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City of Florence to Charge Admission at Santa Maria Novella

Should churches charge admission fees to see art?

The recent decision by the city of Florence, with the approval of the Superintendent of Fine Arts (Soprintendente ai beni artistici) of Florence Dr. Antonio Paolucci together with church authorities to charge admission to visit Santa Maria Novella has raised a host of questions pertinent to the culture as a whole. One should keep in mind that this is by no means the first time churches in Italy (and elsewhere) charge entrance fees. At the top of a growing list is, after all, the Vatican which for decades has been requiring a fee or really a ticket to visit the Sistine Chapel. Of course the Vatican is not Italy. And strictly speaking and with considerable finesse, the Sistine Chapel has been defined as part of the Vatican Museums and by so doing any ethical ambiguities have been effectively sidestepped. Museums customarily, though not universally, have been selling admissions for centuries.

The same ‘solution’ has been applied to the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, more recently, following an extensive not to say brutal restoration of the frescoes by Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi. In this instance the comune of Florence, museum-ized the chapel, lumping it together with the little museum that was always there. Furthermore they eliminated an entry to the Brancacci Chapel from the church itself, effectively eliminating its religious connection. As with the Sistina, the fiction was reinforced that one was not actually paying to enter a church, but rather a museum.

The situation surrounding entrance to the Baptistery, Dante’s bel S. Giovanni, with encrusted marble decoration outside and glistening late Medieval mosaics inside, is slightly different. The tourists must now pay to visit the unforgettable building which stands in the piazza of the Duomo, across from its façade and Giotto’s bell tower. The same has been true for decades at Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli where Cathedral authorities have been collecting entrance fees for their marvelous buildings: the Camposanto, the Duomo, the Baptistery. The holy buildings are grouped with the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral and the Museum of the Sinopia on a “cumulative ticket,” for which there is a discount off individual admissions.

Now the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, located a stone’s throw from the train station from which its name derives, will have an admission fee amounting to 5,000 Lire (about 2.50 in Euros). The art in the church and in the cloister is of the highest quality and rivals that in most public museums. Chief works of Cimabue, Giotto, Orcagna, Masaccio, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Filippino Lippi, Ghirlandaio, and Paulo Uccello are here. The decision to reclassify the building, in modern jargon, into a “chiesa-museo,” results from two events: the clean up which was conducted for the Jubilee and the restoration and repainting of Masaccio’s unequaled Trinity, painted in late 1425 or 1426.

Once the total cleaning of the Brancacci frescoes across the river in Santa Maria del Carmine had been completed in 1988, and probably not for the first time, the fame-hungry sponsor (who has since disappeared from the restoration scene) was anxious to become associated with the restoration project of the Trinity, so as to monopolize the Masaccio market. The intervention was postponed until 1999, when officials, taking advantage of the fact that the church was closed in preparation for the Jubilee, moved ahead. Now the fresco will be ready for tourists again. In retrospect it seems almost inevitable that the same fate would await the Trinity and the church itself as the Brancacci Chapel.

Masaccio’s Trinity fresco is, in terms of the history of art and the history of culture, extremely influential. Here for the first time we find a thorough explication of the new perspective, along with the rendering of monumental human figures of decided gravity. The spatial complexity of the Trinity continues to amaze and baffle even the most sophisticated critics. In the Trinity, for the first time, profile portraits of the donors are rendered on a large scale. For good reason, then, the Trinity is featured in all general histories of art as a seminal painting, surely worth the price of admissions: half the cost of a movie or a sit down coffee at Rivoire.

But the ethical question remains to be confronted: should churches charge admission at all? This apparently simple question encapsulates diverse elements. First of all ownership needs to be established. Who owns the artistic treasures of the past? Actually in the fifteenth century, the Florentine government provided quarters for several popes at Santa Maria Novella, and there too Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci prepared their cartoons for the battle murals for the Palazzo Vecchio at the beginning of the following century. Does Santa Maria Novella belong to the Holy Roman church in the larger sense, or to the particular order, in this case the Dominicans, or, perhaps, to the Florentine commune which provided funding? What about the Italian state; or better yet, the entire world?

