CONTEMPORARY ART AND TRADITION. Salvatore Settis is an archaeologist and art historian. The Chairman of the Louvre Museum’s Scientific Council, he has been the director of the Getty Research Institute of Los Angeles and the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa. Author of several books on art history, Settis’ most recent is titled “Incursioni. Arte contemporanea e tradizione” (“Incursions. Contemporary Art and Tradition”). He has just curated an extraordinary exhibition called I Marmi Torlonia (The Torlonia Marbles) which is now on show at Museo Capitolini in Rome in the Villa Caffarelli, and will be in a few other museums worldwide later on. Co-curator of the exhibition is Carlo Gasparri, while its design was provided by the British architect David Chipperfield.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Professor Salvatore Settis, in your new book why do you say that you are like a curious stranger who wanders from place to place?
Because, as opposed to normal academic custom, wandering from one place to another means not being a supreme specialist of anything. My ambition is to try to understand and to be a good interpreter of artistic intention, also to non-scholars of art history. A work of art produced 2000 years ago or 200 years ago or 20 years ago can tell us something today and tomorrow, and we can still understand something about those works of art in their original context. In this sense, I really feel like a foreigner visiting different countries, and this is the meaning of the word Incursions which I put in the title of my last book.
Why do you like to create your own diverse worlds rather than becoming the expert in something particular?
Perhaps it’s not a choice, but a limitation. I’m probably unable to immerse myself in a century or in an artist for many years, as many scholars do. My preference is to try to understand something, and then I’m attracted by somebody else or by something else. So I moved from the 15th century to Roman art or to Greek art or to an important princely collection like the Torlonia Marbles, but, in whatever subject I address, I try to constantly use the same philological approach, which is a precision in looking at sources and an ambition to mediate as a scholar between sources – which are sometimes very old – and the contemporary public, and help them understand as much as possible.
In your new book that we hope will soon be translated into English you break a taboo and build bridges between old forms of art and contemporary art. The book is very original, and your essays go from the painters Marcel Duchamp and Renato Guttuso, to Ingmar Bergman the movie director, to the sculptor Giuseppe Penone, to the video artist Bill Viola, to the animated filmmaker William Kentridge. Each one is related to the past. For instance, we are amazed to see that Guttuso is put together with the poet Pablo Neruda, but you take the painting of Jacques-Louis David titled “The Death of Marat” that became the obsession of Guttuso and that is somehow reminiscent of the death of Neruda. Professor, how do you put all these things together?
My starting point in putting together these essays was a contradiction, a paradox. On one hand, it’s very common to think that contemporary art has nothing to do with the art of the past, that there is a great and total difference and we started everything again from scratch. On the other hand, everybody knows that many artists are using fragments of the past, and for those fragments we employ words like ‘citation’, ‘mention’, ‘influence’ and so on. I’ve tried to unify all those words under a general umbrella of ‘Tradition’.
Tradition is normally associated with something static. What is your approach?
I tried to show in this book that tradition can be very dynamic, and that tradition is very much part of artistic creation, whether in literature or in music or in figurative art. In the example you mentioned, when Guttuso wanted to celebrate his friend and a communist like him, Pablo Neruda, who had been killed by the military regime in Chile, he wanted to use as a model the “Death of Marat” by David. Marat and David were friends. They were both revolutionaries in 1789/1790s in France, and Guttuso thought of himself and Neruda as revolutionaries in the 1970s in Latin America and in Italy. So in this case, the political meaning and the artistic influence are one and the same thing, and this is another fil rouge I use throughout the book, the political meaning and the aesthetical influence.
“My ambition is to try to understand and to be a good interpreter of artistic intention, also to non-scholars of art history.”
Salvatore Settis, can you explain a little bit more using the case of Bill Viola, who is associated by you with Andy Warhol and Emil Nolde in the concept of the Last Supper that is inspired by Leonardo da Vinci?
