In a city as densely populated with museums and galleries as Rome, it's easy for a boutique collection to seemingly fall through the cracks.
Although one of the National Museum campuses, the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Orientale, is like an unpolished little jewel in the city of Rome (http://www.museorientale.beniculturali.it/).
Tellingly, it is located between the city's unofficial Chinese Quartiere, Esquilino, and one of Rome's lushest inner city centres, Cavour. These two areas are ostensibly, pendant extremes of inner city Rome. Many Romans loathe the area of Equilino, dismissing it as the city's China Town, and lamenting the fact that it is not an "Italian" area anymore. In actual fact, statistics suggest otherwise (http://www.associna.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=743); more correctly it is home to a significant mix of nationalites, mixed cuisine restaurants and specialty stores. The comparatively cheaper rents of the area have made possible a visible smorgasbord of the ethnicities who reside here alongside Italians; in one of the only areas in the inner city where this is possible.
Cavour on the other hand, is one of Rome's oldest and most prestigious areas, and in recent years has increasingly become a capital of cultural cool in the Eternal City, attracting boutique bars, designer stores and creative industries, in addition to some high end retailers (though, the latter are nowhere near common place in this area when compared to Prati, Piazza di Spagna or even some parts of the Centro Storico).
The push and pull of these competing areas, and Italy's tenuous links to multiculturalism, make for an interesting backdrop for the museum.
When you arrive at the gallery, its as nondescript as any building can possibly be in Rome; a plain exterior, minimal signage...even the entry is on the first floor, albeit up a red carpeted staircase.
The collection itself is mixed; favoring subcontinental works, with a huge amount of the limited floor space devoted to Indian, Tibetan and Gandhara pieces. The prevalance of the Gandhara pieces seems surprising at first, but is the result of the prolonged work of ISMEO (Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente/The Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East).
The East Asian powerhouses, China and Japan, also get a look in, and are accorded a couple of devoted rooms. In terms of significance, few of the poorly signed artefacts or artworks would be considered important, but occasionally, there is such an awe inducing piece, that once you have finished marveling at what stands before you, you wonder how on earth these pieces made it to Italy.
This is where the lack of signage becomes a barrier to enjoying the collections; some attribution details can be found (in Italian), and a handful of Room sheets (in Italian) also provide expansive, sweeping ideas about the collections and the ages of which they are representative, but the collection offers no connection between object and visitor. This is startling, considering how well the National Museum collective does this across its other Greco/Roman focused collections.
In part, a significant amount of the collection stems from the work of ISMEO carried out in the early to mid twentieth centuries, more information about whom can be found here: http://www.iias.nl/iiasn/iiasn3/general/italian.txt, but wondering around across the old parquetry floors, and beneath the high ceilings, its easy to feel an empathy for the collection, a reminder that the work started by ISMEO as a passion seems to have come to a halt.
This gallery is the under nourished child; where its sibling collections around Rome's Termini and Piazza Navona area are presented in crisp, movie studio settings; amidst perfect lighting and alternating gallery spaces with purpose built showcases and colored walls, the adopted Orientale child seems to go wanting. It can be argued that people don't come to Rome to see Asian art, but what of Italians in general? We rarely visit cutting edge national art institutions for their progressiveness. Instead, we generally seek out collections of this kind for educational purposes. Although the collection may feel sparse, there is enough quality work within the dozen or so rooms to at least provoke interest in other parts of the world, to help locals understand and connect to non European cultures in a non commercial means.
For all of the institution's failings, this is a wonderful place to visit, particularly if you find yourself in Esquilino/Cavour, and it offers an alternative to the prevailing Euro-centric pieces that dominate throughout Italy.
