Get your ideas flying!

by Martino Margheri

People who work in museums and cultural institutions are more than familiar with the endless timing involved in planning an exhibition. Whether it’s an exhibition of old master works or a monographic exhibition focusing on a leading contemporary artist, preliminary meetings can be held up to four years before it’s due to start. For the Tomás Saraceno. Aria exhibition, initial discussions with the artist and his studio began in 2017 and Saraceno conducted his first exploratory tour of Palazzo Strozzi in the autumn of 2018. Once a project’s broad outline has been defined, discussions get under way with all of the cultural institution’s various departments. The idea is to get the most out of the exhibition, to exploit its full potential by developing activities and strategies concerning every aspect of the work, from communication and promotion to educational projects.

Working with Tomás Saraceno offered us a major opportunity because his studio comprises so many different professional figures: architects, video makers, designers and layout planners who teamwork with the artist and help to breathe life into his vision. Amid the variety of the projects produced by Saraceno and the Aerocene Foundation set up in 2015, we identified experiences that would allow us to experiment with interesting educational formats we could propose to communication and design students to tie in with the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition.

This triggered a dialogue with IED Firenze (Istituto Europeo di Design) which rapidly turned into a substantive institutional partnership and a project entitled Museo Aero Solar with a select group of teachers and students. The Museo Aero Solar is a large flying sculpture made up solely of reused plastic bags. The project first saw the light of day in the course of a conversation between Tomás Saraceno and Alberto Pesavento in 2007, and it has been produced in a variety of formats in over twenty-one countries since then. The Museo Aero Solar embodies the vision of a future without pollution through the growth of the spontaneously created and geographically distant communities that take part in it.

Museo Aero Solar, photographies by Studio Tomás Saraceno, courtesy Aerocene Foundation

On that basis, we set ourselves the goal of involving Palazzo Strozzi’s visitors in the production of a major participatory project for Florence that would start by collecting plastic bags and end with an experimental flight in the Cascine park. But how should we go about doing that? What tools should we use to achieve that goal? What technical skills would we need to build a flying sculpture?

From Aerocene Journal

The most important thing to do first and foremost was to analyse the identity and characteristics of the Museo Aero Solar in Tomás Saraceno’s own artistic experience. An introductory lecture with the IED students allowed us to address both the project’s conceptual side and its technical requirements. The debate rapidly led us to the crucial question: how were we going to produce an Museo Aero Solar in a city? How should we communicate it? How could we involve people in the various phases?
We began to work on developing a single graphic style for postcards, flyers and posters for libraries, schools, universities and academies. The communication would need to convey three crucial aspects: acquainting people with the project, encouraging the collection of plastic bags and inviting people to the grand final assembly and flight workshop.

Communication development and design meeting with the students of IED Firenze

Using the same coordinated image, we worked on the design of a large container in which visitors to the exhibition would leave their plastic bags. While the students worked on producing all this material, we kept in constant touch with Tomás Saraceno’s studio to ensure compliance with their communication guidelines. The workshop at the Cascine park was to be the cherry on the cake, and so to make sure we were properly prepared for it we held a test-assembly of the bags in accordance with instructions received. We set up a tight network of interlinked activities coordinated by the Education Department in close cooperation with a highly motivated group of IED teachers and students.

Communication project of Museo Aero Solar and bag collector on display at Palazzo Strozzi

The exhibition had only just opened and the first plastic bags had begun to appear in the containers when Palazzo Strozzi entered lockdown like so many other exhibition centres all around the world.
So, was it good-bye to Museo Aero Solar? Yes, but only in its physical format.
Team planning meetings got under way again and we developed a new strategy. We thought it would be interesting to transform this new sense of belonging into an on-line project tailored to reflect the “age of social distancing”. In the same way as Palazzo Strozzi’s visitors would have contributed with their plastic bags to the formation of a community, each one could now make his or her contribution to the project with a thought or an image through this website page.
It all kicked off with this: What ideas do we have for the future? Let’s collect thoughts, let’s talk about it and get them flying in a metaphorical sense. You have a different viewpoint from up high and so it allows to find new solutions for our way of life.

The project was brought to life thanks to our collaboration with IED Firenze, the unflagging work of Alessandra Foschi who coordinates the Advertising Communication course, Cecilia Chiarantini who coordinates the Interior Design course, the precious advice and experience of lecturers Marco Innocenti, Luca Parenti and Francesco Toselli and a tremendous working team comprising their students Edoardo Bartoli, Fiamma Batini, Damiano Boragine, Sara Cabrini, Livia Ceccarelli, Lorenzo D’ Elia, Camilla Giachi, Serena Grazia, Eva Lazzeri, Davide Lichen Lu, Mariasole Monaci, Pietro Niccolini, Liliana Parlato, Alessio Pezzi, Davide Pisoni, Lisa Purini, Martina Oliva, Zössmayr Sebastian, Irene Spalletti, Taeko Shinjo, Eulalia Talamo, Luca Varricchio and Carlotta Zandon.

We shall overcome

by Arturo Galansino

American Art 1961–2001, Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition for spring 2021, will be using over 100 major artworks from the Walker Art Center collection in Minneapolis to tell the story of forty years of US history stretching from Vietnam to 0911.
The exhibition is going to focus in a big way on diversity and on the struggle for civil rights – values that are at once foundational and yet a source of deep-rooted contradiction and conflict in the construction of the American cultural identity. In point of fact, the work of several of the artists in the exhibition is dramatically relevant to what is going on right now.

