by Roderick Conway Morris

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A new Italian modern art museum

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROVERETO, Italy 4 January 2003


Did Italy need a brand-new modern art museum? Even the most skeptical of visitors to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Rovereto and Trento, which has dubbed itself 'MART' for short and opened its doors for the first time just before Christmas, would be hard-pressed to deny that this project has produced a remarkable building and contents that will surely be the envy of other Italian towns and cities.

Placing this $60 million institution in the small town of Rovereto (some 70 kilometers north of Verona) rather than in the provincial capital, Trento, was a bold decision and a wise one. Not least because the Swiss architect Mario Botta, whose previous projects have included the San Francisco Museum of Art, has turned to advantage a challenging location set back from a broad avenue between two existing 18th-century palazzos and a steeply rising wooded hillside behind, deftly blending the museum into the fabric of a historic townscape and mountain scenery, while offering surprisingly wide vistas from inside the museum that further extend its spacious and airy feel. Botta's use of the changing phases and play of natural light in both the atrium and the interior is unusually subtle.

In many ways Botta's building is the antithesis of most recent new museum projects, where the edifice's exterior is given pride of place. Botta has turned this concept inside out, creating an intriguing building, around a lofty cylindrical central atrium, that is functional but stylish, discreetly spectacular, a pleasure to be in, while providing a series of harmoniously proportioned internal spaces that genuinely enhance the artworks on show.

Hardly less impressive than the building itself is the collection of 19th- and 20th-century Italian works, not to mention books, manuscripts and other material that MART, by judiciously adding to solid holdings already in the province's existing museums, has managed to gather together since the inception of the Rovereto scheme 13 years ago.

One keystone was the donation of works and documents left to Rovereto by the Futurist Fortunato Depero, co-author with Giacomo Balla of the 1915 'Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe' Manifesto. Depero was born in a village to the north, but Rovereto became his long-term home and he established the first Museum of Futurism here. Numerous other works have since been acquired by purchase, donation and long-term loan, so that MART now has over 7,000 pieces, representing all the major players in modern Italian art, including some real masterpieces, and a library of over 60,000 volumes.

To showcase some of the cream of this permanent collection, the museum's inaugural show, 'Le Stanze dell'Arte' (The Art Rooms), traces the major trends in 20th-century Italian art in relation to Western art in general, offering many stimulating parallels and juxtapositions, with the help of generous loans from other galleries and private collections in Europe, Russia and the United States. The show continues until April 13.

Just a couple of weeks before MART's inauguration, the Ca' Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art in Venice finally reopened, having been closed since 1983 -- something of a record even by Italian standards.

The restoration of this huge, complex baroque structure on the Grand Canal and its conversion to meet modern museum standards has proved an epic task, and those responsible for it must over the years have cast wistful glances in the direction of Rovereto as Botta's stone-clad steel and glass building took shape.

Ca' Pesaro was left to the city in 1899 four years after the first Venice Biennale by the Duchess Bevilacqua La Masa on condition it be used to show contemporary arts and crafts and especially to display the works of emerging young artists who did not have access to large institutional exhibitions (such as the Biennale) and as a result fell into the hands of unscrupulous dealers, whom the duchess robustly described in her last will and testament as 'vampires.'

For much of Ca' Pesaro's history the duchess's wishes have been honored in the breach rather than in their application. The new museum first greeted the public a hundred years ago this May, showing an initial nucleus of 66 works, obtained by purchase and donation -- Whistler, for example, who participated in the Biennale of 1897, giving nine watercolors.

It was only in 1908 that the city fathers woke up to the fact that if they did not find some unknown young artists to exhibit at Ca' Pesaro pretty quickly the donation of this stately pile would be annulled. From that period until 1920 the mezzanine floor was employed to show budding young practitioners, particularly those whose work was found too avant-garde for the Biennale.

For a while the mezzanine served its purpose well and what came to be called the 'Ca' Pesaro Movement' embraced the likes of Gino Rossi, Felice Casorati, Arturo Martini, Ugo Valeri and Vittorio Zecchin, who are now regarded as mainstream 20th-century Italian artists, although it was to be a long time before many of these works made it into the permanent collection, these gaps being filled mostly after World War II by purchases and important bequests.

The current arrangement of the gallery consists of some 250 works, including classic pieces by Italian and foreign painters and sculptors -- Arp, Bonnard, Chagall, Dufy, Ernst, Kandinsky, Klee, Klimt and Matisse among them -- as well as a goodly number of artists whose names may be less familiar but are of considerable interest.

Zecchin was one of the first young artists to exhibit at the Ca' Pesaro 'alternative' shows, and he is the subject of a timely exhibition, 'Vittorio Zecchin 1878-1947: Painting, Glass, Decorative Arts,' at the Correr Museum until Feb. 9.

Born on the glass-making island of Murano, Zecchin at first devoted himself to painting, and was initially much influenced by symbolism and art nouveau, notably by Jan Toorop, Gustave Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley, but also found inspiration in Venice's Byzantine, medieval and Renaissance traditions.

The high point of Zecchin's endeavors as a painter was reached in 1914 with his opulent 30-meter-long (100-foot) series of a dozen canvases depicting the procession of Aladdin and his fabulous, gift-bearing entourage of eastern princes and princesses, arriving to seek the hand of the Sultan's daughter. These were commissioned for the dining room of the Hotel Terminus, but later, alas, scattered between diverse public and private collections, and are brought together here for the first time since their dispersal.

Ca' Pesaro presently owns half of the 'One Thousand and One Nights' panels. It can only be hoped that through purchase, donation, or at least long-term loan, the entire cycle might one day be brought together again on a more permanent basis.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022