When I was director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, I invited Bill Viola and he had an office close to my office for one year. I got to know him very well because we had lunch or dinner almost every week, so whatever I say about him is also born out of long discussion. Viola had no formal education in art history. His family comes from Piemonte, and he’s very proud of and curious about his Italian origin, but he never worked on Italian art history. Yet he was constantly attracted to it, and, when he wanted to create something new, inevitably something resurfaced in his memory. He has an ability to identify the very same preoccupations that artists of the past were working with, particularly in the famous case of “The Visitation” by Jacopo da Pontormo. Viola had remade “The Visitation” in video art without knowing anything about it, and only saw the painting itself many years later – with me actually – in a small church near Florence. Bill Viola didn’t know anything about the key point of Pontormo’s creation, yet in this work, as well in Viola’s “The Greeting”, the movement of little details is the key point. When I explained this parallel to him, he agreed upon it, yet was surprised. This says something about artistic intuition, about how an artist can look at the work of another artist created centuries before, and how an art historian like myself can help an artist understand his own sensibility.
You say that the “Apollo and Daphne” sculpture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini connects with the work of another contemporary Piedmontese artist, Giuseppe Penone. Penone reproduces trees and leaves in bronze or other materials. What links do you see between Penone and Bernini?
Trees are one of the main subjects of Penone’s sculpture, and I spent a full, wonderful day with him talking about his work before writing this essay. I find it inspiring that he captures a proximity between human beings and trees, a proximity which has to do with the relationship of civilisation and nature. We as human beings are very much part of nature, yet we are destroying nature. In this very moment our planet is in real danger, so the sculptural work by Giuseppe Penone also has an ecological meaning. In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” the nymph Daphne, a wonderful young girl, becomes a laurel tree when loved and chased by Apollo, and this metamorphosis is famously represented in a sculpture by Bernini. Penone was very well aware of Daphne’s intermediate nature between being a nymph and becoming a tree. This has a lot to do with our proximity with the world of nature and particularly trees, and with the ecological meaning.
Why do you take Leonardo da Vinci as another example linked to Penone’s work?
Because Leonardo da Vinci speaks about L’albero delle vene, the tree of veins, and this has to do with the great classical philosophers who say that trees are like men with the head down, exactly like trees, but capovolte, reversed. This is another of the proximities between men and trees that I was exploring in order to offer a possibility of understanding Penone.
“An exhibition of sculptures is exceedingly difficult because they are very heavy and they have to be moved from one place to another.”
Salvatore Settis, in your eclectic life you have just curated an extraordinary exhibition of sculptures called Collecting Masterpieces: The Torlonia Marbles, which is now on show at Museo Capitolini in Rome in the Villa Caffarelli. This great collection was started by a Roman banker called Giovanni Torlonia and then increased over time to become a great collection of more than 600 pieces, and now you gave life to this collection that was kept hidden away for many years. There are hopes that soon there will be a museum dedicated to these incredible masterpieces. So can you tell me why you did this exhibition and what it is about?
This exhibition only offers 92 out of the more than 600 pieces of classical sculpture in the collection of the Princes Torlonia. It is the largest private collection of classical sculpture worldwide, and was formed at the end of 19th century. A true museum, the Museo Torlonia was opened by the first prince named Alessandro Torlonia, but, for various reasons, it was closed something like 70 years ago. So all the sculptures were well preserved, yet they were invisible. Now we can look at very important pieces of Greek and Roman sculpture which nobody has had the opportunity of seeing over the last 70 years. Both Italy’s Ministry of Culture and the Torlonia Foundation asked me to curate this exhibition. I particularly love making exhibitions of classical sculptures, such as those I did at the Fondazione Prada in Milan or at Palazzo Te in Mantova.
Why sculpture Professor Settis?
Because it is much more difficult than painting to put on show. An exhibition of sculptures is exceedingly difficult because they are very heavy and they have to be moved from one place to another. And you have to look at sculpture from different angles. It’s not like a painting that you hang on the wall and look at. A sculpture needs a much more complex set of organisation at every step, including restoration. That’s the reason why exhibitions of sculptures are comparatively rare as opposed to exhibitions of paintings. This was a very good opportunity for me, and of course I wanted Carlo Gasparri to work with me as he is a very good classical archaeologist and a friend of mine. He worked on the Torlonia marbles for 40 years or so, so he knew much more about them than myself, so we enjoyed working together, both identifying which pieces to show.