Kerry James Marshall, “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY”, 1998.
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center

The tragic arrest that led to 46-year-old Afro-American man George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on 25 May, an event abundantly recorded on video footage, has sparked a growing series of increasingly violent protests in most of America’s larger cities. The now viral images disseminated and shared by all US and international media clerly show how Floyd’s cries for help went unheeded as his neck was being crushed under the weight of a police officer’s knee until he could no longer breathe. This is the umpteenth instance of the abuse of power involving a black American on the part of the police, and what the United States is experiencing right now cannot help but remind us of events in Los Angeles in 1991 and 1992 following the dissemination of a video showing the police beating up another black American, Rodney King. The officers’ trial ended with a verdict of almost total acquittal that triggered a spate of protests, bloody clashes and violent looting throughout the city lasting over a month. These events and the many cases of racist violence perpetrated by the authorities that began to be recorded and shared by leading media in the early ‘nineties sparked a broad public debate in US society which was also reflected in the art world.

Gary Simmons, Us and Them, 1991
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center

Civic and social commitment thrust its way forcefully into the very heart of the artistic debate in the ‘nineties thanks to figures from such traditionally sidelined communities as the LGBTQs, Afro-Americans and Native Americans. In that context, black artists of the calibre of Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons and Kara Walker began to build a reputation for themselves on the American art scene by displaying their ability to merge art history and topical relevance in a highly evocative style with a hugely strong impact. 

A large section of the American Art 1961–2001 exhibition will be highlighting these artists, whose work reveals an unprecedented expressive force spawned by the injustice and tension that are still so much a part of reality today. One of the leading exponents of this new course in American art is Kerry James Marshall, whose work is going to be very much in the limelight in the exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi. 

Kerry James Marshall, “WE SHALL OVERCOME”, 1998
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center

An Afro-American artist born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955 and raised in Los Angeles, Marshall, whose art ranges from the abstract to the strip cartoon and from painting and installations to video art and photography, has proven since the ‘nineties to be one of the most important artists in recounting the story (and the present situation) of black identity in the United States. His work on display in Palazzo Strozzi will include, in particular, his famous prints of historic slogans coined by the civil rights movement in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, some of them pacifist and identity-related, others militant and combative: ‘Black is Beautiful’, ‘Black Power’, ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘By Any Means Necessary’ and ‘Burn Baby Burn’. The appropriation of phrases from a historical context such as the struggle against segregation becomes a tool in his hands for imparting topical relevance today to a battle that has never truly been won or even ended. Those words continue to echo today in their vibrant relevance to a lingering situation still unresolved.

Kerry James Marshall, “BLACK POWER”, 1998
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center

The tragic events of recent weeks testify to the deep undercurrents of tension still coursing through American society, and indeed through a large part of the Western world today. All of this gives cultural institutions the opportunity to use contemporary art to tell today’s story, to take up a position and to participate in the public debate. Palazzo Strozzi has a strong tradition of addressing the most topical and urgent issues of the day with its audiences, but it has rarely been clearer than in recent months that the role of an institution wishing to carry weight in its own time brings with it a duty to shoulder that responsibility.

Moving into phase two

by Arturo Galansino, Ludovica Sebregondi, Riccardo Lami and Matthias Favarato

Eighty-four days separate Sunday 8 March, Palazzo Strozzi’s first lockdown day, from Monday 1 June, the day the Tomás Saraceno. Aria exhibition reopens. “Phase Two” in the era of COVID-19 is beginning for Palazzo Strozzi too, as we reassess and rethink our IN TOUCH online project to bring it into line with this new development.

IN TOUCH was an immediate, spontaneous response with a strong sense of urgency at a time of total uncertainty as to what was going to happen in ensuing weeks. We were determined from the outset to react to this crisis with a clear goal, which was to stay in touch with our visitors – to protect our bond of proximity at a time of deep insecurity for all of us, as our normal bearings came under severe strain in this new and utterly unprecedented situation. The Tomás Saraceno’s exhibition offered us the perfect starting point; in fact it was almost prophetic in its reflection on the fragility of our world. Comparison with a spider’s web to illustrate the environment we live in, a concept that plays a major role in Saraceno’s art, is well suited to define the network of relations that have kept us united at this time – a network linked to the online world on which all our daily activities, including our thirst for culture and beauty, have had of necessity to pivot during lockdown.

The video message by Tomás Saraceno

Our choice for the IN TOUCH project was to merge our website and social channels by creating new and original content taking a fresh look at certain moments in Palazzo Strozzi’s history, rather than simply taking a stroll down memory lane, in an effort to discover new values in them in the light of our present circumstances. This led us to address such eminently topical issues as interconnection, isolation, the sense of nationhood and community, the family and inclusiveness. To address as broad an audience as possible we hosted different viewpoints, as you can see from the authors of the essays (from both within and outside the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi), with whom we were eager not to look backwards into the past but always forwards at the present and into the future. A crucial role was played by the video messages sent in by artists wishing to testify their closeness with Palazzo Strozzi in consideration of their strong bond with us and with Italy as a whole. Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons and Tomás Saraceno all aired their support for us and their contributions proved hugely popular, with Marina’s message in particular attracting almost 1 million hits.

The video message by Marina Abramović

But there are other figures that can help us tell the story of this project too. On our IN TOUCH platform we published 24 essays read by almost 60,000 single users. On Facebook and Instagram we published over 100 posts, reaching over 1.5 million people and causing our online community to grow by 10% in a mere two months. In addition to which, the fact that our visitors spent longer than average on the pages of IN TOUCH is another extremely interesting development because it shows that people preferred to focus on exploring the content in depth rather than simply skimming over it; and this, despite the moment of frenzy everyone was experiencing in the consumption of online content. The top five most avidly read articles were We’re All in the Same Boat; The Shattered Embrace; Dining with Pontormo; Men, Apricots and Cows; and Heaven in a Room. Far from being a mere hit parade, however, this list perfectly mirrors the multi-faceted nature of our approach and the variety of our readers’ interests. A project that deserves a special mention here is the remote-educational project that we christened ART AT HOME for families with children and teens on their hands. The project was visited by almost 6,000 users, many of whom then sent us in the results of their various activities. And we also very much appreciated the affection and esteem displayed by those who have been following our initiatives for a long time, given that the newsletter was the tool most widely used for accessing IN TOUCH, thus highlighting our audience’s closeness even at a time of physical distancing.