The appreciation is simply not here in the same sense that is in France, Spain, the Netherlands or even Germany, territories in which there were clearly documented epochs in which Orientalism was celebrated and utilized to spur creative movements during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The cross pollination between these nations and the artworks of high profile Japanese artists in particular are testimony to this, whereas, the legacy of Italian art remains in the form of an 'artistic separatism in Asia; something to be admired, coveted, perhaps even worshipped on an aesthetic level, but ultimately, never connected to, due to the lack of relations that continues to dominate Italian relations with the East.
A few years ago, Paris, Europe's self proclaimed cultural capital, instigated a number of measures to increase patronage of its cultural centres, particularly of its museums and galleries. One of the most influential of its initiatives, was its Nuit des Musees, in which a range of its public spaces were opened after hours into the night, turning the city into a living museum for a night.
Rome, Paris' southern sister city (or twin city as they are known here in Italy), soon appropriated the idea, (along with Paris' Nuit Blanc) and, began conducting the Italian incarnation of the initiative, appropriately entitled "La Notte Dei Musei". 2010's night in both Paris and Rome, was staged this past Saturday May 15th.
Despite an unseasonably wet spell currently being felt in Rome, Romans, and a great deal of the estimated average 100,000 visitors the city receives each week, came out in force to visit almost eighty institutions, large and small, who had opened up their collections and exhibitions for an evening of free entry.
Rome is well aware of the depths of the collections its institutions hold, and of its position as the home to the world's oldest museums, but across the board, as was probably expected, it was a series of blockbuster exhibitions across Rome that drew the biggest crowds; the current Caravaggio retrospective, billed as one of the best Caravaggio exhibitions staged yet; the visiting, more modestly sized Edward Hopper exhibition; and a Chirico exhibition were amongst those in which I spied literally hundreds of people queuing patiently in the rain, the lines snaking around the street blocks, where wait times of more than an hour not uncommon even when the shows were small enough to be appreciated with less than an hour's viewing time.
I on the other hand, was happy to soak up the atmosphere of the monster shows only by proximity. I chose to bypass them in favor of the smaller, lesser known places around Rome, but made sure to include them on the itinerary to see just how popular they were. My trek took me to eight places all around the centre of Rome, and past even more, such as the Roman Forum which was illuminated in a sensational way.
To my surprise, a lot of other people had the same idea to visit spaces as disparate as the Jewish Museum of Rome and the National Museum of Oriental Art; more than happy to stray from the beaten path of the Greco-Roman tradition.
Special events including jazz and classical performances at a selection of institutions proved an irresistable draw card for culture mad Romans, on whom the novelty of visiting galleries through to 2am was not lost.
A few individual posts to follow on some of the places I visited, which might not normally make it onto your list on a first visit to Rome, what with the other competition on hand, but might be of interest to repeat visitors to Rome.
Before taking on an international persona of their own, the works of Keith Haring were once indelibly linked with the evolving graf inspired street culture of early eighties NYC.
Often bright, sparse and almost childlike in their urgency, there was something about their appeal which seemed to transcend the limitations of their basic line structures. Eventually, they would go on to enjoy mass universal appeal, on the basis of the accessible way in which the images seemed to reduce the major stages of life down into decodable and distinctly Haring shapes, such as the Radiant baby. Haring's characters were affectionate and powerful drawings that appealed to the eye whilst also addressing major life themes of love and sex, birth and death, and to a lesser extent, social warfare.
Haring, to my mind, was one of the first public faces of the AIDS epidemic that seemed to otherwise haunt the atmosphere of popular culture in the eighties and nineties. Diagnosed in 1988, he never shied away from the opportunity to raise awareness and to educate the fear out of the younger generations, despite being in the front line of one of modern life's most horrific syndromes. He founded the Keith Haring Foundation only in 1989, but by the time of his untimely death in 1990 from complications arising from AIDS, his imagery was already becoming synonymous with AIDS and HIV related charities due to the work of his foundation.
His artwork also graced record covers, including the 1987 compilation 'A Very Special Christmas' which benefitted the Special Olympics, on which we saw the Madonna and child in trademark Haring style. His imagery was also licensed to the Red Hot organisation, who used Haring's images on their 'Red Hot and Dance' compilation of 1992, featuring George Michael and Madonna.
