The new Milan venue of Fondazione Prada. Architectural project by OMA, photo by Bas Princen, 2015, courtesy Fondazione Prada
I: Miuccia Prada
In a perfectly inauthentic version of a Milanese café, part of the new Fondazione Prada in Milan, Masoud Golsorkhi sat down with Miuccia Prada to get the scoop on the world’s most exciting new cultural campus.
Miuccia Prada photographed by Manuela Pavesi
Fondazione Prada, which opened in a series of events last month in Milan, is not an ordinary museum or public gallery, nor does it have much to do with the global fashion brand Prada. It isn’t just there to house the private art collection of Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli, as many have oversimplified. The Fondazione has a wider remit and greater scope than any similarity in the name might suggest. The collection that will be shown there on a rotating basis represents only a small component of a much greater programming and research ambition.
Although sharing its name with a luxury fashion house, the Fondazione and the brand have been kept deliberately distinct. This isn’t a brand looking to art for a “halo factor”. Brands usually approach art with trepidation and awe, for one of two purposes: investment and/or marketing. Yet the result of their labours usually falls flat, as their nervousness or clumsy heavy-handedness shows, and when they fail to resonate with the wider world, never mind the art world. The Fondazione Prada is a rare beast: a public facing, private art foundation owned by a fashion business and managed by an administrative structure that resembles a Situationist seminar. A clue to understanding the enigma of the Fondazione Prada perhaps lies in its hometown, where it is an unlikely arrival, and a most welcome development.
When the Romans first built a trading post in Milan, then a mosquito-infested marshland, it wasn’t for the view, but to trade with the barbarians beyond the Alps. Today the barbarians still come to trade, and not just from the north, but from the south, east and west too, making Milan Italy’s business capital. Indeed, Milan is rare among Italian cities for being better known for what it does than for what it was. The contemporary Italian cultural scene has always been challenged by the density of the heritage that it carries. Conserving and preserving the immense richness of two millennia of European culture would burden any economy, but in relatively affluent Milan the challenge is more than just a question of resources. It’s just that the average well-heeled Milanese is a little too busy for culture.
Milan’s exquisite Duomo, one of the grandest and finest examples of high Gothic architecture in the world, is dwarfed by one of Europe’s grandest shopping malls, the recently restored, 19th-century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, the Dubai Mall of its day. Grand, a little garish but strangely graceful, perhaps helped by its age, it is a massive monument to Milan’s real affection: money. Walk from the Duomo through the Galleria and you reach La Scala, another illustrious landmark equally overshadowed, further proof that commerce here can outcompete both God and the muses. The Galleria is Milan’s true heart and, of course, the place where Prada opened its first ever shop in 1913. In an act of service to mankind, its second shop in the Galleria recently replaced a McDonald’s.
Left: A model of the new Milan venue of Fondazione Prada. Courtesy OMA and Fondazione Prada
Right: Serial Classic, co-curated by Salvatore Settis and Davide Gasparotto, exhibition view
The Fondazione Prada is based in a complex of buildings with a suitably mercantile past. A former distillery of over 200,000 square feet on the southern outskirts of the city, it is made up of a number of light-industrial buildings of varying scale and style, while following the classical Roman plan of the self-enclosed villa. Seven of the existing buildings have been restored and repurposed and three have been added by OMA. Rem Koolhaas’ Rotterdam-based architectural practice is a long-term Prada collaborator and Miuccia Prada’s go-to architect for nearly 20 years, having designed a number of the stores and exhibitions, the sets for all Prada shows and the art exhibitions, notably a 2013 presentation of Auguste Perret in Paris.
Mrs. Prada’s brief to her architect for the Fondazione was complex. She says she was keen to keep some of the older buildings, not because of Milanese preservation orders, but because she wanted to create a certain atmosphere. The industrial character of the buildings appealed to the industrious lady, and she says that she wished to retain something of the serenity of the place as she found it, even if it was less practical and far more expensive than demolishing and rebuilding the entire complex. She simply didn’t want an all-new gallery. In all its industrial glory, the near-finished Fondazione Prada is a masterpiece. The finishes are of an astonishingly high quality (detail is not always starchitects’ strongest suit) and the spaces between the buildings are even more impressive than the buildings themselves. The greater success in evidence is the layout, the gaps between structures delivering in full Miuccia’s ambition for the space to retain its serenity despite all the eye-catching stuff on display.
