Nick Hackworth

Florence’s contemporary renaissance

Essays & Reviews Art Basel

All Art Has Been Contemporary. This neon text by Tuscan artist Maurizio Nannucci illuminated the exterior of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence in 2010. In a city defined by its relationship to Renaissance-era art history, it read as a supplication to the millions who flowed beneath it: while adoring the art of yore, pay some heed to the art of the present. All greatness was once nascent. Since then, contemporary art in Florence has found its footing. And today, the city is resurfacing on the global art map as a complex and fascinating fulcrum for culture, both past and present.

In classic Renaissance fashion, the story of Florence’s burgeoning contemporary art scene is a tale of two houses – the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and the Museo Novecento. Despite a spot of healthy competition between them, their programs have been complementary, presenting a host of contemporary art stars in world-class exhibitions and events that are attracting audiences from across Italy and around the world. This infusion of energy is also invigorating the city’s modestly sized scene of galleries, collectors, and artists.

The Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, founded in 2006, occupies the fortress-like 15th-century palazzo of the Strozzi family, once great rivals to the Medici, in the heart of the old city. The hallmark of its program has been a series of slick, blockbuster solo shows from the likes of Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović, Tomás Saraceno, JR, Jeff Koons, Olafur Eliasson, and currently Yan Pei-Ming through till September 3, 2023, with Anish Kapoor to follow in the autumn.

Arturo Galansino, director since 2015, articulates the Fondazione’s mission as ‘bringing globally famous artists into this cradle of the Renaissance.’ ‘We ask them to engage in a dialogue with our humanist history,’ he explains. ‘One of the keys to our success was to break down a cliché. The Italian public thought that contemporary art was niche and elite, because we live in a place with so much history, [but] we are showing that contemporary art can speak passionately about our life, about ourselves, about the present moment.’ The vision is working, making Palazzo Strozzi one of the most visited contemporary art institutions in Italy. And it’s not only tourists: Northern Italians make up half of the visitors.

Founded in 2014, the Museo Novecento stages a broad, often scholarly program of contemporary and modern international and Italian art. The current shows include ‘Lucio Fontana: L’Origine du Monde’, running through September 13, 2023, which explores the artist’s attempts to understand human and cosmological origins, and a multi-venue exhibition of serene paintings by Iranian-American artist Y.Z. Kami (till September 23), which also occupies several of the city’s other glorious Renaissance institutions and churches. A highlight is a single painting by Kami of a pair of hands closed in prayer, hung by an altar in the dimly lit crypt of the exquisite San Miniato al Monte, which sits atop a hill on the south bank of the Arno river, overlooking the city.

Such juxtapositions are the appeal of the multi-institutional exhibitions curated by the museum’s director Sergio Risaliti. A sublime moment in the recent Jenny Saville exhibition was the hanging of a contemporary charcoal on canvas, Pietà (2019-2021) by Saville, in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, next to the Bandini Pietà (c. 1547-1555) by Michelangelo. Offering audiences a vision of the timeless connection between such works is the principle curatorial ambition of Risaliti with these shows. ‘I think the Pietà by Michelangelo and the Pietà by Jenny are contemporary with each other in a sense,’ he says. ‘We don’t know if they are works from the past, the present, or the future, because the tragedy of violence, of martyrdom and of sacrifice, is universal.’

The transhistorical exhibition format that Risaliti is pursuing also has a more local ambition. ‘Staging contemporary art exhibitions in Florence, placing the contemporary within a traditional context brings a revolutionary spirit to the city,’ he concludes. Florentine collector Niccolò Nesi, whose parents Rosella and Carlo Nesi founded one of the city’s most important collections, concurs: ‘This is not something all the Florentine people like, but I personally love it when you see art that is so different – something Renaissance and something very contemporary, sometimes aggressive – placed in dialogue.’ Nesi adds that when local ‘haters’ denounce the latest ‘shocking’ installation of contemporary art in a prominent public space, he always ‘wants to go and look.’

For international art fans, the particularity of Florence’s contemporary scene is a unique attraction. To collector and art patron Christian Levett, who recently relocated to Florence, ‘It feels like there’s a contemporary renaissance here.’ Levett proactively does his bit to welcome visitors by hosting private tours of his collection, which includes impressive paintings by female Abstract Expressionists from the United States, housed in a palatial apartment by the Arno.

Florence’s gathering energy has brought opportunity to local galleries. ‘We at Tornabuoni Arte have benefited from this rich, positive moment, which has brought collectors from all over Italy and beyond,’ explains gallerist Ursula Casamonti. The originally Florentine blue-chip modern art gallery, which has outposts throughout Italy, Switzerland, and France, was founded by Ursula’s father Roberto Casamonti, whose outstanding personal collection is on permanent public display in the city – and a must for any visitor.

Galleria Continua is another local success story. Now boasting branches as far afield as Beijing and Havana, it hails from the nearby, picturesque Tuscan town of San Gimignano, an unexpected birthplace for a powerhouse contemporary gallery. Lorenzo Fiaschi, one of the gallery’s cofounders, recounts, ‘San Gimignano and Tuscany have profoundly shaped our outlook. Our journey has been an evolving engagement with the surrounding landscape, and the history and art that has passed through it.’

Young contemporary artists are beginning to come to Florence to study and participate in residencies. Some stay. Thelonious Stokes, an artist from Chicago, came to study classical painting at the Florence Academy of Art. ‘Being the first African American to attend the school makes me feel grateful,’ he says. ‘Grateful yet aware of the relevance of institutional racism.’ His series of Renaissance-style paintings featuring exclusively Black subjects have been collected by the likes of Jay-Z and Chance the Rapper. Stokes now teaches drawing at the local Polimoda fashion school, located at the Manifattura Tabacchi, a large redevelopment of an elegant 1930s cigarette factory on the outskirts of the city. The various art spaces at the Manifattura Tabacchi and its cultural activities, including a residency program, amount to a surprising hipster island of contemporary culture in the area.

Some galleries and artists are attracted to Florence and the surrounding area precisely because of the space and time it affords. Veda, a midcareer gallery founded by Florentine Gianluca Gentili, runs an elegant program including Dominique White, latest winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women. Gentili works closely with the gallery’s artists, supporting them in realizing ambitious projects by producing work in the city. ‘We invite artists to temporarily move to Florence,’ he explains, ‘giving them the opportunity to work with the network of artisans that characterize the city, to study new skills and, importantly, approach their production with much more détente, away from the pressures of faster-living cities.’

Italian artist Giulia Cenci, winner of the Baloise Art Prize 2019 at Art Basel, who also featured prominently in the 2022 Venice Biennale, lives and works on an old farm near the town of Cortona, where she was born. Having ‘lived almost everywhere,’ she moved back recently in order to feel ‘closer to the sources of what we eat, wear, and see,’ she says. ‘I produce five times what I used to produce when I was living in the city [where] you are so absorbed by useless things.’

The sentiment is shared by Beatriz Olabarrieta, a Basque artist who also recently returned to Florence from Berlin, escaping, she says, its ‘higher living costs and gentrified aesthetics.’ ‘Florence has a very small [grassroots] contemporary art community but it has potential for the development of a new scene and interesting dialogues between different historical periods,’ Olabarrieta says. ‘I am very much enjoying resetting my eyes after those main contemporary art production cities.’

The next chapter of Florence’s art history, it seems, may be written in its actual and metaphorical hinterlands.