Introducing the Estense Gallery in Modena: interview with superintendent Stefano Casciu

We interviewed Superintendent Stefano Casciu, who has been overseeing the work on securing and rearranging the Estense Gallery in Modena: here is what he told us about the status of the work, and some advance information on some new features of the new museum itinerary.

The Galleria Estense in Modena, one of Italy’s leading museums, will reopen on May 29, 2015, after a three-year closure due to the repercussions of the 2012 earthquake. And to celebrate the event, the Notti Barocche event will be held in Modena from May 29 to 31, with lectures, exhibitions, concerts, and guided tours of the museum and Palazzo Ducale. There are many new features that will affect the Estense Gallery, and in anticipation of May 29, we went to Modena to interview Stefano Casciu, the next superintendent of the regional pole of museums in Tuscany, who in his roles as director of the Gallery and superintendent of cultural heritage for Modena and Reggio Emilia has been overseeing the work of securing and rearranging the collections. Also, don’t miss the issue of Art and Dossier that will be published in June: there will be an article by our Federico in which he will talk precisely about the Gallery and its reopening.

Galleria Estense
The Palace of Museums in Modena, which houses the Estense Gallery.

What exactly happened in 2012? What were the damages suffered by the museum, and what was done to secure the building that houses the Estense Gallery?
The two main walls of the Gallery were very badly damaged. Now they cannot be distinguished because they have been completely rebuilt. Remember that the set-up at the end of the 19th century was done completely ignoring the fact that this is a potentially earthquake-prone area: when in the 19th century, at the urging of Adolfo Venturi and then other directors, this became the Estense Gallery, with the final transfer of the works from the Ducal Palace and the Academy of Fine Arts, a 19th-century style Gallery was created, with large halls and skylights as in the great galleries of the time. To achieve this, the volumes of the halls were enlarged in both height and length, and in doing so, at the time, the static aspects of the structure were not taken into account at all. So not only did the heights and lengths become very challenging compared to what the previous structure was, but these large halls were not constrained to the vaults, nor were the skylights to the walls. All these aspects unfortunately emerged at the time of the big tremors in May 2012, especially at the time of the second one on May 29, which probably surpassed the last ruinous one in 1570: the return time of these earthquakes in Emilia is about five hundred years, more or less, and so it is clear that the distance since the last earthquake was so large that, despite all the small tremors in between, there was no perception that this was an area of serious seismic risk. And so no one at the time thought that the Gallery needed a more solid structure. And that meant that when the 2012 quakes came, both the main walls and the roofs suffered very serious injuries. So, the two large main walls were torn down and rebuilt more solidly, giving earthquake safety to the structure. Of course, the museum had to be closed because it was completely uninhabitable. We had all the works inside, which fortunately were not damaged: they had only shifted. When the reconstruction site started, all the works were dismantled, and they were moved to a single central repository.

How is the exhibition route of the Gallery, which will be reopened, we remind you, on May 29 this year to the public?
The itinerary of the Gallery compared to the previous layout does not change. It is twenty-two rooms, a circular circuit: the public enters and leaves the Gallery from the same room they entered. The layout tends to be chronological, although being a Gallery that has a painting part, a sculpture part, and many decorative art objects arranged in showcases, as well as objects of archaeological interest, the chronology is not very consistent, but we have tried to reorder the works, within what is possible, establishing a fairly organic general chronology. There are interruptions and returns, for example, the first work we see, traditionally, is the bust of Francesco I d’Este made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which will continue to be seen in the beginning as the absolute symbol of the Gallery: and it is a work clearly out of chronology. Cases like these are quite frequent, but the itinerary follows a general chronological arrangement.

The work of securing and rearranging the arrangements cost 760,000 euros, covered almost entirely by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, although there was no shortage of funding from companies and private individuals, to the tune of about 60,000 euros. An important contribution: so is the model of the Estense Gallery to be exported to other cities in Italy?
Funding from private individuals was used to cover part of the refitting work. Structural and safety works, as well as the repainting of the walls, were covered by the ministry. It is true that thanks to some changes, I am thinking for example of Art Bonus, partly thanks to the Association of Friends of the Estense Gallery, and partly perhaps also thanks to our ability to create interest, movements from the private sector have been created, in our case for an amount of around 60,000 euros. As for whether it can be exported, we say it is already exported because there have already been other cases, I still refer to the Art Bonus mechanism that is working and has at least triggered the interest of companies that have a direct fiscal return. Clearly, however, the participation of companies and individuals should be increased.

