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Grand cultural tour of Italy Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

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Connoisseur's Guide · Europe · italy · Italy · Grand cultural tour of Italy Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

Author: Una Meistere0 COMMENTS

Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

Expo 2015 and the opening of the Fondazione Prada art centre in Milan, along with the Biennale in Venice and British artist Antony Gormley’s mega exhibition in Florence are just some of the fine cultural events that Italy is hosting this summer. In fact, it’s practically impossible to resist the temptation to just pack your bag and hop onto a plane. When else will such opportunities arise? On top of that, all of these events are taking place in one of Europe’s most beautiful countries, which adds additional appeal to an already grandiose bouquet of impressions. The only question that remains is: where to begin and how to see it all? Because one thing is clear – this isn’t going to be just a regular weekend get-away. Instead, it promises to be a grand cultural tour.

In an effort to educate themselves about the cultural legacy of the Classical and Renaissance periods, young aristocrats and wealthy gentlemen in the 17th to 19th centuries headed on grand tours of Europe. My tour is something similar to that. In the past, grand tours lasted several months and sometimes even years, ships and horse-drawn carts were the main forms of transportation, and the “students” were often accompanied by a Cicerone, or teacher. They travelled and enjoyed slowly, because it was believed that knowledge arose from external sensations and physical stimuli encountered during one’s travels. Today, despite the fact that everything takes place so much faster, the essence of travel remains the same. Like the grand tours of yore, a trip today should provide both recreation and education...and accommodation in a Venetian palazzo, without which no grand tour of Italy can be imagined.

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

Of course, you can begin where you want; I began with Milan and the Expo. The best way to avoid the long lines is to buy a ticket beforehand from the Expo website and reserve a parking space at the same time so that you can get close to the venue without much stress. But it’s still quite a walk from the parking lot to the Expo grounds, and you may feel like you’re taking a trip to a self-sufficient and absolutely autonomous territory called Expoland. In addition, a futuristic white bridge leads to the exhibition, further separating it from the rest of the world. As you get closer to the site, it’s impossible to gauge how big it really is. The exhibition layout, covering 1 million square metres, was inspired by Ancient Roman city planning. Thus, one main street, called Decumano, stretches down the middle of the grounds from east to west. Another main street intersects Decumano from north to south. Their meeting point, named Piazza Italia, acts as a forum. All of the national pavilions are located next to each other along these two main streets, the eclectic combination of architecture resembling travelling circus tents in a global amusement park.

There’s no doubt that the Expo is a whole world onto itself, like being on a different planet. Moreover, the event has been mired in scandal ever since the planning phase. In addition to the traditional themes of corruption, overspending and missed deadlines, Milan’s Expo also faced a conceptual controversy initiated by architect Jacques Herzog from the famous firm Herzog & Meuron. He, along with Stefano Boeri and Ricky Burdett, was among those invited to conceive a general master plan for the event, but he later stepped away from the project. In an interview shortly before the opening of the exhibition, Herzog criticised its quality and organisational structure. He also called the celebration of national pride an “obsolete vanity fair” and waste of money. Herzog’s plan to radically change the Expo concept and focus more on content than external architectural form was not supported.

But that’s no surprise, considering the Expo’s status as a huge magnet for tourism. It is expected that this year’s event will draw more than 20 million visitors. Shortly before it opened, organisers stated that 9 million tickets had already been sold on the Internet.

Passions reached new heights on the day before the Expo opening, but the so-called anti-expo protests fell silent soon after. Nevertheless, an ambiguous attitude towards the event can still be felt in the air far beyond Milan, with a wide variety of “No Expo” graffiti showing up on walls in cities throughout Italy.

Even though the theme of this year’s Expo is noble enough – Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life – many otherwise fine ideas have fizzled out in dubiously clever attention-grabbing attempts and demonstrations of corporate muscle. Not to mention the obvious in-your-face compromises, such as the setting up of a McDonald’s fast food stand on Expo territory. The presence of the global fast-food giant here is like a muddy footprint of reality in a well-designed, pretty, utopian space of good intentions. It once again confirms the fact that the Expo’s guiding principles appear to be unattainable ideals, at least for now. Even the media often ignore the Expo’s content and the presentations of individual nations, choosing instead to focus on the Expo’s form – the architecture of the pavilions, the pomposity of which sometimes seems completely immune to what’s going on in the world.

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

In all, 145 nations and 54 national pavilions are represented at the Expo. Great Britain was predicted to lead in the architecture competition, and this prediction has come true. Its pavilion consists of a meandering path through a green, aromatic lavender garden leading to an airy, cloud-like beehive made of metal. British artist Wolfgang Buttress designed the 17-metre-tall “hive”, which is made of 169,300 aluminium and steel cells. Visitors can enter the very heart of the hive, where they experience a unique illusory ecosystem of sensations.

