Arts, Culture & Media

Modern art comes to Italy


The Maxxi Modern Art Museum in Rome, Italy (Image:

This story originally aired on PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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Story by Nancy Greenleese, PRI's The World

Italy is one of the world's premier art curators. The country is well decorated -- from first century frescoes in Pompeii to Michelangelo's David sculpture in Florence. But there seems to be precious little space left for contemporary art.

That may change with Italy’s first national museum dedicated to modern art and architecture. The Maxxi opens to the public this weekend and is already shaking the foundations of the ancient city of Rome.

The concept for the museum came about in the 1990s, when Pio Baldi and his colleagues at the Italian Culture Ministry took a close look at what this art destination had to offer.

"It wasn't as if Italians had stopped being creative," said Baldi, "yet a tour of Italy’s famous art and architecture -- the Coliseum, Trajan's Column or Giotto’s frescoes -- made us think 400 years in the future and wondered what people would come to see from this era."

Italy decided it was time to construct its artistic future. In 1998 the government approved the creation of Maxxi, a play on museum of art and the roman numerals for the 21st century. Baldi is now the museum's president.

"The idea was to ensure that Italy would also have modern art," he said. "That it wasn't always look back to the art of the past."

It took 12 years to build the Maxxi. During that time, funding ebbed and flowed for the 18- million-dollar project as the government turned over six times.

Anna Mattirolo, the museum’s art director, says the delays put pressure on them to create something special. "It's true that Rome arrived last on the international modern art scene with this museum," she said. "So it would have been a lost opportunity if it weren't distinctly original."

With that in mind, the Italians chose Iraqi born British architect Zaha Hadid to design the new museum. She created an L-shaped white concrete structure that looks like boxes stacked haphazardly on top of each other. Hadid explained in 2008 that the sleek building is designed to reflect Rome, a city built on the ruins of past eras.

Inside the Maxxi, black stairways twist in cavernous white spaces creating an Escher-like feel. Natural light streams from the glass roof.

But the avant-garde museum is located in an ancient city tied to, and sometimes strangled by, its past. Rome has little modern architecture and what there is, is often despised.

The museum opens tomorrow. One of the main exhibits is titled "Spazio", or Space, which will highlight Hadid's work and the Maxxi's relatively small collection. All the free tickets for the opening day are long gone, suggesting that Italy and Italians may just be able to find some space for modern art.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."