RECYCLING BEAUTY. Salvatore Settis is an Italian archaeologist and art historian. From 1994 to 1999 he was director of the Getty Centre for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles and from 1999 to 2010 of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. Since 2010 he has been Chair of the Scientific Council of the Musée du Louvre. He is also a member of the Académie Française, the Academies of Sciences in Berlin and Munich, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, and the American Philosophical Society.

Salvatore Settis, you are the curator of “Recycling Beauty”, an unprecedented study on show at the Prada Foundation in Milan until February 27th 2023 that is dedicated to the re-use of Greek and Roman antiquities in post-antique contexts. Can you please tell us about “Recycling Beauty”?

This is the first exhibition ever on the re-use of classical antiquities in the post-classical age, although the re-use of buildings and statues and items from the classical time in the Middle Ages or in the Renaissance or up until today is very common. The Pantheon in Rome, a Roman temple of second century A.D., was re-used from 609 AD to the present day as a church; and an immense number of Greek and Roman statues are re-used in museums as art pieces. The great Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas did the installation of the exhibition in close connection with me, and we talk about the unstable nature of classical antiquity by showing pieces that were changed over time: pieces that were for centuries used for some sort of a bricolage, adding pieces, adding a head, a missing head, or changing the head; or using a vase decorated with scenes from the life of Dionysus as a baptismal font in a mediaeval cathedral. This theme of instability is particularly interesting in our time, when the linearity of time is contested by the very complexity of our present world.

Is “Recycling Beauty” an exhibition about time?

It is an exhibition about what time is, and also an exhibition about space. For instance, there are maps showing that the Farnese Cup (Tazza Farnese) was moved between several collections – including between the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and Lorenzo il Magnifico. In between it was in Samarkand, where it was drawn, and we show the drawing together with the Farnese Cup itself for the first time.

Everything on show has somehow been re-employed?  

Yes, we have a statue coming from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius being re-used as Saint Joseph. Every piece tells a different story, and one of the most impressive is the reconstruction of the colossal statue of Emperor Constantine, which is 12 metres high. There are ten gigantic fragments in the courtyard of the Capitoline museums in Rome, but for the first time ever for this exhibition Factum Arte, a company based in Madrid, scanned and made a cast of all the original pieces and reconstructed whatever is missing. The original hand is the famous hand with the finger that points upwards. This is a very impressive piece, and altogether there are between 60 and 70 very rare pieces, put together in a conceptual framework that I think is new.

“This theme of instability is particularly interesting in our time, when the linearity of time is contested by the very complexity of our present world.”

Salvatore Settis

Salvatore Settis, two years ago you curated a very important exhibition of the Torlonia Marbles. How did you decide to make “Recycling Beauty” and how long did it take you and your team to realise it?

The new building for the Prada Foundation in Milan has been done by Rem Koolhaas himself, and for the opening of the building in 2015 Miuccia Prada wanted an exhibition of classical art. Which is a very daring idea for a foundation that specialises in contemporary art. She discussed it with Germano Celant, the great art critic who was her main advisor, and they both asked me for that, so we did the opening exhibition of the Prada Foundation in Milan in 2015. It was called “Serial Classic” and was an exhibition which pointed out the seriality of classical art as opposed to the usual view of it as unique. I would say it is unique in its seriality. After that Miuccia asked me to organise a new exhibition there with Rem Koolhaas, developing a common language in order to address classical art in a somewhat unusual way. This happened well before 2020, but during the pandemic Germano Celant unfortunately died of Covid in April 2020. In total, we worked on it from 2017 to the present.

Are young people today interested in classical culture?

Interested or not, certainly they are increasingly less informed about it, because there is increasingly less presence of Greek and Latin or ancient history in school systems. In Italy we still have a Liceo Classico, but it’s almost an exception. Nevertheless, the presence of classical art is so important in contemporary artistic practice, and we can use this hidden knowledge as leverage in order to present new views about what Greek and Roman art might have meant in that particular society – but also afterwards, in the Middle Ages, so later.

For eleven years until 2010 you were the Director of the Scuola Normale di Pisa, the most prestigious classics university in Italy. Is this a field in which young people still reach great quality?

The Scuola Normale fortunately still has very good students, and I was fortunate enough in my teaching years to have a number of very good students. For example, at Columbia University in New York the professor of classical archaeology, Francesco de Angelis, studied with me in Pisa. At NYU, classical archaeology is taught by Clemente Marconi, also Italian, also coming from the Scuola Normale. So in the two most celebrated universities in New York City there are two normalisti teaching classical archaeology! This means something, and I am very proud of it.

Most senior museum curators seem to have been educated at the Courtauld or the Warburg Institute in London, but shouldn’t Italy be the place of the best known and most prestigious school?