A selection of articles of IN TOUCH from our website blog.

And now, as the exhibition gets set to reopen on 1 June, we are about to launch a new phase for IN TOUCH too, turning it into a fortnightly column. Like every cultural institution eager to talk about its own era, Palazzo Strozzi is committed to addressing the most relevant and topical issues of our time, so that every exhibition and activity we produce provides us with an opportunity to explore the world we live in an increasingly contemporary vein. Over the next few weeks we will be pursuing our IN TOUCH project by seeking inspiration in what Tomás Saraceno has called “visions of the future and of reality.” We will be discussing the exhibitions, activities and daily life of Palazzo Strozzi in an effort to keep open a space for parallel debate, a place for cross-contaminating and sharing different points of view.

Physical distancing, not social distancing!

by Irene Balzani

Today, Monday 18 May 2020, is International Museum Day, and this year it is dedicated to “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion” in an attempt to draw attention to cultural institutions’ crucially important role in serving society and in furthering its development. Palazzo Strozzi has been moving in that direction from day one, including during the current health emergency that has turned our daily lives and our lifestyle on their heads, forcing us temporarily to shut down our exhibition and other public areas. The initiatives we have been working on during the shutdown include ways of reaching out to those worst hit by the situation but who normally taken part in our accessibility schemes, in particular by attempting to “remote-redefine” our schemes for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s sufferers. The initiatives have been redesigned to prevent the physical distance we need to keep from one another right now from turning into isolation – to prevent the social distancing we are all talking about from turning into social exclusion.

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From the day the shutdown began, for our With Many Voices scheme – the scheme we have devised and built with people living with Alzheimer’s and their carers – we have involved all participants, whether living with their families or in medically-assisted and other nursing homes. We have been working with geriatric educators and with the women artists who have cooperated on the scheme over the years in exactly the same way as we do with our activities when the participants are physically present. Our proposal to all of them has been to carry on seeking their inspiration in art and to try staying on line by using e-mail or through a WhatsApp group specially set up for the purpose. Use of a screen, whether it be a computer screen or a smartphone, can turn into something of a barrier for people who are not conversant with modern technology, which is why we reached our decision after much debate and thought in order to ensure no one was excluded. The two channels were used to convey proposals associated with our art projects. Our first invitation was to share what they could see from their window, which in these days of isolation had become their window on the world. Our second invitation was to tell us their story through a corner of their own home.  And our third was to reveal their “domestic herbaria,” the inspiration in this case coming from the Lady with a Bunch of Flowers that we admired in our exhibition on Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo and from the workshop held by the artist Caterina Sbrana to tie in with the exhibition.

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We received over forty entries, including both photographs and texts such as: “I opened one of my grandfather’s schoolbooks – he was born in 1876 – and a small violet dropped out, it was terribly moving”; “I take great care in looking after my allotment”; and “the beauty in small things is what makes me feel strong”. Corners of a garden, vases on a balcony or dried flowers in the pages of a book were all carefully observed, becoming examples of what Le Manifeste du Tiers Paysage author Gilles Clément calls “unwitting art”. This art, he says, “floats on the surface of things. It is an art without status, without a discourse, it is defenceless, it is shown in haste and disappears at once. It is an ephemeral and subtle state of being; sometimes a light, but first and foremost a gaze”. The images and words submitted went on to become the notes for a shared herbarium wher the collective aspect “makes us feel even closer, even less alone”, as one of the participants wrote. All these contributions, collected during the lockdown period, are conveyed into a single story, punctuated by different stimuli proposed from week to week.

Download: A più voci - alla finestra (Italian only)

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Another “remote” scheme was Free Flowing, a scheme devoted to the inclusion of people suffering from Parkinson’s that combines art and the spoken word with dance. In addition to the importance of staying on line, in this case we also addressed the need to lend continuity to the practice of dance which, as many studies have confirmed, is particularly beneficial for people who have to live with Parkinson’s. Stimulated by the work being done by the Dance Well group in Bassano del Grappa, we began to propose activities for doing at home while still working with the dance teachers involved in the scheme. In this case too, debate with participants was of the essence, virtual meetings allowing us to meet up and to evaluate new ideas. This dialogue spawned a plan to try and experiment using the Tomás Saraceno exhibition that most people have not yet had a chance to visit as our starting point.

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Every Thursday at 15.00, we send out images of one of the artist’s works and two interlinked audio files, one relating to the work of art in question and the other to a dance routine to implement, a kind of physical exercise in remote interaction with a work of art. The scheme does not set out to replace live experience with art in the exhibition halls, which continues to be a crucial starting point, but it does stimulate thought and it opens participants up to new ideas. These ideas, taken up and amplified in the exercises, are used to empower coordination and rhythm, an exercise designed to be performed individually yet all at the same time in order to lend it a collective dimension.

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The “remote” versions of With Many Voices and Free Flowing were designed to be only temporary, but they are ongoing schemes that could well be used again in the future to help stay in touch with people who, for whatever reason, are unable to take part physically in the activity in Palazzo Strozzi. Crucial to our institution’s identity, accessibility is a value that needs to maintain its central role in the identity of museums and other cultural institutions. The crisis that we are living through might well prompt us to reflect on finding new solutions, models and potential developments for an increasingly broad notion of inclusion in culture.

