In this second report on my return from three weeks in Italy, I consider some evidence suggesting Rome is as postmodern as it is modern.

Show Notes

Last week I gave a first report on my recent return from a three-week trip to Italy. Apart from mentioning details that might be useful to anyone considering such a trip, I tried also to indicate how my visit influenced thoughts I’ve shared on the Get Ready for Rome podcasts. My main point under this heading was that I’d previously stressed similarities between modern Rome and the modern West in general, for like many others, I’m struck by the broad acceptance of liberal democratic principles in large parts of the world, Rome included. There remain countries in which religious belief still dictates moral norms and directly influences political action, as it once did in Christian Rome, but this is no longer the case in Rome, London, or Washington.

My recent visit to Rome, Verona, Padua and other Italian cities provides the right occasion for limiting my prior claim: surely there are similarities among the many cities of the West, but there are differences as well. My last episode mentioned two features that help to distinguish Italian cities. First, their antiquity enables them to offer open evidence of the very different lives they lived in the past, for most show intriguing and sometimes beautiful reminders of the renaissance, Middle Ages, and antiquity. Cities in the United States obviously cannot do this. Second, they are marked by numerous piazzas, always including attractive architecture and now filled with locals and tourists enjoying themselves in close proximity. I suggested we don’t have piazzas in the United States: we have malls, town squares, and public gardens, but piazzas are different. I could have mentioned also how pleasant it is to go out to dinner in Italy, where the meals are so good, the atmosphere so pleasant, and the waiters are not scripted to say, “Hello. My name is Brooke. I’ll be taking care of you tonight.”

I’ll suggest today that my recent visit to Italy suggests another way I should limit claims I’ve made previously. I began by dividing Rome into three cities, Ancient, Christian, and Modern. I’ve already suggested subcategories of these three different and contentious embodiments of Rome. Ancient Rome began as a kingship, became a republic, and ended as an empire, and these differences were great enough that men like Brutus and Cassius lost their lives trying to defend republican Rome against imperial Rome. Christian Rome also changed over time, and the Renaissance represented a new approach not only to art but also about how to think about life’s great mysteries.  And I divided Modern Rome into the parliamentary regime that ruled Italy through World War I, the Twenty Years of Fascism that followed, and the post-war republic that has ruled Italy since just after World War II. All these changes came amid hot disagreements, and men died fighting for one or another of these different causes.

The question I kept asking myself on this trip—not for the first time but certainly with renewed intensity—is this: When does it become time to speak of Rome and the West not as modern but as postmodern? I’ve defined Modern Rome as embodying the principles of modern liberalism, and I’d say the same of the Modern West in general. But do we still really believe that the principles of liberalism are true, or that any such principles can be known to be true? The statue of Giordano Bruno was erected by men with a strong belief in the power of reason to guide human life, and this belief led them to dismiss the Church’s age-old claims about the authority of the Bible and the Church hierarchy. But how strong does this belief remain? Has Rome and the West turned once again against its previously prevailing beliefs, and, if so, has it found a secure foundation on which to rest an alternative way of understanding what is good and bad, noble and base? Or, can societies go merrily along without such shared ideas?

It is beyond me to answer such questions: the evidence that speaks to them comes in many shapes and sizes and does not all point in the same direction, but I don’t see that the difficulty of the question is a reason for not keeping it in mind. Our future depends upon it. So here are some impressions from my recent trip about the emergence of postmodern Rome and a postmodern West. I suspect you will find them very familiar. I’ll limit myself to observations about some of the art I saw.

I’ll start with a visit to Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art, and then move on to the Galleria Borghese and the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.

The National Gallery of Modern Art began soon after the unification of Italy and sought among other things to assist this unification and strengthen the new nation by displaying art relating to it. Its first home was in the Palace of Exhibitions, which the new Italy built on the Via Nazionale, a new street meant to honor the new nation. The National Gallery moved early in the 20th century to its current home a little north of the Pincian Hill and Villa Borghese. Both of these first homes are proud structures, built with broad and steep staircases, tall columns, rich sculptural decoration, statues, and other trademarks of the architecture of the new Italy. Its early collection featured works by Canova, whom we encountered also in St. Peter’s and in the Borghese; a room devoted to works by artists from southern Italy, perhaps partly to help bring the south into the new nation; a room named after Giordano Bruno, a hero of the new, anticlerical Italy; and works that showed both the glories and the hardships of the new nation.

Then came Fascism, and the museum was used to put on exhibits that glorified the fascist revolution. Several works of this sort remain in the museum today, without to my knowledge being either targets for cancellation or subjects for admiration.

