Lombard art from the Visconti to the Sforza: a response to an overly ungenerous critique

A sound (and ungenerous) critique of the exhibition Arte Lombarda dai Visconti agli Sforza appeared in the Manifesto. A response is needed... :-)

In his A cosa serve Michelangelo?, Tomaso Montanari wrote, with good reason, that it has become quite difficult to read negative reviews of exhibitions in major national newspapers: only “positive or, better yet, celebratory” reviews. However, it is still not so rare to read bombastic critiques, although often, in my opinion, such critiques seem to suffer from the opposite problem. That is, they seem to sin a little too much of excessive gratuitousness. This is the impression I got when reading the review to the exhibition Arte lombarda dai Visconti agli Sforza that appeared in the columns of the Manifesto, and signed by the young pen of Giovanni Renzi.

That we should not expect a particularly euphoric review, we understood from the very first lines, in which Giovanni Renzi writes, in no uncertain terms, that the title of the exhibition walks the line “between homage and hybris.” There would be much to discuss about the choice of the term “hybris,” which I have not read since my high school days, to allude to an alleged as well as, for me, unfounded pride on the part of the curators of the Milan exhibition: we can, however, limit ourselves to noting that it would still seem to be guilty of lese majesty for anyone who dares to touch the sacred figure of Roberto Longhi, a true idol for all art historians (old and young) who are incurably passatist. Be it even the slightest juxtaposition dictated by the mere desire to consider Longhi a source of inspiration. As, moreover, the curators, Mauro Natale and Serena Romano, immediately declared through the first sentence of the press release, saying that the exhibition “is inspired in a programmatic but critically revised way” by the exhibition of the same name curated by Longhi and Gian Alberto Dell’Acqua in 1958. And it could not be otherwise: it is well known that Longhi is one of the most important figures in the history of art, and that he still offers innumerable suggestions to scholars is a fact, but if the curators say that the approach is “critically revised,” this is not due to who knows what sin of pride. It is simply owed to the fact that art history must have progressed since fifty-seven years ago.

And if our Giovanni Renzi praises, with good reason, the excellence of the works on display, the recomposition of the triptych by Bonifacio Bembo, about which we too have spoken extensively in these pages, the excellent presence of the panels by the Master of the Madonna Cagnola, and so on, with the same verve he does not shy away from expressing sound and excessive criticism of the layout: it would result, according to him, “a suffocating jumble in which it is complex to keep the course.” If the exhibition Dai Visconti agli Sforza consists of a “suffocating overcrowding” (everything can be said, except that the set-up is overcrowded... !), one wonders what the reviewer might think of the exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci set up again at the Royal Palace, but upstairs: probably, Giovanni Renzi would be spontaneously associated with a local market. Complete with a crush! But the criticism does not end there. The colors of the displays, according to Giovanni Renzi, would seem to “not respond to any criteria”: perhaps that the colors simply adhere to that basic concept of modern museography that would like different color tones according to different visual directions and different paths? And if the doubts about the little centrality given to Vincenzo Foppa and the tags on which the date is sometimes absent seem justified, it is not clear why the background music and the fake antique banners on which the texts accompanying the visitor have been affixed, would be to be dismissed without appeal: indeed, I found the idea of projecting the visitor into Visconti and Sforza’s Milan even through the aid of audio and stage sets to be original for an exhibition that seeks neither numbers nor the easy, swoon-worthy exhibition-blockbuster audience. But no: this is enough for Giovanni Renzi to liken, very ungenerously, the exhibition to a b-movie, although there is, again according to him, material for a “colossal.” Putting aside that it is by no means certain that a colossal must also necessarily be a quality product, it is necessary to warn Giovanni Renzi that art b-movies are something else entirely: these days one has been inaugurated just a few kilometers away, in the Eataly space of the Expo to be exact. A truism, one might think, but it is always better to propose one more clarification than one less.

Arte Lombarda dai Visconti agli Sforza, allestimento
One of the rooms of the exhibition Arte Lombarda dai Visconti agli Sforza Ph ©Francesca Forquet for Arte Lombarda dai Visconti agli Sforza

Back to us: another aspect that perplexes Giovanni Renzi is “the appropriateness of re-proposing today the chronological extremes of the exhibition project elaborated in 1958.” Ours continues in his pertinacious conviction about the fact that the 2015 exhibition represents little more than a reissue of the 1958 one: one cannot otherwise explain (and Giovanni Renzi will correct me if I have misinterpreted him) the doubts about the appropriateness “of re-proposing today the chronological extremes of the exhibition project elaborated in 1958.” It would turn out to be too simplistic to stop at a mere evaluation of the extremes examined by the exhibition and ask what sense there is in giving life today to an operation still centered on the same chronological arc. If the merit of the 1958 exhibition was that of affirming the importance ofLombard art in the panorama of Italy between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries and, with it, that of delineating the distinctive features of the “concept of Lombard” (and, in this regard, we are still indebted to the work of Longhi and Dell’Acqua, and the scholars who worked with them), the 2015 exhibition expands the boundaries of the discourse begun then, involving Lombard art in a broader perspective of relations with neighboring regions, whether on this side or on the other side of the Alps, which through their sap have nourished the Lombard identity itself, and which above all project it into thatperspective of internationality that Natale and Romano are so keen to highlight. Different then is the very slant of the exhibition: if in 1958 the exhibition unraveled mainly through the vicissitudes of individual artists, today, on the other hand, we are witnessing, aided by the renewed demands of art history compared to those of more than fifty years ago, a path that follows the historical and dynastic events of Milan at the time: perhaps it would have been preferable to make the connections between personages in power and artistic trends more obvious (the visitor unaccustomed to the art of Visconti and Sforza Milan may sometimes run the risk of not grasping them), but the sections follow one another with coherence and continuity. It is clear to everyone that such a long and complex period of art history is difficult to be best framed in a single exhibition: but it should also be stressed, in my opinion, that this exhibition is not already a point of arrival, but an interesting and well-organized starting point, both from a scientific and a popular point of view, for future initiatives that, as Giovanni Renzi hopes, will be able to make the public understand the complexity of the events of Lombard art.

Finally, one last note: let us not make the serious mistake of thinking that the timing of this exhibition has been punctuated by that of theExpo. The general enthusiasm, by yours truly not at all shared, for the international event taking place in Rho, may perhaps have suggested to the curators and press office the very avoidable statement affirming the exhibition Dai Visconti agli Sforza as an integral part of Expo: we would all have very gladly done without such labile links. But it is necessary to point out that today’s exhibition is the result of years of work: it is not a hastily studied exhibition, nor is it an exhibition “tied to Expo times” and untied from those of research. Giovanni Renzi may not know it, since the Dai Visconti agli Sforza project seems to him to be untethered to the “slow and unpredictable times of maturing research,” but the exhibition took almost four years to produce. A suitable time for a high-level result. Which is what, precisely, we see today in the rooms on the ground floor of the Royal Palace.

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.