The courtyard of wonders: performances, staircases and slides

by Ludovica Sebregondi

Palazzo Strozzi, a milestone in the development of Italian Renaissance architecture, is one of the most elegant and best-known examples of these prestigious buildings that began to be erected in the 15th century with their large courtyards surrounded by columns acting as the focal point around which the entrances and staircases converged. The courtyard was unquestionably a showpiece, but it also made life in the palazzo far more pleasant thanks to the cool shade offered by the portico on the ground floor, the two airy loggias on the first floor and the loggia on the attic floor, which was a veritable suntrap in winter.

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Alfonso Parigi, Public assembly of the members of the Accademia della Crusca, held in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi in June 1651
Romanian Academy Library, Bucharest.

We owe the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi to Simone del Pollaiolo, known as Il Cronaca, who was the palazzo’s supervisor and executive architect from 1490, shortly after construction began, until 1504. A perfect setting, it has also been used as a theatre and auditorium, for instance for assemblies held by the Accademia della Crusca in the 17th century such as the assembly held in the presence of Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici, illustrated in a pen drawing by Alfonso Parigi and described by Francesco Settimanni in his Diario:

On June 10th 1651. The Accademia della Crusca of Florence gathered in the Courtyard of Messrs. Strozzi’s Palazzo by the Canto a’ Tornaquinci, where the Signor Cavaliere Rucellai delivered a very fine Oration in praise of St. Zenobius, Bishop of Florence, who was chosen as the Patron of said Accademia; and many splendid Compositions were recited, and all the Most Serene Princes were in attendance with much of the nobility.

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Prince Piero Strozzi in his Panhard-Levassor in the courtyard of the Palazzo, 1900
Photograph from the panels in the Museino di Palazzo Strozzi.

But the centuries went by, ushering in the modern age, and by the early 20th century the courtyard was being used as a “carport” for Piero Strozzi’s motor car, the first ever seen in Florence: a 6HP Panhard-Levassor, which was the model that won the 1897 Paris-Dieppe race. The palazzo remained in the family until 1937, when it was sold to the Istituto Nazionale delle Assicurazioni which made it over to municipality. Restoration work began in that same year and was completed by 1940, when the building’s new role was inaugurated in the presence of King Victor Emmanuel III with a major Exhibition of the Tuscan Cinquecento in Palazzo Strozzi. The Palestrina Pietà, thought at the time to be by Michelangelo and recently acquired by the Galleria dell’Accademia, was placed in the courtyard and chosen as the logo for the event.

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Paola Pivi, Untitled Project, 2015, installation for the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi
Photo Martino Margheri

The same viewpoint that we see in the 17th century drawing was revived in Paola Pivi’s monumental Untitled Project installation in 2015, comprising a colourful inflatable ladder over 20 metres tall that took the contrast between classic and contemporary to new heights. The ladder was an object emptied of all practical use, oversized, unstable and temporary: an evocative kaleidoscope marking a break with tradition in total contrast with the controlled and symmetrical perspective of its Renaissance architectural setting and with the measured hues of the courtyard’s grey pietra serena and white plaster colour scheme. The artist’s aim with this surreal graft was to trigger an emotional shock, smashing the accepted conventions of space to create a new and unexpected meaning.

In some ways it felt as though she was trying to evoke what had been known as “the monstrosity”: “a two-ramp staircase rising from the heart of the Renaissance courtyard right up to the loggia on the third floor,” “brutally” cutting it in two and making it impossible to perceive in its entirety. The “monstrosity” was erected in the summer of 1983 ahead of the 13th Antiques Biennale (17 September–9 October), when it was described in the catalogue as “a huge surprise as well as a novelty.” The massive public outcry against the invasive structure was taken up by figures from the world of culture such as Eugenio Garin and by glossy magazines such as “Casa Vogue.” The fire escape was subsequently dismantled, but for years it was an eyesore defacing a perfect space and Paola Pivi’s work may well have been an allusion to the countless structures that have marked and blighted the silhouette of so many monumental buildings.

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Carsten Höller, The Florence Experiment Slides, 2018, Photo Attilio Maranzano

In 2018 Carsten Höller used another modern material in his Florence Experiment Slides installation to build two monumental helical slides allowing visitors to slide down the 20 metres separating the second-floor loggia from the courtyard in a matter of seconds. The work emphasised the architectural space, accentuating its upward thrust and pursuing the dialogue between old and new with the use of steel and polycarbonate to create a structure with a gradient of 28°. Each slide was approximately 50 metres long, weighed roughly 3,600 kilos, making an overall weight of over 12 tonnes, and was held together by 265 bolts, as many nuts and 522 washers. These cold figures offer a technical description of the structure, yet quite apart from the innovative scientific experiment associated with it (devised in conjunction with plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso), the impressive thing about it was the tangle of arms reminiscent of the Laocoön, but that also reminded us of the ongoing practice of causing façades and courtyard to interact with temporary and contemporary structures.

 

Cover: Carsten Höller, The Florence Experiment Slides, 2018, Photo Attilio Maranzano

Liberations

by Arturo Galansino

Seventy-five years have gone by since 25 April 1945, when the Northern Italian National Liberation Committee issued an appeal from Milan calling for armed insurrection against the Republic of Salò and the Nazi occupier. That date is commemorated in Italy as a founding moment, as a new beginning in our history after the horrors of war and of Fascism.

Dawn of a Nation – an exhibition curated by Luca Massimo Barbero for Palazzo Strozzi in 2018 – told the story of that rebirth through the eyes and the work of artists who, with their experimentation, their militancy and their political commitment, reinvented the very concepts of identity, belonging and community in contrast with the dark days prior to that 25 April.

