On the risk of closing Santa Maria della Scala in Siena: interview with Giulio Burresi

The museum complex of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena is in danger of closure: we talk about it with Giulio Burresi, the soul of the protest to save the complex.

It was only a few days ago that the Santa Maria della Scala Museum Complex in Siena was reportedly at risk of closure. This is an ancient hospital with a history dating back thousands of years, which preserves within it valuable artistic testimonies from different periods, created by leading artists (such as Vecchietta and Domenico di Bartolo). In addition, the complex houses various collections and environments where art is experienced at a high level: there are museums, workshops, collections, a library (the Briganti Library), and exhibitions and events are organized. The complex (whose website is www.santamariadellascala.com, where you can go to learn more about it) which is located in the heart of Siena, situated in front of the Cathedral, is now at risk of closure. And this would be a very serious loss for culture not only in Siena, but in all of Italy.

Why has it come to this point and how can the situation be resolved? We talked about it with Giulio Burresi (whom we thank for his availability), a final-year student of Art History in Siena, who is one of the animators of the protest against the closure of the complex (and in favor of its rescue) and is the founder of the Facebook page “Salviamo il Santa Maria della Scala”(www.facebook.com/www.salviamoilsantamariadellascala.it), which has helped to spread the issue online.

To begin with, what is the situation of the Santa Maria della Scala complex? Why has it come to the point of assuming the closure of one of the most important museum complexes in the region and even in the whole country?

The situation is very complex and articulated. The main reason is the lack of funds, following the crisis of Monte dei Paschi, one of the main supporters, and another problem lies in the fact that behind all this there is a policy of organization and management of services within the museum complex that is totally “ramshackle” ... I would say because behind all this there are the games of politics, recommendations, the fact that there are no art historians, that is, people who are able to protect the heritage and organize exhibitions with scientific rigor. Instead of thinking about the territory, space has been given to the culture of the ephemeral, and thus to pre-packaged exhibitions without a proper scientific plan, except for a few cases, however, of very high quality. For example, the exhibition on Duccio between late 2003 and early 2004 (curated by Michel Laclotte, Luciano Bellosi and other top scholars), and then also the last major exhibition, “From Jacopo della Quercia to Donatello, The Arts in Siena in the Early Renaissance,” in 2010, curated by Max Seidel. Then the others, let’s say, were not adequate: even the exhibition on Federico Barocci, which was very beautiful (think for example of the Perugia Altarpiece that had just been restored), was not organized in a very philological way. But it should also be said that there is not only the activity of exhibitions: there is, for example, the Archaeological Museum, which will also suffer a nefarious fate if the Santa Maria della Scala complex is closed, then there is the Children’s Art Museum, where there are very good people who do workshops for schools (and by the way it is something that has very low costs), and several other places of culture.

So on the one hand there has been a lack of private support, and on the other hand the public has not been very helpful....

There was a foundation, and the whole thing was turned over to a service organization, which is called Vernice, which is closely connected to Monte dei Paschi and was in charge of management. However, although the workers (and female workers, because there are so many women) say Vernice was giving a lot of work, it did not have a proper planning and study policy. As far as the surveillance staff is concerned, there is a cooperative called Zelig that had a very ambiguous management, and again we would need to look into this because it is not clear why Zelig was winning all the contracts from all the institutions in Siena. A situation that, we could say, is the exact opposite of what was the “golden” period of exhibitions in Siena, i.e., at the time of Previtali1: we are talking about the years between 19752, when there was the exhibition on Jacopo della Quercia, and, even though Previtali had already passed away, 1990, the year of the exhibition on Domenico Beccafumi, which was very beautiful, with Fiorella Sricchia Santoro3 as curator and with Paola Barocchi4 on the scientific committee, as well as a young Andrea De Marchi5 who, though young, was already an excellent scholar. It was a great moment, and this was possible because there was a close collaboration between the University, the Municipality and the Superintendence, and it was among other things in this context that the Santa Maria della Scala Museum Complex was born. It was from 19866 that a committee was formed for the recovery of the Museum: and today unfortunately we have come to the risk of closure.

What would the Santa Maria della Scala complex need to get out of this situation? What would be needed to save Santa Maria della Scala?

Meanwhile, the situation today, a few hours ago, is already different, because the Commissioner has decided to release funding: so already something different (for example, it is thought that the Briganti Library will remain open until September 30). One way out of this situation could be to unlock new funds, which may come from the Region (400,000 euros is mentioned). There are also those who have thought of a “very large patron” who would be able to save the complex, but this is a very fanciful hypothesis. The other way might be to contain expenses, for example by greatly reducing the hours: almost certainly Santa Maria della Scala will remain completely closed in January and February next year, even if it could be made to reopen permanently. Let’s say, however, that there is no real solution: decisions are being awaited from above. In my opinion, however, the main way to return this institution to its glory is to turn it back over to art historians, return it to those who know the trade and know where to intervene to eliminate waste.

How can all of us, from scholars to simple enthusiasts via students, who live far away in Siena and yet care about the fate of Santa Maria della Scala and would like to lend a hand, help?

Through my page that I opened on Facebook(www.facebook.com/www.salviamoilsantamariadellascala.it) I always try to keep the attention high and try to make everyone aware of the fact that Santa Maria della Scala is a complex that needs help: I personally say that it is a “hospital that needs care,” and this is both on the level of ideas (there is a lack of ideas on how to use the spaces) and on the economic level, because there is a lack of funds. For those who will be in the area tomorrow (Friday, August 31), there will be a presidium in front of the prefecture at 4:30 p.m., with Sienese artists reading pieces that serve to stir consciences, so you are all invited to participate en masse! One way to help even from afar in my opinion is to try not to let the attention wane and talk to the institutions, because then there is also another risk: I would not want that now, granted the extension (for the library of one month, for the rest we are talking about two months), the attention will go down and we will no longer talk about the Santa Maria della Scala complex, which, I repeat, needs care and attention.


1. Editor’s note: Giovanni Previtali (1934 - 1988) was an art historian who served, between 1976 and 1979, as Dean of the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy at the University of Siena, of which he was also Pro-rector in the years between 1979 and 1981. In addition to founding, in 1986, the School of Specialization in Art History at Siena, he was also the promoter of very important exhibitions that contributed to Siena becoming a cultural center of attraction of international significance.↑

2.Exhibitions were not yet held at Santa Maria della Scala: in those years, in fact, the complex still functioned as a hospital.↑

3. Editor’s note: Fiorella Sricchia Santoro is an art historian who has taught at the Federico II University in Naples and has numerous publications on various artists to her credit. She has also curated several exhibitions, on painters from Siena or who passed through Siena (such as Domenico Beccafumi, Francesco Vanni, the Sodoma) and others. He also served on the scientific committee of the famous 2006 exhibition on Antonello da Messina.↑

4. Editor’s note: Paola Barocchi is an art history scholar who teaches at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. She specializes in 16th-century Florentine and Tuscan painting (particularly Mannerism), has edited numerous volumes (including the critical edition of Michelangelo’s correspondence), and has served on the scientific committees of many exhibitions.↑

5. 1986 is also the year of the special issue of the “Bollettino d’Arte” dedicated to Santa Maria della Scala: Aa.Vv., Siena. La fabbrica del Santa Maria della Scala, in Bollettino d’Arte, 6, Ser.71, 1986, Special Volume, pp. 1-209.↑