Living and working the past three months in Italy has given me an intensive look at the state of Italian cultural institutions and a personal, if anecdotal, look into the state of Italian relationship with their heritage. Working at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice is obviously outside of the realm of Italian heritage as the collection was formed by an American woman and largely comprises works by French, American and German avant-garde artists. Despite this disparity, I have had the opportunity to visit many of the local civic and state museums which contain the rich history of the area and have witnessed the poor state in which the art is maintained, displayed and curated. Recently rereading a NYTimes article titled “Italian Cultural Paradox: Love It, Live in It, Leave It to the Creaky Bureaucracy” written in December 2008, I discovered that little has changed in two years. Kimmelman incisively states, “The country is paralyzed by contradictions. Italians say they identify deeply with their cultural patrimony, but they actually don’t visit their museums much.” Although, by my observations, correct in his assessment of museum attendance, I have not found his inference of disinterest in their own heritage to be correct. Perhaps it is human psychology that when one is surrounded by a surplus of something, whether it be food, leisure time, or art, he or she takes it for granted and does not appreciate it as someone who has experienced a deficit.
Italy is not the country of the lire, infinite coffee breaks and sleepy little hill towns that I first visited 17 years ago but has been rapidly launched into the 21st century. I have witnessed in these past months how Italians have been struggling to find a balance between their rich history and their desire to generate new art and new history. The old songs are being forgotten, the dialects lost and meshed into an Italy which is increasingly indistinguishable from other European countries and the American pop culture which seems to permeate all facets of life. The desire to add to this rich history is not a new one and is one which I witness daily in the Mattioli gallery of the Peggy Guggenheim collection. In the art of the Futurists, you can see the energy and excitement these artists felt about the potential of Italy and their fervor for pushing their homeland into the new century (the 20th in their case).
Another interesting quirk I have learned about Italian cultural history while working at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is the truly all-encompassing nature of Italian law towards what is part of their cultural patrimony. As Kimmelman states, “Everything over 50 (with art, the artists at least have to be dead) is regulated by patrimony laws requiring Italians to declare what they own if they wish to export it.” This law includes Peggy’s collections which she formed mostly in Paris and America, with some additions after she moved to Italy in 1948. I am not suggesting that the fact that Peggy’s collection will remain intact in Venice in perpetuity should be changed, it is a great addition to the landscape of the city, I only find the law’s rationale to be very weak. Rather than protecting Italian patrimony, it verges on greedily holding all art which enters or is found on Italian soil hostage, removing all rights of private ownership. This raises the question of whether they are really doing Italy a service by discouraging personal investment in art. Why would any Italian want to buy art or ever bring art into the country knowing that the state will lay claims to their personal property.
Italy has a very rich natural resource in its history and art and it is still searching for a way to capitalize on it in a way that services the ever growing tourist industry and correspondingly strengthens the national understanding and appreciation of heritage. As of yet, much of Italy’s art is languishing in old poorly maintained buildings because they are financed by the state and by international tourism rather than by private investors and local residents attendance. The international tourist only visits the museum once and therefore does not have the long-term interest in seeing that their experience in satisfactory and the state is always going to be an overtaxed bureaucracy. Perhaps some private investment and some adaptation of the ownership laws would increase local citizens to take a personal interest in collecting art and maintaining the museum. This is the American model for the museum as a community hub where educational programs, cultural events and academic conferences create an open and active space. It is presumptuous to assume that Italians or any other culture or nation should want to approach the museum in this way, but if Italy continues to jealously hoard its artworks and demand their return from other museums, shouldn’t there be a moral expectation that those repatriated objects are appreciated and displayed at the same caliber as they were before?