The Stones and the People - by Tomaso Montanari

Review of the book Le pietre e il popolo (Stones and the People) by Tomaso Montanari, published by Minimum Fax, on the civic function of historical and artistic heritage.

After A cosa serve Michelangelo?, released in 2011 and of which, moreover, you can find the review here on Finestre sull’Arte, Tomaso Montanari returns to bookstores with another book that helps us to better understand the history of art today: we are talking about Le pietre e il popolo, published by Minimum Fax and released in 2013. If, however, in What Is Michelangelo Good For? Montanari had focused on the system of cultural heritage in Italy and all the distortions that characterize it, in Le pietre e il popolo the fulcrum of the Florentine art historian’s discourse is the civic function of art history, constantly betrayed, according to Montanari, nowadays in Italy.

The discussion is divided into three chapters, plus one of conclusions. The first is a sad journey along Italy that, in essence, continues part of the discourses that Montanari mentioned in his 2011 book and develops them precisely to give us direct testimony to the fact that, for politics but also for a certain short-sighted entrepreneurship interested in art only for personal gain and thus not to return it to citizens or to bring prestige to cities, as did the patrons of the Renaissance of whom most speak without knowledge, art is reduced to a mere tool, which yields to the logic of marketing,entertainment, and profit and loses its highest function, that of enriching its users to make them free and conscious citizens.

Tomaso Montanari, Le pietre e il popolo
The Stones and the People by Tomaso Montanari

We then start with Siena, the scene of questionable privatizations that, according to Montanari, mean that “cultural activities will not obey the rules of knowledge, but those of marketing, and that will not address citizens, but customers,” and a city where the sad affair of the Santa Maria della Scala complex is unfolding, whose fate is uncertain even today. It then continues with Milan, where the project to transform the Brera Art Gallery into a private foundation, but one controlled by politics, is currently stalled, so much so that Montanari recalls that “until some time ago we could have found Nicole Minetti as president of Brera,” for an operation that according to Montanari would end up reducing the museum “to a frill to be entrusted to incapable cadets, or to wives, relegated by one of the most macho bourgeoisies in the world to deal with the ’useless and harmless beauty’ of art.” the author brings the example of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, “first presided over by a member of the Italian royal family, the Agnelli family, and now by the wife of the president of Telecom Italia and Generali.” The journey then moves on to Rome where ski slopes are fabled on the Circus Maximus and where, at a relentless pace, expensive blockbuster exhibitions are organized. It then lands in Naples where marketing sets up splendid and contrived exhibitions on the Baroque while the real Baroque, that of Neapolitan churches, collapses in on itself. And it is in Naples that the affair of the Girolamini Library also takes place, which Montanari reconstructs in great detail. The journey then continues to Venice, the land of the most unrestrained Disneyfication of cultural heritage and where entrepreneurs would like to use the city as they please for their marketing initiatives, and concludes in L’Aquila, where that Disneyfication that in Venice has been going on for a long time and is proceeding gradually, in the Abruzzi city could come to fruition suddenly, with the people of L’Aquila “deported” to soulless suburbs built from scratch and the historic center emptied to make it a sort of “fun fair” of the ancient.

The second chapter is all about Florence and the events that over the past few years have emptied of meaning the art that represents the city’s pride and reason for its citizens (but also for all who visit it) to feel freer: so we start from the Uffizi becoming a theatrical backdrop for fashion shows and worldly-cafonal events to go through kermesses that bring fake lawns and centuries-old olive trees to the center of Florence, and on to lesser-known but far more serious events, such as the dismemberment of the Corsini library, one of the richest, most admirable and coherent examples of a 19th-century library, which was sold at auction by its owners in the 1990s, and which we will therefore never see intact again. The third chapter is also “set” in Florence, but it is all directed against then-mayor Matteo Renzi and against all his “marketing applied to art” initiatives, foremost among them the terrible search for Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari in the Salone dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio.

The conclusion, in the face of the daily havoc being wreaked on art, is but one: “the Constitution has solemnly delivered the historical and artistic heritage to sovereign citizens: and perhaps the time has come to really take it back.” And how to succeed in this? By getting cities back to being governed “by citizens for citizens,” because cities serve “to make us sovereign citizens, and to make us all equal.” And the message Montanari wants us to get across is that this change depends on all of us. And we can add: let’s oppose every time art is exploited for marketing logics, for politics, for mere profit. Let us always express our dissent, let us try to thwart those who want to exploit our heritage without restraint. And above all, if and when we enter the voting booth, let us remember those who have used art to bend it to logics that should not belong to it.

The Stones and the People is largely derived from the articles Montanari offered us on his blog and in the newspapers with which he collaborates between 2012 and 2013, so the reader who follows Montanari consistently will find situations and passages he has probably already read. All this always in the usual clear and passionate style to which Tomaso Montanari has accustomed us. Perhaps far too passionate: the vis polemica of Le pietre e il popolo far exceeds that of A cosa serve Michelangelo?, so much so that in certain passages the author seems far too uncompromising. On certain issues we have long debated, for example on the transfer of certain museum spaces to private individuals who should use them against payment of a fee. A practice that in our opinion at Windows on Art should not be demonized a priori, but according to Montanari is always profoundly uneducational. It is true that it is sad that we have to ask private individuals for lavish obolus to keep museums decorated, in the face of a tax evasion of about one hundred and eighty billion euros annually, but it is equally true that until we have a state that gives the right weight to culture, it will be difficult to turn our noses up at events that (of course: without affecting public enjoyment in the least and without interfering with it) can lift, though obviously not definitively and decisively, the situation of museum coffers. But it comes back to the point made earlier: having a state that gives due weight to culture depends on us, who have so many “weapons” we can use: protest, constructive proposal, voting.

So despite the intransigent points, The Stones and the People is a book to be read and reread. A very strong book, written by a person who knows well what he is talking about, a person who believes strongly in what he does and wants to convey that to the reader. That is why it is written, as we said, in a clear and easily understandable way, so that even those who are strangers to the world of art history and cultural heritage can read it without difficulty. A book that, in essence, makes us truly understand what art history is for.

The stones and the people
By Tomaso Montanari
Minimum Fax, 2013
164 pages
Buy the book at Windows on Art Books

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