From Palladian to Cattelan
Marc Spiegler -- Interior Design, 8/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
In the time when the doges stilled ruled Venice, members of the noble Manin family and their court would leave the city as soon as the summer weather turned too muggy. The Alps hovering on the horizon, the entourage would head 65 miles northeast along a canal to arrive in Passariano, site of the Villa Manin.
Started in the 17th century and finished in the 18th, the summer palace bears the strong influence of Andrea Palladio. The historic villa is now owned by the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, which recently decided to recast the estate as the Villa Manin Centro d'Arte Contemporanea. Regional officials approached Francesco Bonami—artistic director of the 2003 Biennale di Venezia and senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago—and asked him to formulate a three-year program for the new center.
Bonami's first challenge was the cultural context. Contemporary art occupies an odd position in Italy, where the Renaissance masters often overshadow artists working today. In rural areas, that issue becomes particularly acute. "Passariano is in the middle of nowhere from a contemporary-art perspective," Bonami says. "People aren't as familiar with many artists and concepts, so we can't do things that are too 'out there' right away."
Thus, the first major exhibition functions as a sort of primer on postwar movements, from the minimalism of Carl Andre to the kitsch of Jeff Koons. Given only a few months to organize the show, Bonami expediently drew on MCA Chicago's collection to assemble "Love/Hate: From Magritte to Cattelan"—complemented by the smaller "Vernice: Pathways Through Young Italian Painting." Next year, the Villa Manin will display work from the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany.
Not surprisingly, some locals have put up resistance. "I can understand that reaction—people here felt they 'owned' the villa. To them, we're outsiders doing something very different," says chief curator Sarah Cosulich Canarutto. "We hope they'll come to understand that we're actually adding something." And some clearly do: The opening of the center drew 1,800 visitors, far outstripping expectations.
Beyond local resistance, the curators also faced challenges associated with the Villa Manin's landmarked status. Visually, contemporary art would have to cohabit with blown-glass chandeliers and trompe l'oeil frescoes—a combination that often engenders interesting juxtapositions. In terms of physical constraints, nothing could be hung directly on the walls, and many wall surfaces are broken up by small niches, formerly bedroom altars. Floors can cause problems, too. "We had a great Richard Serra," Bonami admits, "but the floor couldn't take the weight."
Certain spaces, however, naturally lend themselves to the display of contemporary art. For example, the villa's triple-height central room, once used for receptions and balls, now houses Maurizio Cattelan's sculpture Felix. A 20-foot-high, 26-foot-long rendition of a house-cat's skeleton, it equals its setting in grandeur.
With experience, both curators predict, any disjunction between baroque architecture and contemporary art will become less a minus than a plus. "The next step is to create more of a dialogue with the spaces," Canarutto explains. "Already, we've designed our exhibition panels to cover as little of the walls as possible."
The regional government also plans to expand gallery space beyond the main house—into a former granary currently being converted—and to turn the Villa Manin's historic garden into a sculpture park in time for the 2005 Biennale. "Because this place is far away from any major city," Canarutto says, "we need to offer visitors more reasons to drive all the way here."