Marina Pugliese talks to Carlo Antonelli

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Lucio Fontana’s Neon (1951) courtesy Museo del Novecento, Milan

Marina Pugliese is an international expert in the conservation and restoration of modern art. In 2007, she was appointed director of the Museo del Novecento in Milan, which opened to international fanfare in 2010. Carlo Antonelli is editor-in-chief of the Italian edition of Rolling Stone and the founder of First Sun, the film production company responsible for Luca Guadagnino’s Milan-set film I am Love, which starred Tilda Swinton. They met in the Museo del Novecento cafe to talk about sinister pasts and new beginnings.

Carlo Antonelli Is the Novecento something you just got landed with, or something you really wanted? Did you adopt it or beget it?
Marina Pugliese I didn’t beget it on my own. It’s been a sort of artificial insemination, with many surrogate wombs, progenitors and birthing mothers. First and foremost, there’s the work of the architects, Italo Rota and Fabio Fornasari; then there’s me, as the guardian of the collection; then there’s an advisory panel that’s been involved in the decision-making process. Of course, some parts are unquestionably derived from my own strong wishes – particularly the kinetic section. This is a key period in Italian art, and Milanese art in particular, which has been completely forgotten, so I thought it was necessary to make amends.

CA It’s also the section most clearly connected to a certain notion of 1960s Milan, a certain mood that was in the air during that time.
MP It’s connected to design, to Munari, to work in the urban space: lots of themes that have been important to me over the years. We’ve reconstructed a series of historic settings from the 1960s, in collaboration with the artists, or – in the case of Gianni Colombo – with the foundation that represents them. I think it’s one of the finest sections of the museum.

CA What are we looking at with the museum relaunch – a remodelling of the existing building, the Arengario, or a new museum? Or is it a hermit crab, a new little creature that’s crept into an extant shell, turning it into a different thing?
MP I see it as a form of magic, really, given that it’s a Fascist building with an oppressive history, designed for Mussolini’s public speeches. As is often the case with buildings from that period, it’s beautiful from an architectural standpoint, but…

CA Who designed it?
MP Muzio, Portaluppi, Griffini and Magistretti. But like all buildings of the period, it was imbued with a sinister aura. So I think a sort of healing spell was cast, because we managed to preserve the skin of the building while getting rid of its negative soul, infusing it with an entirely different aura because of the contents. Standing in the Piazza Duomo you see the Fascist architecture, but inside, everything is now luminous, or perhaps even illuminated.

CA The museum is also connected to the Palazzo Reale?
MP Yes, it’s connected to the second floor of Palazzo Reale by an overhead walkway that shows you a different side of Milan. This is one of the museum’s leitmotifs, because it’s designed to let you see the architectural layers of the city from many different standpoints, from the Gothic era to the 1960s, from Bramante’s Chiesa Santa Maria Presso di San Satiro to BBPR’s Torre Velasca.

CA Is it normal that it took 10 years to complete?
MP That’s totally par for the course in Italy. But keep in mind that the actual work was done quite rapidly: it started in June 2007 and ended in December 2010. There was a frightful delay in getting started, but that gave us the time to organise the collections, restore the artworks that needed restoration, get the archives in order… it’s a project that goes back a long way, and I think that shows.

CA And the collection?
MP It’s a civic museum, so it’s about Italian history, especially the history of Milan. And Milan was really the cultural capital of Italy until at least the 1970s, so it’s a top-notch collection, with everything from Futurism to metaphysical art, to Morandi, Manzoni, Fontana and Arte Povera...

CA What has this in-depth investigation of Italian art and Milanese art shown you about Milan that you didn’t see before?
MP I came to see that in the end, Milan is quite different to how it’s portrayed. Actually, I think it’s a city with enormous hidden treasures and an extreme sense of reserve, which means that many things emerge almost on the quiet, like this museum. The city was in possession of this amazing collection and didn’t even know it was there!

CA Perhaps the fashion industry and the focus on the ephemeral have made this bashfulness all the more deeply entrenched, as a reaction to Milan’s glittery, flighty external image. Is it possible that this reticent, artistic part of the city has become even more closed off over the last 20 years?
MP Absolutely, because on the one hand, Milan’s flightiness has led to the adoption of an event-based aesthetic and oiled the gears of this mechanism in the art world as well, often favouring quantity over quality. On the other, among people who don’t identify with this model, it has fostered a diffidence that may be a bit snobbish. But this is also healthy.

CA Are you really a conservator?
MP Artists make ephemeral, perishable, conceptual, dematerialised works, so someone has to make sure the memory of those works is preserved. I’m very fond of this paradox, and personally, in some ways I’m a conservative conservator but with a punk soul.

CA Is that why you’ve always liked plastic?
MP Yes, I did my thesis on the use of plastic in contemporary art and at the moment I’m an advisor for POPART, an international project focused on the conservation of plastic objects. I like the fact that plastics have a sort of absolute potential; they expanded the range of expressive possibilities to an incredible degree, especially in the 1960s, triggering a huge explosion of creativity everywhere, from César’s expansions to [Piero] Manzoni’s fibreglass pieces, or [Duane] Hanson’s lifecasts in resin. I thought all this was fantastic.

CA Have you put plastic into the museum?
MP There’s a fibreglass Achrome by Manzoni, but there are also other odd things like a hardboiled egg that he signed, and the famous tin of Artist’s Shit.

CA The museum also puts a specific emphasis on “non-works”, or sculptures that involved non-traditional materials. Ceilings, light art…
MP That’s something we think is fundamental, and the homepage of the website features a virtual tour of the museum with a focus on conservation. From the [Lucio] Fontana neon ceiling that we detached from the Hotel del Golfo in Procchio on Elba and moved to Milan, to one of Manzoni’s eggs, we’ve worked a lot with the anomalous materials in the collection. If you think about it, Fontana’s Neon has practically become the symbol of the museum, standing as a touchstone for postwar Italian art.

CA So the first victory the museum has achieved in the public, civic, urban sphere has been to give the city back this joyful, luminous place, a place that restores Milan’s sense of pride?
MP I think that this project has truly changed the mood of Piazza Duomo, which is the heart of Milan. There’s been a stunning response from the public, which not even we expected: the whole city has come to see it, drawn by the magnetic effect of word-of-mouth, because everyone said how gorgeous it is… over 50,000 visitors since the inauguration, in the three-month period of free admission.

CA And now?
MP The average continues to be high, about 1,000 visitors a day; the ticket price is low in any case, only €5. We have an extensive programme of conferences and educational activities, and in April we opened our exhibition season, since the museum was intentionally inaugurated without temporary shows. We wanted a strong emphasis on the permanent, not the ephemeral. But then, we’re the museum of the 20th century. §

Translated by Johanna Bishop

  • Marina Pugliese