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Petition Madness in the Art World…UPDATE: Italian Group Demands Restitution of Mona Lisa!

Leonardo da Vinci, The Battle of Anghiari (Tavola Doria)

Leonardo da Vinci, The Battle of Anghiari (Tavola Doria)

The past year has been a turbulent one in the world of old masters, at least in certain pools of it. In some quarters, it has been a year of angry petitions. This article concerns Italy, but I shall begin in Germany, since the most active center of trouble at the moment is Berlin, where the administration of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz plans to move the great collection of old master paintings from the Gemäldegalerie at the suburban Kulturforum in order to accomodate Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch’s collection of surrealist and modern art, which they have offered as a gift. A selection of the old masters will go to the Bode Museum on the Museuminsel, where they were originally intended to be from the beginning, but this facility is too small to house the entire collection. The remainder will go into storage until suitable gallery space can be found or built. This has not yet been planned, and funds have not been allocated. Several similar projects, planned after the Reunification, have become stalled over the years, and leaders in the field like Professor Jeffrey Hamburger of Harvard are concerned. He says, as quoted in The Art Newspaper: “I am not opposed to moving the Old Master collection back to the Museum Island. I am much more concerned about the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ than the ‘if’.” Hamburger continues: “In Berlin you have about €1.5bn worth of projects that are unfinished, and then they have the chutzpah to throw in another museum [the Bode expansion] for around €200m, when experience teaches us that not a single one of these projects has been built to budget and on time. The onus is on [the foundation] to put forward a credible plan in consultation with the appropriate experts.” Read Professor Hamburger’s petition here and Julien Chapuis’ reply here, and form your own conclusion. Whatever conclusion you come to, it is impossible to deny that the petitioners, of which I am one, are performing a valuable service in holding the Berlin administrators to account over this plan.

Max Liebermann, Portrait of Wilhelm Bode. Oil on canvas. Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin.

Max Liebermann, Portrait of Wilhelm Bode. Oil on canvas. Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin.

The Berlin collection of old masters, the nucleus of which was formed by Wilhelm Bode in the late nineteenth century, is one of the great monuments of early modern culture, not to mention nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship and collecting. It would be an act of cultural vandalism to reduce it to a selection of “highlights” designed to impress tourists, rather than the historical and aesthetic unity Bode intended. There is a certain political motive behind this as well. On an official level as well as  among many individuals, the Germans are eager to erase or to correct the cultural remnants of the Third Reich. The Pietzsch’s raftload of Entartete Kunst is a convenient way to atone for the sins of the Nazis — to the detriment of one of the great German achievements in art history and collecting of an earlier, happier era. In Germany, as elsewhere, the interest in art created before 1900 has waned (even more radically in the case of the centuries preceding 1800), as ever more recent production which appears to be art or has been marketed as art acquires academic legitimacy.

It is all too possible that in the near future, as SPK administrators make their plans in a financially insecure economic climate, that a cost-benefit analysis will find more tourist euros in some other project, and the splendid old master collection will languish in storage for many years if not forever. Fewer medievalists and Renaissance specialists are being trained in graduate schools, as the interest of prospective students and the employability of such specialists rapidly wanes. As for the public, the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque galleries become emptier and emptier, as the works in them acquire an aura of alienness and indecipherability. For the vast majority of museum visitors and tourists, only some magical name can arouse them to raise their point-and-shoots and fire. (This heartfelt article by photographer Mark Dubuvoy tells more about this peculiarly pointless kind of trophy hunting.)