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Renato Guttuso, Battle at the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (1951–55). Roma, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea.
Courtesy of the Ministero dei Beni e le Attività Culturali e Ambientali e del Turismo. Renato Guttuso, by SIAE 2018

The exhibition drew a parallel between the postwar years and the Risorgimento as a moment of rebirth in which the groundwork was laid for the economic boom that was to characterise the following decade. This is the context that spawned the work of Guttuso, a key figure in the sphere of orthodox Neo-Realism. The painting conjures up an image of the Risorgimento in a contemporary vein, yet its tone and rhetoric hark back to the historical painting of the 19th century depicting a crucial stage in the country’s unification, the victorious clash in May 1860 which set in motion the liberation of Sicily from Bourbon rule by Garibaldi’s troops. Introducing Guttuso’s individual room at the 1952 Venice Biennale, where the first version of the picture was shown, anti-Fascist writer and painter Carlo Levi described the painting as “an original example of popular realism: a mythologising, celebratory, active realism bent on action, imbued to the hilt with movement and with hope.”

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Giulio Turcato, Political Rally, 1950, Rome, Galleria d’Arte Moderna
© Roma Capitale – Sovrintendenza Capitolina ai Beni Culturali. Photo: Schiavinotto Rome. Giulio Turcato, by SIAE 2018

But the immediate postwar years were also a time when the Italian people were very much divided in numerous spheres, as we can see from the institutional referendum held on 2 June 1946 marking the end of the monarchy and the proclamation of the Italian Republic. These divisions were not seen only in the political sphere but also in art, with a fault line that long pitted the most vibrant forces of new Italian art against one another in two opposing camps, the abstract and realist, even within the ranks of the Italian Left itself. Tying in with the First National Exhibition of Contemporary Art at the Palazzo di Re Enzo in Bologna in 1948, the magazine Rinascita carried an article under the headline Indications Against Abstract Painting penned by Italian Communist Party Secretary Palmiro Togliatti writing under the pseudonym of Rodrigo di Castiglia, violently criticising abstract experimentation, which he called a “collection of monstrosities,” “of horrors and of follies.” He was levelling his charges at such paintings as Turcato’s Political Rally, shown at the 1950 Biennale, which uses geometrical abstraction to depict that particular moment in the political struggle.

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Luciano Fabro, Italy, 1968, Lugano, MASI.
On permanent loan from a private collection. Courtesy MASI, Lugano

National identity in 1968 – another moment in our country’s history that was as crucial as it was divisive – is a recurring theme in the art of Luciano Fabro who, in his iconic work entitled Italy, uses an iron silhouette of the peninsula with a map glued onto it and the islands on the back, which includes the Autostrada del Sole motorway that opened in 1964.

“I took familiar forms serving equally familiar purposes and I tripped them up: Italy, but hanging in abnormal fashion” (Luciano Fabro, 1978)

The whole thing was turned upside down and hung from the ceiling in a deliberate echo of one of the grimmest and most emblematic images marking the end of Fascism: the bodies of Benito Mussolini and of his die-hard loyalist followers hanging upside down in Piazzale Loreto in Milan in 1945, being held up to public scorn in keeping with the medieval tradition of hanging traitors to their country up by their feet.

Over fifty years after its creation, this upturned Italy not only prompts a reflection on the country’s recent history and on its present, it also acquires a deeper meaning today, when reality itself appears to have been turned on its head. If the Liberation has an identity-related significance, this national holiday today must prompt us to address the new challenges that await us when we emerge from the crisis and to make every effort to contribute to our country’s rebirth.

The greatest challenge

by Alessio Bertini

22 April is World Earth Day, an event established in 1970 and marking its 50th birthday today. The United Nations celebrates the event in its determination to promote a global effort to achieve the goals of environmental sustainability and the struggle against climate change that account for some of the main points on the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development .

The Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi has likewise committed over the years to promoting a debate on relationship between the development of human society and respect for our natural environment by hosting exhibitions such as its current show of work by Tomás Saraceno or its numerous schemes for schools.

One of those schemes is Educare al presente. Kicking off in 2011, the scheme offers pathways of exploration and workshops held in upper secondary schools throughout Tuscany. Getting off the ground thanks to the support of the Regione Toscana, in recent years the scheme has attracted crucial sponsorship from Publiacqua and the Water Right Foundation. Thanks to this collaboration, and despite the suspension enforced by the current health-related emergency, school year 2019/2020 has seen some 700 students aged 16 to 19 take part in a series of encounters focusing on issues related to sustainable development and the use of such natural resources as water.

The scheme addresses an issue which is crucial for our future but which, at the same time, is complex and rich in differing viewpoints and in potential for interdisciplinary debate. That is why, in conjunction with our partners and making full use of our mutual skills, we have adopted a two-level approach, viewing the issue from both the scientific and the artistic standpoints. Each pathway in class begins with the analysis of a concrete problem such as the conscientious management of resources and of an area’s water consumption conducted by Publiacqua and Water Right and Energy Foundation experts, offering students a succinct yet concrete picture of the issues on the basis of which we wish to trigger the debate involving a discussion of cases close to our local area.

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Plant on the artificial Lake of Bilancino
Source: Publiacqua

This encounter is followed by further events in which the debate changes its perspective, adopting the viewpoint and the language of artists who have always considered nature to be a primary source of inspiration for their work. Artist Elena Mazzi helped us to design a workshop based on the work of such leading artists and architects as Marjetica Potrč and Yona Friedman who, along with the examples of Olafur Eliasson, Superflex and Simon Starling, stimulated the participating students’ views and thoughts on the issue, often calling into question the superficial rhetoric that has grown up around the debate on the environment over the years.