The city of Florence has assumed the right to create a not-for-profit company (“un’associazione senza fine di lucro called Opera Santa Maria Novella”). As for the state, de facto authority has been assumed by the Superintendent of Fine Arts who reluctantly signed onto the new system. The rarity represented by Santa Maria Novella begins with the facade which was designed by Leon Battista Alberti, sufficient on its own to make it qualify as a world treasure. So far, looking at it is free. Surely, Masaccio’s Trinity stands out even in the most august company but so does Brunelleschi’s rare wooden Crucifix and Orcagna’s unrivaled Strozzi Altarpiece. Thus the inclination persists to advocate world ownership. As things now stand, the Italian government has a good deal of authority, because after all, at least the responsibility for the treatment of the building and its contents, and in the case of the restoration of the Trinity, lies with the government. The issue of ownership requires serious debate.

But if the ownership of Santa Maria Novella represents a thorny issue, the need for an injection of funds is obvious and represents another path for inquiry. The building is visited by thousands each day during the “season,” although Santa Croce in Florence probably has more. [Will this church soon follow?] Such traffic requires every category of maintenance, supervision, guards, cleanup, restorations. Then we can imagine a modern, fully stocked shop which is a sine qua non in every museum worthy of the name these days. Unquestionably the tiny group of Dominican Friars has an overwhelming burden. In other words, they need the financial relief, and if possible generate some income from their treasures. I realize that an infusion of funds would be highly welcomed and necessary. So, gentle reader, you may quite properly ask what is all the fuss about; why am I raising the issue at all?

For an answer, let us return momentarily to the Brancacci Chapel. The frescoes there have been an informal academy for artists since they were painted, and were studied by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Cellini who regarded them as a kind of touchstone for art. Even after World War II, artists and art students continue to slip into the Carmine virtually as a ritual to pay their respects to Masaccio, who in his short life had altered the course of art. All that has ended partly because no one wants to get in line, get a ticket, pay, and be admitted for a short and finite visit, en masse.

What is the proper conduct for such institutions as Santa Maria Novella? How should the culture approach the question? It seems to me that one approach is that related to education. Very few would deny that the provision of an education, up to the age of sixteen or eighteen or even through university, is the responsibility of the commonwealth, the state, the constituted society. Such a responsibility rests at the very heart of state, like health care, road building, providing for defense and protection of its people. Perhaps art should be placed into this same equation. In Italy, where art is ever present, one could make a persuasive case. To be sure, the central government already does take on many responsibilities over art, especially in terms of its care, which includes restoration. Should we expect that government accept the responsibility of keeping a church-museum like Santa Maria Novella open, functional and free?

If the state is unable to do so, for whatever the reasons, one might expect that the European Union might be called upon to step in. A perfectly good case can be made to preserve the “free” status of the rare objects housed in the church.

And if all the avenues of various levels of government fail, payment in the form of a voluntary contribution might be instituted which removes the onus of a mandatory fee. After all among the visitors are relatively penniless artists, art students, younger travelers, tourists with families, and those who might wish to come back again and again, as the Trinity of Masaccio demands.

A true cultural debate seems to be in order.

On Traveling Exhibitions

The business of exhibitions puts masterpieces at risk.

In recent months a controversy has re-erupted in the press and among art experts in Italy which is gradually spilling onto the international scene. Its impact upon the habits of displaying art treasures cannot be underestimated. The influential, skillful and politically adept Soprintendente of Fine Arts of Florence, Dr. Antonio Paolucci, the man who recently supervised the widely acclaimed restorations in Assisi after an earthquake rocked the basilica there, has been organizing a mammoth exhibition of Italian Renaissance art to be sent from Italy to Japan. Others shows of a similar nature have quietly been sent to Asia over the past few years, without much outcry. This one is far more encompassing in terms of the fame of the objects as well as their sheer number, in the hundreds, which will be wrapped, crated and shipped in temperature-controlled containers. Paolucci, whose impeccable curriculum vitae includes a stint as Italy’s Minister of Culture in a previous government, has been publicly attacked for his plan.

Serious objections have been raised about the dangers of shipping rare art works – Titians, Leonardos, and Michelangelos – even from Paolucci’s own usually solid ranks (e.g., the Soprintendente of the Veneto, Filippa Aliberti Gaudioso), as well as from art historians, including Professors Carlo Bertelli (who was formerly a soprintendente) and Alessandro Parronchi, the dean of Italian scholars, not to mention restoration specialist Professor Francesco Guerrieri of the University of Florence. The attacks this time have not come from art rights groups who have long ago pointed out the dangers, quite specifically when the Barnes Collection was sent around the world, but the art establishment itself, including the respected editor of London’s Burlington Magazine, Dr. Caroline Elam. Has there been a sea of change?

