Miracles Square behind the scenes: talks Gianluca De Felice, secretary of the Opera della Primaziale

Pisa's Piazza dei Miracoli is a monumental complex with more than three million visitors and 14 million in revenue: we talk about it with Gianluca De Felice, secretary of the Opera della Primaziale Pisana

More than three million visitors in 2017 (3,237,766 to be precise) making it one of the most visited sites in Italy, a turnover of about fourteen million euros totally allocated to conservation and promotion, effective flow management, lively cultural activity, a fifty-three thousand square meter area welcoming from the very first impact, with a manicured lawn and precise and constant cleaning: this is, in short, what is behind Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa, the spectacular monumental complex managed by the Opera della Primaziale Pisana. We interviewed Gianluca De Felice, secretary of the Opera (whom we thank for his availability), to comment on the results achieved in 2017 by the monuments in the square and to learn more about the management of one of the most famous places in the world. Interview by Federico Giannini, editor in chief of Windows on Art.

Pisa, Piazza dei Miracoli
Pisa, Piazza dei Miracoli. Courtesy Opera della Primaziale Pisana

FG. Dr. De Felice, in 2017 the monuments of Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa recorded more than three million visitors: these are numbers that place the Pisan complex among the most visited sites in Italy. What are the factors that determine this success?
GDF. In my view there are mainly three factors to be taken into account. The first consists of the beauty of the monument and the fact that the Piazza dei Miracoli, its bell tower and its complex are known all over the world. Clearly, this is an element of advantage over lesser-known realities. The second point is the favorable conjuncture on tourism: Pisa, in particular, benefits from an airport that is centered on low-cost flights and allows arrivals from various European destinations. The third point is the relationship that the Opera della Primaziale Pisana has long established with tour operators and agencies, with whom we go to set up business relationships that have led to very positive results.

It is to be imagined, however, that there is more to it than that, if we think that that of the Opera della Primaziale Pisana is widely referred to as an example of good governance of cultural heritage. More than a hundred employees, many of them permanent, a turnover that comes largely from ticketing, no public contributions. Is Miracle Square, with a somewhat obvious pun, a management “miracle,” or is it a replicable model that could inspire other complexes, museums, or cultural venues?
No, there is no miracle here at all; on the contrary: it is an exportable model. We are a nonprofit entity: we are private in nature, and since our entity is not profit-oriented, revenues are entirely devoted to the conservation and promotion activities of the monument complex. So this is an important first element: everything that comes in is devoted to heritage. And it is important because what happens here is not what happens in other entities, especially public ones, in which it is not necessarily the case that the revenue is directly usable for the museum or the place that produces it. The second fundamental element is the existence of a statute bound by a law, the concordat law between the State and the Church, which clearly says what the administrators must do. The two stakeholders, the state and the church, have control over the three basic points: the appointment of trustees, the mission and the budget. It’s a form of management that can be replicated, changing stakeholders as appropriate, and I think it’s very functional, because it’s armored on the key points (what we have to do and how we have to spend), and by being private in nature it makes life easier vis-à-vis all those bureaucratic quibbles that the public world falls victim to. As far as the Opera della Primaziale Pisana is concerned, I would add that all this makes it enormously easier for us to manage maintenance and conservation as well as to manage tourist flows.

So we have said that all the turnover is entirely devoted to heritage, partly to preserve it and partly to promote it. Let’s talk about promotion, although the theme is still related to conservation: the Piazza dei Miracoli complex is a set of monuments that live a very busy life, because they are often the site of concerts, exhibitions, conferences, meetings. The issue of events within museums is one of the most discussed topics in the current debate on cultural heritage, and we often hear that museums should open up as much as possible to the public with events in order to promote enhancement: how does the Opera della Primaziale Pisana deal with these issues?
As far as we are concerned, it must first be stressed that ours is a religious heritage, so limits come into play on the activities we carry out, which must be respectful of the place. However, I would like to make a broader reflection with respect to this limitation: first of all, any promotional activity, besides being respectful of the place, must also be respectful of the heritage. Any promotional initiative cannot jeopardize promotion, and this is an unquestionable point: our museums, our monuments must be preserved for future generations, and the first criterion that should guide any enhancement action should always be this. Having said that, and given that point for granted, I find that promotional initiatives, even the slightly more bizarre ones, can be accepted: I do not find it so scandalous that a museum can host a concert, a dinner, a show, as long as this is consistent with conservation respect and that it is respectful of the place. For me it is much more embarrassing to walk into a museum and find it empty: empty of ideas, empty of people. That’s where I would ask myself some questions, certainly not when the museum lives.

