A new contemporary art museum aims to heal the city’s wounds

L’AQUILA, Italy – On a recent sunny morning, things were kicking into high gear in Piazza Santa Maria Paganica, a square in the central Italian city of L’Aquila. Assorted officers, their crew, journalists, passersby and museum staff mingled enthusiastically in front of a baroque palazzo that was about to open as Italy’s latest bastion of contemporary art.

Yet from the cream-colored facade of the museum building across the piazza, which was glowing after a decade-long renovation, the church which gave the square its name, presented a sharp contrast. Although the outer walls are still standing, Santa Maria Paganica is in ruins, with no roof and scaffolding that provides little protection from the elements to the nave and side chapels.

These are the two faces of L’Aquila, 12 years later a strong earthquake The hill shook the Abruzzo region, killing more than 300 people and leaving an estimated 65,000 homeless. Most of the damage was concentrated in this city, the regional capital, and many buildings were destroyed, including the beloved historical monument, that at first it appeared that the city can never be okay

The recovery and regeneration of the Palazzo Ardingelli, which will house the Museum of Contemporary Art, called the Maxi L’Aquila, tells the story of the city’s revival. But it is also a sign that culture must play a fundamental role on the path to full recovery, said Giovanna Melandri, president of the MAXXI Foundation, which oversees the museum and its older brother, MAXXI Rome. (MAXXI is an acronym from Italian for National Museum of 21st Century Art.)

“We are not a showcase, foreign to the city and its social, cultural and civic forces,” Melandri said in a speech during the inauguration on 28 May, but a meeting place, a place for exchange and cooperation. “

Earlier, on a tour of the building, Melandri said that the maxi L’Aquila would “become a kind of laboratory”, as she strolled through the main floor of the palazzo, where the museum’s first exhibition, the “Point of Equilibrium”, was installed. . .

During the restoration of the 18th-century palazzo, which was also rebuilt after another devastating earthquake in 1703, museum officials decided to leave visible traces of the disaster, including fragmentary frescoes that had been damaged when its ceiling collapsed. Had gone.

Eight new works were commissioned for the show, including an assortment of “jewelry”, as Melandri called them, from the collection of MAXXI in Rome, including works by Italians. Maurizio Catalan and Michelangelo Pistoletto, model by Japanese architect toyo ito, and large stamp and silk tapestry by a South African artist William Kentridge.

They were robbed from the museum permanent collection, which includes more than 500 pieces from the 1960s to the present. It exhibits contemporary Italian art from foreign artists, including a British sculptor of Indian origin. Anish KapoorGerman painter Gerhard Richter and Argentine installation builder a . with stigma for spiders, Tomas Saraceno.

The site-specific works commissioned for MAXXI L’Aquila were all, in their own way, inspired by the city and its history, and it was only natural that many reflected on the 2009 earthquake.

Elisabetta Benassi’s salt sculpture “La Citta Sale” plays on the Italian word for salt and is a tribute to the 1910 work of painter Umberto Bocconi. “The City Rises” Which channeled the energy of the rapidly expanding metropolis of Italy after the Industrial Revolution.

Benassi’s work – two blocky forms resembling the city skyline, jacked up on supporting platforms – reflect the fragility of the urban environment, “something that aspires to be permanent, but then, in reality, they are not – Because they can be swept away and destroyed,” she said.

In 2018, a . to match with MAXXI Retrospective of his work in Rome, Italian photographer Paolo Pellegrin was commissioned to take photographs of L’Aquila. Two haunting color photographs and an arrangement of 140 smaller images – black and white snaps of a still-wounded city, with its loft, empty cobblestones and abandoned apartments – are set in one room of the palazzo.

“One of the ideas of this play between light and shadow was to create a sense of fracture and fragility,” Pellegrin said over the phone from his home in Geneva. The photos “play on the connection between the city’s mark and the beauty that exists in L’Aquila, even though it is devastated,” he said.

Wearing a T-shirt that said “Ask Me” in English and Italian, Riccardo Rufini was one of several students at the Academy of Fine Arts in L’Aquila, helping visitors navigate the works. He was assigned to interpret a piece by Moscow-born artist Anastasia Potemkina: centered on a hydroponic tank in which local wild flowers grew. The work is “about the resilience of the city,” he explained.

Rufini is particularly attached to the piece, he said. Because the opening was postponed twice when cases of the coronavirus were reported in Italy, Ruffini took the plant home and looked after it there.

“My name is on the project,” she said proudly, pointing to the label on the wall.

The restoration of the palazzo was possible, in large part, thanks to the Russian government, which responded to a 2009 appeal by Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy at the time. He called upon the countries Russia spent seven million euros, about $8.5 million, to help pay for the reconstruction of L’Aquila’s monuments and churches; It was one of only a few countries that heeded the appeal.

The scale of the devastation after the earthquake was appalling. Since then, stone by stone, and with funds and investments from various sources, the city has slowly coming out of the rubble.

But the Italian culture minister, Dario Franceschini, said the condition of the church of Santa Maria Paganica was a “sign that something is not working.”

The mayor of L’Aquila, Pierluigi Biondi, called for an international competition between architects and engineers to come up with a plan for the restoration of the church. “There is still a lot to be done,” he said.

Franceschini, the Minister of Culture, agreed. “Let’s unite both sides of the piazza, and we will do something good for L’Aquila,” he said.

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