His journey towards fame and success seemed to coincide with that of Madonna's, a friend for whom he sometimes produced work, and who in turn dedicated a fund raising show to him during the NYC leg of her Blond Ambition tour in 1990, subsequently documented in her Truth Or Dare/In Bed With Madonna movie of 1991.
Starting out as a tagger, even from the earliest periods of his career he never let mediums constrain him, working on small and large scales and in both 2D and 3D media.
The fun, irreverency and urgency of Haring's images seemed to change significance over time, more and more coming to represent modern day images of compassion, especially after the passing of his life.
Even before his death he was considered a significant contemporary artist, and to some of us, was as important to contemporary art as Warhol had been to the pop art movement.
His significance led to him being commissioned to produce public art pieces in various parts of the world as Italy and Australia. In Australia, a visit in the mid 1980s resulted in a mural being produced for the now former Collingwood Technical College building in Melbourne, an image of which is located here: (http://images.smh.com.au/2010/01/14/1038843/wbTOTEwall-600x400.jpg).
Unfortunately, the momentum which led to Haring's production of the mural with the aid of Collingwood Tech students was lost soon after, and the mural has been left to deteriorate since being produced in 1984.
Now, a growing movement (for which a Facebook page has been created: (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=117064188315110&v=wall&ref=ss#!/group.php?gid=117064188315110&v=info&ref=ss) is seeking to redress this, raising questions along the way as to the best way in which to conserve the mural for future generations, in addition to seeking public and financial support to facilitate any conservation work.
The mural in its current state is in such a state that it needs restoration, an idea which some supporters find disturbing. To my mind, leaving and merely preserving the mural in its currently faded state is disrespectful to the legacy of Keith Haring, and also speaks of a problem that many countries have in maintaining their public art.
In Australia it seems, little is done in the way of preserving public art works for future generations. That the Keith Haring Foundation is on hand to offer guidance in addition to the technical skill set available in Melbourne seems like a no-brainer to me, however it doesn't seem that straightforward in Melbourne at the moment (http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2010/04/28/2884980.htm), where support is still being garnered and media coverage of the issue still sparse.
Its amazing to consider that an artwork produced for the public by an artist of Haring's calibre, in a country as unpopulated as Australia would have been left to deteriorate in the way it has been, particularly with its location in the nexus of Melbourne's artworld. Even more distubring still, is the debate as to how and if to proceed in its restoration. But, in many ways, Melbourne has a hit and miss, and occasionally, disgraceful track record with public art, which is surprising given how much cultural capital contributes to the city's identity (not to say its economy). There have been too many instances recorded where public pieces have been collected and left to deteriorate in council storage yards, occassionally re-sold to other municipalities, but mostly left to weather outdoors.
Perhaps, my being in central Italy these days, with its abundance of public buildings, artworks and areas, most of which have been well restored and maintained, has made me cynical towards the reasons behind the travesty of this situation that has befallen Haring's Melbourne mural.
In recent days, I've seen the Sistine Chapel (restored in the face of great controversy in the 1990s), the now-UNESCO listed medieval city of Siena, the Colosseum (which potentially will be partially obscured by scaffolding this year in its upteenth clean up) and lesser known structures and artworks such as that in the attached image, located in Rome, near my work, which is currently undergoing repair and restoration.
The reason I name check all of these places is not to brag at how fortunate I am to be in proximity to these things, and in the position to visit them at my leisure, but instead to point out that even if the original paint pigments are no longer always visible; even if the original structural material is now augmented by modern day techniques and matters, the spirit of the originals is still most definitely present, and leaves the viewer not with a wistful sadness as to not having been able to truly witness the original, but instead a feeling of wonderment that in the most powerful pieces of art, the divine and the physical are right there for our taking.
