Interview with Marco Pierini: "Here is the new National Gallery of Umbria."

On July 1, 2022, the National Gallery of Umbria reopens after a year of construction with a new layout and many new features: director Marco Pierini tells us about it in this interview.

After exactly one year of work, the National Gallery of Umbria reopens to the public on July 1, 2022 with a totally renovated layout, and many new features some of which are extremely original and innovative (at this link the article with details of all the new features, the route and several photographs). What are the choices that guided the new layout? What museum to expect when it opens on July 1? We talked about it with Perugia museum director Marco Pierini. The interview is by Federico Giannini.

Marco Pierini. Foto di Marco Giugliarelli
Marco Pierini. Photo by Marco Giugliarelli

FG. Director, how great is the satisfaction of reopening tomorrow, after a year of work, with this interesting, delicate, innovative new exhibit? I realize that this is a ritual question that many will have already asked you and will ask you....

MP. But it is true: it is a great satisfaction to reopen after a year, first of all because reopening means knowing that the emergency is over, because for us the construction site was the emergency, and since reopening we will be again the museum we wanted to be in these years, that is, an open museum, which does many activities, which organizes exhibitions, concerts, shows and much more, so it is satisfying even just to return to the stress of the ordinary and to abandon the stress of the extraordinary. And then, reopening also means offering a different vision of the museum, which I hope is projected into the future. That is precisely why we also wanted to think about a lasting image. I give an example, although I could be wrong since we have worked against the trend: I am thinking of the colors of the walls. Compared to the many colors that many museums are using in recent times, and which I myself always use in exhibitions, we preferred a more neutral solution, which I think in the near future will begin to be a little more widespread than we can imagine, because there is a need, in my opinion, for a neutrality and a clear color in the presentation of the works ... because it is the works that have the colors. In an exhibition I think it is all very well to emphasize, however in the ordinary course of a museum I think it is the color of the work, and not the color of the architect or the wall, that should stand out.

I juxtaposed this impression: if in many recent layouts several architects have tried in some way to make their personality perceptible, or at least wanted to put their signature on the layouts, at the National Gallery of Umbria they instead put themselves behind the works, they were extremely respectful. Besides the choices about the interaction between works and environments, what other elements guided the rearrangement?

There are essentially two, and they all come from us (when I say “us” I mean our wonderful staff that I partly inherited and partly chose, and that overall is a young, dynamic, enthusiastic staff). The first item is preservation: so here are the revolutionary bases, the lights, the films, the windows, the carpets to retain dirt that we will be installing soon, and many other small, basic arrangements. The second point is reception. I fight hard for the word “accessibility” to be replaced by the word “welcoming,” because welcoming complements accessibility, which is a technical fact. That is, I break down the architectural barrier and make a room accessible, I write a panel in large print and make it accessible. However, I can at the same time not be welcoming. In short, they are two different concepts: and we worked to make the museum welcoming as well. Our solutions were then concretized by architects Daria Ripa di Meana and Bruno Salvatici, by our architect Maria Elena Lascaro, by architect Riccardo D’Uva of the company Arguzia who made it possible to concretize the innovative bases for the works, and by all the firms that collaborated with us helping us to improve the lighting, to improve the quality of the materials with innovative solutions. It was truly a choral work and very experimental. Something is still not ready and it will not be ready even tomorrow that we open, because we are still moving forward with some works: for example just yesterday we came up with systems to put the small works in the showcase, and because they were better than before we are still working on these solutions. Working in this way certainly is a risk, but it is also a wonder.

I then noticed several shifts (out of all of them, for example, the San Bernardino tablets that are now in a room all about Perugino). What drove the different placement of so many works?

Essentially the correct placement in chronology. However, with some spectacular aspects as well. For example, the cross of the Master of St. Francis, which used to be in the room that now houses the sculptures of Arnolfo di Cambio: you had to go and look for it. Instead, now you go in and find it in correct chronological order, and you find it tilted as it was originally in the church of San Francesco al Prato. As for the San Bernardino tablets, in this case they are Perugino’s debut after Verrocchio’s workshop: of course, he did not do them all, but the workshop was his: no use going to look for Caporali, Bonfigli and others. These are works that are due to a Perugino on the launching pad, who would shortly thereafter work in the Sistine Chapel, who was bossing Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, moreover, all older than him, and in the panels of San Bernardino we find an artist who was making his “book,” making his resume to become what he would later be in the 1980s and 1990s, that is, “the best master of Italy,” as Agostino Chigi used to say.

It is precisely Perugino, from this new staging, who comes out as the great protagonist.

Well, we are in Perugia, the city of Perugino, although he was born in Città della Pieve (but he was nicknamed “Perugino” not by chance). We have 23 of his works, so he is our most represented artist, he is the most important artist, and moreover he is an artist who enjoys a certain critical misfortune (of course relative, because we are talking about a great master), however in the end if you think about it he is often reductively considered as Verrocchio’s pupil or Raphael’s master. Instead he is a great autonomous master, and for thirty years he gave a line to Italian art: after Giotto perhaps he was the only artist who created an Italian language, from Piedmont to Calabria.

Another novelty that I found very interesting is the last small room dedicated to the twentieth century, with a rather sharp break since we go from Pietro da Cortona to the twentieth century. What reasons motivated the creation of this brand new room? Also, do you have plans to expand this section with other works that will eventually come to you or that you will acquire?