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

No less impressive, the exterior of the United Arab Emirates’ pavilion calls to mind red sand dunes in the desert and was designed by the world-famous architectural firm Foster + Partners. Estonia’s wooden pavilion presents a fine example of Scandinavian asceticism, while right next door, Russia’s presentation space (also made of wood) feels more like an extravagant fashion show, in which narcissistic visitors can watch their reflections in a gigantic overhead mirror as they walk along the catwalk-like approach to the pavilion. However, no matter how one might feel about various aspects of the Expo, it is definitely worth seeing, if only as an eclectic mega-show of ideas that one can later assess through one’s own personal prisms of judgment.

Fondazione Prada City

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

The new Fondazione Prada also resembles a miniature city, albeit of a completely different order and serving a different purpose. It opened about a week after the Expo, on May 9. Miuccia Prada, the founder of the Prada fashion house, entrusted her good friend and star architect Rem Koolhaas along with the OMA architectural office to transform a former alcohol distillery into an art space. The distillery had been built in 1910 and is located in Milan’s southern industrial district of Largo Isarco. Naturally, the team has also designed several Prada stores. The Fondazione Prada occupies 19,000 square metres, of which 11,000 square metres constitute exhibition space.

In a way, one could say that Koolhaas’ architecture is like a neutral yet refined casual-style suit that has been masterfully fitted to the existing distillery building. It does not conflict or dominate, and in no way does it try to overwhelm the content – i.e. the art on display. The architecture ideally matches Prada’s style, which is often referred to as “ugly chic”, or anti-fashion. On the one hand, Prada symbolises addiction to consumer culture. But on the other hand, it represents a form of intellectual snobbery and has not lost its perceived value, despite the massive popularity of the Prada logo, which has become as widespread a cliché as the double C in CC Fashion or the LV in Louis Vuitton. As legendary British fashion critic Suzy Menkes once said of Miuccia Prada, “She is a conceptual fashion person who realises which way the wind is blowing.”

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

The Fondazione Prada complex consists of seven historical buildings and three new edifices: an exhibition hall, an auditorium and a museum (the latter being a ten-storey tower that is still under construction). The symbolic heart of the complex is the glass exhibition pavilion, now showing the Serial Classic exhibition dedicated to the relationship between the Ancient Greek and Roman heritages. Curated by archaeologist and art historian Salvatore Settis, the exhibition focuses on classical sculpture – which was very popular in Ancient Greece and Rome – and later imitations thereof. It’s no secret that many artists, including Michelangelo, regularly made copies of Greek artefacts, thereby breaking down and blurring the boundaries between originals and copies. The originals and copies featured in the exhibition have been loaned to the Fondazione Prada by such prestigious art institutions as the Uffizi Gallery, the Louvre Museum, the Vatican and the British Museum. Placed upon wooden pedestals, the marble Greek gods and goddesses stoically look down upon the 21st-century homo sapiens, who seem to have lost all classical ideals and swarm outside the pavilion’s windows.

Like any city worth its salt, that of the Fondazione Prada has cobbled streets and courtyards, complete with benches and steps at the entrances of buildings where one can sit down and rest, share in one’s impressions or simply contemplate the experience in silence. There is also a movie theatre right across from the exhibition pavilion. Its glazed façade serves not only as a mirror of the surrounding environment, but also optically magnifies it. The theatre opened with a showing of Roman Polanski: My Inspirations, a dedication to the Polish film director.

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

Another building, called Cisterna (once a warehouse for whisky and brandy barrels), is devoted to the Trittico project, in which three works from the Prada collection are displayed. The central work is Damien Hirst’s Lost Love – a gigantic “gynaecological aquarium” in which colourful little fish, carefree and unaware of the absurdity of their situation, swim among a table full of surgery equipment, a gynaecologist’s chair, a woman’s handbag on the floor, a doctor’s white overcoat and a young child’s shoes. The installation and the impressive mechanism of “life” accompanying it can be observed close up and also from a special observation deck above. From there, other visitors and their manners of viewing and exhibiting curiosity about the installation unknowingly become objects in the work of art.

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

The Fondazione Prada also includes the Accademia dei Bambini – the foundation’s first project for children – as well as a library that will open next year. Last but not least is Bar Luce, designed by movie director Wes Anderson. Its interior is similar to that of a classic Milanese café, while the vaulted ceiling is a miniature version of the city’s legendary Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping mall (where, as everyone knows, Prada’s oldest and best-known store is located).