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An encounter at the Istituto Statale Superiore “Ernesto Balducci” in Pontassieve.
Photo: Giulia Del Vento

With the help of these stimuli we asked students to observe, read and revisualise their own schools in order to develop new points of balance between the requirements of school life and those of the natural ecosystem of which it is a part, producing what we call architecture/landscapes or organisational solutions midway between a living organism and an infrastructure. Each class produced different projects based on rethinking the use of water in their school, stimulated by the freedom of imagination and critical approach that is such a feature of the work done by the artists discovered in the course of the activities, and embracing the need to think through creative form and gesture, through exaggeration and paradox.

The loss of a basin became an opportunity to water a flowerbed, tears prompted by an insufficiency could be reused to obtain the salt for the teaching staff’s canteen, or a puddle in the playground after a shower suggested the possibility of planning a swimming pool for use during free time. Ideas flowed, triggering unexpected synergies between the optimisation of water resources dictated by the need to economise, and a poetic outlook that addressed reality with only seeming detachment. All the projects produced by each individual class were brought together in a single large composition redesigning school in the context of a new relationship with nature in which water plays a leading role.

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An encounter at the Istituto Statale Superiore “Ernesto Balducci” in Pontassieve.
Photo: Giulia Del Vento

Originally made from poor waste materials, the compositions have been translated by draughtsman Nicola Giorgio into illustrated animations and plates. Each plate illustrates a proposal for rethinking a school complex in which feasibility is suspended between the possible and the impossible.

An example is the project produced by Class 4°G with the Istituto Benvenuto Cellini in Florence, in which water feeds not only the school basins but also a fountain that both imparts a new look to the school quad and guarantees the more or less controlled growth of plants and bushes capable of taking possession of a toilet bowl or of other accoutrements carelessly left lying about out in the open. Added to the picture we see a structure burning in the background, a disturbing image inspired by suspect black stains that the students discovered on the roof of a structure adjacent to the main school building, identified in the course of the research phase that is part and parcel of the activity programme. We are not told exactly what role water plays in the fire, perhaps it is helping to destroy the building in a different way, or perhaps it is defending the building’s temporary stability by partly extinguishing the flames, but what is certain is that in the students’ eyes that same water, together with particles of charred matter, can make its way back into the atmosphere thanks to the heat generated by the event and then fall back to earth in the form of rain before finally being purged of its impurities and returning to its natural cycle.

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Revisitation by Nicola Giorgio of the project presented by Class 4°G with the Istituto Superiore Bevenuto Cellini in Florence

Rationality and freedom of imagination, planning and chance, the emotional dimension and functional needs accompany the creative debate of those who participated in the pathways of Educare al presente devoted to the relationship between human activity and the natural environment. In the course of the various stages of the encounters, analysis, intuition and planning borrowed the stimuli and the tools of art  to produce unexpected results and transformation scenarios, which is what the future expects of us. We have taken advantage of World Earth Day to tell you about this scheme and to remind your and ourselves that the pandemic isn’t the only challenge we need to face as a global society.

We are currently collating all the reports produced by the classes that have been able to take part in the course of the current academic year. Their reports will be used to produce the illustrated plates of which you can see a small selection here. All the illustrated material will be available for viewing on this page where you can also find further information on the Educare al presente scheme and on the cooperation between the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Publiacqua and the Water Right Foundation.

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Revisitation by Nicola Giorgio of the project presented by Class 5°I with the Liceo Artistico Petrocchi in Pistoia

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Revisitation by Nicola Giorgio of the project presented by Class 3°DL with the Liceo Pascoli in Florence

 

Cover: Olafur Eliasson, Green river (detail), 1998, Moss, Norway, 1998, Source: olafureliasson.net

A “great house”: Palazzo Strozzi

by Ludovica Sebregondi 

It feels bizarre today to consider Palazzo Strozzi – home to the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi which uses the premises to plan and organise art exhibitions, to the Gabinetto Vieusseux, to the Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento and to the Scuola Normale Superiore, along with the Caffè and Bottega Strozzi – as a private home, the symbol of a family, embodying that family’s determination to “make a comeback”. Yet that is exactly what it was for Filippo Strozzi (1428–91), who devoted an enormous amount of energy to devising it and to having it built. Filippo’s father Matteo had been exiled from Florence because the family had taken up a stance against Cosimo de’ Medici, and Filippo himself was exiled to Naples, where he forged a bond of friendship with Ferdinand of Aragon and his son Alfonso. They interceded on his behalf with Cosimo de’ Medici’s son Piero and won him a reprieve, so Filippo was able to return to Florence after twenty-five years. He wrote to his mother on 27 November 1466, annoucing in a joyous tone veined with humour that: “Sunday evening, God willing, you will have me there. Make sure there is something other for dinner than the sausage I hear you are planning to serve.”

