Contemporary art in Florence is often overlooked. Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti – artists of the Renaissance – are names that come to mind when thinking about Florentine art. However, much more than these well-known works can be found. La Pietra Dialogues’ project Mapping Contemporary Florence is devoted to educating the public on the existence of contemporary art in the city.
The latest installment of the series was a dialogue held in Villa La Pietra from 6-8 p.m. on Feb. 3 that brought some of the most important cultural actors in the city to campus, and a gallery art crawl that took place the following evening. Global Liberal Studies senior Andreas Petrossiants moderated the dialogue, which featured art historian and curator Valentina Gensini; art historian, curator and educator Riccardo Lami; curator and art critic Sergio Risaliti, head of the Cultural Department at the City of Florence Tommaso Sacchi; new media artist and educator Justin Randolph Thompson; and art historian Caterina Toschi.
Petrossiants opened the discussion by posing the question of how Florence’s contemporary art can be defined, and how this definition functions in relation to artists and institutions.
Each public square can exhibit contemporary art, meaning that art is everywhere. “Florence is the city which in 1,000 square kilometers you have 1,000 museums,” Sacchi said.
People come to Florence with something Lami called an “art mind:” they come to see the world class Renaissance collections of museums like the Accademia and the Uffizi because that is what they believe Florentine art to be. The panelists agreed that Florence’s contemporary art scene is unique because of the city’s history.
“An artist can dialogue with a present that is full of things,” Lami said. “Some of these things are from the past.”
Lami emphasized that in Florence artists don’t live in a vacuum, “We have contexts, we have textures.”
For contemporary artists, this means creating work that will be compared to the likes of the Renaissance greats.
“The contexts presents a real opposition and challenge to any artist that comes here,” practicing artist Thompson said. “It’s a city that really invites ambition.”
Thompson mentioned T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which I promptly read after the dialogue, and, upon reflection, found that it can be directly applied to contemporary artists in Florence.
Eliot writes: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” I imagine Eliot would argue that the artists who come to Florence and aspire to work in the shadows of the Renaissance’s legacy are only able to thrive because of the history, not despite it.
The very last sentence of his essay reads, “He is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” Contemporary artists are conscious of the fact that while the artists who contributed to the Accademia and the Uffizi are long gone, their work remains a permanent part of history.
The door of the Renaissance remains open and artists continue to draw from it, Risaliti explained. Risaliti has first hand experience in dealing with one such artist. He curated a Jeff Koons exhibit last fall that included a bright yellow stainless steel sculpture Pluto and Proserpina which was displayed in front of Palazzo Vecchio, just steps from the Uffizi Gallery and next to a replica of Michelangelo’s David. The chosen placement of his sculpture interacted with Renaissance history, as well as the subject – it referenced Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina.
Organizing an exhibit like this also requires thinking about the audience, Risaliti explained.
“When you organize an exhibition in a square, in a space of life, the interaction is with people,” Risaliti said.
This interaction with others is a concept that was around even in the Renaissance. David, for example, requires the viewer to walk 360 degrees around it in order to appreciate it in full.
It is important to create something that people want to interact with, Thompson explained, referring to his own art.
While artists are always interacting with the history, whether it be directly or indirectly, artists come to Florence for the overall culture as well, Thompson said. His new exhibit draws on all that is happening culturally in Florence.
His exhibit, “The future looks brighter than ever,” was the last stop on the art crawl led by Petrossiants on Feb. 4. The exhibit, made in conjunction with Kevin Jerome Everson, is part of Black History Month in Florence and explores the impact the African Diaspora has in Florence. It is composed of sculpture, music and performance, and runs at Biagiotti Progetto Arte through Feb. 28.