Avalanche of art in Venice

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

On to Venice! Until November 22, the mythical city-museum will serve as a stage for the world’s most unique art event, the 56th Venice Art Biennale. Moreover, the grandiose festival, with 136 artists representing 53 nations, is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year. The main exhibition is being curated by Nigerian-born poet, political scientist and art theorist Okwui Enwezor and is located, as always, in the Giardini and the Arsenal. In fact, the whole city becomes a mega art exhibition during the Biennale, thereby providing the opportunity of seeing Venice from an entirely different point of view.

One of this year’s most special events is Proportio, the exhibition curated by Belgian antique and art dealer/collector Axel Vervoordt. It is located in the Gothic-style Palazzo Fortuny, built by the Pesaro family and later acquired by Spanish fashion and set designer Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949), who set up his workshop there. Fortuny is known for his iconic Fortuny Moda Lamp, which introduced a “revolution of light” to the world of set design and photography, a field in which it is still used today. He was also a passionate art collector and amassed an eclectic collection of artworks and artefacts from various historical periods in the palazzo. When he died, his widow donated the palace to the city of Venice, but it is open to the public only during special exhibitions.

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

The exhibition curated by Vervoordt is, obviously, about proportions – proportions in art, music, architecture, nature – and their meaning in the world we live in. It is about the unceasing duel between order and chaos. In it, architectural models and contemporary art are displayed alongside oeuvres by the Old Masters and masterpieces from the 20th century. A separate space is devoted to British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor’s installation of spherical black planes that manipulate the senses and literally pull the viewer into a sort of black hole, an empty abyss in which all sense of time and space vanishes.

When the profusion of impressions begins to overwhelm, the Glass Tea Pavilion Mondrian by famous Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto provides a wonderful oasis of peace on San Giorgio Maggiore Island across from St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Sugimoto is known for his meditative black-and-white photographs of horizons, and the glass tea pavilion was one of the first works of architecture he ever designed. The environmental object situated in the former monastery garden is just as sophisticated, minimalistic and harmonious as the relationship between sea and sky in the artist’s photographs. The only difference is that the tea pavilion includes colour, an intense blue radiating out from the pool’s tiles and breaking through the surface of the water to create a concordant rhythm between the object’s vertical and horizontal lines, between the openness of glass and the transparency of water.

These various degrees of fragility are balanced by a cedar wood shell, and at the centre stands the glass, cube-shaped tea pavilion containing the sculptural elements of a tea ceremony. Tea ceremonies can be observed here all summer. When I meet Sugimoto for a moment on the Biennale’s opening day, he says that, in spite of the digital revolution, he still works as photographers did in the 19th and 20th centuries, meaning that his photographs are still gelatin silver prints. And they never depict people.

“I don’t like people in my photographs. I want tranquillity. The sky, water and one line – a simple, minimalistic landscape. In a great variety of places around the world,” explains Sugimoto.

Gormley’s landing in Florence

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

Even if – as Sugimoto says of people – you wish to rest your mind and eyes from all the art experienced in Venice during the Biennale, it would be a sin to not visit Florence this summer. The town is located about a three-hour drive from Venice, which is just about enough time for the Biennale’s impressions to have settled down and your mind to prepare itself to experience new artistic impulses. Until September 27, one of this summer’s most grandiose environmental art projects can be seen at the Belvedere fortress in Florence – British sculptor Antony Gormley’s mega exhibition titled Human.

The road to the fortress leads along narrow streets away from the centre of town and brings visitors to a part of Florence that most traditional tourists do not see. Belvedere is the largest fortress in Florence and was designed by Bernardo Buontalenti, an architect with close ties to the Medici family. It took five years (1590–1595) to construct the monumental fortress, which is a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance and military architecture set on a hill in the Boboli Gardens of southern Florence. Because of its location and height, however, Belvedere served less as a means of protecting the Medicis from outside enemies and more as a way of demonstrating who held the real strength and power in the land.

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-PisaFoto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

Today, the fortress is quiet and tranquil. The hills of Tuscany rise out of a bluish haze in the distance, and the city of Florence – that erstwhile masterpiece of urban planning – lies at its feet. In any case, it’s difficult to imagine a more ideal platform for Gormley’s meditation about humankind’s mission and the meaning of existence. Over 100 of the artist’s sculptures are displayed throughout the fortress grounds – along the defensive wall, in courtyards, terraces, towers, staircases, interior spaces, arrow slits, hallways and so on. Gormley’s legendary “iron men” appear in all manner of poses: crouching, sitting, squatting, crawling, meditating, sleeping, inspired, wretched, provocative, heroic and completely helpless. These are human figures for whom no human condition is unfamiliar. Naked as the day they were born, weak but also strong.