Marcel Duchamp’s “the Fountain” (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

But what I want to stress is that especially in the postwar period, the museum acquired works that are not modern in the old sense, and they offer no support either for the Risorgimento or for the very general notions that lay behind it. Rather, they illustrate the experiments of avant-garde art, which often criticize modern society, perhaps for being too materialistic, too militaristic, too conformist, too ordinary, or too confident that there is a truth that reason can discover. Surrealist works are well represented, but the most striking example of what I have in mind is a movement called Dada, which is exemplified in the museum by a work called “The Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp. It was a porcelain urinal until Duchamp presented it as a work of art and found a following, thus successfully showing that old notions of art were stodgy and conformist, and that they could be exploded.

Somewhere along the way, I don’t know when, the name of the Museum changed from the National Gallery of Modern Art to the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. As the distinction implies, what is contemporary is no longer simply modern. Often, as with Dada, it is actively anti-modern and critical of the confidence with which modern liberalism believes it knows what is true and how society should be organized. Instead of seeing Enlightenment Rationalism as the way to a future much improved over the old regimes supported by religious belief, postmodernism is skeptical of ideas about truth, nature, morality, reason, and science. It prefers the words “narratives” and “discourses” to the word “explanation,” and it sees things as fluid and so rejects what it calls “binaries,” like that between good and evil, or true and false.

These sorts of ideas have far-reaching social consequences, of course, and there have been profound defenders of them for more than a century. All I mean to say here is that they were reflected in some of the art I saw on my recent trip and that they were welcomed, not resisted. I take this to be a sign of their growing acceptance in society at large. I don’t deny that there are also signs of resistance to them. There are, and this is one reason I say that all I can do here is ask a question, not answer it: Will postmodernism succeed in driving out modern liberal ideas?

The growing presence and acceptance of the postmodern was also on display in my recent visit to the Borghese Gallery. Previous episodes 25, 28, and 31 explain why I so admire the Gallery. Its permanent collection does not try to do everything but concentrates on wonderful and mostly Italian examples of the greatest Renaissance and Baroque artists. Along with Bernini, we find works by Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Correggio, and other greats. Several ancient works, to be expected in a collection stressing the Renaissance, are also on hand, as is Canova’s famous neoclassical sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister. The museum’s permanent collection once again gave me much to think about and much to admire.

What was different on my recent visit was that now the most eye-catching works in the museum were by a contemporary artist, Damien Hirst. None of the older works had been removed, though a large ancient mosaic floor was covered to better show off Hirst’s art, but Hirst’s works were so numerous, large, dramatic, and colorful that they changed radically the atmosphere of the rooms in which they were placed.

Over eighty of his works are now in the museum, compared with about ten each for Bernini and Caravaggio. On other occasions, I’d noted that the effect of the art was enhanced by its setting: beautiful baroque sculptures were housed in a baroque palace, with paintings on the walls well chosen to emphasize the subjects of the sculptures. The painting of the walls themselves also contributed to the unity or coherence of the rooms. Now it is Hirst one sees first, and his many and varied works change the experience of visiting the museum. To summarize the change, which of course might be for the better, I’d say that contemporary, postmodern art has burst into the Borghese and now demands our attention.

Hirst “Diver” in the Entrance Hall of the Galleria Borghese (my photo)

I call Hirst’s exhibit postmodern partly because of what I see and partly because of what I read. His works often seem intended to unsettle, shock, or offend us. With regard to deliberate offense, consider his treatment of an ancient subject, the story in which Theseus kills the Minotaur, a half-human, half-bull monster to whom Athens had been compelled to sacrifice 7 maidens and 7 young men every year. Hirst chooses to represent one moment from this episode in his art, the moment the Minotaur is actively raping a young maiden. Most of his work seems deliberately weird, or we might say experimental, but his Minotaur is graphic, realistic, and pornographic. Perhaps this is not postmodern but merely bad taste.

Other works show his imagination seeking primarily not the offensive but the strange. Examples include a laboratory rat with an ear growing on its back, a nude but headless bronze female covered with coral, and some Disney characters represented as if recently found on the seabed. Several of his works show colored dots on a white background. All this is intended to be strange but also, in ways I don’t understand, to be profound, and Hirst’s colossal success may or may not prove that it is.

More of Hirst’s coral-encrusted figures (my photo)

My main impression, which is also my main point, is very simply that modern Rome is not static, and one sign that it is changing is the still-growing taste for postmodern and avant-garde art, which is now evident in the Hirst exhibition at the Borghese. One would expect it at the National Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art, home to Duchamp’s “Fountain,” but Hirst’s loud presence in the Borghese came to me as a shock.