How did you make the choice of 90 out of 600?
By putting together two different criteria. One was the intrinsic interest and quality of the pieces, and the other one was to create a very simple narrative out of those pieces. We use the extreme richness of the Torlonia marbles to make a cross section of the history of collecting antiquities so we went backwards in time. In the first room we have a reconstruction of the Torlonia Museum as it used to be at the end of the 19th century. Then we move to the formation of the Torlonia collections, the 19th century excavations by the Torlonias in their own estates to start with, and then backwards to collections like the Albani collection in the 18th century; and then back to the Giustiniani collection in the 17th century; and back to the earliest collections in 15th and 16th century Rome, pieces which migrated from one collection to another. From a collection of a cardinal, let’s say, in 1490 to the collection of the Prince Torlonia today.
In your book we were talking about before, Incursions, the difference between an artisan and an artist came quite late. Was there even a concept of artists at the time of these Roman or Greek pieces, or they were just artisans?
The notion of art we are using today was foreign to classical civilisation. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t aim at high quality, and there were very important artists in Greek civilisation, Phidias or Praxiteles, or Lysippus for example. The point is that most of the originals of the sculptures were destroyed over time. Most of all, the classical bronzes were actually destroyed in order to use the metal for practical reasons in a moment of economic crisis. And so in the case of Praxiteles or Lysippus we mostly have only copies that were made in Roman times. Classical archaeology developed a methodology in order to understand how the original might have been, starting from the copies, so even in the Torlonia marbles in this exhibition there are important copies. They are important works of art in their own right, but also stand for lost originals. There are also a number of Greek originals, and there are portraits which have names, portraits of Augustus and of several Roman emperors. We know the portrait of the person portrayed, but we don’t know the name of the artist who did the sculpture. One of the most important pieces in the exhibition is the so-called Hestia Giustiniani, named after a famous collector in 17th century Rome. This is a unique copy after a Greek original of 480 B.C. So we don’t have the original, yet we have a wonderful copy and we can judge the original from the copy very much as we can enjoy the Divine Comedy or Hamlet even if we don’t have an autograph of Shakespeare or of Dante.
Are these statues comparable to the works of art of more modern artists?
According to Michelangelo they were. He found the classical marbles in Rome very interesting, and we have some witness of this. When he saw the Laocoön, which is in the Vatican Museum, or when he was consulted about the Belvedere torso which is also in the Vatican museums. They asked Michelangelo to complete it because it’s fragmentary, and Michelangelo said it is too beautiful to be completed. Let’s leave it as it is. Which is what has been done.
Have contemporary artists always been called upon to restore antique statues?
In the Torlonia exhibition there is a very important example of this. There is a statue of a large goat of Roman times, but without a head. And to make the head, the Marquis Giustiniari called in Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Bernini did the head of the goat. The head is much better than the rest of the body, because at this point in the 17th century there was la querelle des anciens et des moderns, the fight between ancient and modern. And Bernini wanted to show that he was much better than the Roman sculptor, which he was.
Is it the same now with contemporary art, but Jeff Koons uses plastics to make things that somehow are sculptures?
Yes, I’m sure Jeff Koons, whom I met only once and I discussed this point with him, certainly thinks of himself as a sculptor.
Is Penone also a sculptor?
Certainly. In our contemporary world, the traditional materials of sculpture which were wood or terracotta or marble or bronze are just not the only ones. Contemporary sculptors, but also contemporary painters, are adding other means, and there are even forms of art which are intermediate between sculpture and painting. This is the paradox I was talking about at the beginning, in a sense today’s art it changing everything, but at the same time keeping something. The point is to analyse the balance between what is part of the tradition, and to what extent denying the tradition is also a way of responding to art of the past.