The South Gallery and the Deposito warehouse host An Introduction, which presents more than 70 works from the collection. Everything is here, from the 1960s greats Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni to works by Francesco Vezzoli, Lucio Fontana, Roy Lichtenstein and Mario Schifano. In a cavernous aircraft hangar are cars reworked by artists including Carsten Höller & Rosemarie Trockel, Walter De Maria and Sarah Lucas. In the North Gallery, the In Part exhibition focuses on the theme of synecdoche (a figure of speech in which a part refers to the whole) and features works by a range of artists including David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg and Francis Picabia. The three large halls of the Cisterna, a tall building that used to serve as the distillery’s storage facility and where you can still smell the yeast, host the first exhibition of the Trittico project, and has on show Eva Hesse’s “Case II”, Damien Hirst’s “Lost Love” and “One Cubic Meter of Earth” by Pino Pascali. The campus also sports a decent-size cinema, because film remains, even more than art, Miuccia’s abiding passion. The inaugural show presents Roman Polanski’s inspirations as a film director. Elsewhere, Accademia dei Bambini is Fondazione Prada’s first project created especially for children. These last two, as well as a plan for a library, are evidence of the foundation’s ambition for wider social engagement than with typical art audiences, and a richer, more textured cultural footprint, and not just in Milan. Miuccia tells me that she sees the Fondazione on a global stage, and not limited to Milan’s context.
Of the new buildings, the most impressive so far (one tower is still under construction) is the central exhibition space, known as the Podium, which runs over two enormous floors. Its ground floor, an open-plan gallery with floor-to-ceiling glass walls all the way around, is like a giant vitrine, more fish tank than white cube. Exhibits and visitors become a cinematically framed spectacle to those looking in. The social dynamics of attending galleries and viewing art while being viewed by fellow viewers is familiar to any art lover, and the Museo brings that ballet to the fore. We aren’t just looking at the art, but looking at ourselves looking at the art, scrutinising the idea of the spectacle of art itself. Podium is currently host to Serial Classic, a show curated by Salvatore Settis (who is interviewed on page 140) and Anna Anguissola.
Serial Classic is a charming, clever and timely exhibition about how classical sculpture was underpinned by a process of copying and recopying. At the centre of the show is a statue of the mythical Penelope, the long-suffering wife of Odysseus. Historically, this canonical sculpture was best known to art historians through an Early Roman copy owned by the Vatican Museum. Yet in 1945 excavations at Persepolis uncovered fragments of the original work, which had been smashed during the destruction of the city by Alexander the Great in 330BC. Today the statue is a national treasure in Iran and normally housed in the National Museum of Tehran, where I visited it as a boy. Miuccia describes with relish the trials and tribulations of this unprecedented loan – you don’t have to be Iranian, like me, to understand how fiendishly complicated it was. Suffice to say that any form of art exchange with Iran has happened only twice in the past 35 years. When she finally saw the two statues together – original and copy – she says jokingly that her fashion designer’s eye spotted the Persepolis Penelope as the original thanks to the superior workmanship in the depiction of the draping on her dress.
Just as the heart of a happy Italian home is said to be its kitchen, the beating heart of the Fondazione Prada is the cafe. It has been created in glorious Technicolor by director Wes Anderson, who has applied the signature high-gloss filter of his imagination to the quintessential fiction that is the mid-20th-century Milanese cafe, complete with pinball machines themed around his movies, jukeboxes and immaculate, better-than-original fake Formica furniture. It was an appropriate setting for my conversation with Miuccia herself. Nursing a hangover from an event the previous night didn’t seem to have blunted her usual effervescence. Rather than reflecting on the milestone the foundation surely represents, Miuccia is ebullient about what to do next. Which put a sudden and defiant halt to my silly notion of discussing questions of legacy with her, as the extent of her personal stake and involvement in the project became evident.