Blockbuster exhibitions have been a cornerstone of museum operations, at least for the past generation, being regarded as central postate in annual programming almost everywhere. These art spectaculars, looked upon with relish by the institutions’ fundraisers, the curators who participate in the planning and the structuring of the shows, the art restorers who get the objects in shape for display, not to mention socialites and firstnighters, publishers, and the press, have never before faced such a serious challenge to their legitimacy.

Positive aspects of blockbusters, and there are some, can be readily enumerated. Increased revenue which normally is expected to result from a successful blockbuster is nothing to sneeze at, planting the possibility in the minds of the cynically inclined that such is the main motivation. To be precise, increased entrance fees are not the only source of the infusion of money from the big shows. Catalogue sales, which can run into the tens of thousands of copies and even more when external sales are calculated, can produce decent revenue. Specialized products sold in the ubiquitous museum shops constitute yet another element that benefits from blockbusters, bringing the balance sheet further into the black. As a spin-off as well, the museum bars and restaurants are busier than usual when the postate are open. And, one should not forget that with the expanded attendance annual membership figures climb, and, after all, every little bit helps.

The tourism, and with it the political quotient, obviously comes into play, which is specifically the case with Paolucci’s Japanese show, an event that could not be contemplated without governmental support. The explicit intention is to demonstrate the grandeur of the Italian tradition by placing on the circuit Michelangelos, Raphaels, Titians, and Donatellos, among others. Presumably the display would add stimulus for increased tourism in Italy, just as Sensation has done so for Brooklyn, if not for all of New York. From it, we can anticipate that the waiting time in front of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Michelangelo’s David at the Academia will lengthen beyond the current two or three hours. Peddlers may very well benefit too by selling more postcards and knickknacks to the well-disciplined but bored tourists waiting their turn for enlightenment. The major cities with great collections, like New York, Washington, London, Paris, Madrid and St. Petersburg, have very deep ties with museums, arguably the principal tourist attraction in these cities, and all that they signify for the hotels, restaurants and shops. Art is big business and a gigantic attraction. If the blockbuster is sensational enough, everyone seems to benefit, that is, except the art works.

Less direct but equally sought after benefits of blockbusters include the publicity which inevitably can be counted on from the media. Is there a journalist who does not love an exhibition of the Young Picasso, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or Ingres Portraits, Egyptian Gold, a Real or Fake Michelangelo Cupid, or Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors? These postate are even advertised in the mass media and in the metro to get the highest attendance possible. Together with more money and increased attendance, good will is banked for the future at the Metropolitan, London’s and Washington’s National Galleries. An analogy made be drawn with fundraising for public television which must be regarded as self-advertising that is transmitted with frustrating frequency. Over the past few years, the corporate sponsors are being rewarded with mini-ads for their largess. Are similar compromises also necessary in the function of museums?

Together with the public relations value and the effects of expanded tourism, museum rhetoric is quick to proclaim the value of spectacular shows upon scholarship, which is regarded as a sacred cow. Scholars and specialists are able to see, compare and contrast to their hearts content, works by a given artist, school or region all at the same time. They do not have to go to dozens of far-flung museums, remote churches, obscure private collections, and dingy drawing cabinets. They can see all the objects together. To confront versions and contemporary works in a single space seems to be a unique and incomparable opportunity, and can result, the line continues, in scholarly insights and discoveries. Many, and in some cases most, of the objects of a given category or by a selected artist can be seen, one by one, until the eyes get bleary.

I cannot resist commenting that for me seeing two hundred Cezannes, or two hundred works by anybody else, makes my head spin, and in the end I get very little out of the experience except a slight case of nausea. These monstrous piling-ups are effectively less informative than a carefully and thoughtfully selected, much smaller exhibition in which a curator uses his critical skills and makes judgments based upon a studied but personal view of a given artist or school. Some sort of informed selection has been offered by the specialist, and not left to an uninformed helter-skelter viewing. In this instance, there seems no doubt that more is less, anyway. Of course a disciplined viewer might decide to go to the blockbuster eight or ten times, and look at a small number of objects each visit, but perhaps that is asking too much. Ironically, the way in which the blockbusters present an artist’s oeuvre was never even available to the creating artists themselves, for works disappeared from the studio through sales and commissions.