At the core of the exhibition is Gormley’s iconic work titled Critical Mass II, which he created in 1995 for an exhibition in an abandoned tram depot in Vienna. It consists of twelve human figures in a variety of poses, all based on Gormley himself as the model. Each figure was later cast in five copies, for a total of 60 sculptures. Now they all inhabit the main terrace of the Belvedere fortress. Twelve figures stand in a straight line on one side of the terrace, from an embryonic pose at one end to an enlightened star gazer at the opposite end. Together, and with splendid Florence in the background, they conjure a feeling of the majestic triumph of creation.

As Gormley states, the installation illustrates the “ascent of man”, one of the great utopias. On the other side of the terrace, this same group of figures has been literally thrown into a pile like corpses, garbage or the senseless victims of violence. Against the backdrop of a military stronghold-fortress, this part of the exhibition reminds us of the side effects of people’s activities: wars, ruthless power games and conflicts. Even though the artist himself calls it “an anti-monument evoking all the victims of the 20th century”, it could just as well be attributed to the 21st century or any other period in human history.

Gormley has compared his iron figures to the needles used in acupuncture. That is, they have been strategically placed throughout the fortress and its grounds in order to accent architectural details and to stimulate viewers to notice things that otherwise are not noticed – in one’s self as well. As if the numbed inhabitants of his world are solving an unceasing existential dialogue between those who hold their heads high (having achieved their life’s goals and lived up to their ideals) and those who have fallen – placing particular emphasis on the fragile boundary between the two. One more time, we are reminded about how dependent, vulnerable and precarious humankind, and our situation on Earth, really is.

Haring’s firewall in Pisa

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

I had planned to end my trip to Italy in Pisa, not just because it was geographically convenient to do so, but also because a very special piece of 20th-century art is located there – the firewall painted by legendary New-York-based street artist Keith Haring (1958–1990), which also happens to be the last large work of art that he created. He made the mural in 1989, only a year before his untimely death from AIDS. Located on an outer wall of the Church of Sant’ Antonio not far from the train station and the University of Pisa, the mural could easily be missed by casual passers-by due to its location well off the classic tourist route that concentrates around the Tower of Pisa.

The artwork is named Tuttomondo (The Whole World) and, like Gormley’s monumental installation, it focuses on humankind. Thirty human figures in boisterous life-affirming poses have been drawn in vivid, provocative lines to come together and create a genuine ode to joy. And right across from the mural is Haring’s café, where you can rest from the crowds and contemplate the artist’s energetic rhythm of lines for a while longer.

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

By the way, Pisa’s famous tower is not the only leaning tower in the city. In Piagge, a neighbourhood in the south of Pisa, the bell tower of the San Michele degli Scalzi church leans noticeably towards the Arno River flowing nearby. The only difference is that here there are no throngs of tourists trying to “prop up” the tower in various funny poses.

Pisa was the birthplace of the famous Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. He later also lived in Florence for a time, not far from the above-mentioned Belvedere fortress, which he used as a platform from which to perform his astronomical observations. Pisa is also the birthplace of Renaissance sculpture, with many of Florence’s masters having first studied the art in Pisa with legendary Italian sculptor Giovanni Pisano, whose works grace the cathedrals of both Pisa and Siena. Centuries afterward, the beauty of these sculptures moved composer Richard Wagner to tears. In fact, the striped façades so typical of Tuscan architecture first took hold here in Pisa, after merchants brought the Islamic style home from their travels to Egypt and southern Spain.

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

You can capture a bit of the old Pisa by having your morning coffee at the Caffè dell’Ussero, Pisa’s oldest café, located in the 15th-century Palazzo Agostini on the banks of the Arno River. The café opened in 1775 and was frequented by the first Italian Nobel Prize winner, Giosuè Carducci, while he was still a student. It is said that Casanova also enjoyed coming to the café, and Italy’s first congress of scientists took place at the Caffè dell’Ussero. Now, despite its status as a historical monument and the portraits on its walls of famous patrons, the café seems almost forgotten and can therefore conjure feelings of having found a secret place of one’s own in this famous city.

Foto: Grand cultural tour of Italy. Milan-Venice-Florence-Pisa

If you feel like taking one last little detour, then half an hour’s drive from Pisa lies Lucca, the birthplace of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. The town hosts a Puccini opera festival every July and August. The composer often had his coffee at the Antico Caffè del Caselli in Lucca’s old quarter. The café has retained its Art Nouveau feel, but today it is known as the Caffè di Simo. Lucca is a small, picturesque oasis whose old quarter is surrounded by a defensive wall four kilometres long, 12 metres high and with 11 bastions. The top of the wall has been transformed into a green, wooded park. This is now Lucca’s main promenade, and it’s quite a breath-taking one at that. You feel as if you’re walking in a shady wood, but the city’s entire old quarter with its network of narrow streets lies right at your feet. In the distance you see olive groves and the hills of Tuscany. It’s hard to imagine a more wo

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