ITALY’S MUSEUMS HAVE NEVER BEEN AS GOOD AS THE TREASURES THEY CONTAIN – BUT THE RENZI GOVERNMENT IS SHAKING THINGS UP, GIVING INSTITUTIONS MORE AUTONOMY AND EVEN HIRING FOREIGNERS TO BRING THEM UP TO SCRATCH.
James Bradburne is sprinting down the corridors of one of Italy’s most famous art museums pointing out his favourite treasures. Unfortunately there’s only a handful of visitors around to share his enthusiasm as the 60-year-old art director races past colourful frescoes depicting biblical tales to rooms filled with Renaissance masterpieces. “I love this one because it’s so funky,” says Bradburne as he sweeps across St Mark Preaching in Alexandria painted by brothers Gentile and Giovanni Bellini in 1507. He has a quick glance at a Veronese and a Tintoretto before coming to a halt in front of Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin. “Joseph is supposed to be old – why does Raphael depict him like a young Brad Pitt? What’s going on with Mary’s virginity?”
Bradburne has set a cracking pace since he was appointed by the Italian government to breathe new life into the Pinacoteca di Brera and adjoining library in Milan last October.
Born in Toronto, he is one of 20 art directors – seven of them foreign – selected by the government to drive the most dramatic shakeup ever seen of Italy’s museums and archeological sites. Culture Minister Dario Franceschini has called it “turning the page” after “decades of retardation”. Last month, as the government advertised for directors for a further nine sites – including Herculaneum near Mt Vesuvius and Ostia Antica near Rome – he said, “The revolution continues.”
Bradburne is on a personal crusade to make sure transformation comes to the Pinacoteca.
“All of Milan is proud of this collection. They know it’s absolutely top notch. But they don’t know why it doesn’t feel like the Rijksmuseum or the MOMA in New York. They feel a little embarrassed.
“The Milanese want to be proud of their Brera. They have a monument in the centre of the city but when you come in here it is not up to snuff. One of the challenges is to make this museum loved by the city.”
A short stroll from La Scala opera house in the heart of Milan, the Pinacoteca sits inside a Baroque complex which was completed in 1776. It includes a prestigious art academy, lush botanical gardens and the city’s oldest astronomical observatory.
The gallery itself was conceived by Napoleon Bonaparte who dreamed of creating the “Louvre of Italy” after he swept through the country and crowned himself king in 1805. But these days the Pinacoteca sits in a forgotten corner in the centre of the city.
Just a few streets away, the former Royal Palace houses world-class exhibitions beside the city’s beloved Duomo and art lovers regularly queue up at the Gallerie d’Italia, a converted bank with a far smaller collection and a must-see buzz about it.
The Pinacoteca looks drab and dated in comparison. There is very little information about its magnificent collection, which includes works by Caravaggio, Titian, Botticelli, Piero Della Francesca and Mantegna. Even the ticket office is hard to find.
“You go through a shop and you don’t know where the entrance is,” says Bradburne. “It is sad, it is shabby. This is not the entrance to one of the finest collections of the country. The first impression is disappointment.”
For years Italy’s galleries and museums have been victims of their own stagnation and mismanagement. Too often telephone lines don’t work and websites don’t