New Art in Old Rome: Playing Among Giants


Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images

Visitors walking past an installation in the MAXXI museum during the opening party, Rome, May 28, 2010

MAXXI is Rome’s new, much-touted national museum of contemporary art (the XXI standing, in Roman numerals, for the present century). With such a mission, this $188 million project of the Italian Ministry of Culture has a number of tasks to perform simultaneously: not only housing what aspires to be an inspirational, international selection of recent work, but also proving that—despite frequent claims to the contrary—a city that once played host and Muse to so many great architects, famous and forgotten, from Etruscan times onward, can do so again.

Designed by the flamboyant British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, MAXXI is, in many ways, a gigantic playground for adults—an impression reinforced, at least for the moment, by the presence of several works featuring giants in one form or another. (One of them appears at the museum’s entrance: Gino de Dominicis’ Calamita Cosmica [Cosmic Compass]: a gigantic human skeleton lying on its back—human, that is, except for a bird’s beak on the skull and a javelin-sized pin pricking the tip of the supine giant’s right middle finger.)

Set within a Fascist-era neighborhood on the north side of Rome, in which the stately apartment houses of the well-to-do verge into the high-density warrens of the working class, Hadid’s glass and concrete museum literally grows out of an old brick barracks for the Carabinieri, Italy’s military police force.

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Giuseppe Penone: Sculture di linfa (2007)

Contemporary art is difficult to define, and devilishly difficult to house. MAXXI is financed by the Italian state and its own foundation (which is providential at a moment when the government has drastically slashed its allocations to culture of every kind). The museum has sections devoted to art and to architecture; the building is also designed to house an archive and a department of education. Only a fraction of what goes on display is from the permanent collection. Part of MAXXI’s industrial feel seems to have been dictated by the sheer volume of space that many contemporary art installations require, like Giuseppe Penone’s Scultura di linfa (Sap sculpture) of 2007, with its acid-distressed Carrara marble floor, leather walls, and pitchy pine centerpiece, a work of art in which the complex textures of the eroded marble underfoot and the fragrant scents of wood, resin, and leather are all part of a heady sensory experience. On the other hand, Anish Kapoor’s Widow (2004), also part of the permanent collection, is basically two giant Fallopian tubes joined to the wall and swathed in black vinyl. Give me a break!

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Galleria Massimo Minini, Brescia

Anish Kapoor: Widow (2005)

Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, the MAXXI building is basically one large ascending ramp, but the ramp itself is looser and more capacious than Wright’s, and it branches off into a whole series of variegated spaces. At the moment these contain, among many other sights to see, a large exhibition dedicated to the twentieth-century architect Luigi Moretti, the son of a Neoclassical architect who created grandiose projects for Mussolini and then settled into postwar Modernism, and a whole series of installations. The one that seems most totally at home in this infinitely layered city is Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s Where is our Place? (2003), a room that at first glance contains an exhibition of photography arranged at eye level, except for the fact that the floor gives way in places to the ground underneath, and a pair of giants from the nineteenth century, a man and a woman, seem to be standing in the same room looking at an exhibition of Old Masters far above our heads—but “our” ceiling cuts them off at the knees, and the Old Masters, in their gilded frames, as well.



Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Where Is Our Place?

This is how it feels to live in Rome much of the time: standing on ground that holds a myriad of secrets, and walking among the footsteps of the giants who preceded us in this place. Anselm Kiefer’s Sternenfall (Falling Stars) of 1998 shows the galaxies of distant space in a huge panel of acrylic and mixed media, many of them labeled by their astronomical numbers—but many labels have fallen to the ground. As a work executed before 2000, it does not quite adhere to the stated criteria for the MAXXI collection, but in fact the collection was already being built in the 1990s, and Kiefer is an appropriate permanent presence in this Roman collection; he did a haunting exhibition, Die Frauen, at the French Academy in Rome at Villa Medici in 2005, its catalogue one of the last projects produced by the great publisher Enzo Crea before his death in 2007. Sternenfall is haunting, too.


At every one of its endless, unpredictable turns, Hadid’s building feels playful rather than domineering; in the first place an inscription in frosted glass quotes Seneca, in Latin: Felix illud saeculum ante architectos fuit—”Happy was the age before there were architects.” Above all, however, the galleries feel light and playful because (unlike the Guggenheim’s ineluctable ramp) MAXXI imposes no single pilgrim path that everyone must make; instead, people can and do wander freely. The scale of the building is generous enough, moreover, that large numbers of people can meander as casually as they want without crowding each other, and the artworks, too, enjoy ample breathing room. The dimensions are spacious without being overbearingly so. If the museum dwarfs the art, as has sometimes been objected, it is not the museum’s fault. Hadid has taken great pains to give every work a place of its own—a large partition wall, for example, hangs down from the ceiling as if it were a suspended painting, letting air and space flow freely all around it—and every visitor has a place, too.

For so free-flowing a design, the building is much less of an isolated object than other recent attempts to insert Rome into the firmament of cities with name-brand contemporary architecture. All these projects, however, have definite similarities: Renzo Piano’s Parco della Musica, “Music Park” (2002), built in an area near the 1960 Olympic village, is well removed from the city’s historic center—but within easy walking distance for the residents of the districts of Parioli and Flaminia, who range from wealthy and powerful to upper middle class (but because many of these people habitually move by showy automobile, the structure also boasts a huge parking garage). Richard Meier’s museum for emperor Augustus’s Altar of Peace, the Ara Pacis (2006), has been controversial for the irregular circumstances of its commission (there was no competition), for its size and angular style, and its dissimilarity to the buildings around it (which include the mausoleum of Augustus, a Renaissance church, a Neoclassical church, a Fascist square, and one of Rome’s busiest streets). Again, however, it is close to Parioli and Flaminia. As, not surprisingly, is MAXXI. Rome’s cultural institutions are moving north of the old historical center, following a trail of SUVs and government cars.

