The Friends of the Bargello
As this issue went to press, it seemed that Italy was on the brink of forming a new government, nearly ten weeks after the general election of 4th March. It will almost certainly be a coalition between the populist Five Star Movement and the far right Northern League. As a result, there will be a new Minister of Cultural Heritage to replace Dario Franceschini, the centre-left politician who instituted the radical reform of Italy’s museums that led to the appointment in 2016 of twenty new directors of major institutions, seven of whom were – controversially in Italy – non-Italians. These directors took up their posts for terms of four years and so it will soon be possible to make a fair assessment of the success of the reforms, which have by no means been unified in their impact.
Franceschini’s campaign to modernise the country’s museum system has borne evident fruit in efforts to improve the experience of visitors, ranging from much-improved websites to new ticketing arrangements for the most popular museums. Less obvious to outsiders have been the changes to staffing structures and appointment procedures that in 2017 provoked a major backlash when the Lazio regional administrative tribunal declared that the appointments made to the directorships of five of the region’s museums, including the Ducal Palace in Urbino, were void thanks to a 2001 law that prevented non-Italians from applying for public positions in the country, a law that Franceschini subsequently persuaded the Council of State to repeal.
The most fundamental reform, however, has not been controversial – giving museums and galleries control over their own finances. Previously, all income received by a national museum, whether from entrance fees or revenue from merchandise, for example, was passed back to the state, which then redistributed it at the discretion of the ministry. Although this provided a welcome source of income for small or little-visited museums, it was a major disincentive for large institutions to attempt to build revenue by improving their attractiveness to visitors with facilities such as shops and cafés. More seriously, the system made it virtually impossible for them to raise funds from outside sources, since benefactors could usually not specify where or how their donations would be spent.
The introduction of financial autonomy for museums has led to the appearance in the Italian cultural sector of a familiar support for museum directors across the world: international Friends organisations. One such group, based in America, has been set up for the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, whose director, Sylvain Bellenger, was among those appointed in 2016. This year has seen the launch of the Friends of the Bargello, an Anglo-American organisation created ‘to raise funds to maintain, preserve and publicise the museum and its collections’.1 With a growing number of committed Founding Patrons, it will be in a position to open up all levels of membership by the end of this year, when it will also have initiated a programme of events.
It is hard to think of a great European museum more in need of help than the Bargello in Florence. Opened in 1865 to display the Medici collections of medieval and later sculpture and decorative arts, it has always struggled to promote itself to a wide public despite the fact that it houses an unequalled collection of Renaissance sculptures, many of international fame. Lovers of the city and its art collections have often been grateful for its relative neglect, since even in high summer the museum usually provides a welcome relief from the crowds thronging the Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia. Well maintained by the city authorities, the building itself is in good order, but neglect has not served the collections well: there are no recent catalogues of any sort, let alone online; inadequate staffing makes it difficult for the curators to provide proper access for visiting scholars; and there is no conservation studio or staff photographer. The museum also shared the failings of so many museums in Italy that prompted Franceschini’s reforms, ranging from tired, inadequately labelled displays to poor, unwelcoming facilities for visitors. A major start on improving these shortcomings has been made by Paola D’Agostino, appointed director in 2016, whose responsibilities also extend to Orsanmichele, Casa Martelli, the Museo Davanzati and the Medici Chapels in S. Lorenzo. She launched a website for the museum in 2017, undertook improvements to the labelling, initiated children’s programmes and raised sponsorship for some well-received exhibitions, such as that on Doccia porcelain last year.2 She has also ensured that the second-floor collections of decorative arts, so often closed without notice, are kept open.
D’Agostino now has an international ally in the form of the Friends of the Bargello. The brainchild of one independent sculpture scholar, Dimitrios Zikos, the Friends has been seen into being by another, the art advisor Katherine Zock, president and vice president respectively of its board of trustees. There is a distinguished council of academic and museum advisors, including several associates of The Burlington Magazine. The Friends’ immediate priority is to raise money to photograph and digitise the museum’s collections, the essential foundation for online and published catalogues. Funding will also be provided for the catalogue of the Renaissance bronzes that the museum has initiated, due to be published in 2020. This will be followed by a new catalogue of the maiolica. The Friends will also support the reinstallation of the museum’s great collection of ivories with new display cases and up-to-date climate control. The encouragement of international scholarly collaboration is a central aim, together with support for additional curatorial posts, external fellowships, exhibitions, conferences and lectures. On occasions when the Bargello lends to exhibitions abroad, the Friends hope to organise supporting symposia and other academic events.
Although the recent election in Italy and consequent removal of Franceschini as culture minister has aroused fears about the future of his legacy, it seems unlikely that his key reforms will be reversed. Even the Northern League included in its manifesto a statement about the importance of the museum sector that decried its old-fashioned organisation and failure to embrace the digital future. It is hard to argue seriously with the fact that the revenue of Italy’s national museums has increased by 53 per cent in the past four years, buoyed up by a 31 per cent increase in visitor numbers. The question must be how those revenues will sustain the collections as well as the visitors. This is a challenge that Paola D’Agostino and the Friends of the Bargello are amply qualified to meet.
2 Reviewed by Aileen Dawson, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 159 (2017), pp.748–49.