In Italian art these names are reduced to two, Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio, although perhaps Michelangelo has a little of his mojo left. Caravaggio’s mystique may stem more from his unpleasant personality than the quality of his work, although occasional discoveries of new works, some convincing, some not, and some ludicrous (like the bufala of the Caravaggio drawings “found” among the Peterzano drawings at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan) keep the fires lit. The 400th anniversary of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s early death was recently celebrated with a number of outstanding exhibitions, most of them in Italy, and we can say that we have actually learned something from the occasion. Monsignor Daniel Gallagher has discussed most of the Italian exhibitions in the Berkshire Review. As for Leonardo — in this guise I should properly refer to him as “da Vinci” — clichés learned in school, the fame of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, and above all Dan Brown’s egregious novel have made him the ultimate cultural superstar, vastly eclipsing Byron, Liszt, and Hemingway, although not Elvis or Jerry Garcia. These cults have proven extremely profitable for quite a few clever people, not only through the marketing of fakes and reproductions, but through popular books, tours, and other products and services. The inhabitants of Roslin in Midlothian have every reason to be grateful to Dan Brown. Objects or places indirectly associated with the pop-numinous exercise more power of attraction than straightforward possessions or creations of the great genius. This even becomes an attribute of those possessions and works. The Last Supper is a wreck, as if was soon after its completion. The composition is a part of our cultural heritage more through the countless reproductions which have been made of it, thatn from the original. We can’t really see the Mona Lisa very well either, through its discolored varnish and the thick glass over it, and most visitors see it even more indirectly, on the LCD screens of their point-and-shoots or their computers at home. Few of the people who have placed their bodies in the gallery actually look at the thing, and few people can tell you why the portrait of the strange feline lady has drawn them there.

Tourists in the Piazza San Marco with billboard sold to raise funds for restoration of historic buildings. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.

Tourists in the Piazza San Marco with billboard sold to raise funds for restoration of historic buildings. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.

The mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, is not the only one to find a source of funds for building restoration in giant billboards leased out to fashion companies and similar enterprises. In this way the San Marco crowds were able to enjoy this view of parallel reality, as they passed the time in the Piazza. Alan Miller and I have discussed this outrage elsewhere, also the focus of a petition from Venice in Peril, an organization that usually occupies itself with the floodwaters. When we first experienced the problem, we beheld gigantic images of a highly photoshopped Julianne Moore in the nude, surrounded by virtual wild cats.

The experience of the Grand Tour, once the exclusive privilege of the nobility, has trickled down and spread over the earth, so that almost anyone can get themselves on a bus that will deliver them to the Louvre, the Vatican Museums, or the Uffizi, where they can stand in a gallery with a hundred other people and snap away at a “da Vinci.” Tourism has become Mass Tourism, an important industry for countries like Italy, which are rich in history and art — both to the enrichment and the detriment of the country and its people. In Venice, more than the population of New York visit a city that was built to support only around 200,000 residents. The good part is that the vast majority of the tourists remain in close proximity to the Piazza S. Marco and the Rialto. If you want to be alone, you have only to go into a museum. This costs money, of course, but there are still plenty of neighborhoods that escape the invasion. In Florence my friends and colleagues there often talk of avoiding the public spaces as much as possible and spending their waking hours lurking in the shadows of the Kunsthistorisches Institut or one of the other libraries. Even if an art-loving resident can’t enjoy the streets of Florence, the atmosphere is good for getting work done. Then there are the lines at the Uffizi…

A cruise ship enters the Giudecca. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.

A cruise ship enters the Giudecca. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.

Sustainable tourism may be well-developed in theory and in practice, but it is difficult to implement in the ancient, crowded cities of Italy, where old habits of hospitality and commerce have developed from the beginning of the industry. Tourism, art history, and conservation are inevitably linked in a country like Italy. Not everyone is happy about it. Younger Italian art historians, among them the outspoken Tommaso Montanari, believe that the pull of this economic motor has cheapened their profession. Italians must necessarily live with the duality of a vast treasure of monuments and artworks, all in need of either conservation or maintenance, or both, and the limited funds available for this. The original functions of many of these buildings have long disappeared. They have no reason to exist other than because they are beautiful, instructive, and inspiring — also enhancing urban life by providing green space. Hence the often fairly steep admission fees. Today, of course, with our corrosive atmosphere, they cannot simply be left alone, as they were in the times of Goethe and Byron. Development, both legitimate and illegal, threatens the monuments, and so does garbage. Heaps of refuse have degraded the Via Appia, and now the Villa Adriana at Tivoli is threatened by an enormous new landfill for the city of Rome less than a kilometer away from it. This is the subject of yet another international petition, but it seems to have little influence on the politicians as they argue. The Villa Adriana is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and supposedly it is under their protection but so far they have done nothing. If they stand by while Tivoli is ruined, it will prove that their program means nothing.

