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Galleria dell’Accademia. A happy museum

Interview to Cecilie Hollberg
Director Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence

The Galleria dell’Accademia is a treasure trove of fundamental works of Western artistic culture. Since your appointment as director in 2016, an extensive modernisation project of the museum has begun. What results has it brought?

We are happy to present a museum that has finally arrived in the 21st century, in terms of technological capacity, energy efficiency, but also from an aesthetic point of view. The work was possible thanks to the Franceschini reform, which gave museums their own statute, and the directors autonomy over the budget and planning with the economic resources at their disposal. I started in 2016 by turning to professionals from ICOM, the International Council of Museums, for the safety and plant engineering standards to be adopted, as I had no specialised staff in the museum. The first steps, of course, concerned these basic aspects, such as the fire prevention certificate and all those standardisation measures necessary in a museum. Immediately the building’s major structural problems arose, such as the trusses in the Hall of Colossus, the first on entering the museum, which by now were worn out and had to be restored and strengthened. Of course, working on these architectures in such a cramped environment for large machinery meant completely disabling the hall: we are talking about cranes passing over the roofs of houses, and very important work done even at night. So, in the Hall of the Colossus, dominated by Giambologna’s model of the Rape of the Sabine Women – the marble is located in the Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria – we completely revised the space, the works, and rethought the exhibition itinerary, which I would never have touched, had it not been necessary. There have been some restorations, a very important one, which concerned the great panel of the Resurrection by Raffaellino del Garbo, which required a year and a half of work, both for the pictorial part and the monumental frame, and which now shines in this enormous hall. For the walls, covered with fabric panels, we chose the ‘Accademia’ blue colour, which blends in with the 16th-century works preserved here, including altar panels by Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi, and Perugino. And now, even for us, the sensation is to see these masterpieces as if for the first time. It is amazing to admire the works as if they had just come out of the painter’s workshop, reborn in colours, crazy colours, and caressed by the lights of the new lighting system, which has covered all the rooms of the Gallery. Finally, every work in the museum has an identical light that enhances it, because I believe that all have the same right to be considered and admired by visitors; there can be no focus only on the best known works, which in the case of this museum is Michelangelo’s immense David. Now they all seem to be happy with this change, they too are finally brought to the attention of the viewer who can enjoy them to the full, and with him we who work here every day. This uniformity in lighting has also affected Michelangelo’s sculptures, of which the Gallery possesses the largest number: from the Prigioni, originally intended for the tomb of Julius II in Rome, to the San Matteo, the Palestrina Pietà, to the David in the centre of the Tribuna, they all now have the same light illuminating them. The new LED lights also give a new key to understanding the Prigioni: we can now see every chisel mark made by Michelangelo on the marble, we can observe every detail of the ‘unfinished’. This also applies to 15th- and 16th-century painting, which dialogues with Michelangelo’s sculpture, including works by Fra’ Bartolomeo, Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo, and the great altarpieces of the 16th and 17th centuries, which still reflect the influence of Michelangelo, but also the iconographic and spiritual dictates of the Counter-Reformation. The Halls of the 13th and 14th centuries have also been completely refurbished. We chose a ‘Giotto’ green colour for the walls, which originated from one of the artist’s frescoes, which, together with the lights, brings out the gold backgrounds, enhances them in an incredible way, and the saints almost seem to come out of the paintings to greet us.  The museum houses the world’s most important nucleus of works by Lorenzo Monaco, beyond Giotto, and the greatest exponents of Florentine painting from the 13th to the early 15th century. Every work in the museum has been reviewed from the aspect of conservation, restoration, documentation; each one has been taken, moved, photographed in high resolution also for editorial use; all plaster casts and sculptures have images on four sides; all paintings have front-back photos, because behind the works are sometimes important references for study, and also curiosities. It was essential to equip all the museum rooms with an air-conditioning system; even the spacers have been revised, they are less invasive so as not to disturb the reading of the works, but further away and safer. And all this works, and all this I like, because I wanted each work to have its due of attention, respect, consideration. I see that visitors are now distributed throughout the exhibition space, and this was the aim, and for this we are happy. The Galleria dell’Accademia is not just the David: it is certainly the centrepiece, it is universally known, and today’s Gallery was born for it when it was decided to move it from Piazza della Signoria in 1873. But these rooms house fabulous, unique collections, and every work in here is a masterpiece.

What has been done for the Gipsoteca Bartolini?

