by Roderick Conway Morris

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Up Against the Renaissance

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 22 January 2011
Martino Margheri/CCCStrozzina
Michelangelo Pistoletto's 'Metrocubo d'infinito'
at Palazzo Strozzi



The bohemian artistic community in Florence in the early 16th century was almost certainly the first to stage regular absurdist 'happenings.'

The center of this activity was 'La Sapienza,' an abandoned, half-built, never-to-be-completed university site, taken over by a group of like-minded artists as studios, and the venue for uproarious, avant-garde theatrical and musical performances and all-night parties. The inhabitants of this warehouse-style commune included Jacopo Sansovino, Ruperto di Filippino and Giovanfrancesco Rustici, who kept a pet eagle and porcupine.

They held bizarre banquets enlivened by displays of elaborate mechanical contraptions and dishes served up in inventive forms - for instance, an edible octagonal church designed by Andrea del Sarto, with jelly for colored mosaic flooring, sausages for its porphyry columns, parmesan capitals, pastry cornices and a choir of stuffed birds.

Fancy dress was de rigueur. At one feast the artists turned up as builders and laborers, at another as gods. Having virtually bankrupted themselves with the escalating costs of these events, the artists came to one of the last as tramps and beggars.

The site of 'La Sapienza' is now occupied by parts of Florence University on Piazza San Marco, next door to today's Fine Arts Academy, and the Military Geographical Institute on via Cesare Battisti. Virtually all traces of its original buildings have disappeared.

Florence's contemporary art scene inevitably struggles to compete with the overwhelming physical presence of the city's Renaissance past, but there are signs of change, of which the new Center for Contemporary Culture Strozzina at Palazzo Strozzi is both a symbol and a generator. As it happens, the pioneering Galleria Biagiotti Arte Contemporanea is just a few minutes' walk from Palazzo Strozzi. And this area, between the Strozzi and the Santa Maria Novella Station, shows signs of emerging as the city's contemporary gallery district.

The Galleria Biagiotti, at 39r via delle Belle Donne, was opened in 1997 in a former bicycle repair shop by the Arizona-born Carole Biagiotti, who came to Florence on a trip to Europe in the 1960s. Her bag came apart outside Mario Biagiotti's leather store, he helped her fix it and before long they married. She now runs the gallery with their artist daughter, Caterina Biagiotti.

'I get a thousand people at our openings,' she said, 'but it's still very difficult to sell contemporary art to the Florentines.' Consequently, she said, most of her clients are collectors in other parts of Italy and the United States. But undaunted, her next project is to hold a group show of street artists, which the staid Florentines are liable to find even more outré than the mostly young Italian artists she has already featured.

Close by is Galleria Poggiali e Forconi, at 29/Ar-35/A via delle Scala, which, Lorenzo Poggiali said, began to specialize in exhibiting only living artists a decade ago. The current show in the gallery, which was remodeled and expanded last year, is of the Italian artist Luca Pignatelli.

Galleria Alessandro Bagnai, 15r via del Sole, moved to this district six months ago. The gallery runs through the block to a space on the other side, 36r via della Spada, where Mr. Bagnai's wife, Antonella Villanova, shows contemporary designers. The latter street is also the home of the Marino Marini sculpture museum - which charmingly includes a collection of the 20th-century artist's wife's stylish hats. The proximity of Palazzo Strozzi and the Marino Marini Museum, where there also are shows of living artists, certainly made this location attractive, said Catalina Brenes at Galleria Bagnai.

When the newly formed Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi took on the task of transforming this formidable Renaissance edifice into a modern cultural crossroads in 2007, the mission from the outset was to integrate its historical and contemporary art activities. The major 2009-10 show upstairs, 'Art and Illusions: Masterpieces of Trompe l'Oeil,' was paralleled by 'Manipulating Reality,' which brought the subject right up to the minute with its display of 21st-century digitally created realities at the Center for Contemporary Culture Strozzina downstairs. And the 2010-11 exhibition of Bronzino, portraitist of the Medici, ran in tangent with 'Portraits and Power,' a stimulating take on image-making today.

The exhibition space at the Center for Contemporary Culture Strozzina is in the vaulted former wine cellars of the palazzo. Its director is Franziska Nori, a dynamic young curator who was born in Rome of an Italian father and a German mother. 'After researching the subject at length and talking to a lot of people, we decided to do thematic exhibitions with a number of artists in each one,' she said. 'There are plenty of other venues doing monographic exhibitions of big name contemporary artists, so we set out to create a niche for ourselves by doing something different.

'Above all,' she continued, 'we wanted to create a debate in which everyone could take part. So for every exhibition we gather a group of advisers and decide together what to put in the show. We don't push a thesis and try to tell the public what to think. We expect them to make up their own minds. And to help them we hold multiple events during the exhibition, with talks, discussions and other activities related to the issues.'

Palazzo Strozzi's courtyard space, with a café and a bookstore/design shop, has given the city a new all-weather meeting place. Each exhibition here is given over to a single artist. The latest work to appear was Michelangelo Pistoletto's 'Metrocubo d'infinito' (Square Meter Infinity Cube), a ludic installation in which a cube of inward facing mirrors is placed in another large mirrored chamber, reproducing the image of the inner cube, and that of the viewer, reflected seemingly into infinity.

The center's 'Open Studios' initiative, entering its third year, also gives people the opportunity of visiting studios to meet local artists and see their work: . Thirty artists have taken part in the program, which now also covers the Tuscan towns of Prato, Pistoia, Pisa and Siena. The visits are recorded for a video archive.

A tour last week of the Florence studios of four of these artists revealed a wide variety of striking works in different media. Luciana Majoni began taking photographs while studying painting at the Fine Arts Academy here. Her powerful photographic still-lifes and images of sculpture are usually in black and white, but her subtly modulated works in color are no less effective.

Robert Pettena's installations, objects, photos and videos are idiosyncratic and entertaining, and include a bramble- and bird-filled indoor aviary created especially for Open Studios visitors.

Using digital 3-D imaging of mind-bending complexity, Giacomo Costa's latest productions are of astonishing apocalyptic landscapes and futuristic images of ruined megalopolises being overtaken by nature, which are both disturbing and hauntingly beautiful.

And visitors to the video and performance artist Olga Pavlenko, who divides her time between Florence and Ukraine, will be invited to meet not at her studio but at other locations, from which artistic mystery tours will begin.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024