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Ai Weiwei, Filippo Strozzi in LEGO, 2017, Florence, Museino di Palazzo Strozzi
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

Once he was back in his native city, Filippo said: «I cannot cease thinking and drawing, and if God grants me a long and healthy life I hope to achieve something memorable». His plan was to erect the grandest building in Florence both to display and to testify to the power of his family and its rebirth. The operation was to prove complex and it took Filippo from 1473 to 1489 to acquire the land on which to build his future palazzo in a key area of the city, at the crossroads of what are now Via Tornabuoni and Via Strozzi. He had to demolish the many buildings he bought and to eat into the square in front of the area, thus altering the very fabric of the city. To make sure that his project was a success, he turned to the astrologer Benedetto Biliotti to establish the exact moment for laying the foundation stone. Biliotti advised him that the most propitious moment would be at dawn on 6 August 1489, over 530 years ago. That morning, Filippo wrote in his memoirs: “As the sun rose from behind the hill, in the name of God and of a good beginning for me and all my descendants, I began to found the aforementioned house of mine and I laid the first stone of its foundations”. At the chosen moment “the sign of Leo was rising over the horizon in the eastern sky, which […] means that the building will last for ever and be the home of great and noble men of worthy estate”

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Filippo Strozzi’s register of debtors and creditors, 1484–91, Florence, Archivio di Stato, Carte Strozziane, Quinta serie, 41, fol. 172

We find evidence of the extent to which the Florentines considered the event exceptional in the memoirs of a spicer named Tribaldo de’ Rossi whose shop stood a little way off, across the street from the church of Santa Trinita. He tells us: “On 6 August 1489, at sunrise, the masons began to found said palazzo for Filippo Istrozi.” As Tribaldo was looking down into the trench nine metres deep, Filippo in person came up to him and said: “Take a stone and throw it in, and so I did, and then I put my hands in my pouch in his presence and took out an old coin, a quatrino gigliato, to throw it in, which he did not want me to do, but in memory of the event I threw it in all the same and he was content.” Tribaldo also sent “Tita our servant” to fetch his two sons at home, telling her to dress them up in their Sunday best and bring them to see “said foundations.” He took his eldest, “Ghuarnieri, in my arms and squat down with him and gave him a quatrino gigliato and he threw it in and a bunch of small damask roses that he was holding, I got him to throw them in too, I told him thou shalt remember this.”

The ritual of having the children wear their best clothes to solemnise the event and of having them throw coins and flowers as a spontaneous, unpremeditated act to bring good luck is combined here with the traditional gesture, when laying the foundation stone of a place of worship, of urging those in attendance to throw a stone into the trench – all of them ritual, almost magical gestures thought to bring good luck and to ward off evil.

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Benedetto da Maiano or Giuliano da Sangallo, Model of Palazzo Strozzi, c. 1489
Museino di Palazzo Strozzi, on loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Despite the fact that we still have the Libri della Muraglia, or building records, containing daily progress reports and building costs, we do not actually know the name of the architect who designed the palazzo. Giuliano da Sangallo and Benedetto da Maiano each produced a model, but only one model has come down to us and we are not certain which of the two architects made it. Now in the Museino, it is very similar to the palazzo ultimately built, except that the latter is over three and half metres taller. Simone del Pollaiolo, known as “Il Cronaca,” was appointed foreman of the works shortly after work began in 1490, and the palazzo had risen as high as the first floor by the time Filippo died in 1491.

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Corbel in Palazzo Strozzi with the family coat-of-arms and Filippo’s personal “devices”

Filippo wanted the corbels to bear the family coat-of-arms with its three crescent moons, along with his own personal “devices” comprising allegorical phrases accompanied by a figure formulating thoughts or maxims. One device shows a falcon with its wings outspread, tearing its feathers on the trunk of an oak tree and accompanied by the motto “Sic [et] virtus expecto” (I wait, and so does virtue); another shows a lamb with the words “Mitis esto” (Be gentle) – thus an encouragement to display the patience and resilience which allowed Filippo to survive in times of adversity during his long exile and to then succeed in building and in handing down the splendid palazzo that he was so determined to erect, the boast not only of his family but of the entire city and today a world-renowned symbol of the Renaissance.

Chagall, Millet, Vedova: the art of the sacred in modernity

The Easter celebrations call to mind images of artworks from the exhibition Divine Beauty, from Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana held at Palazzo Strozzi between 2015 and 2016 and curated by Lucia Mannini, Anna Mazzanti, Ludovica Sebregondi and Carlo Sisi. The exhibition, which hosted work by Italian and international artists, provided an original take on the theme of the sacred in modern art, highlighting the dialogue, the relations and occasionally even the clashes, thanks in particular to the enduring strength and modernity of traditional iconographical images revisited by artists who were often either non-Christian or non-believers.

The pivotal work of this theme is the White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall (Moishe Segal; Vitebsk, 1887 – Saint-Paul-de-Vence, 1985). Transcending traditional iconography, the artist speaks to us of pain, of carnage, of religious persecution and of migration, all of them extremely unambiguous historical allusions when the picture was painted in 1938, the year of the Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass, an antisemitic pogram that marked the official start of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

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Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938, Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift Alfred S. Alschuler. © Chagall ®, by SIAE 2020

Chagall turned the subject matter of the Crucifixion into a lyrical testimony to the status of the Jews, presenting Jesus as the “archetypal Jewish martyr of all time,” a symbol of the suffering of his people. His traditional loincloth is replaced by a tallit or prayer shawl and his crown of thorns by a linen kerchief. A menorah takes centre stage. Beneath the Cross and to the side, destruction is rife. On the right, a Nazi is setting fire to the veil in a burning synagogue, the Ark of the Covenant is broken, chairs and prayer books lie scattered all over the street, a scroll of the Torah is burning and an old man is fleeing, while a mother endeavours to comfort her child.

The artist returned to dwell on the relationship between Jew and Christian on several other occasions in the course of his career, and the profound interfaith principle with which the picture is imbued may well explain why it is one of Pope Francis’s favourite works, as he himself admitted. To tie in with the National Church Convention in Florence on 9 November 2015, the painting was moved from Palazzo Strozzi to the Baptistry in Florence, where it interacted with the 13th century mosaics in an outstanding display of unity between ancient and contemporary art in the context of the debate on transcendence.

