Rome embraces contemporary art


Just before Christmas, the world’s most successful dealer in contemporary art, Larry Gagosian, opened his latest gallery in a city better known for its archaeology than its installations. The first branch of the Gagosian empire in continental Europe is in Rome — and not in some former meat factory in an industrial suburb, either, but right in the heart of the monumental city, nuzzled under the Quirinale hill a stone’s throw from the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain.

The contemporary art world is mystified. Rome is famous for art all right— for Raphael and Caravaggio. But contemporary art? For that, in Italy, you go to Milan or Naples. You go to the Venice Biennale. You don’t go to Rome, whose art scene has until recently been regarded as utterly moribund, with projects that never seem to materialise and museums that never get built. A couple of years ago there were plans for a chapel in the city of the popes, decorated by Damien Hirst, but the collector who had this unlikely vision, Carlo Bilotti, has died, and nothing came of it. For years, lukewarm government commitment has delayed construction of Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI, intended as Rome’s answer to Tate Modern.

Gagosian’s opening show is of new work by the American painter Cy Twombly, who lives in Rome and who for more than half a century has been meditating on the physical qualities of the written word, in an art that marries modernist literature with abstract expressionism. His new triptych of three huge wooden panels saturated in a dappled and broken green, through which loops of white writing curve, is a fresh masterpiece called Three Notes from Salalah. The three paintings hang in a vast white oval room, with a staircase at one end leading to the reception desk, and a set of offices and smaller exhibition spaces at the back. In the office of Pepi Marchetti Franchi, director of Gagosian’s Rome enterprise, a Damien Hirst butterfly painting hangs on the wall. She explains how, in Gagosian’s vision, artists will be drawn to this city with its traditions of creativity stretching back more than 2,000 years.

Franchi says the reason for opening in Rome is not to tap into the contemporary art scene, but to celebrate the splendour of this great city, a claim justified by the architecture of the new space. When they were looking for a structure to convert, she says, this place stood out because of its big, oval-shaped central hall. It makes a stunning theatre for art — and a direct echo of a nearby architectural masterpiece, the staircase of the Barberini Palace, designed by Francesco Borromini in the 17th century. On the face of it, Gagosian se-ems to be a contemporary gallery owner who’s fallen in love with art history.