A PLACE OF MIRACLES. Sylvain Bellenger was born in Normandy, took degrees in philosophy and in art history, directed the Girodet Museum and the Castle of Blois in France, and then moved to the United States. He held curatorial posts at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago and then in 2014 was appointed Director at Capodimonte in Naples by Dario Franceschini, the Italian minister of culture.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Sylvain Bellenger, you lived and worked in America and now are in Naples. What is your experience there?

I can’t tell you how different working at the Art Institute of Chicago is from being Director in Naples. It’s the largest cultural gap I can imagine. Italy – and Naples in particular – is the absolute opposite of America’s organised mind.

What is Capodimonte, where you are the Director?

For many people Capodimonte is the name of a very important manufacturer of porcelain. Capodimonte was created in the middle of the 18th century when Elisabeth Farnese, the Queen of Spain, then the largest power on the planet, decided to give the Kingdom of Naples to her son, Charles of Bourbon. A lady as intelligent as Elisabeth Farnese understood that an independent kingdom had some needs. The first need was an art collection, so she gave the Farnese family collection to her favorite son and the Capodimonte Palace was built to host this very large 15th Century collection of paintings and antiques coming from Parma and from the Farnese Palace in Rome. The second need was the manufacture of porcelain, fundamentally necessary to demonstrate the avant-garde technology and refinement of the kingdom. The third need was music, and that was met by the creation of the Teatro di San Carlo, one of the most beautiful opera music theatres in Europe and the oldest. Recently Capodimonte has been transformed by the reforms of Dario Franceschini, who has been in charge of culture in Italy for more than 12 years, which makes him the longest serving minister in the history of the Republic.

What did Minister Franceschini do about Capodimonte?

Not only did his reforms open up Capodimonte to the international competition for the direction of the institution, but he also added the large park of 380 acres to the collection and the palace. It is the oldest baroque garden and the largest public urban garden in the country, and inside the park there are 17 palaces. When I arrived in Naples I knew the collection and the museum, but I didn’t know anything about the park. I was surprised to discover that I was in charge of the largest cultural site in the country with 17 buildings that had no cultural occupation. I wrote a masterplan with four missions related to patrimony and heritage. Mission one was with the collection. The second mission was environmental, botanical and the story of the gardens. The third was the digital mission, and the fourth was public and social issues. Those four missions have framed the whole activity that I have developed in the last seven years.

“I was surprised to discover that I was in charge of the largest cultural site in the country with 17 buildings that had no cultural occupation.”

Sylvain Bellenger

Museo di Capodimonte is an art museum located in the Palace of Capodimonte, a grand Bourbon palazzo in Naples, Italy.

Sylvain Bellenger, what are some of the outcomes of your missions?

We identified an old hermitage, built at the end of the 18th century, in which to create the first school of gardening and botanical sciences in the south of Italy. That will be a reality in November 2022. With the University of Naples Federico II, one of the oldest universities in Europe, another building is going to be dedicated to the education of young scholars and technicians for the digitalization of beni culturali. Since 2017 another building which was for goats called La Capraia – Capodimonte has many farms inside the park like Versailles – is functioning as a research centre in collaboration with the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at UT Dallas. We offer eleven fellowships a year, with no limits of age or nationality, and all on the subject of art, architecture and culture of great port cities. Another building that was a pheasantry is now a centre for nature and wellbeing for the education of young kids. We have study sessions on obesity, food education, sexuality, pregnancy, how access to pornography disturbs the building of sexual relations in life. The largest building, just in front of the royal palace, is La Palazzina dei Principi, and that is going to be restored to host a recent donation made by Lia Rumma Gallery. Lia is giving Capodimonte 73 major works of Arte Povera, the most radical and significant movement for contemporary art in the seventies in Italy. We are also going to add photography with the Mimmo Jodice Museum for Photography in Naples. We are going in a very ambitious direction.

How do you carry out such a vast programme of work at Capodimonte?

That’s a very complicated question, because Italian museums and public institutions are severely understaffed. The level of staffing for the museum was decided before the Franceschini reforms, which means before the addition of the park, so they simply forgot to add any gardeners. No one is identified in the organizational chart for digitalization or for activities such as curators of the collection. The profile for the job of a curator in Italy doesn’t exist, it’s identified as an art historian, but an art historian and a curator are very different profiles and responsibilities.