In the meantime, let’s say that yes, now the detachment is sharp, but soon it will be less so because we will mount in the previous room two works by Jean Baptiste Wicar. Not that it is not another nice detachment, since we are still in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, but unfortunately we do not have the second nineteenth century, and indeed what little we have has to stay in storage, but I felt it was important to tell everyone that the history of art does not stop even in Umbria. Indeed, this is the land of Leoncillo (which we have not been able to have but which we will have sooner or later), of Burri, of Dorazio, of Beverly Pepper, that is, of Umbrian artists or artists who have chosen Umbria as their elective land, and in this very room, in rotation, we will put works that we will find on loan, that we will receive as donations, that we will perhaps buy if we have the money, so it will become a more dynamic room than the others.

Art history does not stop, and in fact there are two major contemporary art interventions: again, innovative choices.

We were very pleased to commission two new works, the first in a neutral and unproblematic space, which welcomed Roberto Paci Dalò’s work, and the second, Vittorio Corsini’s two windows in the Cappella dei Priori, which was much more difficult. Even for this intervention, however, we started from philology, because those two windows were plugged and we could either leave them plugged or put in glass similar to the original ones, but it would have been a historical fake. So we thought of bringing the condition of the light back to be more or less similar to what it was in the fifteenth century, but to do such a work we could not choose a language that was not contemporary: so we had to choose the right artist, who had the right respect for the environment, and we found him in Vittorio Corsini. And in addition it turned out that the chapel is still consecrated, and so I as a historian, and not as a man of faith, I demanded that the altar still have its relic and be consecrated, it seemed to me a great thing.

How is the city preparing for the inauguration?

There is great excitement, and this is because there is a great, great love for the gallery. It is no coincidence that we are, I always say, the most civic national museum in Italy, because we are in the Palazzo Pubblico: it is an extraordinary fact to be able to have, in the city’s Palazzo Pubblico, such an important museum. It’s a situation that doesn’t exist in any other city in Italy, because if we think about big cities the major state museums are all in palaces that are maybe even owned by the municipality in some cases, but they are not “the” Palazzo Pubblico. Here, the fact of being ... next to the mayor is something that is felt very much by the city.

Returning instead to talk about jobs, it is breaking news that the National Gallery of Umbria has received additional funds under the NRP. How will you invest them?

We will do the last plant adjustment for air conditioning, which is already good, but we will perfect it thanks to these funds that I have asked for, moreover, in a very restrained way: they are in fact 500,000 euros, which in itself is not little, even if it is less than, for example, the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, which received 6 million euros, but it is also true that we have done well, I won’t say everything, but almost, in seven years. Of course, we have worked with a lot of funds: the ones we invested for the fittings come from the Development and Cohesion funds, then we had funds for the facilities... now we just have to find the funds for the activities. These the Ministry rightly does not give us, because the opening, the maintenance, and in general the life of the museum are guaranteed by the Ministry, but for the activities we have to rely on our own forces (this after all is also the idea behind autonomy). However, it is a challenge that we are not afraid of.

From the communication point of view, about which there has been so much talk lately, what plans do you have?

We will keep the light line we have always had, sometimes with somewhat unexpected campaigns, for example, we have recently started the campaign The Art of Irreverence with popular satirical social channels such as Lercio, Osho, Dio, Taffo and others: the idea of this campaign came to me because I was afraid, and I say this gladly, that by rethinking the whole museum and library we would end up taking ourselves a bit too seriously, and so it was essential to have someone who would laugh with us but also laugh at us. Here, this is working because I see that there is a strong liking for it. On social media we will then continue to alternate news with insights and we are open to everyone, we also collaborate with a rock festival, for five years(L’Umbria che spacca), we collaborate with Umbria Jazz, we have live drawing sessions that we organize every year with the association of cartoonists BecomingX with whom we do an evening with DJ sets and them drawing on the walls of Sala Podiani some 70 cm sheets, all inspired by the gallery, which they then give to us. We have no problem with communication. Also because word of mouth is always the best communication, and according to word of mouth the National Gallery of Umbria is an open and welcoming museum. Really, communication is the least of our problems.

Last question: a new chapter opens for the National Gallery of Umbria. What are the challenges ahead?

One challenge starts immediately, because we will have in 2023 the five-hundredth anniversary exhibitions of Perugino’s death, one between March and June and one between September and January 2024. The first one dedicated to the “best master of Italy,” the other to the late Perugino (who, however, is not as bad as many say), so we will occupy the whole year with Perugino. The first exhibition will be the most important one, and it will be an innovative exhibition also in the formula, because we asked the most important museums that have a lot of Perugino, or contextual works that we needed, to become partners, so not just to lend us the works but to give us their logo, the introduction in the catalog, to have their conservators write the cards. In this way we were able to count on partnerships with the Uffizi, with the National Gallery in London, with the National Gallery in Washington, with the Gemäldegalerie Berlin, and it seemed so much easier to organize an exhibition involving the most important museums in the world. So 2023 will be a very rich year dedicated to Perugino. Then in the second part of 2022 we will have to focus our attentions on our classical festival activities, and then on a small exhibition on some frescoes detached from a destroyed church. Finally, in October my term will expire, but I have planned for 2024 because it is right to give continuity to the museum ... after that we will see.

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