As I asked Miuccia why she chose to work with Anderson, her great master plan beganto reveal itself. Because, she said, she wanted the cafe to infuse the whole place with exuberance. Milanese authenticity is what anybody else would have done. Miuccia says she wanted energy and fun and had a precise idea of what would create a light and joyful mood to contrast with the seriousness of the art on show. Even for those of us who aren’t always fans of Anderson’s films, the cafe highlights both his uniquely kitsch hyper-reality and his mastery of mise-en-sc¯ne. The effect is the visual equivalent of a double espresso with two sugars. Isn’t that what we look for when we walk into any Italian cafe? As we talk it becomes clearer with every sentence that Mrs. Prada’s fingerprints are everywhere.
She calls fashion her “instrument” and over the past two decades she has proved her virtuosity as the most influential designer of the age. She uses the same word to describe her view of art, another instrument with which to satisfy her curiosity and understand the world. The foundation, however, is much too big to be described an instrument; it is more like a symphony orchestra. Miuccia tells me that many interviewers have asked her how she learned about the world of art in such a short time – her response is that she already had an intellectual framework through her education and contact with the riches of the worlds of literature, theatre and cinema even before she and her husband started to collect seriously 20 years ago. I wonder if this was always part of the Fondazione’s master plan. She says far from it. She arrived at this place by rolling with the punches and through a series of instinctive reactions and decisions based on circumstances and finance.
After studying the work of artists, she wanted to collect their work; after owning their work she wanted to further engage with them by helping them realise their visions in the form of exhibitions; and after finding the 18th-century palazzo Ca’ Corner della Regina in Venice as an exhibition space, she wanted a bigger space for more ambition exhibitions and a wider scope. She tells me that she and Bertelli considered creating subsidiaries of it all over the world, yet finally returned home to this corner of Milan to convert a property they owned. It is clear that her journey was led by curiosity and by the fact that she isn’t someone who does things by half.
Throughout their journey in the land of art, Miuccia and Bertelli have been supported by the curator Germano Celant. Celant, who has recently attracted controversy because of his involvement with Milan Expo, coined the phrase “Arte Povera” in the late 1960s and has been a leading light in the contemporary art scene ever since. After the plans were announced for the foundation’s permanent home, it was assumed that Celant would continue as its director. But as ever with Miuccia, it was foolish to assume. She didn’t want a classic museum or gallery director and administrative structure, because she isn’t your classic distant benefactor or sponsor. Deeply involved in decisions, and the process of making them, she created an unusual management and curatorial structure for the unconventional institution. The strangely titled Scientific and Artistic Superintendant (Celant) and the Thought Council together form a structure to propose, advise and implement ideas. The Thought Council is a committee of international curatorial talent composed of the art critic and writer Shumon Basar (Tank’s own editor-at-large), star curator Nicholas Cullinan and architecture professor Cédric Libert. The group’s composition will change over time and indeed already has; Cullinan is leaving to take over as director of the National Portrait Gallery, and Dieter Roelstraete and Elvira Dyangani Ose have joined.
New Milan venue of Fondazione Prada. Architectural project by OMA, photo by Bas Princen, 2015, courtesy Fondazione Prada
The day after my trip to Milan I attended an outdoor press conference at the Venice Biennale for the German Pavilion. Listening to the curator of what is a wonderful show was like watching a one-sided boxing match, and the party taking a beating was the English language. It was a reminder of how the art world communicates in a specialist language alien to the rest of us, who wrongly assume they are debating the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. The strength of the Fondazione Prada lies in the fact that Miuccia Prada is not entirely of the art world, despite her 20 years of engagement with it. She says that fashion business has kept her feet firmly on the ground. As a businesswoman and fashion designer, she is forced, every season, to convince critics and customers afresh with ideas and products. Her ability to simultaneously connect with audiences emotionally and cut through to ideas intellectually is the Fondazione’s killer app.