What, broadly speaking, are the new features of the exhibition itinerary?
The layout, in general outlines, remains that of Leone Pancaldi and Amalia Mezzetti, architect and superintendent respectively, who curated the last layout. I would like to emphasize the role of Amalia Mezzetti, because the layouts are obviously made under the supervision of the superintendency: it would be a mistake to entrust the figure of the architect alone with the setting up of a museum itinerary, because it is necessary to find common lines. So we revised the layout to restore a little more homogeneity to the Pancaldi-Mezzetti project, since over the years the various events and changes at the superintendency, had led to changes. So the rearrangement includes a return to a path that is more consistent with what was the path designed by Pancaldi and Mezzetti. However, we have changed the colors, since the white of the last layout, which was no longer current, would have been unacceptable. For example, we have a very dark gray to mark the four masterpieces (Bernini, Begarelli, Velzquez, and Lelio Orsi) creating visual directions that Pancaldi had conceived and that we therefore highlight with this special color. We have chosen colors that enhance the colors of the paintings and the frames: consider that the Estense Gallery is, after Florentine museums such as the Galleria Palatina of Palazzo Pitti in Florence, the museum that has the most historical frames, so we thought it was right to emphasize this aspect of the Estense Gallery by leveraging color. I mean, the innovations are perhaps not striking because they are not strong colors as they are liked now, but they are still colors that make the works stand out. From the point of view of the works, we have reinserted several objects including paintings, sculptures and decorative art elements, which were previously in storage, into the itinerary. A choice was made aimed at enriching the itinerary with important works but without, however, weighing it down, taking into account the fact that the history of the layout of the Galleria Estense is very long and complicated: we start from a beginning in which the layouts were rather crowded and nineteenth-century, and through the years the works have known continuous insertions and reinsertions... and the people of Modena have always known these variations. Then let’s not forget that in the meantime we have set up in the Ducal Palace in Sassuolo thirteen new rooms full of works from the deposits, which we open on April 30. So a number of works still remain in the deposits of the Estense Gallery, but the main ones are all on display: there is almost nothing “hidden” except for the collections of bronzes, drawings, and medals, which cannot be exhibited except on brief occasions.

Notti Barocche
“Baroque Nights” is the three-day event to be held in Modena on the occasion of the reopening of the Estense Gallery.

How was the choice made for the pieces to be reinserted into the museum itinerary?
Pieces that have a critical history, important attributions, and that had been removed for reasons of space or deemed less important. Then of course things change. Certain critical acquisitions have been made, or works that were considered secondary are now considered useful. Some works have been placed more consistently: artists such as Carlo Cignani, Giovan Gioseffo Del Sole and others, who were previously in the room together with the Bolognese, with a chronology that was not exactly exact, have been moved to the last room, dedicated to the 18th century. It was therefore useful to bring out of storage works that may not be masterpieces but that have a significant relationship with other works on display and thus complete the itinerary. For example, the busts of the Roman emperors, which are not ancient but are seventeenth-century works, or in some cases are reworked ancient works: until now they were not visible and were displayed as a sign of the interest of the Este family, as of all the other dynasties, in the emperors of ancient Rome and in classicism. So it was good to evoke this character of the gallery. These busts had never been exhibited to the public, except at exhibitions long ago; they were all restored and ready to be seen.

Let’s talk about the educational activities, which have always been a flagship of the Estense Gallery, which has a solid tradition in this area. What will be the new features that will follow the reopening?
Bearing in mind that now, as we know, there is an ongoing call for the choice of a new director, and so whoever comes will make choices that I cannot predict, as you have pointed out the Estense Gallery has a very important didactic tradition, and that will have to be strengthened. We are talking about didactics for schools but also didactics for adults: in recent years, even when the Galleria is closed, we have done cycles of lectures, educational paths at the Ducal Palace, educational paths aimed at families focused on art under the Este, not necessarily in the Galleria but also in the city. So if I were in the new director I would integrate and enhance these activities a lot, also because the people of Modena are very curious about what will be the new Gallery. There is a double need: to reconnect with the city by making them understand this great museum that has been renovated and that Modena needs to take back, and to stimulate more tourism in the city. Modena is not a tourist city however, the opportunities are there. I believe that Modena’s tourism potential is still untapped; therefore, it is necessary to frame the museum’s activities in a context of events and activities aimed at increasing the city’s tourism potential. For example, Modena has a strong musical tradition, especially if we think about early music, and this could be worked on. We have done musical evenings in the museum, it is a place that lends itself a lot, and these are activities that can involve different audiences.

Finally: what do you envision for the future of the Estense Gallery and what would you do if you were the new director?
Considering that the Estense Gallery is composed of three “units,” that is, the Gallery, the Estense Lapidary Museum on the ground floor, which is very important for the city, and the Palazzo Ducale in Sassuolo, which has become a partner for exhibitions, in addition to being a beautiful place in itself and having this new wing of thirteen rooms mentioned earlier, we can say that the Gallery has a lot of territorial and cultural potential. What I would do if I became the director would be to try to create a very open museum, especially for cultural and social activities. And we should not neglect the web. We have already done the new website, which has been active for a couple of years, which will obviously have to be updated, and we have recently opened a Facebook page to convey the news of the opening, but on which we will do more. And then, for example, the Gallery lends itself well to augmented reality, which I think is very effective for framing the works well in their context. These are all means that will need to be developed.