by Roderick Conway Morris

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Museo del Novecento/photo Gianni Congiù
Lucio Fontana Room with Structure in Neon, 1951, with view of Piazza del Duomo

A Milan Home for Modern Art

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN, Italy 23 March 2011


Since its foundation in the early years of the 20th century, the modern art collection belonging to the city of Milan has changed its name and moved premises so often that at certain moments even the Milanese themselves would have been hard pressed to say what it was called and where to find it.

After many vicissitudes, during which it sometimes ended up in storage, the collection, constantly expanding thanks to donations and purchases, has come to rest in a splendid location in the central piazza next door to the Duomo.

The new institution was definitively labeled Museo del Novecento, or Museum of the 20th Century, more than a decade before it finally opened its doors in December. From an international viewpoint the choice of title may seem an odd one. The Italian words for designating centuries are used in English in the specialized context of Italian art and literature only until the 'cinquecento' (the 1500's, or the 16th century).

There is even an element of ambiguity in the title for Italian speakers, given the existence of the art movement of the 1920s and 1930s called, 'il novecento italiano,' or simply 'il novecento.' There are works from this movement - which paralleled the 'return to order' trend in France, away from the avant-garde - in the Museo del Novecento, but they form only a small part of the contents.

But the 'italianissimo' name may have some logic, given that this is not a museum of modern art but specifically of Italian modern art, particularly of that created and collected in Milan.

'Futurism was born in Milan and the city remained the single most important center for innovative art in Italy throughout the last century,' said Marina Pugliese, the director of the museum, who, as it happens, was born and educated in Genoa.

'Among the museum's aims is to enable the people of Milan to rediscover the artistic story of their city,' said Ms. Pugliese, a gifted communicator of her own passion for modern art.

The museum occupies the shell of the Palazzo dell'Arengario, a classic Fascist-era edifice begun in the 1930s but not completed until the 1950s. The interior has been radically remodeled by the architects Italo Rota, Fabio Fornasari and their team to create 5,000 square meters, or 54,000 square feet, of galleries displaying a permanent collection of around 400 pieces, with additional spaces for temporary exhibitions and a screen for film shows.

The most striking feature is a 140-meter-long, or 460-foot-long, ramp encased in glass that spirals upward, offering visitors a series of increasingly spectacular views of the piazza, the Duomo and the surrounding cityscape, culminating in a chic (and pricey) bar and restaurant with one of the most enviable panoramas in the city.

Just before the ramp reaches the entrance to the first of the gallery rooms, it passes a kind of secular shrine housing Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's 'The Fourth Estate,' an enormous, romantic, oft-reproduced canvas of an advancing phalanx of workers led by two bearded men of the people and a young mother with her symbolically naked infant. It was completed in 1902 and acquired for the city by public subscription in 1921.

In a side room off the first gallery is a space containing the only canvases in the museum by foreign artists: Braque, Kandinsky, Klee, Léger, Matisse, Mondrian and Picasso. The rest of this first section is devoted to the leading Futurists Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carrà, Fortunato Depero, Gino Severini, Mario Sironi, Ardengo Soffici and Umberto Boccioni, of whose works the museum has the finest public collection in the world.

At the end of this hall is Carrà's 1917 'Still-life with Set-square,' painted in his Metaphysical phase. This leads on to the galleries illustrating subsequent developments more or less chronologically, with alternating sections given to individual artists, like Giorgio de Chirico, Arturo Martini, Giorgio Morandi, Fausto Melotti and Lucio Fontana; and artistic genres and movements, beginning with the Italian Novecento and moving on to Landscape, Monumental Art, Post-Impressionism, Archaism Realism, Abstractionism, Milan in the Fifties, Arte Povera and so on.

About halfway through the itinerary there is the instant-overview 'Museo in una Sala' (Museum in a Room), which contains about 20 works that look backward at what we have seen and forward to what we are to encounter next. The first work, Luigi Russolo's 'Self-portrait,' dates to 1908; the last, Franco Grignani's 'Centrifugal-Centripedal Structure,' to 1965. This room showcases some memorable pieces, like Gerardo Dottori's bold 1923 'Aurora Umbra,' an Aeropicture triptych of the sun rising over an Umbrian hill town.

The original towerlike structure of the Palazzo dell'Arengario clearly presented challenges in transforming the building into a modern gallery, but these have been met and turned to an advantage. For example, a lofty hall at the front of the tower is used effectively to show some key pieces by the influential Lucio Fontana, including a large neon work, a copper sculpture and a 1950s ceiling rescued from a demolished hotel on Elba; while his slashed canvases are displayed on a suspended mezzanine floor above.

The gallery has gained vital extra space with the construction of a bridge linking the museum to the second floor of the Palazzo Reale next door, the lower stories of which are now used for a variety of temporary exhibitions. The last sections of the Novecento Museum located here cover movements like Programmed and Kinetic art, and artists until the 1980s. (For later works a new museum of contemporary art is planned, and scheduled to open in 2013.)

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024