What does this mean for Italian museums?

Very often I think that Italy’s fabulous collections are among the most important collections in the western world, but I’m not sure that Italy has museums as defined in the 21st century. I have a lot of autonomy for major decisions but no autonomy for the selection of my staff, who are selected by national competitions organized in Rome, often on the basis of very archaic job definition. The national organization chart has  no specific related profile and so if someone arrives at the museum he or she arrives on a job description that has nothing to do with our needs. Consequently every new staff member needs to be trained before being efficient. Fortunately the country has very many young talents and this is a great help.

Surely you do have some autonomy as Director?

I only have the possibility to hire a limited number of private consultants, for a limited amount of money and for a limited amount of time. So everything is extremely fragile. For the garden, for example, I had zero gardeners and zero guards, but I was able to convince the Minister that a garden is a living work of art that needs permanent restoration and not just maintenance. That gave me access to a certain profile of job description and I was lucky to have very good gardeners among the competitors for the competition that I ran for the restoration of the Garden of Capodimonte, and we were able to contract through this complicated competition with these private gardening companies. The museum has currently only one art historian for the entire collection, but Italy, especially the south, has a genius to create opportunities from challenging difficulties. The entire staff is not only competent but works very hard. Everyone on board contributes to the projects with enthusiasm and passion.

Capodimonte is one of the most important museums in Italy. Its collection is praised all over the world. What are the masterpieces?

Capodimonte is a collection that was brought to Naples by Charles of Bourbon in the 1740s, as I said earlier, and is characterized by two major aspects. First, the immensity of the collection. It is a huge collection of 49,000 works of art, of which maybe 5,000 are exhibited. The second aspect is that the Farnese core of the collection makes Capodimonte the only museum in Italy that is able to illustrate all the Italian schools at the highest level. The Venetian School with 11 Titians; the most important Bellini in Italy and many others of the Venetian School; the School of Bologna and Emilia-Romagna in general, Parmigianino and Correggio – Parmigianino’s Antea is among the most important Parmigianinos not only in Italian museums but European museums in general; we have the most important collection of Carracci; we have the masterpiece of Guido Reni, Atalanta and Hippomenes. We also have two major Bruegels that were part of the Farnese collection; The Fable of the Blind is one of the icons of Western art. We have the School of Florence; the School of Rome; and of course the School of Naples. We have not only the Neapolitan School of Baroque but also the 13th century Anjevin moment of the Kingdom of Anjou, and the Aragonese collection that is the first expression of the interest of Spain in Italy.

“Capodimonte has all the great names of all the Italian Schools represented at the highest level.”

Sylvain Bellnger, it is incredible, and you also have iconic masterpieces by Caravaggio, Ribera, Battistello, Tiziano and others? 

As I said, Capodimonte has all the great names of all the Italian Schools represented at the highest level. When we have a Titian it is a Titian of Farnese commission which is the most extraordinary moment of Titian. When we have a Bellini, The Transfiguration, along with the St. Francis in the Wilderness of the Frick Collection it is the most important Bellini in the world. It’s an extraordinary historical collection where the Baroque is pre-eminent, since, as you said, we have Caravaggio, Ribera, Caracciolo, Stanzione, de Bellis, all the great names of the Neapolitan school. We also have an important collection of contemporary art because in 1977 the Director of Capodimonte, Raffaello Causa, commissioned Alberto Burri to make a very large Cretto. From this moment Capodimonte has also collected contemporary art. From the 12th century to our days Capodimonte is the only museum in Italy that is able to illustrate the entire story of Italian art; and not only that, because we also have a good representation of Flemish art, and French art, and some German paintings. People that came to Naples at the time of the Grand Tour, such as Angelica Kauffman, Jacob Philipp Hackert, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, left masterpieces to the Crown, and these are today the collection of Capodimonte.

Of course you have the Capodimonte porcelain as well?

