Francesca Cappelletti (Borghese Gallery): 'our museum must be a living organism'

Interview with the new director of the Borghese Gallery, Francesca Cappelletti, who discusses her ideas for the Roman museum.

Art historian Francesca Cappelletti was appointed in September as the new director of the Borghese Gallery, and took office in her role a few weeks ago. Cappelletti was already a member of the Gallery’s scientific committee and has a long experience in art-historical studies behind her, as a university lecturer, as curator of several exhibitions and with participation in important projects in Italian and foreign museums. However, this is her first time at the helm of a museum the size of the Galleria Borghese: how will the historic Roman institute change under her leadership? What is the new director’s vision for the museum? How is the Borghese Gallery dealing with the Covid-19 emergency? We heard from Francesca Cappelletti in this interview edited by Federico Giannini.

Francesca Cappelletti
Francesca Cappelletti

FG. For many people, directing a museum of the level of the Borghese Gallery is a career dream: for an art historian like you, what does it mean to have obtained such a prestigious position?

FC. For me, on a personal level, it mostly means putting a little more substance into my studies. This is a place that I knew and frequented a lot, even as a child and as a student, and then of course as a scholar, because it was also the subject of my work: I studied so much Roman collecting and many of the artists that are preserved here, from the Cavalier d’Arpino workshop to the young Caravaggio, as well as different aspects of Roman culture in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, like the coexistence of many Nordic painters with Italian painters .... and almost everything in Cavalier d’Arpino’s workshop from 1607 is part of Scipione Borghese’s collections. These are all works and subjects that I’ve been around a lot, so I find myself kind of ... swimming in my own sea! With perhaps the added awareness, after so many years of university, of how much can be done from the point of view of research, study and even education within museums. So I hope that this experience can be useful to the museum-my hope is that I can be useful to the museum in the coming years.

Let’s start by saying that the Borghese Gallery is certainly a museum that makes its own history compared to many others, because in Italy (but not only) there are few historical collections of the size and importance of the Borghese Gallery, and even fewer are the museums in which the historical collection has always been linked to the place that hosts it since its origins. What do you see as the main difficulties in managing a complex site like the Borghese Gallery, and what ideas do you want to put forth with your direction?

It is a complexity that does not frighten me: it is obviously related to the nature of the building but also to this extraordinary strength that the collection draws from its connection with the building. It’s true: we’re not inside a very modern museum, and so a lot of work needs to be done on restoration, ongoing maintenance, conservation, and also on welcoming the public and being able to distribute the works in a way that everything is understandable in a space that was not designed for a modern museum. All of this creates a continuous set of needs to the management of the museum, which are mainly those of dealing with a historic building. This, however, in my opinion is offset by the extraordinary power of even immediate communication of this harmony between container and content. This means that one cannot just focus on the works (beyond the individual extraordinary masterpieces, such as Caravaggio’s paintings, Bernini’s large groups,Titian’sAmor Sacro and Amor Profano, Raphael’sDeposition... the whole collection is more important to me), but what is even more important is that everything here tells a story: the story of Roman collecting in the seventeenth century, the story of the mechanisms of production and acquisition of works, and also a very important story, which perhaps many people do not realize at first glance, which is that of the second half of the eighteenth century. Everything inside the Gallery from the point of view of decoration and the connections between the works, is in fact the work of an extraordinary architect, Antonio Asprucci, who worked for Marcantonio IV Borghese from 1775 onward: by visiting the museum we have the opportunity to understand what Rome was like in this last quarter of the eighteenth century. My idea, with respect to this complexity, is to try to bring it as much as possible to the public without hiding it, but making sure that it can be communicated not by reducing and flattening on the masterpiece, but by narrating it in its entirety, even in its most original and colorful meanings (like that of Neoclassicism in Rome, for example). This sounds minimal, but I would like to put captions, for example, even for Valadier’s tables, the design of the fireplaces, and other elements of the decorative apparatus. It is clear that those who come to the Borghese Gallery for the first time do not have time to focus on these aspects, however, they are elements of the whole that should not be overlooked. So a lot of attention to this later phase, a lot of attention to the richness and originality in the use and workmanship of materials, a lot of attention to making people feel that the collection is a breathing organism all together and that it has never been (especially Scipione Borghese’s collection in the early seventeenth century) an end point, but a potential source of inspiration for all the artists who came after it, a starting point for the artists’ research, for the emulations of patrons and other collectors of the period. If you see the museum in this way, with all these stories intertwining, you will find that it is not a repository of objects. And this is the most important thing: we do not want to see the museum as a fixed reality, but as a living organism. Also for research: in fact, we are planning to intensify relations with universities.