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Pope Francis and Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, Archbishop of Florence, before Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, with Arturo Galansino (General Director of Palazzo Strozzi) and Douglas Druick (ex director of the Art Institute of Chicago) on 9 November 2015

The Italian artist Emilio Vedova (Venice, 1919–2006) also addressed the crucifixion theme on more than one occasion, without any particular religious connotation but on the strength of its dramatic power, seeking his inspiration in Tintoretto’s paintings of Christ’s Passion in the churches of Venice. His Contemporary Crucifixion, painted in 1953, testifies to Vedova’s mature absorption of the informal style, but at the same time, according to Palma Bucarelli, a renowned former Director of the GNAM in Rome, the painting is “one of the most successful expressions of the artist’s dramatically intense and human art.”

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Emilio Vedova, Contemporary Crucifixion – Cycle of Protest No. 4, 1953, Rome, GNAM – Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea. Foto Antonio Idini

The work marks its distance from the artist’s previous versions of the theme. The crucifixion proper has disappeared, leaving behind it only the dramatic power translated by Vedova’s painterly gestures into a deep reflection on suffering, which he saw, in the aftermath of World War II, as an existential condition of mankind. The tumultuous composition based on a strong, dynamic contrast between the black and the white of his brushstrokes, creates a fully-fledged field of action that is at once abstract and theatrical, and that contains another figurative reference to the Cross in the lower central part of the composition: two solid, clear black lines flanked by the only two coloured brushstrokes in the entire picture, the colour of blood, urge us to reflect in depth on the relationship between life and death.

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Jean-François Millet, L’Angelus, 1857-1859, Parigi, Musée d’Orsay, legacy Alfred Chauchard, 1910. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Poetic and profound manifesto about the religious sense in modern art, The Angelus of the French artist Jean-François Millet (Gréville, 1814 – Barbizon, 1875) is one of his best-known masterpieces. The Angelus is the prayer that recalls the Angel’s greeting to Mary at the Annunciation and since the 13th century it invites the faithful to recite the Haily Mary three times in the course of the day: in the morning, at midday and in the evening. The ritual of the bell tolling three short strokes followed by one long one was very much a part of daily life. As Millet himself explained: “The Angelus is a picture which I painted recalling the times I used to work in the fields with my grandmother; every time the bell rang she would make us stop to pray.”

In this tight, compact composition, we see a basket at the feet of two peasants praying and behind them a wheelbarrow containing two sacks. On the left, a pitchfork has been jammed into the earth by the boy, who has ceased working in order to pray. Behind the figures, the field stretches away as far as the horizon, where we can just make out the hazy shape of a small village with a belfry and a handful of houses. Mindful of Constable’s work, Millet ensures that the sky plays a leading role in his composition, allowing it to take up over one-third of the painted surface. Forcefully constructed in warm shades of brown, the two peasants are depicted against the light, two figures exalted in their humility but, at the same time, also in their solid human dignity.

As Carlo Sisi wrote in the catalogue: “The ‘rustic goodness’ widely depicted in Millet’s works regarded every aspect of rural culture, at times drawing from poetic components (regarding The Angelus, Alfred Sensier wrote of sound suggestiveness referring to the whispering murmur of the countryside and the distant tolling of bells), at times calling into question the persistence of religious traditions in farming populations – and Millet’s painting was a moving testimony to the same. It was not by coincidence that critics lingered over the description of the reflective charm of the scene, augmented by the ever-changing colour of light, but especially concentrated on the moral message entrusted to the two rapt protagonists, both humble and monumental at the same time, who were the silent mediums of a convinced and intense moral message.”

Illustrating the unchanging pace of life in the fields, Millet offers us a reflection on man’s relationship with nature in accordance with a declaration of universal spiritual ethics. The two peasants’ prayer is, in effect, a meditation on life, a manifesto of hope and of confidence in nature.

Art at Home: special activities for children, teens and families

Palazzo Strozzi has always taken immense care to involve its visitors in activities and projects associated with the works of art on display in its exhibitions, but in this strange time we’re living in we all need to stay at home to protect ourselves and others, so we can’t enjoy the same kind of direct interaction with the work of the artists in our shows. That’s why we’ve devised ART AT HOME, a series of proposals and initatives for children, teens and families based on original activities to do at home under your own steam, using everyday materials that are easy to come by.

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Photo: Giulia Del Vento

Palazzo Strozzi ‘s exhibitions always come with a Family Kit, a tool for sharing the experience in a fun and creative way. We’ve devised a special version of the Kit for the IN TOUCH project, consisting of a set of activities inspired by the Tomás Saraceno. Aria exhibition which can be shared at home by children and adults together. Saraceno’s work makes us think about the future and about living together, two concepts that probably seem even more important to us at a time like this when we need to rethink the world around us and our relationship with the other living beings that inhabit it.
The Kit contains five activities that can be done either one after another or a one at a time, say one a day.

Download the Kit (Italian version)

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Photo: Giulia Del Vento

School activities have radically changed over the past few weeks too, so we’ve tailored our offer for students and teachers to cater for that change. We’ve developed four activities initially devised for classes and adapted them for the home. You can do them either on your own or as a family. The activities are a tool designed for teachers of all school levels comprising experiments inspired by a reflection on the future and on the concept of co-existence, both of them strongly inspired by the work of Tomás Saraceno. But the materials and instructions for using them are also a resource for parents who may wish to pursue activities combining thought, fun and sharing in this time of isolation and confinement in the home.

Here are the links to download them:

The Thread That Binds Us All (kindergarten and the first few years of primary schools, ages 4 to 8, Italian version)

The Shape of the Future (final years or primary school, ages 9 to 11, Italian version)

Cosmic Drawing (lower secondary school, Italian version)

The Oracle (upper secondary school, Italian version)

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Photo: Giulia Del Vento