Calenda deal with economics and leave museology alone. 10 reasons against his mega-museum

Carlo Calenda, candidate for mayor in Rome, launches his plan for the Capitoline Museums: make it a mega-museum of Roman antiquities "like the Louvre." A wrong idea for at least 10 reasons-historical, cultural, philosophical, logistical, opportunity.

Transforming the Capitoline Museums into a large museum of the history of Rome that would bring together the collections of the various institutes that today preserve Roman antiquities in the capital (National Roman Museum, Museum of Romana, Centrale Montemartini), so that visitors would have the entire epic of Rome at their disposal in a single square, and free up space with the clearing of Palazzo Senatorio (City Hall will find another location) and part of Palazzo dei Conservatori (with the relocation of the Pinacoteca Capitolina to Palazzo Barberini), and hoping that the state will make Palazzo Rivaldi available. This idea bears the signature of Carlo Calenda, candidate for mayor in Rome, who explained it in a video posted on his social channels and further illustrated it in some slides posted on his website.

The rationale? In Calenda’s own words, the Capitolini is “an old concept museum, for so many reasons. The first: it puts together so many different things, it doesn’t explain them, and so you have two collections, let’s call them that, the Pinacoteca where there are amazing paintings, where there are Caravaggio, Van Dyck, Guido Reni and so many other things, and then you have the collection basically of Roman marbles including some epic things.” And then, the second reason: the displays, according to the former minister, would not allow the visitor to fully understand the history of Rome. “You don’t understand anything because they are rooms crowded with statues, you don’t understand anything about Roman culture, for example that in the Republican era Rome founded what today are our institutions, did a job of bringing together the different social strata... all this is not understood. What was the value of the Senate? What was being done in the Senate? We don’t know what the cursus honorum was, what a praetor did, what a consul did, what a proconsul did, how come Augustus was able to be emperor while pretending not to be king, because the word king was hated by the Romans. All this, which is the beauty of Rome, is not understood here, and it is also not understood in part because the collections are fragmented: they are a little bit in Palazzo Massimo, a little bit here, a little bit in Palazzo Altemps.” Then there is a further reason: “Rome,” Calenda says, “does not have a large public museum representative of the City. Paris, London, Stockholm, and Amsterdam have been able to create large structures dedicated to their history, systematizing the most relevant works and guaranteeing continuity and solemnity to the narrative.”

Of course, Calenda’s idea, which would like to move the collections of half of Rome from one museum to another at will, is completely unfeasible, for a variety of reasons: historical, philosophical, cultural, logistical, legal, and opportunity.

Calenda nel video
Carlo Calenda in the video

1. The Capitoline Museums have a history that cannot be distorted, let alone erased. We are talking about the oldest museum in the world, whose foundation is traced back to 1471, the year in which Pope Sixtus IV solemnly donated to the Roman people the great Lateran bronzes (the She-wolf, the Spinario, the Camillus, and the colossal head of Constantine) that make up the original nucleus of the museum, and which were placed in front of the facade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. By the mid-sixteenth century, moreover, the collection had already been greatly enriched, to the point that in 1654 it became necessary to build the Palazzo Nuovo on the opposite side of the square from the Palazzo dei Conservatori to make room for the works that the older building could no longer contain (it was later opened to the public in 1734). They are also called “Capitoline Museums,” in the plural, because the Pinacoteca that Calenda would like to move is not an unnecessary frill, but an integral part of the complex: it was founded by Benedict XIV, also on the Capitoline Hill, between 1748 and 1750, following the purchase of several dozen paintings from the Sacchetti and Pio families. A collection that then went on to expand over the following centuries, but which since its foundation has always been linked to the Capitol. That of the Capitoline Museums is, in short, a centuries-old history that must be respected: to think of moving the paintings of the Pinacoteca just to facilitate tourists is equivalent to thinking of dismantling the Colosseum and rebuilding it somewhere else because where it is now it gets in the way of traffic.