Roland Halbe, courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

Hadid has designed a big building (29,000 square meters)—she calls it a “campus”—but the neighborhood immediately surrounding MAXXI is eclectic, and hence the building does not stand out nearly as much as photographs suggest: the same street contains an orderly row of industrial buildings and a large neo-Romanesque church. The whole area already had a slapped-together feel, like so many of the suburbs that mushroomed around Rome before and after World War II. In fact, for its combination of urban and industrial vocations (contemporary art is, of course, an industry), MAXXI, enclosed behind its stylized version of a chain-link fence, bears a certain kinship with the recently refurbished Termini station (1950), another building in which bright white, concrete curves, and plays of light bump right up against a tightly rectilinear traditional design. The metallic fence also gives the museum, within its enclosure, the feel of a gritty schoolyard, with sculptures taking the place of basketball hoops. As a campus, it is distinctly urban.

Although it is recognizably a child of its times (as in the concrete cantilever that seems to be its most-photographed element), MAXXI also calls up strong memories of the modernist (that is, Fascist-period) architecture that shaped its immediate surroundings. The use of black and white marble in the interior, and of sweeping, streamlined curves, gives the whole place an explicitly Futurist, rather than futuristic, feel. So do the carefully detailed curls of the various freestanding information desks and the coffee bar. There are flavors of the vivacious Sixties in what seem to be onrushing lanes of track lighting running along the ceiling, and the bare, curved concrete of the entrance. Modern life in Italy once held out the promise of excitement, and Hadid has captured some of that nearly vanished spirit. The building seems to have made most of its visitors feel as elated as kids on a playground—but an ideal playground, without bullies, or pressures, or insecurities.

But there are also hazards to displaying contemporary art, often made of volatile and vulnerable materials (including, at the moment, pine pitch, some kind of soup on a cauldron, and more conventional organic substances like paper, wood, and fiber). For all its acreage of glass, MAXXI begins to feel claustrophobic after an hour or two, as sealed rooms and low fluorescent lighting take their toll on human physiology: the atmosphere suddenly becomes so stuffy that you begin feeling like a beached fish and simply want OUT. (Also, for people, like me, who have a tendency toward photosensitive epilepsy, contemporary art and architecture pose a host of potential pitfalls with all those flashing lights and video screens: MAXXI has its share of these hazards as well, like the signs pointing to the downstairs auditorium and the fluorescent bands that frame the risers of one of the museum’s main staircases.)


But MAXXI’s biggest challenge for the future will be maintenance. When the Ministry of Culture has slashed its support for bastions like the Uffizi in Florence, that is, for Giotto, Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and Rubens, what kind of sustenance will go toward maintaining a collection that starts in the year 2000? The building’s longevity is not helped by its color scheme: white, especially that bright white for which the ancient Romans had a special word, candidus, does not survive long in Rome’s polluted air, as Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis has long since proven (and his Getty Center proved before that in the equally loaded air of Los Angeles). Two weeks after MAXXI’s inauguration, some of the skylights are already filthy. There are leaks staining the bare concrete exterior. The candid white plastic counter of the snack bar sets off every stray crumb and spill of coffee in merciless high relief, and the scratches that will inevitably come will be picked out in coffee brown. The museum’s service entrance, with its assemblage of crumpled cigarette packs and skid marks, is at risk of being mistaken for “found art”—or of providing an unwelcome reminder of the railroad yard behind Termini, a problem that will only grow with time and neglect, when public attention turns to the next attraction on the city’s architectural playbill, the “Cloud” convention center that Massimiliano Fuksas is building out in the metastasized sprawl southeast of Rome. Like many modern playgrounds, MAXXI could look like hell in a very short time, and what a shame that would be.


Hélène Binet/Zaha Hadid Architects

MAXXI during construction, November 2006

Architects of earlier, more impoverished eras had some strings to their bow that contemporary architects lack. In the face of uncertain budgets, they devised ways to make an unfinished building both serviceable and ornamental: for example, by laying bricks in attractive designs, the architects of ancient Rome and their fifteenth-century successors could wait gracefully until money came in for plaster and paint. Some of MAXXI’s leaks and dirt piles are the result of the long years it took to construct the building (begun in 1999), but now that it is done, who is going to get into the crannies where sediment has begun to pile up, and what tools can possibly remove the grime?

For similar reasons, earlier architects also made provisions for buildings to age—that is, deteriorate—with a certain dignity. It is well known that joins of concrete and glass, as a solid and a liquid, tend to split apart with amazing swiftness, and that water, that remarkable liquid, follows its mysterious pathways through the most resistant material. Who will plug MAXXI’s leaks, and with what? The concrete playground that surrounds the museum has insets filled with white pebbles rather than (with one exception) grass, but pebbles stray, especially around toddlers and little boys. Unless someone puts these temptingly shapely stones back every evening, they will wander farther and farther afield, and the eventual effect will be chalked up to that pervasive Italian entropy called degrado rather than to art.

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