There are important private museums of art, like the Goulandris museum in Athens. Will the Torlonia collection become a private museum, or a museum of the Italian state?
There is a precise agreement between the Italian state and Torlonia Foundation. This exhibition is meant as the first step towards the reopening of the Torlonia Museum, which will be, in a sense, a joint venture between the Italian State, which engages itself to offer a building to the Torlonia collection. But the collection itself will be kept in the private property of the Torlonia family and Foundation. This is not my business, but the Ministry of Culture is already working at this. The current Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, at the opening of the exhibition with President Mattarella a few months ago, said that he had already identified a possible wonderful palace for this museum, and he found quite a significant sum of money, 40 million euro, in order to work on this. So I hope that the ministry with the Fondazione Torlonia will be able to reopen the entire Museo Torlonia as a private museum in a public building.
Jacopo da Pontormo, Visitazione, 1528-1529, olio su tavola. Carmignano (Prato), Pieve di San Michele. copia
Bill Viola, The Greeting, 1995, installazione video-sonora. copia
Torlonia Marbles. Oliver Astrologo copia
Torlonia Marbles. Oliver Astrologo copia
PENONE_063_Cedro di Versailles_c695_dia©Archivio Penone
PENONE_086_Continuera a crescere_c1250_dig©Archivio_Penone
“Scholarship has no nationality.”
Salvatore Settis, you have worked in private institutions like the Getty and you work at the Louvre, probably the most famous state museum in the world. Is there a big difference between private and public?
Both models can work, it only depends on who is managing the collection. The Getty is private, but you don’t pay a ticket to enter, so this private museum was conceived by Mr. Getty for the common good of Angelenos. In public and private museums in Italy you normally pay. From the point of view of restoration, the Getty follows the highest possible standards and is a private museum. The Louvre is a public museum, but the Louvre also follows the highest possible standards. The real difference is historic. In Rome, the Villa Borghese, which belonged to the family Borghese, is a public museum, because the Italian state bought it at the beginning of the 20th century, while the Doria Pamphilj Museum still belongs to the Princes Doria Pamphilj. This is only for historical reasons and historical reasons vary from case to case.
Would someone be able to put together a collection like the Torlonia marbles today?
No, now something like this, of that dimension, ambition, quality, is impossible. Even in Rome itself, this is the last – as I wrote in my essay in the catalogue – which also exists in English – this is the very last princely collection in Rome. Nothing like this was ever created afterwards.
Is there a fil rouge, something that unites one thing to the other, between the catalogue of the Marmi Torlonia and your book Incursioni?
Yes. The fil rouge is the methodology. It’s the historical philology. I would try to use the same approach both when talking about a portrait of a Roman emperor of the 3rd century A.D. and about a photograph by Marcel Duchamp of the 1930s. The sources we are using are totally different, but the methodology should be the same.
I love particularly Warburg, because I have been working on him and reading his work quite a bit, and I’ve been working and living in Germany for a while. The scholarship in French or English or of course Italian, is equally important. Scholarship has no nationality.
Some say that young people are not particularly interested in art history. Do you believe this is true?
I think this is a total mythology that should be completely denied. I know a huge number of younger people who are no less motivated, no less enthusiastic, no less interested, and no less determined in working on art history as people of my generation were 50 years ago. There are many more good young scholars now than there were in my generation.
You are an optimistic voice?
Absolutely. I’ve been a professor of Scuola Normale in Pisa for many years. Scuola Normale is an elite school. My students were on average particularly good, but I had the opportunity of meeting people from many other universities and in several countries, including Germany, the U.S., England and France. Thinking about new generations as a lost generation in terms of art history is not true.
Thank you very much, Professor, for your optimism and for your two books Incursioni just published by Feltrinelli. Will this catalogue The Torlonia Marbles Collecting Masterpieces be the same for the exhibition at the Louvre?
It will be the same catalogue, yes, but of course, with the pandemic, the dates of the Louvre or other possible venues are totally up in the air.
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.