In December 2011, another petition raised its head, when Prof. Montanari responded to the actions of Cecilia Frosinini, an art historian who heads the department in charge of wall-paintings at the Opificio dell Pietre Dure, who asked to be relieved of her duties as supervisor over a project intended to locate the remains of Leonardo’s wall-painting of the Battle of Anghiari in the Sala dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. (I have discussed this at length here.) The investigation involved the boring of several holes through the frescoes by Vasari, which presumably lie over it. As quoted in La Repubblica (November 29, 2011), Dottoressa Frosinini said, “my mission is to protect works of art, but in this case they are making an invasive intervention to the painting.” She was presented with a plan based on the choices of a local body (i.e. the major’s office) and the sponsor (National Geographic, which gave $250,000 towards the project in exchange for the exclusive authorization to film the work., and there was no willingness on the part of the engineer who was in charge of the project to engage in any debate or to accept any common agreement on the supplied facts. Italia Nostra initiated the petition, which was signed by Salvatore Settis and a great many other distinguished figures in the world of art and culture. Alessandra Mottola Molfino, its President, also submitted a formal criminal complaint to the Procura at Florence, which made criminal allegations, since in Italy it is illegal to vandalize works of art. This uncooperative engineer is Maurizio Seracini, and this unwillingness to provide full scientific support seems to be typical of his modus operandi. The carabinieri promptly arrived in the Sala del Cinquecento, but Seracini’s work was not stopped until just a few days ago.

The irony of this story is that Seracini participated in an earlier campaign in the mid-1970s, which was headed by the recognized Leonardo authority, Carlo Pedretti. At the time, few, if any art historians or conservators objected to the project, which culminated in the strappo (detachment) of large sections of Vasari’s frescoes — on the wall opposing the one favored by Seracini. The documents concerning Leonardo’s painting are open to different interpretations. The removal of the Vasari frescoes revealed nothing. Therefore Seracini has recently been trying the opposite wall. He has, however, never explained his rationale and his proposed methods in any scientific forum, only in popular lectures and to journalists. A scientific presentation to one’s peers should be the sine qua non of any project that involves any kind of physical intervention in a work of art. These should also be team projects with inbuilt differences of opinion and dialogue, typically involving an art historian specialized in the work at hand, a conservator, and finally the technician. I have never heard of such a project being run by the technician alone, the participant with the least preparation for making judgments on the preservation of the artwork and the progress of the work. For these reasons alone, it is impossible to approve such an undertaking. Carlo Pedretti, now in his eighties, is presumably not well enough to come to Florence to supervise Seracini, but it appears that they are in contact, or at least Pedretti has expressed his support. Standards in art research and conservation have changed over the years, however. Policies have become more conservative, and funds tighter. If there are important frescoes crumbling off their walls, and there are no funds to conserve them, if seems irresponsible to raise outside money for pure — impure — research.

Long after the unsuccessful conclusion of the earlier project, Seracini, who owns a private technical lab in Florence and has the title of Adjunct Professor at the University of San Diego, where he obtained his degree, has continued to pursue the search for the Battle of Anghiari fragment. Over the years he has had only minimal, if any success in obtaining approval and raising funds. He finally found National Geographic’s $250,000 and an ally in Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, who has some authority over the physical fabric of building from which he runs the city, although he, too, is bound to respect the decision of the Ministero per i Beni Culturali (MiBAC), as he now has been compelled to do, loudly proclaiming that he will look forward to a change in government freeing him to resume the work. The uncovering of the Leonardo, presuming some traces of it still exist, has grown into a crusade for the mayor — one somewhat reminiscent of Chuck Tatum’s in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Renzi’s motivations are unclear. He merely accuses critics of cowardice and lack of imagination. Does he really think it that important to reveal what is likely to be little more than an indecipherable fragment of decayed paint? Florence is the densest center of major art in the world. Does it need another tourist attraction? Does he envision long queues of tourists paying €20 a head to enter the Palazzo Vecchio? Why is a politician raging to accomplish a feat which inflames few Leonardo specialists beyond Professor Pedretti?

The Drawing Room in the former salone of the Palazzo Busini-Bardi, Florence.

The Drawing Room in the former salone of the Palazzo Busini-Bardi, Florence.

