Bestselling book on Rome Italy
Bestselling book on Rome Italy



Letters from Italy
Venice: In Grand Style
Italian Eating Habits
Pope John Paul II
Modern Art in Rome
Parking in Rome
Getting around Rome
Christmas in Rome

Modern Art in Rome

“It may not be Moma,
  but at least it is Monet”

Ciao Amici,

Rome is, of course, an art-lover's paradise, but one doesn't come here for the modern variety. The city just isn't in the same league with Paris, New York, and London, to name the most obvious places, when it comes to the greatest painting and sculpture from the nineteenth century to the present. Although 70% of the world's recognized art is located in Italy, almost all of it is either ancient, medieval, Renaissance, or baroque. From the eighteenth century onward the focus of Europe's artistic creativity moved steadily northward toward cultural climes -- Holland,Germany, England, France -- that were more conducive to artistic freedom of expression, as the need for the patronage of the Roman Catholic Church -- which had sustained Italian masters for centuries, from Giotto in the fourteenth through Michelangelo and then Bernini in the seventeenth -- became less pronounced and the ability to work independently on painting or sculpture developed into the norm rather than the exception. By about a hundred and fifty years ago,the shift had all but taken place.

I remember well my first visit to Rome, twenty years ago, when I tried in vain to avoid having to view another Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi, or Rape of the Sabine Women, hoping to stumble into something more abstract, which I finally did, entering the now newly-restored and worth the trip National Gallery of Modern Art in the Villa Borghese, viewing the works of Di Chirico, Giacometti, Modigliani, yet still craving work that is regularly seen in the Tate, the Musee D'Orsay, or the Museum of Modern Art, but finding nothing. The situation, sadly, has not changed much over the past two decades. While Rome has so much art that, as they say, "one life time is not enough," there is still a dearth of the modern, artistic consciousness --Impressionist, Expressionist, Cubist, etc.-- that defines our time.

But the city is trying. In December a new show opened that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. Held in the Scuderie, the completely redesigned original stables of the Palazzo Quirinale, across the street, where popes once lived and which is now the Italian White House, the official residence of the president of Italy, with a view of the city that is as breathtaking as anywhere, there is a show of one hundred modern master works from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. These are world-class paintings of Renoir, Picasso, Cezanne, Rousseau, Manet, Matisse, Bonnard, Degas -- the list goes on and on. The show is so popular that reservations are required, and on Valentine's Day, the city offered free admission after 10:00 pm to all those who came to the museum coupled. The line of was out the door, two
blocks long, and the guests were still entering the Scuderie at 2:00 am, surely a sign that Rome's art lovers have a sharp eye for a good deal, a sense of romance, and are starving for something they usually have to travel abroad to find.

So it was with mixed expectations that my wife Diane and I decided to see the new Monet show that just opened at the Museo del Risorgiamento, behind Piazza Venezia at the foot of the Campidoglio heading toward the Coliseum. The museum has a spotty record. We saw a great exhibit some time ago on the theme of "Nudes," but others have been disappointing. Before entering the museum we asked how many actual works there were of Monet, as we once at another museum went to see the show "Caravaggio and his Followers" and were treated to three Caravaggios and six hundred works done by his followers. This time, we were told that there were "forty-five" paintings. Not having heard anything specific about the show, we decided to take the plunge, and hurried in ahead of a crowd of nattering school-aged children.

What a marvelous surprise. "Monet" is "stupenda!" First of all, it makes use of a technique that I had never seen before in an art museum. The curators have decided to darken the space, as if one were in a theater watching a movie or live performance, and illuminate only the paintings. The effect is arresting. It is as if the works had been rendered into huge, colorful slides, illuminated by some projector set in the wall behind each of them. From the first work, done in Monet's early period when he painted many landscapes at Argenteuil, I was spellbound. The lack of overall bright light also had the effect of quieting the crowd, acting like an audience being respectful to the performers, and each painting glowed brightly as the sixty years of Monet's illustrious career as an artist came to life before me. The second factor that made this show extraordinary was the presence of many works that are normally held in private collections and are thus never seen by the public, which blended nicely with noted pieces that are on loan from other museums. There are famous works -- like those of the Parliament in London in the fog, or water lilies at the master's garden in Giverny -- but there are a host of lesser known paintings that are just as satisfying.

The Monet show will be in Rome -- as will its "sister" at the Scuderie just a few blocks away -- until late June, so there is plenty of time to take it in. For all those modern art-lovers who refrain from coming here because of the lack of Impressionists and other moderns, think again. The exhibit is so good it is worth the trip to the city for this alone, not to mention the three thousand other things you could also see while you're here.

Alan Epstein

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