The 19th-century Gipsoteca was the last to reopen to the public. Here are collected plaster casts by Lorenzo Bartolini, but also by his pupil Luigi Pampaloni, as well as 19th-century paintings by masters who studied or taught at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. The result is spectacular, because now, when entering, one is left breathless, and these white plaster casts, illuminated one by one for the first time, which stand out against the walls painted in powder blue, give a feeling of life, of people whispering, telling their stories, smiling, observing, conversing with the spectator, because the spectator is the one who enters here. The Gipsoteca is a reconstruction of Bartolini’s studio, as it was designed at the time when these works came to the Galleria dell’Accademia from San Salvi, after the 1966 flood that damaged them. The layout, designed at the time by Sandra Pinto, was modernised without being distorted, because it seemed important to me as a thread running through all the works in the museum, and as a museographic example still existing from Pinto. I wanted to bring the Galleria dell’Accademia into this century from a technological and exhibition point of view, without operations that would distort and frighten it. For the Tribuna del David, for example, I would never have used colours on the walls, because here it is the architecture that commands, and the pietra serena stone stands out against the white of the walls; while for the Gipsoteca, the 19th-century blue is perfect, it enhances the white plaster casts, and gives them the attention they need. The air conditioning system was fundamental, for the safety of the works and that of the visitors: in summer the hall became a greenhouse, the air was unbreathable, so much so that around midday we were forced to close. We put double glazing on the windows, others were closed in order to stabilise not only the walls of the historic building, but also the climate, and at the same time, to increase the number of shelves and finally reunite all the plaster models that until now had been scattered in the museum’s various offices; while the 300 busts that were still unprotected were anchored to the shelves. Now the ambience is perfect, even for the 19th-century canvases displayed at great heights, and the Gipsoteca can be visited throughout the museum’s opening hours. We have succeeded in a team effort to achieve a truly beautiful result, because this gallery of plaster casts is a masterpiece in itself, which has no comparable examples of such grandeur, approach and visual impact.

How can such an illustrious museum be promoted culturally with the tools of contemporary communication?

This is a nice challenge. First of all, I think it is important to make the works visible, to give as much information about them as possible. At the museum we have various levels of information: we have introductory texts on the wall, and under each work, stops at the spacers, short captions. This is my battle with art historians, because it is easier to write a book than a text that is dense in content, but understandable; a text that is simple, but not banal; a text that still gives those who do not have the tools to read a work the possibility of understanding what they are looking at; but that also gives the expert, those who already have some knowledge of art history, additional information, even for them that is new. The captions are therefore very important, and we have taken care of them both in terms of content and readability: we have made them very large, with a sans serif font, black on white, so that they are also easy to read for the visually impaired, large groups, and those who want to observe the work from afar. The site also plays an important role in information, which we have understood with the pandemic and the closure of museums; and what was missing before, everything we have learnt from this experience, is now there. On the site you can find all the works we conserve, and it is currently enriched by more than 50 videos, illustrating the departments including painting, sculpture, the Gipsoteca, and musical instruments of the Florence Conservatory, which we house in the museum. The videos are of different formats, curated by the Galleria dell’Accademia: larger ones to talk about the departments; one-minute ones to delve into the individual works; but there are also contributions from art historians and professors from outside the museum, such as Carlo Sisi narrating The Campbell Sisters and Lorenze Bartolini’s Monument to Elisa Baciocchi; Timothy Verdon who presents Michelangelo’s St. Matthew; Giovanni Cipriani who explains the Napoleonic suppressions, very important for this museum, which was founded in 1784 with the Grand Duke of Tuscany Pietro Leopoldo, and was enriched precisely with the Lorraine and then Napoleonic suppressions. The didactic part of the site aimed at the young and very young is very rich: we have an ‘Open Art’ video section dedicated to children over the age of 6, but also to teachers and parents, lasting about 8 minutes; an online pathway, which we have called ‘I learn with Davidino’, which explains complex concepts such as the iconography of saints, what a polyptych is, and introduces the discovery of the Gallery; there are video cartoons with the painters as protagonists, who wander around the museum at night and tell about their lives and their works: all correct, serious information, made easy, but never romanticised; there are podcasts made with the students of the Florence Academy of Fine Arts, but also with European universities: we provide the content, they process it, because the fresh and different approach of young people to art is always interesting. So many different languages to read works of art, for every level of knowledge. We have also thought of an audio guide for children, because parents do not always have art-historical studies and know how to give the answers, and it is nice to share experiences with their children, to go out of a museum and take away extra knowledge, to acquire a new reading of the works.

Renewal and tradition are the cornerstones of your leadership. Respecting these values, what balance do you draw from them?