And there is a practical spin-off of the transport of artworks as well. The museum staffs get numerous free trips to the great cities of the world, for the purpose of scouting around during the early stages of the process while in the later one, they supervise and often accompany the travel of the art objects from their institutions. And one could hardly expect them to travel economy or to stay in second-class hotels.

Specialized studies, inevitably accompanied by weighty and usually unreadable catalogues, are claimed to be, and with a certain justification, the most prestigious art scholarship of the moment. This scholarly component, sub-vented by willing sponsors – international oil companies, cigarette manufacturers, local and national banks – gives increased legitimacy to the blockbuster and make wonderful gifts to their clients.

What is not taken properly into account is that very soon if not already with a modicum of effort, technology will be available to create high quality, exact-scale facsimiles. By substituting such computer-generated images, the questioning of the viability of shipping precious art works around the world indiscriminately will be mooted. If my assessment is correct, we may finally be witnessing the beginning of the end for blockbusters as we have known them, and the concomitant risks to the art objects will be radically reduced.

Another incontrovertible benefit will accrue. No longer will the normal permanent exhibits of museums be disrupted by the removal of ‘stars’ from their collections. Nor will the famous works be pulled out of churches and museums. After all, who wants to go to Rome’s Borghese and not see Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (despite its recent harsh overcleaning) or Milan’s Brera and not see Mantegna’s Dead Christ? Leave the objects in their original homes or in their acquired ones, should be the rule.

A further advantage of using facsimiles, which need not be glossy, is that they can, ironically, be more accurate than the originals as they have come down to us. We know paintings have been cut down over the centuries, they have been damaged by natural disasters, and they have been severely modified by repainting and overcleanings. Reconstructions can be offered in exhibitions which aim to give the appearance of the original, and even several alternative interpretations can be presented at the same time. Furthermore, facsimile images can be updated and corrected by the computers that generate them in the first place as our knowledge expands. Of course the specialist will always need to view the objects in their current state, but that eventuality involves merely moving a few people, without threat to the safety of the art.

The facsimile alternative should turn out to be a bonanza in terms the usual goal of blockbusters for completeness. There are always works which, for one reason or another, cannot be shipped, including frescoes (except when detached), paintings and sculptures in collections with rules against loans, not to mention bulky monuments. These can all be supplied with relative ease, low cost, and considerable accuracy. The goal of what might be termed completeness is something of a pipe dream, anyway. To have all the works of a Matisse, even from a limited period, is an impossibility, if one takes into account the works that an artist himself may have destroyed, and those that have been lost or have otherwise disappeared. All the more difficult is the re-creation of total oeuvres of artists from the more distant past.

The claim on the part of museum executives is that expanded public attendance, which is a sought-after goal of blockbusters, is automatically desirable. The argument is double-edged, however, for more may not really be the merrier. That the Sistine Chapel, following its widely publicized restoration, draws double the number of persons it did before 1980 does not make visiting the chapel a sensitive aesthetic experience. The spectacle atmosphere, as with blockbusters, means that the viewer sees the back of heads instead of the Old Testament scenes and Michelangelo’s heroic Prophets and Sibyls, in an atmosphere where the noise level is crushing.

Yet ‘the more the better’ is a fixation among museum directors. Pile them in, get the mass public in the vicinity of an art work, and by an alchemical process they will be informed and enriched. Oddly enough, we do not use this argument for a concert of a Bach cantata, which needs musical sophistication and a certain amount of musical education. By merely attending a prestigious exhibition, does the uninformed viewer really benefit? Perhaps a few might be motivated to see more, but this could be more effectively accomplished by other means. After all, the permanent collections of the Louvre, the Met, the National Gallery, and the Prado are so impressive that there is no need to import other objects to get people inclined toward the appreciation of art.

Finally, the obvious danger to the objects from travel and changing environments is spoken of openly. Even if the transport and packaging skills are improving, there is no doubt that works get shaken up when in transport just as we human beings do, on those bumpy roads to and from the airport, and even by jolting movements in the plane. Beyond that, the ever-present possibility of a mistake or an accident cannot be denied, planes crash and ships still sink.

On a less material level, further questions surrounding the blockbuster can be raised. Is the circus atmosphere and the Disneyland overtones which surround them desirable? Is art served by being made into a spectacle? These issues open vast areas for cultural discourse concerning the treatment of art in a modern society which are best left for independent consideration on their own. Suffice to say that for many, art is the repository of spiritual and ethical values. It requires a commensurate treatment.