The Fondazione Prada’s collections and their diverse voices, housed as they are in a number of buildings, with their contrasting architectural languages, volumes and noise levels, could have become cacophonous but instead resonate in a harmonious chorus, one that is more joyous, original and fun than anyone might have expected from the regular world of art. On opening night it had the feel of a high-school playground on the last day of term, crowds thronging here and there, their faces lit with expressions of childlike wonder and joy. Out of everything on display, the most strikingly original is the one and only Miuccia Prada, an ingenious and insatiable creative soul who may have finally found her ultimate canvas.
Astrid Welter by Delfino Sisto Legnani
II: Astrid Welter
Fondazione Prada’s innovation is not limited to its astonishing new complex. As an institution it has no permanent curator or traditional hierarchy; rather, it has a “Thought Council” of advisers. The programming and set-up of the new venue has been overseen by the inimitable Astrid Welter, who has collaborated with the Fondazione since 1997. Thomas Roueché caught up a fortnight before the opening to get her take on the developments in Milan.
Thomas Roueché The Fondazione Prada is known for its flexibility, responsiveness and international scope, but now you’re tying yourself down to a foundation and a big institution in Milan. How are you responding to having such a solid space?
Astrid Welter Well, the new premises of Fondazione Prada will constitute a cultural campus with many different typologies of spaces, and from these we will be able to derive and actually perform all the activities we want to plan better than we could before. The spacial variety will allow us to also do quicker, lighter, easier projects and to react more quickly to what is on the agenda. I understand that if you read that we are going to open 18,000 square metres, this is a valid question. But we will keep our eyes wide open we want to be perceived not as a heavy and institutional foundation, but as an open platform that is very welcoming and willing to share ideas with other people.
TR Is that reflected also in the make-up of the team – the Thought Council, for example?
AW Yes. The Thought Council is a consequence of this change in our attitude, and it can also be considered a new phase of the Fondazione. We didn’t want a hierarchy or a traditional structure, institutionally speaking, so this is why there will be no director. We will have an artistic and scientific superintendent, Germano Celant, who has been working with us these past two decades, who will be in dialogue with the Fondazione Prada’s internal curatorial team. And we will all be in a dialogue with the Thought Council, which is composed at the moment of Shumon Basar, Nicholas Cullinan and Cédric Libert, and since May we have had two new members, Elvira Dyangani Ose and Dieter Roelstraete.
TR So do projects start with the Thought Council? How does a project develop within that structure?
AW The Thought Council, as Mrs. Prada has always underlined, is a group of individuals who are invited think together with us. It means that the Thought Council, in regular meetings, generally in Milan, shares a discussion with us, looking at ideas and projects. We will certainly also engage with external curators in the next years, as we have at this opening moment. The two main exhibitions opening in Milan and Venice are curated by Salvatore Settis and we might well get curators for other specific projects who don’t come from the structure itself. We are going to develop projects on our own, of course. One of the members of the Thought Council, Nicholas Cullinan is curating a specific show in Milan based on loans and pieces from the collection, called In Parts, so curatorial projects, often individual, may come out of the Thought Council.
TR That’s a really interesting model. I guess the Thought Council keeps you locked into the international conversation, so to speak. But how is the Fondazione going to respond to its position within Milan? Is the Italian context something that you’re also looking to engage with?
AW Well, yes. It’s right to say that the Thought Council, as its members are located in different parts of the world, will of course come in with discourses that we might not have heard of. At the same time, we want to take into account the specific situation of Milan, which does not have a publicly owned contemporary art museum. We do not think that we will become a museum. So we want to work within the landscape of the Milanese cultural life, which is very interesting and has become especially rich over the last years. We want to be in friendly contact with the other important foundations in Milan, which are privately run institutions like the HangarBicocca, which is headed by Vicente Todolí, or the Nicola Trussardi Foundation, which is headed by Massimiliano Gioni. We haven’t done shows in Milan for four years and now that we are back, there are also many independent spaces that we will for sure engage with – Kaleidoscope, Peep-Hole and Mousse, for example. We want to engage in a very open way with everything that is going on in the city.
TR Why aren’t you calling it a museum, and what is within the concept of a museum that you’re trying to move away from?