In this case, the petition and the discussion surrounding it achieved some indirect success months after it appeared. Yet another story of a petition — a sad one — came to my attention a few months ago, when I happened on a New York Times real estate article (May 30, 2012) about the Palazzo Busini-Bardi in Florence, specifically on one apartment in it. The title was “Sleeping in the Cradle of Opera.” (Ironically, the Times entitled their slideshow of the modernized rooms, “A Palazzo’s Rebirth.”) The palazzo of Giovanni de’ Bardi was the seat of a group of musical intellectuals, The Camerata, whose discussions led to the creation and performance of the earliest operas. While the article focused on the owner’s devotion to the apartment, his “restoration” of it, and the description, origin, and value of the contemporary furniture in it, it was clearly about the real estate — one of those presumably paid articles we find in the Times about fabulous properties around the world. While other digs in the Palazzo Bardi are for sale, this one is for rent, for €8500 a week in the high season. The owners attempted to turn a ground-floor buchetta into a two-car garage, but were denied a permit. Instead they opened a restaurant, a stylish one with surprisingly reasonable prices, specializing in raw fish and beef dishes. It is interesting that the authorities denied a garage and approved a modern restaurant, which is very much a noticeable element in the façade and the cortile of the palazzo.

As the restoration of the Palazzo got underway in 2005, a group of distinguished academics, a mayor, and the Società Italiana Protezione Beni Culturali, signed an appeal to stop the “restoration” of the Palazzo Bardi on the grounds that documents and oral reports showed that the work went beyond the limits indicated by law. The palazzo, attributed to Brunelleschi, was erected between 1420 and 1427, and contains one of the very earliest examples of the Renaissance cortile d’onore. Even beyond the historical significance of the building as the “cradle of opera” — and also the first home of the Accademia della Crusca, it is an extremely important building. A conversion into an ordinary — if extremely upscale — condo seems like a desecration of a venerable palazzo for which a more appropriate use would be as a museum, cultural center, or school. (What a perfect home for a school and festival of early music!) The appeal went unheeded, and the building was divided into 18 to 20 flats, including the one which occupies Giovanni de’ Bardi’s salone, which is unlikely ever to have been set up as a permanent theater, as the owner of the flat seems to believe. He and his wife are indeed an industrious couple. They are letting their apartment for a jaw-dropping rent, and are hopefully making a nice profit from the space they originally intended for their cars. As far as I know, three apartments remain unsold. The renovated (I won’t say restored) Palazzo Busini-Bardi is stimulating the exchange of euros, and it has brought more of the super-rich into Florence. Are ordinary tenants and small businesses in the neighborhood feeling the squeeze? I have no idea how easy it is for a student or scholar to walk in and get a look at the famous Brunelleschian cortile, but you can see it from the restaurant, where you can perhaps get away with ordering only a glass of wine at the bar. This arrangement is not unwelcoming, but it is remains to be decided whether the now private usage of the building is inappropriate, and I’m sure the two opposing sides remain entrenched.

An association has been established to discuss these issues and others related to the controversies I have discussed. It is called the Fondazione Florens, founded by the banker, Giovanni Gentile of the Intesa San Paolo. Every two years, beginning in 2010, it hosts a conference — this year Florens 2012 — to discuss artistic patrimony, both in terms of Italy’s great riches of monuments and artwork and in terms of the crafts and industries which have developed over centuries to their present in many ways vibrant state. Among its goals are proper funding for these resources so that the monuments can be properly cared for and the industries can continue to develop and remain competitive in the global economy. Over the several posts that follow, I shall discuss the problems that have been discussed in 2010 and will be discussed this November, as well as some of the constructive solutions and recommendations that have and will be under discussion.

The long perspective of the economic managers and academics may seem chilling to some, but one can only welcome a thoroughly thought-out exercise in seeking out a new solution to an old, persistent problem. Many aspects of the old system have worked successfully: there have been many successful conservation campaigns in Italy over the years, and many museums and other institutions function better than they once did. Nonetheless, the problems of maintaining these vast cultural resources has grown to vast proportions, and new solutions are needed. For my part, I find Florens 2012 extremely interesting in the context of events I have observed in Italy over the past few years and months. In order to be a part of Team Florens, that is, to cover the conference, I have thought over my observations in terms of the topics scheduled to be discussed, that is, art history, heritage conservation and art restoration, arts and culture marketing, and sustainable tourism.

Isidoro Bianchi: Painter, Stuccatore, and Architect