Yes. In fact, the Bourbon who created that manufacture of porcelain of Capodimonte didn’t stay long. Charles of Bourbon became King of Naples in 1734 but his half-brother, the King of Spain, died fifteen years later and Charles was asked to be King of Spain and left Naples. He closed the manufacture of porcelain with the idea of not leaving behind a competitor, and brought the materials, forms and artists to Madrid where he created Buen Retiro. Later, when his son Ferdinand IV became an adult, he reopened another manufacturer in Naples that is not the manufacturer of Capodimonte but the Royal Porcelain Factory. In Europe they were all Habsburg cousins, and in Vienna, in Paris with Sèvres, in Munich, in Berlin, they all made a lot of exchanges. Porcelain was the major diplomatic gift of the time. We have 6,000 porcelains in storage and with the designer Federico Forquet are currently reorganizing ten rooms by School and period that will be dedicated to the entire collection. We are also going to rehang the Farnese painting collection and the Wunderkammers (cabinets of curiosities) coming from Cardinal Borgia and the Farnese family with the interior architect François-Joseph Graff, who has been asked to reestablish the Royal atmosphere in the pinacoteca galleries.

How many people visit Capodimonte? And are they mainly local or international? 

To understand the public of Capodimonte you have to know Naples. As the name indicates, Capodimonte is on the top of a hill. It’s not in the centre and there is literally almost no public transport in Naples so it’s difficult to access, and such an important museum has fewer than 300,000 visitors a year. When I became Director of Capodimonte specialists and museum directors from all over the world wrote letters telling me “Capodimonte is my favourite museum. It is my favourite collection.” It was mine too and I would not have left the Art Institute if I didn’t have such a love for the collection of Capodimonte and such tenderness for the city of Naples, but the large public who come to Naples, from the Grand Tour in the 18th century until today, come for Pompeii, Paestum, Herculaneum, Capri and the Amalfi Coast. Very few people understand the Bourbon culture and go to the Palazzo Reale, la Reggia di Caserta, La Reggia di Portici, Capodimonte, Quisisana, La Casina Vanvitelliana del’ Fusaro. The park of Capodimonte is frequented by more than 2 million local people, but less than 10% of these enter the museum, because a museum has always been considered a place for an elite. We are fighting to change that message by organizing an enormous quantity of exhibitions and focusing on contemporary art that connects better with the young generations.

How is your own life here?

Naples is a city that I knew well before being Director of Capodimonte. I lived a whole year in Naples in 2012, and I came to Naples every year for at least two weeks for more than 30 years. It’s a fascinating city, like reading a book, turning a page every day and discovering a new Naples every day. Since I’ve been Director of Capodimonte my relationship with Naples is very different and I cannot just enjoy the sense of fiesta, the freedom and the wit of the city, I passionately work 13 or 14 hours a day because of the staff situation.

As you were saying before?

Yes, we are only ten people who work to produce the masterplans, the exhibitions, all the projects. We will be closed in 2023 to redo the whole electrical system, the illumination, the air conditioning, and to work on the roofs. We are going to produce our own electricity with photovoltaic systems and we’re going to have new storage underground and a new system for welcoming and ticketing. All that is an enormous amount of work for ten people. Since I came we made 30 exhibitions, and we currently have four.

Sylvain Bellenger

Salottino di Porcellana, The Porcelain boudoir of Maria Amalia of Saxony, Capodimonte

Sylvain Bellenger

One of the most sensual paintings of the Italian Renaissance, Titian’s, Danaë (1544–1545), oil on canvas, Capodimonte Museum, Naples. Photo: L. Romano

Sylvain Bellenger

The Parable of the Blind (in Dutch: De parabel der blinden) is a tempera on canvas painting (86×154 cm) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, dating from around 1568 and housed in the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples.

Sylvain Bellenger

A scene of immense brutality, The Flagellation of Christ by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio in the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples.

Sylvain Bellenger

Described by Sylvain Bellenger as “this unique masterpiece of sixteenth-century Mannerist goldsmith’s art, undisputed symbol of elegance, refined luxury, artistic creativity and excellent craftsmanship”. The Cassetta Farnese of Capodimonte. Photo: Giovanni Gastel

Sylvain Bellenger

Created in 1985 Vesuvius by Andy Warhol. Enshrining the menacing energy of the iconic Neapolitan volcano, this painting purports the looming threat of annihilation in bold Pop art colour.

“We do nothing normal. This is Naples and Naples is a city of miracles.”

Sylvain Bellenger, which of the exhibitions were most important?