AW The whole structure of the Fondazione Prada is asking the question, “How should a cultural institution perform in the 21st century?” We don’t want to call ourselves a museum because we don’t think that we will behave like a museum. We want to be perceived as a new phase of the foundation that has existed for decades and has developed in an unpredictable way.
TR It’s really interesting that you’re opening with these shows of art from classical antiquity. Are you consciously dodging the obvious; the agenda that people think you want to set?
AW The fact that we are going to host a show about antique sculpture in one of the new exhibition buildings of Rem Koolhaas is exactly why we don’t want to be called a museum for contemporary art. We don’t even want to be considered a centre focussed only on contemporary art culture. And there are some serious motivations that led us to embrace the idea of opening with a show about antique art, which are about being aware of the cultural heritage of this country, and wanting to do something for it. We believe that this show of Greek and Roman sculpture, in the context of the Fondazione Prada in the new building by Rem Koolhaas, who also designed the display, will be very successful with younger people. Our proposal is a project that is not tied to contemporary culture. Salvatore Settis’s show is about seriality, which has been of interest to us already. We did a show in Ca’ Corner della Regina in Venice, The Small Utopia, in 2012, which was about the idea of replica and questioning the uniqueness and aura of the artwork, and we looked at multiples in art from 1900 to 1975. So this is why we feel it’s totally coherent to embrace such a fantastic scientific concept as Salvatore Settis’s, which is very close to our own interests.
TR So many of these artists you’ve worked with, whom you’re continuing to work with, seem preoccupied with questions of copying, seriality and the nature of the original. It’s interesting obviously because in the production of fashion, of luxury goods, there’s a question of seriality that plays with ideas of mass production, which obviously Prada as a brand is involved in. Is that a conscious decision?
AW No, we haven’t thought about this at all. You know, the Fondazione Prada has, since its inception, been really separate from the Prada company. And it has always wilfully been separated by Mr. Bertelli and by Mrs. Prada to develop a purely cultural and artistic discourse. We have never looked at this – we should, maybe. But this is not our intention. You could argue that if you look at something like The Small Utopia, it was about multiples; it was about the desire to reproduce on a bigger scale objects of desire, and that could lead of course to the desire of more people to possess something, and the pleasure of possessing. You could maybe talk about the obsession of human beings wanting to possess things. If you think of the Romans, as far as I gather from Professor Settis, in the Roman Empire, if you were Hadrian and you were designing your interiors in Tivoli, and you had one Greek sculpture, then you would just say, “I want five more.” And he had the means to do this, so this is one of the reasons why replicas were made in the Roman age – powerful people could reproduce things. Of course, there was no interest in protecting authenticity or uniqueness. You could maybe say the shows are looking at cultural goods or a certain outcome of culture. Maybe in the case of an art institution, the object of desire becomes available to many people, so they don’t need to buy it.
TR How do you avoid criticism of the way in which privately owned foundations commodify art or transform art into luxury goods?
AW You can prevent it – that was my point. There is an opportunity for economic power to enable culture to thrive. Rather than thinking of the examples of today, we could instead look at institutions that have started because of private economic possibilities. Mr. Bertelli just recently mentioned the Frick Collection in New York, and Frick was a super-wealthy businessman who made his money in coal. In the end, he was so rich that he could afford a collection. So he went to Europe and cultivated an interest in 15th-century art. The outcome is a great collection, which is a benefit for all audiences. The fact is that there’s nothing wrong if the economic possibilities of an industry can provide the right opportunity for people not only to enrich themselves, but also to enrich a wider audience. And since we are in Italy, the history of the Renaissance is linked to people of means, be it popes or queens, who have always helped art to advance. It’s not a bad thing in itself that the Fondazione is privately supported. Our presidents are definitely behaving with their eyes wide open, with the desire to open here in the city of Milan, home to the Prada brand, to do something for a wider audience, for the public. So for sure, the Fondazione is taking up a responsibility and fulfilling it in a certain way, but it is doing so with an instinctive, strong and true interest in culture.
III: Salvatore Settis
One of the world’s most distinguished classical art historians, Salvatore Settis is the curator of the first show at the Fondazione Prada, Serial Classic, which explores questions of seriality and originality in the sculpture of classical antiquity. Tank asked Michael Squire, lecturer in classical Greek art at King’s College London, to talk to Professor Settis about the ideas behind his groundbreaking new show.
