Posted by Alain Elkann on 06/03/2020
THE IMPORTANCE OF FLORENCE. Paola D’Agostino is Director of the Musei del Bargello, in Florence, Italy, a new museum group comprising the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, the Medici Chapel, the Church and Museum of Orsanmichele, Palazzo Davanzati and Casa Martelli. This five museum consortium was put together after the reform of Italian museums in 2014 by Dario Franceschini, the Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage.
Paola D’Agostino, what was the 2014 museum reform in Italy?
The reform was intended to make 20 Italian museums more independent in terms of budget management, cultural product and strategic planning. A governing board was introduced, and the major novelty of an advisory council. With the reform the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, the most important museum of Italian sculpture in the world, became the headquarters of a group of four other museums.
What does the remainder of that group comprise?
The Medici Chapel, a major tourist attraction where Michelangelo’s masterpiece of the New Sacristy is, as well as less prominent, but equally important museums such as the Church and Museum of Orsanmichele – which houses early 15th century sculptures with masterpieces by Donatello, Ghiberti, Verroccio, and Giambologna – and two lesser known smaller museums which used to be private residences. Palazzo Davanzati is one of the few surviving medieval homes in Florence, and Casa Martelli was the family residence of a very important family who were close to the Medici.
What is your main challenge?
As a scholar of Italian sculpture, the main challenge to me is to bring this amazing group of masterpieces, housed in some of the most important architectural buildings in Florence, to the forefront of museums and city life. They are wrongly considered minor museums because they are compared with the Uffizi or the Accademia. They are not only equally important, but also deeply connected to the history of Florence and the history of museum making at the end of the 19th century.
“I have butterflies in my stomach every time I walk through the rooms of the Bargello”
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Madonna and Child with St. John (Tondi Pitti), Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello.
Photo: A. Quattrone
Paola D’Agostino, how did you come to specialize in sculpture?
In 1993 I was studying at the University of Naples and had to choose the topic for my BA thesis. My professor Fiorella Sricchia Santoro, a faithful student of Roberto Longhi, encouraged me to explore sculpture. She said that in Naples everyone was studying paintings, and she gave me a book and two months in which to decide whether or not I wanted to do my BA thesis on Pietro Bernini, Gian Lorenzo’s father. After two months I was completely hooked, and chose to become not only a sculpture expert, but to specialize in late 16th and 17th century Italian sculpture.
What did you do next?
I was intrigued by the scholars in Britain and America, countries where sculpture was much more studied then, and I applied for an M.A. at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. I did my MA thesis on Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s pupils working in Naples.
How did your career progress?
First I worked at the V&A in London for two years to help organize a show on Italian terracotta sculpture. The show also travelled to Houston, Texas, and it was my very first visit to the U.S. In 2006, many years later, I got a senior fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to finish my book out of my PhD on Cosimo Fanzago, the leading sculptor of Baroque Naples. After a few months doing my research, James Draper – who very recently passed, he was the curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – asked me if I was interested in becoming a curator. I said yes, and it was a turning point. I completed my fellowship and went back to Naples, Italy for a year and a half, and then in 2009 Jim Draper hired me back, as a senior research associate this time, to work on the catalogue of Italian bronze sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I worked in his Department for four years, doing research for the bronze catalogue or organizing exhibitions like “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay” – a major show on terracottas by Bernini – and “Antonio Canova The Seven Last Works.” In 2013 I went to the Yale University Art Gallery and I worked there for two years in the European Art Department as curator. Then I was appointed Director of the Bargello in Florence and went back to Italy. It was August 18 of 2015. I am incredibly pleased to have recently been re-appointed for another four years.
What is your job?
I oversee the five museums, and when I arrived and still now I have butterflies in my stomach every time I walk through the rooms of the Bargello and see the master works of Donatello, Michelangelo, Cellini and Bernini, to name a few. For the first three years I worked to create the structure for this museums group, in terms of administration and managing resources. Unlike Anglo-American museums, and what for us is still the major challenge, we cannot manage staff. In other words, we cannot hire or choose who works for us, or open positions. Staff is still managed by the Ministry, so it took a long time to get some of the resources which are indispensable to run an independent museum. With the curators who were already working in the Museums I put together a master plan of necessary building conservation works to be done, as well as a new narrative of how the museums are presented to the public.