So there will be a lot of focus on the, so to speak, lesser-known aspects.

Yes, it will be about bringing the lesser known aspects to the public. Then of course we certainly don’t want to hide the fact that we have Bernini’sApollo and Daphne. But even on the better known masterpieces one can work in this sense: for example, Bernini’sApollo and Daphne was not always in the center of the room where it is today, it was leaning against a wall. In this case we can, for example, talk about how the criteria for observing the work of art have changed, because choices were made that seem incontrovertible to us today: today visiting the Borghese Gallery it seems to us that it has always been this way, but in reality... nothing has always been this way inside the Borghese Gallery! Canova’s Pauline, for example: first it stood in one of the rooms on the second floor, it came down later. And then again Bernini’s Rape of Proserpine was not in Scipione Borghese’s collection but came from the Ludovisi collection. In short, I think there are so many things that make us imagine that this world of the early seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries was more interesting and eventful than we may think. We will then work a lot on the repositories: this is also something that is little known to the public but deserves to be explored.

La Galleria Borghese
The Borghese Gallery

Il Salone di Mariano Rossi. Ph. Credit A. Novelli
Mariano Rossi’s Salone. Ph. Credit A. Novelli

Un dettaglio dell'Apollo e Dafne di Bernini. Ph. Credit Alessandro Pasquali - Danae Project
A detail of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. Ph. Credit Alessandro Pasquali - Danae Project

And there are more and more museums that precisely in order to convey this kind of knowledge to the public, whether it’s lesser-known aspects in general or little-known elements around great masterpieces, are organizing small insights, small exhibitions. And if we talk about exhibitions, I can’t help but think about the fact that one of the challenges that has always characterized this museum is precisely that of temporary exhibitions: we have seen, in recent years, in these spaces, exhibitions of great value and obviously less successful exhibitions because it has often been very difficult to make the works dialogue with the place. What is your program as far as exhibitions are concerned?

I, too, have realized in the past the very great value of many of the exhibitions but also the difficulty of using spaces like these with exhibitions, because, also based on what we have said so far, it is clear that the space of the Borghese Gallery is a very defined and very harmonious space: you have to be really good at putting works in it. In this Anna Coliva [former director of the Borghese Gallery, ed.] was very good, but the space is definitely difficult. When we restart, we will recover an exhibition planned in 2020, which could not be done for Covid, dedicated to Damien Hirst, already defined and organized with the artist (it will start in May). Then I think there is a reflection to be made about exhibitions (hoping not only to return to life as before, but to a much more culturally intense life): exhibitions pose many limitations, especially in this period. I would think more about exhibitions that emerge from works in the collection that have been less in-depth and need more study and comparison. Here, I would be along these lines: interrogating the collection. Making sure that the exhibitions we organize have a solid connection with the works in the Borghese Gallery.

There, we also made a reference to the contient situation, a subject that unfortunately we cannot gloss over at this time.... ! We often hear that in the immediate future we will have mainly proximity tourism: for a certain period we will have to do without the flow of foreign visitors, so it will be necessary to work mainly on the local public. How do you plan to achieve the goal of getting more Romans or at any rate more locals, who may have never paid attention to this museum before, to start becoming familiar with the Borghese Gallery instead?

We have already started in this period a communication campaign through social and web, also creating lectures and videos about individual works, trying to keep our relationship with the public very much alive, even with the little international public that is left in Rome (for example, students from foreign academies: we also had the director of the French Academy and the director of art history of the American Academy who made a clip for us). It is clear that we will insist precisely on the lesser-known part of the Gallery with these tools as well, so that maybe the public who already knows the Borghese Gallery will not think they have seen everything and will know that at the Borghese Gallery you can see and learn many new things. We are offering new appointments all the time, expanding the range of works that visitors usually admire when they come to visit the Borghese Gallery, trying to make the public curious about these aspects of decoration.

Very digital, then: and on this topic what is your approach, how do you use this tool to reach the public?