2. All the collections of Roman antiquities inside the Capitoline Museums will not fit. When Calenda says that the collections of Roman antiquities are too fragmented among the capital’s different museums and suggests bringing them together on the Capitol as he said in a recent interview, he is wrong twice: for logistical reasons and for historical reasons. First, all of Rome’s antiquities on the Capitol do not fit, if only considering the collections of Palazzo Massimo and Palazzo Altemps (10,000 square meters of exhibition space in all), which would be added to those of the Capitoline Museums (about 13,000 square meters, a few more if the Palazzo Senatorio is vacated). Calenda then suggests asking the state for the availability of Palazzo Rivaldi: but then what is the point of moving everything if then anyway the collections, for purely logistical reasons, have to be on multiple sites? Avoid the tourist having to take a 15-minute walk to go to the Palazzo Massimo? Not to mention that it would result in a huge museum of classical antiquities alone, which would crush the stamina of even the most avid enthusiast (the Louvre, by contrast, has collections ranging from ancient times to the 19th century). Second, because if the collections are divided, it is not because we have not been able to do “like the Louvre” (the model Calenda had in mind in the interview above: moreover, the Louvre is six times the size of the Capitoline, 73,000 square meters of display versus just under 13.000: they would become more than 43,000 as Calenda hoped only by adding more venues, but the Louvre’s 73,000 are on a single site, so the comparison is already wrong in the beginning), but because they were born in different eras and contexts. At Palazzo Altemps, for example, there is what remains of the collection that Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps assembled in the 16th century, as well as other important collecting nuclei from illustrious Roman families. The more recently established Palazzo Massimo is the heir to the Baths Museum, and if anything, if a move is to be made, it would make more sense to move the Palazzo Massimo collection to the Baths of Diocletian, where it was from 1889, the year the national museum was created, until the early 1980s (it was even discussed a few years ago, shortly after the Franceschini reform, but nothing was done about it for reasons of space adequacy). The Capitoline Museums, on the other hand, are the museums of the Municipality of Rome, born with this sense, and it is for this reason that they are linked to the seat of the Municipality, which is right to be there for historical reasons (the Palazzo Senatorio has been the seat of the Roman municipality for centuries) and for symbolic reasons, that is, (one above all) to show, even to the tourist, that in Rome there is a full identification between the community and its heritage.

3. There is already a museum on Roman civilization. It is located in Eur and is called, precisely, “Museum of Roman Civilization,” and it fulfills precisely that educational function advocated by Calenda. And if Rome has a museum priority, then that priority is to finally reopen this museum, which has been closed since 2014 for redevelopment work that was supposed to take two years. This is an unacceptable delay, and the Museum of Roman Civilization is moreover a municipal museum, so its reopening should be the first priority in the museum field of any mayoral candidate. And so it is useless to fantasize about a Louvre of Roman antiquities, with educational value, if the museum that is supposed to fulfill the educational function has been shamefully shuttered for seven years due to delays, unforeseen events, and lack of funds. Let us work, if anything, to improve the existing: not only the Museum of Roman Civilization, but also, for example, the Museum of Rome in Palazzo Braschi, another museum on the history of Rome (and beyond) that has not yet found a well-defined line.

4. And in any case, it is not true that one leaves the Capitoline Museums without knowing anything about Roman history. Consider, for example, the part of the Palazzo dei Conservatori where the visitor gets to walk through the Area of the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter and, immediately attached, the Exedra of Marcus Aurelius. Arriving there after walking through the corridors of the Sale Castellani is equivalent to traveling to the oldest part of Rome’s history, moving through the origins of Roman civilization. One can then discuss how this route is presented and explained, but given the magnitude of the Capitoline collection, a modern museum should pose, if anything, the idea of how to build not a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all itinerary (as perhaps Calenda has in mind), but rather different routes depending on the type of audience, with material to be made available on-site and online based on the interests of individuals (these are the most up-to-date lines in museology). It is true that there are many aspects to be improved, but not the ones Calenda points out: for example, the fact that the Pietro da Cortona Room is reduced to a lecture hall that disturbs the proper viewing of the works (to get a proper view of Pietro da Cortona’s Rape of the Sabine Women , one has to make one’s way through the chairs, and to see Giovanni Maria Bottalla’s masterpieces, which are moreover rare, one even has to climb up to the speakers’ box).

5. The Capitoline Museums are not “old concept,” but rather are a kind of museological miracle. And this is simply because, in the Palazzo Nuovo, the collections are still arranged according to 18th-century arrangements. In Rome, therefore, there is not only the oldest museum in the world, but this museum presents itself in part to today’s visitor as it presented itself to the eighteenth-century visitor. In any other country in the world, a candidate for mayor would probably think about how to enhance this heritage: an eighteenth-century arrangement is as valuable as the works it preserves.