“We are improving cultural and education programs so that museums play a new role in society.”
Paola D’Agostino, is sculpture followed by a large public?
Not as much as it should be. There are the major masterpieces from ancient sculpture, Greek masterpieces and some of the Roman masterworks, but when it comes to early modern there are fewer artists who are appreciated. Even the most famous sculpture Michelangelo’s David (which is not in my museums) is visited mostly because it is a so-called “must see attraction in Florence” and not because people fully appreciate sculpture. Ironically, if you ask both Italians and foreigners what Donatello’s David is, the majority will answer that it is the David di Donatello cinema award and not a Donatello masterpiece in bronze.
How many visitors do you have?
We have about 250,000 visitors at the Bargello per year. The whole museum group has almost 700,000 visitors per year. We could manage more and we are working with the Ministry to improve opening hours.
How many people work with you?
We should have123 staff members across the board, from guards to curators and administrators, but now only have 66, half the number.
Is this a big problem?
Yes. It is a problem that affects all of the Italian public administration.
Because we are approaching a turning point. Many people are retiring because they reach an age limit and they have to find the funds to replace them. It’s going to take at least another 4-6 years to have the cycle completed. Until about 10 years ago the Ministry for Cultural Heritage was always considered unimportant when it came to plans and hiring strategies. The strong interest that our appointments and the reform sparked also created the urgency to find a solution and change policies for that ministry. It is going to take time, but at least now they have a plan in place.
The Bargello courtyard
Orsanmichele Museum: Verrocchio, Giambologna, Ghiberti
Medici Chapel, New Sacristy, Tomb of Giuliano dei Medici. Photo: A. Quattrone
Palazzo Davanzati, Camera Castellana
“Dante Alighieri was sentenced to death at the Bargello. Luckily he escaped.”
Paola D’Agostino, Florence is one of the most important and romantic visited cities in the world. Is there a lot of competition between the institutions and is the influx of visitors well organized?
There is a lot of competition among institutions but what is changing in a positive way is that we are also all trying to encourage residents and Florentines to come back and revisit their own museums. We are not only planning our events in terms of tourist attractions, but also improving cultural and education programs so that museums play a new role in society. The municipality of Florence is doing a very good job in monitoring the flocks of tourists. They had a UNESCO plan, which was established in 2016, to diversify tourists’ itineraries and to encourage a network of cultural institutions in the city.
Why should one visit the Bargello museums and how do you encourage it?
The Bargello can make everyone easily and very effectively understand the importance of Florence from the political and the cultural point of view. The building itself mesmerizes whoever enters its courtyard, and it also has the oldest portrait of Dante Alighieri, who was sentenced to death at the Bargello. Luckily he escaped. And then, through the masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture, you can appreciate the importance of not only the artists’ ingenuity but also the intelligence of the Medici dynasty in promoting sculpture as a political medium. The Medici Chapels and Orsanmichele not only tell you of the close connection of the Medici with the city, with Michelangelo’s masterpiece of the New Sacristy which was his last work in Florence, but also Orsanmichele probably encapsulates best the power and refinement of the guilds of Florence.
Together with Xavier Salomon, the curator at the Frick Collection who you recently worked with on a Bertoldo di Giovanni exhibition, you have just received the FIAC Foundation Award in New York. Do you give great importance to exchanges with American museums?
Yes, and given the richness of the collections in the five museums we are often included in international partnerships. Before Bertoldo, who was the last pupil of Donatello and the first master of Michelangelo in sculpture, we were major lenders to the spectacular Michelangelo show at the Met in 2018. In 2019 we organized an art exhibition with the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. dedicated to Verrocchio but in this case we also had a major exhibition in Florence together with Palazzo Strozzi. It was a three institutions’ collaboration, and it was the first time that a public museum in Florence was included as a venue. We were not only lenders, as generally happens, but part of the exhibition was held at the Bargello.
What are your plans for the next four years?
We are undergoing major renovations and conservation works that should be completed in three years’ time. Most of the Bargello will be reinstalled and we will have a new exit for the Medici Chapels and better access for Orsanmichele. We are also developing international collaborations for other major exhibitions. Next year, we will be busy participating in the celebrations in honour of the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri.
This interview is available to listen to as a podcast here.
Images courtesy of the Musei del Bargello.