Judging and evaluating the results is up to others. As far as we observe, these years of work on the museum have paid off, because the questionnaires tell of people we welcome into the gallery and they leave happy, they want to come back, they learn new things. My idea of renovation is to respect the museum, its origin, what it preserves. I never thought of shocking effects that could somehow kill the works. Since my arrival in 2016, the solutions have come in time, even the Gallery’s logo responds to a need for immediate and intuitive communication, for an abbreviation of the name: two letters GA, like Met, or like MoMa. I did not want to trivialise the logo on its most universally known work, because the Galleria dell’Accademia was born with the painting, to which the other collections were later added, and obviously the David. We want to communicate the crazy content of this museum through all possible channels, starting with the works we have created, through to the publications, and to the exhibitions, which always stem from our collections. These are research exhibitions followed by study days and publications, the latest being Michelangelo: the bronze effigy of Daniele da Volterra. We do not host exhibition projects that are not curated by the Galleria dell’Accademia. This museum is so unique and exceptional with its works that we do not want to create contrasting situations, which would be like intrusions. We do not have to chase the contemporary fashion, because we have to offer a world that everyone envies us, a world of which we are proud, to which we are happy to have given new life in the course of these works that began in 2016 with the bureaucratic and legal part, then the research and documentation, up to the execution and the result. Room after room, we have arrived at an extraordinary rediscovery of the Gallery. We are satisfied that we can now offer visitors a museum that is unchanged in content, with its splendid collections that have been given the visibility they deserve, but turned towards the present. I have brought all my experience of past directorships here; I have worked in museums for over twenty years, starting with the State Collections in Dresden, and all my background, my journey as a medievalist, of things I have seen, things I have learned, I have brought to the Galleria dell’Accademia. I did not come here to give an exhibition design that had my imprint, but the construction sites meant that the rooms had to be unmounted, and I would never have moved the artworks during the works if I had not needed to, because it is always a stress for an artwork. Therefore, I also took the opportunity to get advice from some of the top experts, because when the work on rearranging the rooms began, I had no art historians in the museum with whom I could compare myself, and to achieve good results you need to listen, get advice, exchange opinions. I asked Carlo Falciani for the painting of the Florentine 16th century, Carlo Sisi for the Gipsoteca of Lorenzo Bartolini; and then architects, graphic designers, always looking among the most qualified professionals. All this, always starting with the museum staff, because facing almost three years of construction, during the pandemic, is no small thing, and you need a truly dedicated staff, who followed me during the work, with the complications of the months of lockdown, the rooms disrupted by the construction sites, and the setbacks. Nothing is ever taken for granted. I was supported by all the museum staff, excellent professionals, starting from the administration, to the architects, to the restorers, to the custodians, without whose support it would not have been possible to keep the museum open every day with the construction site, even during the lockdown. We all worked together and the result rewards us. Now we see the public spread out through all the rooms, discover all the collections, and no longer focus solely on the David.

The Galleria dell’Accademia and Florence. What is the museum’s relationship with its territory?

The aim was to return the Gallery to the public and to the Florentines, especially the Florentines who had not visited the museum for decades, perhaps since their school days. And that is beautiful, that is what I wanted: because a museum needs to be rooted in its city; because the Galleria dell’Accademia is the most Florentine of all museums in Florence; because the museum is there for them, not for the tourists who come and go; because if a museum is not loved and visited by its citizens, it becomes a lost place, a place that wastes away. In 2017, we created the association Amici della Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Friends of the Accademia Gallery of Florence), to root citizens even more deeply in the museum. Everyone needs friends, even a very famous museum like this, even the David, because unfortunately we always consider the moment, not before, not after, and these works need to be preserved. My task is to preserve this artistic heritage as best I can, I have to think about restorations, enrich the collections, do research, scientific studies on all the works, also through exhibitions and publications, and my dream is to be able to bring these studies to the Gallery’s website. There have been several publications in recent years: apart from a catalogue for each exhibition, children’s books and scientific texts for experts have been published, including the third volume of the three planned on the Late Gothic period, of paintings from the 13th to the 14th century. Lots of fireworks to connect the city to its museum. The celebrations for the 140th anniversary of the inauguration of the David at the Galleria dell’Accademia were also born out of the desire to make all Florentines aware of the history of this incredible work, its value also ethical and moral, the reasons and complexity of its transfer, the nine years it took to build the Tribuna, the story of Pietro Torrigiano who, out of rivalry, broke the nose of the young Michelangelo, and much more, with a programme of concerts, conferences and meetings, to give roots to this museum, once again, in this city.