A trilogy. The first one, called Carta Bianca, I decided to organise in 2017 on the conviction that museums have been confiscated by art historians. Art has not been made by artists for art historians, it has been made for humanity. I asked ten illustrious people who have a strong relationship with art that was based on their personality and not on their job each to create one room, choosing with absolute freedom from the collection of Capodimonte. The message was to tell us the story you are telling the public with these ten works. It was an enormous success, also for us, because we saw many works with different eyes. It was fundamental for the new vision that we wanted to have for the museum.

The second?

An exhibition on storages. Italian museums cannot deaccession anything because the property is the property of the Republic, which means that it is the property of everyone and the property of no one. Our collections are based on heritage and not on selections so we have an enormous quantity of works in storage. Often we hear that storages are full of unknown masterpieces and hidden treasures, but this is not the case here. In Capodimonte the collection is studied, even the collection in storage. The title of the exhibition was Depositi (Storages): Stories that have not been written yet, and the question we asked with this exhibition was what sort of stories have museums decided to write and what sort of stories have they decided not to write? This exhibition gave us a lot of insight about what needed to be put on view again that has been hidden or forgotten. Work that is forgotten loses its identity. As an example, we have in Capodimonte a series of weapons that were catalogued as works from Africa. I’m not a specialist of African art, but I could tell that they were not African works, and we discovered that they were given by Captain Cook to one of his friends called Thomas Banks, a famous botanist who accompanied Cook because as a botanist he knew how to draw and Cook needed to have someone to draw the objects that he would find during his expeditions. These works were given by Cook to Sir Joseph Banks and Joseph Banks gave his collection to Lord Hamilton, the English ambassador in Naples, and Lord Hamilton gave his collection to the King of Naples. At the time – the end of the 18th century – these works were exhibited in the same room as the works coming from Pompeii, with this amazing vision of the enlightenment period where curiosity for the faraway or for the far behind were of the same kind of intelligence and catalogization. This collection had lost its identity, which the exhibition was able to recover. We have many other examples. This exhibition started an enormous work of digitalization of the collection. Technology is fundamental for the future and we are only starting to understand its revolution for culture and communication of culture. A new language implies a new way of thinking.

And the third?

Was about porcelain and music. I realised that the famous Chinese cabinet of Capodimonte – that was made by the manufacturer of Capodimonte for the Palace of Portici and is now in the rooms of the museum of Capodimonte – had been made almost in the same years as the famous opera written by Paisiello, a major Neapolitan musician, called L’idolo cinese, The Chinese Idol that he wrote for Catherine the Great. I started to investigate the connection between music and porcelain, and found for example that the porcelain that was made in the Egyptian style after the discovery in Pompeii of the Temple of Isis (about 30  years before the expedition of Bonaparte into Egypt) gave birth to the first taste for Egyptomania  (Egyptian forms and images), 20 years later the Neapolitan composer Cimarosa also wrote Cleopatra for Catherine the Great. So we have porcelain of Egyptian style and music written on the same subject, and we made a huge exhibition of porcelain and music called Napoli, Napoli, Napoli, which was probably the most intense homage to the Neapolitan culture and music of 18th century ever made in Naples. For centuries Naples has been the European capital of music: Alessandro Scarlatti, Niccoló Jomelli, Giovanni Paisiello, Nicola Porpora, later Giovan Battista Pergolese, Gioacchino Rossini, Niccolo Piccini, the castrato Farinelli, the librettist Metastasio, are all famous names that illustrated the Neapolitan school of music.

You have achieved a lot but still face difficulties?

The paradox is that the difficulties are obvious. I have one curator for the whole collection. For 49,000 works of art I should have at least 15, and I have one, but the staff working with me is excellent. The Neapolitan quality is passion, and passion erases any obstacle, and this is how we function. We do nothing normal. This is Naples and Naples is a city of miracles. I’ve been able to do much more in Capodimonte than I would have been able to do in Paris or in Washington or Chicago, and of the highest quality, because of the dedication, quality and passion of the staff. The staff works constantly, the problem is that there is no stability. I’m very concerned by what will happen to Capodimonte at the end of my contract, because in 2023 I will leave an institution with enormous ambitions, an enormous program with enormous potential, and no structure – at all.

Thank you very much for having been with us, good luck for your remaining time in Naples and good luck for the future.  

Thank you very much for your interest.