In turn, this continues the cycle of an artwork or monument which, was theoretically, once wanted because it had been commissioned, and is still loved because it has been diligently cared for. Keeping art alive is the responsibility of everyone, and in the case of Haring's mural, his trademark vibrancy, and lively approach to line need to be resurrected for the longterm, not merely mismanaged until there is no point of return.
For all the protestations that it is not the case, the reality is that in many areas, Italy remains a deeply conservative nation.
When it comes to contemporary art, and modes of thinking, it can seem as if the tremendous legacy of Italy's artistic past simply dwarfs the desire of the current generation to be progressive and challenge the visual aesthetics that are considered the norm.
Case in point is Rome. Rome has a charm all of its own; a product of almost three thousands years of refinements, reincarnations and stagnation. Where other burgeoning European cities such as Berlin, Barcelona and Madrid can recall their pasts with one hand, and look forward to their futures with the other, Rome is a place where so much of its identity is carved from its past. In fact, much of its self identity and international standing trades and relies on the legacies of its occasionally glittering past. For a visitor, its an intoxicating idea; that the Eternal City still bears the hallmarks of its past, yet for those who are here for the longer term, the idea is one which can be oft infuriating.
It's a complicated scenario, but one where change still plays a part, albeit on a much smaller scale. When it comes to street art and contemporary art, its unlikely that Rome will ever compete with its Northern neighbors, but slowly, the interest in urban art is growing, and may well eventually reach a level of acceptance, if not appreciation, that would be considered the norm in other major metropolises.
A recent New York times blog article (http://intransit.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/street-art-goes-mainstream-in-rome) pointed out that there is a growing visibility to street art in Rome. On a comparative scale, the quality of work currently lining public (and exterior private) spaces is inconsistent and occasionally juvenile, but, in keeping with tradition. Graffiti has always been a vital, immediate and spontaneous element in urban life. In Rome, this stretched back to ancient times when graffiti took the form of political, irreverent and humorous scrawlings on walls (http://www.explore-italian-culture.com/ancient-roman-daily-life.html).
But it's the graphic form of street art that interests cultural buffs and citysiders these days. For every well conceived and executed design are countless rudimentary tags scrawled across surfaces. In Rome, the ratio between finely tuned and clumsily scrawn works is still disproportionately in favor of the neanderthal like tags. The Roman street art scene it seems, is only just starting to evolve, carving its own identity out of the shadow of the monolithic influence of Rome's cultural past; and seems to be slowly moving towards pre-planned and thoughtful stencils. As in any other city, the best examples of these works can have the same effect that the humorous scrawlings of ancient Rome did; which is to bring a smile or a wry acknowledgment from passersby. In particular, it is the work being created by the NUfactory collective (http://www.nufactory.it) which is encouraging local artists to reclaim public spaces as art spaces. The 'All You Need is Wall' series which in recent years seems to have left its mark in some of Rome's most interesting Quarters, is an elevation of the more commonly seen level of practice, and sits in company with the Sten and Hogre series which are decorating all types of surfaces in the eternal city in engaging ways.
A particular favorite, located on a suitably textured surface in Piazza Verbano, one of Rome's well to do areas, offers a fresh take on the ubiquitous religious iconography that we tend to associate with the home of Roman Catholicism and the Papal Seat (okay, yes I know the Vatican is an entity of its own, but let's not split hairs here). Compare the inset image All You Need is God to the below image of a stain glass mural located right around the corner from the stencil piece, (I spotted it outside the shop of a local stain glass artisan) and it becomes apparent how potentially powerful the interplay between old and new could be for a city like Rome, which does not embrace change readily (more on that later).
That artisans are still producing these more conventional images alongside the hopefully burgeoning scene of urban artists gives me hope that the underground art scene in Rome will flourish, not just as an idea, but perhaps with a momentum that will see it grow to the level of acceptance and appreciation that is already the case in urban centres such as London, Melbourne and NYC.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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