Speaking of museums that live: Piazza dei Miracoli has a special relationship with contemporary art, which helps make the complex even more alive. Last year there was the competition for the stained glass windows in the Baptistery, won by Francesco Mori, and then recently there were the exhibitions of Igor Mitoraj and Arnaldo Pomodoro. Preserving, enhancing the ancient and at the same time promoting the contemporary is a lesson that comes from the past but is always current: what is the commitment of the Opera della Primaziale Pisana in this sense?
Let’s start with an assumption: the monumental complex lives with works that are an expression of various centuries. So it would be unthinkable not to include, in the monumental complex, works that are also contemporary. However, it should be done judiciously, carefully, through scientific committees that can help us. You gave the example of the new stained glass windows in the Baptistery: in that case, of the fourteen stained glass windows, ten were restored and four no longer existed. So, with a commission chaired by the bishop of Pisa and including the president of the Opera, the superintendent of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the director of the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione e il Restauro, the superintendent of Pisa, and a representative of the local bank foundation that helped us finance the project, we thought it would be interesting to promote a major international call for proposals to find the artist who could take care of the new stained glass windows. It was won by an Italian, Francesco Mori, but there were also several very interesting foreign projects. Of course, some courage was needed to bring this to life, but I think it is also a due aspect, to keep the complex alive. The same courage is what prompted us to install, now permanently, a work by Mitoraj in the lawn of the square: I think it is necessary to continue to propose contemporary works because the square is an expression of art from every era, so contemporary art must also find space in the monumental complex.

Pisa, la facciata del Duomo
Pisa, the facade of the Duomo. Courtesy Opera della Primaziale Pisana

Let’s change the subject and talk about visitors. The vast majority of visitors to the monuments in Piazza dei Miracoli come, of course, from outside Pisa: but what is the relationship with the city? How do Pisans perceive their monuments?
It is a difficult relationship, for many reasons. First of all, because of the urban aspect: the square is not located in the center of the city, but is in a defiladed area of the urban center. It is not, for example, like in Siena, where the most important square is located in the exact center of the city. And this is a limitation, which prevents many tourists from taking a walk through the city center. Another major obstacle is the presence of the hospital, although at this time the hospital company has issued the tender for the new Cisanello hospital complex, so in the future there will be a freeing up of space. In the meantime, however, this presence does not help us, because it restricts the passage of tourists along the city streets. I am sure that by the time the hospital company sells the old hospital to private individuals, and when therefore a new neighborhood with its cultural and commercial activities is born, the relationship between the square and the rest of the city will certainly be much easier.

What, however, is the relationship with the city’s other institutions? That is, how does Miracle Square fit into the Pisa cultural system and the cultural life of Pisa?
I have to say that Pisa’s cultural life is very lively, thanks also to the presence of several active players (museums, universities, cultural associations that regularly organize important initiatives), and our relationship with other institutions is very good. For example, we have very good relations with Palazzo Blu: for the recent exhibition on Escher we lent works from the Museo dell’Opera, and we have activated promotions with Palazzo Blu with discounts on entrance fees to exhibitions. We also have very good relations with the institutional world, especially with the current superintendent, Dr. Andrea Muzzi, both with a view to dialogue to understand what improvements can be made to the management of tourist flows, and, above all, in the line to be decided in order to pursue conservation that is consistent with the needs of the heritage we have under management.

Speaking of tourists: who is the typical visitor to the monuments of Piazza dei Miracoli?
The answer to this question is rather difficult. We have a strong presence of seasonal tourism. There are very high peaks in the summer, while in the winter, beyond some particular times (for example, under the Christmas holidays), we record noticeable drops. There is, however, a point to be made that, compared to the past, tourism in Pisa today has changed: visitors of new nationalities are coming to the cathedral square, and the hit-and-run, which used to be overwhelming, is still predominant today but has been greatly reduced. It is therefore difficult to say who is the classic visitor to our monuments. However, I can confirm that I see an increasing need to know the heritage: our visitors often demonstrate this desire to know, they do not limit themselves to a simple walk in the square or a photo near the tower. He wants to understand, to inquire, to ask. And our task is to meet his needs in an increasingly timely manner.

So the Opera is also trying to intercept a more conscious tourism....
Sure. Although still I have to say that I don’t agree with the assumption that all tour operators just make up the number. Clearly, “number” is a goal, since “number” generates profit and therefore business. However, it is sought by trying to pick up on what is new, what visitors are curious about, where they can go deeper. In other words: in trying to make numbers one still tries to produce quality. And to increase this quality, I would add, the tour guides of the latest generations also contribute: I find that they are very knowledgeable and competent, and that they approach their work in a very professional way indeed.

Finally, one last question: what projects does the Opera della Primaziale Pisana have in mind for the immediate future?
We are currently engaged in a set of important construction sites, that of the Cathedral (we are completing the internal restoration of the dome and the external restoration of the stone material, also of the dome: the internal one is to be completed by June) and that of the Triumph of Death in the Camposanto, whose restoration will also be presented by June. The technical direction, entrusted to Professor Antonio Paolucci, will soon hold a press conference in which he will present to the scientific world the results of this important restoration, which, I can already anticipate, is resounding, since what is emerging from the restoration laboratory is truly remarkable. We are then engaged in the refurbishing of the entire Museo dell’Opera, which will be completed in 2019, the year in which the reopening will take place with the new layout by architect Natalini. Another goal for 2019 is the hypothesis of an exhibition on the great artists of the Cemetery: thus, on the occasion of the relocation of the Triumph of Death, the artists who painted the walls of the Monumental Cemetery will be presented.

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.