A number of art historians from Italy are very prestigious curators. For instance, Davide Gasporotto, another of my students, is now senior curator at the Getty; or Francesco Caglioti, a professor of the Scuola Normale who did an absolutely wonderful exhibition on Donatello. This was first shown in Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, it is currently in Berlin at the Gemäldegalerie, and from there it will move to the V&A Museum in London. These two examples of a new generation are both slightly older than 40 years, and they are very good. The reputation of Italian scholarship in art history is comparatively very high in relation to other countries such as France or Spain, or even Germany. Curators in most public museums in Italy can have difficulty in organising large exhibitions for budgetary reasons, but exhibitions such as the Donatello, or the exquisite “Painting on Stone” at the Villa Borghese made by Francesca Cappelletti require a very sophisticated scholarship.

“The museum itself is a very recent creation. The oldest public museum in the world, the Museo Capitoline, was founded in 1734. Before that there was no museum.”

Salvatore Settis, what is the difference between the private museum of a foundation and public museums like the Uffizi or Capodimonte or the Archaeological museum in Naples or the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, the Brera in Milan and many others?

There are some mythologies that we have to dispel and there are, particularly in Italy, two opposite mythologies. According to one, whatever is private is good and whatever is public is bad. And according to the other one, whatever is private is bad and whatever is public is good. Neither one of those things is entirely true, but both have some truth in them.

What is your opinion? 

Before my opinion, let’s state facts. The first fact is this: the relationship between public and private in museums changes drastically from one country to another. Most European public museums are born from collections of kings, of popes, of Grand Dukes of Tuscany. They were an attribute of sovereignty, and with the transfer of sovereignty from the kings to the people from the French Revolution on, it is very important that public museums such as the Louvre or the Uffizi or Capodimonte stay public, as they were, because they come from the King of France, from the King of Naples, or from the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.  It would be a mistake to say that in order to work these museums must be privatised.

On the other hand?

On the other hand, if you see what’s happening with for example the Gallerie d’Italia which are owned by Banca Intesa, they are doing excellent work. I’ve just been for the first time in the wonderful Gallerie d’Italia in Turin. In Naples there is currently a very good exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi. The Gallerie d’Italia are four different  private museums in four different places which actually behave as a public museum. This is a very interesting evolution.

What about the Prada Foundation? 

The Prada Foundation invests a significant amount of money in research and making exhibitions happen, in inviting people to visit them, in diffusing and in sharing information and love for art. The two aspects can well live together. One reason for the equivocal relationship between the two in public discussion in Italy is that many people – including ministers of culture, prime ministers and so forth – are wrongly convinced that private museums in the U.S. are for profit, which is absolutely not true. If you visit the Getty Museum you don’t pay. There is no entrance ticket. There are basically no museums in the world – with very few exceptions, one of which is the Colosseum in Rome – which actually are able to earn more than they spend. It’s always something that is done in the public interest, for love of culture, for love of art. The work that is done now by Gallerie d’Italia or by Fondazione Prada or the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre never turns a profit.

In the United States, almost all the museums are private except the National Gallery in Washington. Fundraising is easier there because they have a tax deduction system that doesn’t exist in many other countries. Does this make a big difference?

Yes, and I completely agree with it. The only country that did something in this respect in Europe is perhaps France. The UK has always been an exception and in the UK you enter public museums like the British Museum without paying for a ticket. In Italy some very timid step has been taken by Franceschini as minister, but very little in comparison. A clearly visible tax deduction is the only way to attract more donations and more presence of private money in public museums. On the other hand, in certain cities such as Milan new foundations are being founded constantly. For instance, in Milan very recently the Fondazione Luigi Rovati opened a new museum of Etruscan, but also contemporary, art. It is comparatively small in relation to the Uffizi or something like this, but very sophisticated and with a very good architecture by Mario Cucinella. So it’s something that is changing.

Today there are more and more museums, and much more interest from young people for visiting them, but some say the young don’t have a very long attention span. What is your point of view on this? 

The culture is radically changing, and we have to consider the culture in its present fluidity. There are behaviours or ideas that were not considered culture when I was young, but which are now very present in the cultural scene everywhere. The entire world of Instagram or Facebook is something I would not be able to navigate in, but it is there and it is a form of culture. What is mostly missing is a bridge between these new forms of culture which are proper to new generations and the old form of culture that we are more accustomed to. We have to consider very seriously the increasing number of museums, even in countries that had no tradition of museums such as China, where all museums are recent in relation to Europe. The museum itself is a very recent creation. The oldest public museum in the world, the Museo Capitoline, was founded in 1734. Before that there was no museum. Michelangelo never was in a museum; nor Giotto, and they did great art nevertheless. Two centuries ago, in 1822, there were 30 museums in the world, all in Europe. Now there are more than 10,000. This inflation of museums is something that signals a need, it signals an interest. Coming to your question about attention span, it’s impossible to visit accurately a museum with 10,000 pieces on show.