Michael Squire Could you tell us about the Fondazione Prada, what you’re planning, and how the two shows, Serial Classic and Portable Classic, work?
Salvatore Settis Let me start by telling you how surprised I was when Miuccia Prada proposed having an exhibition of Greek and Roman classical art as an opening exhibition at the Fondazione Prada. I didn’t know her personally before, but she and her husband are well known for having a very important collection of contemporary art. The new Fondazione Prada building will host an important part of their collection, so the fact that she wanted to have an exhibition of classical art as the opening exhibition – in the space designed by Rem Koolhaas – was surprising! But after talking to her I understood that this was very meaningful. She wanted to offer the public, who would be visiting the Fondazione Prada for the first time, a new perspective on classical art, and to make it clear that classical art still has something to tell to us. So, she just asked me to imagine an exhibition on classical art – she didn’t give me a specific theme. I thought that it was important to choose a theme that is both very contemporary and has a significant resonance in classical antiquity, so I came to seriality – which is an obsession within contemporary art. Seriality is a variation between originality and copies, whether they are originals, whether they are multiples, which has been discussed a lot. At the same time, I thought that this was a very good theme and very challenging. There is a common idea among many people – certainly not specialists – that classical art was made as a chain of supremely original and individual masterworks. So I thought that by making seriality the theme, a fil rouge, we could create a productive resonance between contemporary preoccupations and the research into originals and copies in different materials that classical archaeologists are familiar with.
MS Given this seriality theme, could you explain the thinking behind the two shows, the first in Milan, the second in Venice?
SS What I said refers to the Milan show, which was the show I was originally asked to organise. When I developed the project for the Milan show, with my former student, Anna Anguissola, Miuccia Prada came up with the idea of also presenting a connected show in the venue in Venice. She asked me whether I could think about something that might work given the different nature of the spaces in Milan and Venice. In Milan we have this gorgeous new space created for the purpose of art exhibitions, while in Venice, Ca’ Corner della Regina is a wonderful 18th-century palace on the Grand Canal. The palace is very imposing but is, after all, a domestic space, a very sumptuous domestic space. In such a space an exhibition of large-scale sculpture would be almost unthinkable. So we thought about it and, with my former student Davide Gasparotto as co-curator, organised an exhibition about reproduction and seriality, but in small size. For instance, we will have a cast of the Farnese Hercules, a cast of the marble statue in Naples, which is 3.17m high, and something like eight or nine reproductions of the statue that decrease in size, from 1.5m to 15cm. So, if you see all these reproductions at once, they present themselves as a series that you can catch simultaneously in your eye and in your mind. At the same time there is a difference not only in size, but also in material, from terracotta to porcelain to marble to bronze.
MS What do you think that difference in size does to interpretation? Why and how does size matter?
SS I think there are two different points to state here. First, we are asking why, from the early 15th century onwards, first in Italy and then throughout Europe, the fashion for bronzetti, or reproductions in different sizes, was so common. Why so many people, especially in the princely courts of Europe, but also among the erudite and so forth, wanted to have them in their collections. And what we are trying to suggest in this exhibition is that it had a lot to do with the knowledge they certainly had, that even in classical antiquity, the great masterworks of great masters were not only made in a large size and were reproduced several times – the Venuses, the Apollos and so forth – but they were also reproduced in a small size. Poets such as Martial and Statius talk about many different sizes of sculptures, which were common, even in Roman houses. So this connects the collecting practices of the Renaissance – which we know a lot about – to the collecting practices in classical antiquity, particularly in Roman antiquity – which we are far less informed about. The second point is that by offering a number of very precious and very beautiful objects that are small in size, but extremely well crafted, by artists such as Giambologna or Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, known as “L’Antico”, or Susini, we are trying to show the attention to detail and the addition of precious elements such as gilded bronze, which was a way of approaching the classical models according to a taste that had been developed by the Renaissance collector of a given cultivated class.