I wondered why the curators of the collection thought to bring Hirst into the Borghese, since his work seems to be so discordant with, for example, the sculptures by Bernini and Canova, the sculpted busts of ancient emperors, and the often Christian themes of the paintings that hang in the Borghese’s permanent collection.

One of the claims made on the Borghese website is that, contrary to my impression, the exhibition is really in keeping with the traditions of the Borghese. It says that “[Hirst’s] works celebrate the desire for variety held by the museum’s founder, Cardinal Scipione [“Shipione”] Borghese. His fantasy had been to go beyond categories, not only among the arts, but also those of fiction and reality.” That is, the website attributes to Cardinal Borghese a “desire for variety,” apparently the more the better, and even the desire to go beyond such categories as “fiction and reality,” truth and falsehood.

The desire to “leave behind” such binaries as falsehood and truth seems to me to be a perfectly postmodern aspiration, and it

One of Hirst’s Medusas (Joey Pustejovsky’s photo)

seems characteristic of our time that we can speak as if the dismissal of truth did not come with earthshattering consequences. But did Scipione Borghese, a worldly cardinal from the seventeenth century, understand his aspirations in such terms? It is one thing to say that falsehood often masquerades as truth and that we must work hard to hard to discover the truth among many pretenders. Bernini’s statue of “Truth” in the Borghese suggests as much: it is quite another to say there is no such thing as truth at all. Got that? No such thing as truth at all.

My impression is that the introduction of the ultramodern or postmodern into more traditional spaces is now an entirely accepted trend, so the curators at the Borghese did not really have to think long and hard to place Hirst among the works of Bernini, Caravaggio, and Raphael. He is a hot artist with a big name, and it might even be seen as narrow-minded or timid not to bring in the avant-garde whenever possible.

The routine introduction of radically modern or contemporary art into more traditional spaces—I have seen it also at the Colosseum and Markets of Trajan—helps me make my case that Rome has changed greatly and is not a city with an eternal identity, but what Rome is changing into and where the West is headed, is, as I say, a question that is beyond me.

Here is another example of the ultramodern showing its broad attraction from my recent trip. In Venice, my wife and I took a vaporetto over to the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, a large and beautiful church designed by Palladio, to whom I’d just been reintroduced when we pedaled into Vicenza. We were not disappointed by the church, but I was perplexed that its interior was filled by a large work by a Swiss artist named, and apparently really named, Not Vital. I might have called it a work of architecture, for it is tower-like and 40 feet tall, but Vital has coined the word “SCARCH” to refer to his art, which he sees as a combination of sculpture and architecture. What does it mean that his large aluminum SCARCH, called “House to Watch the Sunset,” takes over much of the nave of this church? It certainly means that not many people are able to participate in Sunday services, since the SCARCH fills much of the nave, but I suspect that not many were attending the church even before the sculpture arrived. The resident population of Venice has declined, as has church attendance, and San Giorgio is remote from the main islands.

Not Vital’s “House” beneath Palladio’s Dome (my photo)

A placard describes the point of the installation like this: the work faces east, “in order for it to facilitate the contemplation also of the rising sun, the Symbol of Christ. The work’s orientation “puts it in dialogues with the tabernacle, the liturgical and spiritual fulcrum of the architectural space, and thus also enables it to become a House to watch the Sunrise.” So it was first a house to watch the sun set; now its orientation makes it a house to watch the sun rise, or it would do so except that it is indoors. As for its relationship with the Christian tradition, it is “in dialogues” with it. But what does it say in these dialogues? That Christ is truly the savior of sinful mankind? That Christianity provides useful moral guidance even if not literally true? That watching sunsets and sunrises is a spiritual activity rooted in nature, one beneficial to people of all faiths, as the Catholic sacraments are not? I’m at a loss to say.

There are seven other works by Vital, or Not Vital, in the church. They might add some precision to his message, but I don’t see how. The placard says only that they show his “multifaceted practice.” Some are silver boxes he calls portraits, but he attempts no likeness in them. Here is a link to some professional photographs, which are much better than mine.

A second look at Not Vital’s “House” in San Giorgio Maggiore (my photo)

When the avant-garde works of Alberto Burri and Piero Manzoni were put on display in the Modern Gallery in 1959 and 1971, respectively, there were loud complaints, and the museum curator almost lost her job. What I think you all have noticed, and I was again struck by on my recent trip, is the extent to which avant-garde and postmodern works are now welcomed even into places we might not expect them, such as churches and museums previously dedicated to art of a very different character. Some of these avant-garde works seek only to provoke, and many strike me as claiming to be more profound and insightful than they really are, but taken together, their popularity suggests that it is often far cooler and acceptable to attack modern principles, including the sciences and reason, than to defend them.

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