Better to visit “Recycling Beauty”, which has only 70 pieces so you can concentrate more?

Yes, and moreover we insisted on the need for more attention, so Koolhaas put some of those pieces on office desks with an office chair in front of them. You are invited to sit for a long time and to look – not at a personal computer, a laptop or something, a photo on your screen. No, you look at the real thing, a real Roman sarcophagus or suchlike. We have to find strategies and experiment in an attempt to make people focus more, creating something like “slow art” – in the same way as we speak about “slow food”.

Salvatore Settis

Fondazione Prada “Recycling Beauty”: Right hand of the gigantic statue of Emperor Constantine.

Salvatore Settis

Fondazione Prada, “Recycling Beauty”. Photo by Francesca D’Amico

Salvatore Settis

Fondazione Prada, “Recycling Beauty”. Photo by Francesca D’Amico

Salvatore Settis

Fondazione Prada, “Recycling Beauty”. Photo by Francesca D’Amico

Salvatore Settis

Rem Koolhaas and Salvatore Settis, “Recycling Beauty”. Photo Francesca D’Amico

Salvatore Settis

Fondazione Prada, “Recycling Beauty”. The reconstructed gigantic statue of Emperor Constantine.

“The real thing that still has to happen is to create a common scenario for the entire world, which I am confident will happen.”

Salvatore Settis, it is perhaps unusual for archaeologists or scholars of old masters to be interested in contemporary art. Why are you?

I am a man of the old world living nevertheless in the contemporary world. I have been in contact with some very important contemporary artists, such as William Kentridge or Anselm Kiefer or Giuseppe Penone, because they contacted me in relation to a specific project. Some contemporary artists are very curious to know what a historian of classical art or a traditional art historian like myself may think about them. So I have worked with Kentridge, Kiefer, Penone, and Bill Viola – who is a close friend of mine that I invited to the Getty for one year and we spent a lot of time together. In those cases, we are looking at their art not from the perspective of a contemporary art criticism but from a perspective of somebody like myself who is deeply convinced that Western art history, from the Greeks to tomorrow, is one thing, one story we are able to tell. In contemporary artists such as those I mentioned a number of things, consciously or unconsciously, are deriving from a great tradition, the same tradition to which Raphael or Bernini belonged.

Does art show well how the past and the future mix in the present?

Absolutely. Art is one of the vehicles, perhaps the most important vehicle, to understand the simultaneous life of different temporalities, which is what characterises our contemporary world most.

In the art world, where do we stand today?

It is highly difficult to find an orientation between the forces of the markets, sometimes dark forces, impossible for someone like myself to understand completely. On the other hand, there is the existence of a number of artists who really believe in their work, who still need money, and still have dealers and galleries that work for them. The orientation on the art of the present has been always difficult. Think about the early Renaissance. There were Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, but at that time there were hundreds of painters whose names got lost over the centuries. The same will happen for contemporary art. It is very difficult for me to say which artists will survive and which will not. Personally, I think that the ones I mentioned before, including Bill Viola or William Kentridge, will survive.

What is your opinion about the western world of art opening up to artists from other continents?

The Chinese presence is particularly impressive in the contemporary art world. Ai Weiwei is certainly the best known Chinese artist in the West, but he adopted a lot of behavioural strategies which are drawn from the Western market.  The most interesting thing is to study the interpenetration, because Ai Weiwei changed drastically and became famous only when he was in New York City. It is much more difficult for good Chinese artists living in China, and I’m sure that in China, being one and a half billion people, there must be some thousands of good artists. We know little about them. The real thing that still has to happen is to create a common scenario for the entire world, which I am confident will happen. But we are at the very beginning of this process.

Which is your own favourite museum in the world?

It’s very difficult to say. Perhaps my favourite museum in the world is the Prado, a great museum which is formulated in highly exquisite taste – probably because most paintings and things come from the royal collections and are very high quality because the Kings of Spain had very good advisors. It’s one of the best museums worldwide for Titian, and the best one for Velasquez or for Goya. But while I say the Prado, the Vatican Museums or the Capitoline Museums or the Uffizi are no less important.

What do you have planned after “Recycling Beauty”?  

The Torlonia Marbles exhibition will go to the Louvre one year from now. We are reconfiguring the exhibition with the people from the Louvre, using some pieces at the Louvre itself that are in different ways comparable with the Torlonia. We have already had in Milan some of the same objects from this princely collection in Rome, and having the objects in three different configurations in three different spaces is a very interesting experience.

You still have a lot of fun in your work! Thank you very much for being with us today.