Italy is one of the world’s premier art curators. The country is well-decorated from first century frescoes in Pompeii to Michelangelo’s David sculpture in Florence. But there seems to be precious little space left for contemporary art. That may change with Italy’s first national museum dedicated to modern art and architecture. The museum opens to the public this weekend and is already shaking the foundations of the ancient city of Rome. Nancy Greenleese reports. Download MP3
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MARCO WERMAN: Italy is the world’s art curator. The country has magnificent works from first century frescoes in Pompeii to Michelangelo’s David in Florence. Yet there seems to be precious little space in Italy for contemporary art. That may change tomorrow. Italy’s first national museum dedicated to modern art and architecture will open in Rome. Nancy Greenlease reports that it’s giving the eternal city a touch of the future.
NANCY GREENLEASE: Visitors flock to Italy for its art. Yet it sometimes seems as if the country stopped making art after the Renaissance. In the 1990′s Pio Baldi and his colleagues at the Italian Culture Ministry took a close look at what this art destination had to offer.
INTERPRETER: It wasn’t as if Italians had stopped being creative, yet a tour of Italy’s famous art an architecture, the Coliseum, Trajan’s Column or Giottos’ frescoes, made us think 400 years in the future and wondered what people would come to see from this era.
GREENLEASE: Italy decided it was time to construct its artistic future. In 1998 the government approved the creation of Maxxi, a play on museum of art and the roman numerals for the 21st century. Baldi is now the museum’s president.
INTERPRETER: The idea was to ensure that Italy would also have modern art. That it wasn’t always look back to the art of the past.
GREENLEASE: It took 12 years to build the new museum. During that time, funding ebbed and flowed for the 188 million dollar project as the government turned over six times. Anna Mattirolo, the museum’s art director, says the delays put pressure on them to create something special.
INTERPRETER: It’s true that Rome arrived last on the international modern art scene with this museum. So it would have been a lost opportunity if it weren’t distinctly original.
GREENLEASE: With that in mind, the Italians chose Iraqi born British architect Zaha Hadid to design the new museum. She created an L-shaped white concrete structure that looks like boxes stacked haphazardly on top of each other. Hadid explained in 2008 that the sleek building is designed to reflect Rome, a city built on the ruins of past eras.
ZAHA HADID: The idea is to make a layered city almost at once as if learning from history.
GREENLEASE: Inside, black stairways twist in cavernous white spaces creating an Escher-like feel. Natural light streams from the glass roof. A sneak preview was held in November.
HADID: Well I can’t believe we finally made it.
GREENLEASE: Zaha Hadid addressed the press in her dramatic creation.
HADID: This is for me a great project. It really is symbolic of a beginning, I think, in terms of our work of how to be able to create a fluid space.
GREENLEASE: But the avant-garde museum is located in an ancient city tied to, and sometimes strangled by, its past. Rome has little modern architecture and what there is, is often despised. Romans still complain about the Fascist-era buildings and boulevards. And a modern structure built around an ancient altar has been dubbed the gas station. Rome’s mayor once called for its destruction, but recently reached an agreement with its architect, Richard Meier, on modifications. So far, no one is calling for the Maxxi’s destruction. But Hadid says she is well aware that some may want to tinker with her vision.
HADID: I hope I’ll come back regularly to visit to make sure they have not done anything odd. I’m watching. Okay?
GREENLEASE: The museum opens tomorrow. One of the main exhibits is titled Spazio, or Space, which will highlight Hadid’s work and the Maxxi’s relatively small collection. All the free tickets for the opening day are long gone, suggesting that Italy and Italians may just be able to find some space for modern art. For The World, I’m Nancy Greenlease in Rome.
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