MS To what extent do different technologies of copying matter here? I know in the Serial Classic exhibition, for example, you have a room dedicated to plaster casts. How similar are the traditions here in antiquity to those of more modern times?
SS We did two different things in Serial Classic. One is to show how the ancients made their copies, so we show a selection of plaster casts from antiquity itself, and we are trying to show in a very clear way how they proceeded from a plaster cast from a bronze original through to the final marble copy. But the most important thing that we are trying to convey in the exhibition is the sense of loss of the original. So, when you enter the exhibition there are seven or eight copies of the Discobolos. Of course, the original Discobolos no longer exists, and we wanted to represent the absence of the bronze original with an empty pedestal which is next to a summary of ancient texts mentioning the Discobolos of Myron. The other point about technology and materials is that we have tried to show how different copies might depend on the material with which they are made. We are also showing a modern reproduction of the bronze Doryphoros of Polyclitus. We found a very interesting reproduction made in Stettin [Szczecin] in what is today Poland in 1910, in bronze, which will be shown for the first time together with the most important copies after the discovery of the Doryphoros. So in this case, you can see two different narratives from the missing bronze original through the reproduction in bronze of 1910. One is that of classical art, even in antiquity itself, between Greece and Rome, and the other is the narrative of classical archaeology trying to reconstruct and to put together this disjecta membra of classical art.
Portable Classic, co-curated by Salvatore Settis and Davide Gasparotto, exhibition view. Fondazione Prada Venezia 2015. Photo Attilio Maranzano, courtesy Fondazione Prada
MS So how has this exhibition changed your own views? I’m thinking of classical and Roman art history, where the themes of series, seriality and copying have been on the agenda for a while. And in contemporary art, too, one thinks of all manner of postmodern artists who have played with this theme of copying, like Pistoletto in Italy. Why do you think that this idea of copying so fascinates, and do you think that in 2015 we have a different take on the series and on originality from that of other cultures and eras?
SS Well, I think that what has changed – regarding my perception of ancient art and my scholarly work – is the idea of isolation in sculptures, of how to exhibit them. The main point of my discussion with Koolhaas has been the pedestal. What is a pedestal? We use it to put things on. When we visit a historical collection like the Louvre or the Vatican Museum, we take it for granted that all the statues are put on top of a pedestal. But the pedestal, as Koolhaas wrote in his essay for the catalogue, the pedestal actually contradicts the statue itself. The statue is often about movement – like the Discobolos – while the pedestal is about stability and firmness. The other point to mention is about the nature of archaeological work; the work of archaeologists is another thread that runs through the entire show. In some cases, classical archaeologists try to link different pieces together. The head of a statue found without a body, and a body found without a head. By putting them together, and by understanding and proving that they were actually two different copies after the same lost original, by doing this classical archaeologists normally thought of themselves as being like philologists, like putting together pieces of a text and recreating the texture of classical antiquity through a philological, i.e., a scientific methodology. This is a German tradition, but what I have tried to show in this exhibition is that by doing so, the archaeologists actually promoted themselves to another status, and to another practice, i.e., to artistic practice, because they are acting like artists. We offer a wonderful example of this with a bronze reconstruction of the Riace Bronze, one of the two Riace Bronzes that has been quite differently interpreted. It will be finished (by Vinzenz and Ulrike Brinkmann) just a few days before the exhibition will open. It has been recast in bronze but coloured differently and with a very complex reconstruction, including the addition of all the elements that are missing. Is it the philological reconstruction of how the Riace Bronze looked in 450BC, or is it a work of art from 2015? That’s the question we ask people to put to themselves while in the show.
MS That sounds wonderful. It seems to me that one of the things you’re interested in here is the relationship of copies to originals. You’re interested precisely in the dynamics between the two.