6. Usually appurtenant bonds hang over ancient collections. These are those constraints that bind a collection to its container and prevent exactly what Calenda would like to do, namely massive displacements with deliberate alterations of the historical links between container and content. And they are adopted not because superintendencies have passé conceptions of museums or historic buildings, but out of respect for the history of places that should be preserved as they got there. Museum collections are not like Tetris tiles that you can fit together at will to find the squarest pattern-they are the result of centuries of history that cannot be wiped out all at once with a swipe of a sponge. Therefore, moving the paintings of the Pinacoteca Capitolina to the Palazzo Barberini (where, moreover, there is not even enough space to accommodate such a large collection) because then at least the works of Caravaggio are all in one place would be historical and cultural violence. If the criterion is to bring works together by genre, then, while we are at it, since we want to sever the historical ties between collections and buildings, why not also bring in the Caravaggio paintings that are in the Borghese Gallery or those in the Contarelli Chapel? Or make Palazzo Barberini the museum of super-star painters, and move the little-known ones elsewhere? Yes, that would be a monstrosity, but it would be an idea not so far removed from the Louvre of Roman antiquities.

7. Even if it could be done, mixing collections belonging to different institutions is problematic. It means red tape to find the right fit (and if it is not found, the visitor may be forced, for example, to pay two tickets to see two floors of the same building), it means different expertise, it means creating potentially unfortunate situations if one institution is healthy and the other, on the other hand, for example, has gaps in staffing. Better to leave it alone.

8. Museums should not be made for the use of tourists. The idea that the Capitoline Museums should be turned upside down because the pensioner from Pittsburgh or the accountant from Dortmund must know what a proconsul was doing is simply aberrant. No museology expert would ever dream of building a museum around the needs of the tourist, simply for the reason that this is not the purpose for which museums are created (so it might be useful for Calenda to start with the basics: read ICOM’s definition of the term “museum”). In Rome, there are “five museums” of Roman antiquities not because we like to tribute the tourist, but because these are institutes that were formed at different times, in different contexts, collecting nuclei that originated in the most disparate way disparate way (from papal donations to the collections of illustrious families, from museums born after the Unification of Italy to postwar projects), and this is because Rome’s history is extremely complex. And perhaps, indeed, it is much more useful and interesting for the tourist to learn about this extraordinary layering, which does not exist in any other city in the world, than notions about Roman history, which he can learn even from a book, if it is really necessary for him to know the succession of stages of the cursus honorum.

9. No expert in the subject would support such a project. No art historian, archaeologist, museologist, serious cultural professional would endorse such an idea as Calenda’s, for all the reasons listed above. The reasoning that is being made in these months for other emergencies applies: the experts should deal with the matter. And Calenda should listen to them and get their advice. If, on the other hand, this idea comes after consulting an expert, it should be known that it is like having consulted a doctor who suggests curing bronchitis with the laying on of hands.

10. Rome does not have a large representative museum because its history is not that of Paris, Amsterdam or Stockholm. Most European cities are tied to a specific historical period that shaped its major emergences-Amsterdam to the seventeenth century, Stockholm to the eighteenth century, Paris to the nineteenth century. Rome does not have one period that prevails over the others, and this layering, in addition to being clearly legible in the historic center, is why Italy’s capital has no equal in the rest of the world, and is also one of the reasons why tourists visit it. What Calenda sees as fragmentation is actually richness, reflecting this characteristic of Rome. And the idea of creating a “great structure dedicated to the history” of Rome where the works are “systematized” (a phrasing that is perhaps fine for a network of startups, less so for the individual pieces of cultural heritage of the most beautiful city in the world) having Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm in mind is nothing more than a homogenization idea, which should, if anything, be averted. Rome’s museum heritage is not unattractive to tourists because there is no mega-museum of antiquities, but because there is no mobility system similar to that of other European capitals, because the traffic is often embarrassing, because there are so many areas of the historic center that are not adequately enhanced (Calenda’s idea instead goes in the opposite direction and would instead favor the logic of overtourism), because the greenery and street furniture are not taken care of, because of the decay and filth, all effectively summarized by the Guardian in a 2019 article, and all problems that Rome has been dragging on for a long time and that the current administration has been unable to solve. It is from here, if anything, that we need to start to question the future of the city and its museums.

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