann. ITALY. Pompeii, October 2018. Professor Massimo Osanna, director of Pompeii archeological parc showing a woman painted in a fresco recently discovered by the archeologists. “House with the Garden” (Casa del jardino).
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