SS As far as the relationship between original and copy is concerned, we have tried to portray this relationship in several essays, including my own, in the catalogue. More importantly, we also tried to portray it through the show itself. What we want to avoid is the impression that we have a supreme original, or that we have a number of copies which are all derivative and therefore less important. We are trying to stress that the originals are themselves, to a certain extent, repetitive – or could be repetitive – and the copies, although they are all derived from the same original, differ from one another. In order to show how repetitive the originals can be, we have in our exhibitions a wonderful example, the famous statue of Penelope. There are six different copies from Roman times, all from the first and second century AD, and the original, from 450BC, more or less, was lost. Then, during excavations in Persepolis, the original was found. However, the statue found in Persepolis was found in the ruins of the palace, which was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 331BC. So it’s absolutely impossible that this original, found in Persepolis, is the original artwork, the archetype, after which the Roman copies were made, because it was not visible when the Roman copies were made! There is only one possible conclusion. Since the statue in Persepolis and the Roman copies are exactly identical in every detail and dimension, there must have been a second original from 450BC left in Greece. So there were two originals. This is, I think, a powerful challenge to the very idea of originals.
MS That raises a related issue I’d like to ask about: we’ve used this word “classical”, and also “canon”. Can you, coming back to some of your 2004 book The Future of the Classical and many other publications, explain how all this talk of “originals” harks back to a definition of what the classical is?
SS You mean, whether I think the classical has a future or not?
MS Well, let’s start with that!
SS This is a very good question. The basic idea I developed in my book on the future of the “classical”, and also in the book I edited with Tony Grafton and Glenn Most, The Classical Tradition, is that we should not be confined to the old classicist, Euro-centric idea of the classical, and of Europe as the birthplace of all the basic concepts we consider important (such as democracy, or practices such as history, philosophy, justice and so forth), claiming that this is the best tradition ever for humankind, while other traditions can be significant but are less important. The idea of the classical as a block, and the idea of an identification of European cultural tradition with classical tradition – I think we need to challenge this idea that is dying or is probably already dead, while classical education, which was once considered normal, even obligatory for the upper classes all throughout Europe, is increasingly marginalised. The only way of giving the classical – and I mean by this Greek and Roman – a new value would be to accept a fact that is historically certain, which is that the classical world was nothing like our own, that we are not identical to them. We are very, very different. Yet while we are very different, we have many points in common, so what I have in mind is a sort of dynamics, or gymnastics if you wish, between identity and difference. Looking at the classical, and recognising in the classical world, stories, words, gestures, compositions, ideas, that are continuously repurposed, such as the stories of Roman heroes in Shakespeare or the stories of tragedies or Medea as filmed by Pasolini. They are so different from us that we have to move from identity to difference. I think that this sort of spiritual or mental exercise, which is also an emotional exercise, can help us to rethink classical culture as an exercise in moving from identity to difference. Recognising something and yet feeling totally foreign to all the elements of a culture can be a new way of using the classical without classicising it.
MS So, you have to acknowledge the proximity and distance at the same time between classical antiquity and ourselves – and I guess that takes you back to the theme of originals and copies. So do you think that that idea of the future of the classical, the potential for the classical to contribute to modern-day culture, is reflected in the choice of copying at the centre of your two shows?
SS We can’t obscure or bury the important fact that there are no two copies that are actually identical. So, the copies are different from one another, and the difference between these copies and the difference between them and the original varies from one case to another. Another point is that, when we speak about originals, if we move to archaic art, if you look at the korai in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens or in other museums throughout the world, the korai are not copies. No two korai are identical to one another. They are all different, yet they share a common “family resemblance”.
MS So, I guess that takes you back to the idea of the classical not as a block, not as something that you can just quote or take or recreate – or reconstruct, rather – but as something that’s always part of a process. The classical as always a re-creation of something, rather than some “original” thing.
SS The idea is that meaning is never stable. Meaning changes all the time. There is a wonderful sentence by Wittgenstein: “The repeated use that is required for there to be meaning is something spread out over time; meaning is, so to say, an essentially diachronic concept,” so meaning is never stable. Even in the case of the classical, we don’t have to assume that meaning is always the same. It is changing, and it can translate not just into emotions, but also into rational and narrative forms. It is within this mechanism of change that every scholarly work actually happens, and we should be able to convey this key point to the general public. §
Serial Classic, co-curated by Salvatore Settis and Davide Gasparotto, exhibition view. Fondazione Prada Milano 2015