We try to produce readings on a regular basis: I think it’s right for the director and curators to go into the rooms and choose works in a very concise and very effective way and talk about them. We have done that. Then, in order to try to connect also to a more international audience, we started the initiative Glimpses from afar (foreign art historians who reside in Rome and talk about the works in the museum, often in a very modern key as well). And all this also to propose new angles, always proposed by scholars, on works that maybe not everyone knows or that maybe do not represent the first things one sees when going to the Borghese Gallery. Then, not being able to do book readings or book presentations or lectures and conferences, we studied a particular way: a tour of the gallery done by an author narrating his book. However, it is an initiative that has very fast timelines: using digital we have to take advantage of the tool and then not think of proposing an hour-long online conference because maybe it is more complicated to follow. In 2021 for example we started it with Aldo Cazzullo talking about his book on Dante: the video was very much viewed and taken up, so we were very happy to start the year this way. We then try to update our audience on everything that happens in the Gallery: for example, we documented the arrival of the Guido Reni painting that we bought, even with a little explanation of the painting. In this respect, too, we use digital to keep in touch almost live about what is happening in the gallery. And then we will go on with these columns trying also to specialize as an audience: that is, we would like to do something for young people, for children, for different age groups (here, however, these are projects that are still being produced).

Another issue that is being talked about a lot these days is sustainability, a fundamental problem for an autonomous museum like the Borghese Gallery. Have you already thought about how to handle this from a sustainability point of view as well?

Let me preface this by saying that since I’ve only been here two months, I’m mostly talking about topics that I’ve absorbed from national and international public debate more than from experience: museums have gone through a moment of crisis, and until they reopen it will be like that, it will be the norm. It is clear that we have to come to terms a bit with the reduced possibilities that we have now. On the contrary, I think the Italian museum system has more resilience than systems in other countries: for example, I read about many foreign institutions, even very prestigious ones, that have to lay off staff, or find themselves without private donations on which they depend. We have a difficult situation because we are closed and cannot accommodate the public, and we have to use in a different way our means of connecting with the public because the museum cannot give up its social function, and so clearly it has to be present in people’s lives. This we can do for now through digital, and then by continuing to study and work to be ready when we open. From the point of view of sustainability I think there is little else to say at the moment.

"The museum cannot give up its social function": and it is precisely according to this idea that museums are working so hard in these difficult times. In your opinion, how will museums come out of this experience and how should they be found as soon as the doors reopen?

From what I see (because of course I’m also trying to look at what others are doing while I’m doing and trying to do the projects for us) it seems to me that everyone is taking advantage of this period a little bit to reflect on the collections, so to do those conservation maintenance, restoration and study works that there is less opportunity to do in the presence of the public. We for example also restored a floor mosaic, which is obviously a very difficult operation when the museum is open (it was done on Mondays when the museum is closed). And then we also did both ordinary and extraordinary maintenance work. We therefore used this time to make ourselves more ready. It is clear that when museums reopen, they will reopen safely, more orderly. In other regions they have already opened, and it is important that there is this possibility. We obviously hope to reopen as soon as possible: they will be safely reopened, and I hope that those who come to the Borghese Gallery will find more indications for the visit and then, because the numbers will be very small, they will also have in addition the possibility to observe the works in a different way as well, with less crowds, with more concentration, with more slowness, for this first period.

I close the interview with a question that takes its cue from the introductory film of the new video series that the Gallery publishes on social media, where you say this, “We will read poetry, we will read contemporary literature, to try to establish more and more this connection between the past, memory and our life today.” How do you make a museum of ancient art like the Borghese Gallery contemporary?

I realized how many of these works have also had recent readings, by artists, writers, filmmakers. I could cite, for example, a collection of essays by Zadie Smith called Feel Free, whereApollo and Daphne is described at length, but it is described in terms of impossible love, of the impossibility of arriving at the fulfillment of a desire even by a god like Apollo. I am not referring, of course, to the possibility of launching into adventurous or impractical interpretations of the subjects, but to the possibility of seeing in a reading of certain personalities a reflection that I think is very contemporary. Here, I think there is the possibility of reading many works in a key that consists in understanding how art has a cathartic power, of redeeming passions and suffering. To also propose more contemporary readings, again done by artists or writers, is also a way of bringing these works closer to a contemporary gaze. I think that the desire to mirror oneself in the great masterpieces also goes a little beyond that of understanding the past: I would like the Borghese Gallery to help understand the works of the past and their history, however, every time we find ourselves in these definitions of great moments (from Bernini’s sculpture to Caravaggio to the very concept of the Baroque) that we have actualized as much as possible. So I think these relationships are one more possibility that we give artworks to reflect what we experience, and I have a lot of faith in that.

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