Italy is opening its first national museum for contemporary arts and architecture in a bid to shed its image as merely a keeper of a glorious artistic past.
The $223 million Maxxi cultural center opens Saturday for a limited weekend run before its full-fledged opening in a few months. Located in a residential area of Rome, the museum was designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004.
The Culture Ministry decided to build the museum in 1998, recognizing that the country that produced Giotto, Michelangelo and Bernini — avant-garde artists of their times — must continue to promote contemporary creativity if it wants to have a cultural heritage in the future.
“It is inconceivable for this very long flow of Italian creativity to be interrupted and do without the promotion and support which, over past centuries, have generally kindled it,” said Pio Baldi, head of the foundation that runs the museum.
The center, officially called the National Museum of the XXI Century Arts, is the latest in a series of cutting-edge architectural projects to be built in the Eternal City, which is better known for its Roman ruins, Baroque basilicas and Renaissance palazzi.
Renzo Piano’s Auditorium opened in 2002, giving Rome its first major-league concert hall. More recently and controversially, Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis museum, which houses a 2,000-year-old altar, opened in 2005. Critics complained the box-like shell was a modern blot in Rome’s historic center — to some, a gas station blocks away from the Spanish Steps.
No such protests sullied Hadid’s design for the museum, built on the grounds of a former military barracks in Rome’s Flaminio neighborhood, far from the cobblestoned streets of the center but close enough to be reached on public transport and near the new concert hall.
Hadid said she intended the space to be an “urban cultural center,” an arts campus with indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces. The building itself — a sleek, windowed box on top of a box — is made of cement walls, steel stairs and a glass roof, giving the galleries a neutral backdrop illuminated by filtered natural light. Black staircases offer sharp contrast to the white walls.
“I see Maxxi as an immersive urban environment for the exchange of ideas, feeding the cultural vitality of the city,” she said.
“Surely a museum of contemporary art in such an ancient city is a passage from the ancient to the future, a voyage in space and time,” said Vincenzo Di Stefano, a manager for a publishing group. “Art is always a message that unites the contemporary, future and past.”
Artist Marianna Masciolini, an Umbrian who works in Rome, said: “The city needs to enter the 21st century.”
Among the 1,500 visitors strolling Friday through the three-story museum were several German tourists, including Karla Gogel, who described herself as a “great supporter of art that represents the present.”
Indeed, the museum is designed to be a research workshop of sorts, not just exhibiting contemporary art and architecture but incorporating contemporary design, fashion, film and advertising in a multidisciplinary cultural center.
Maxxi technically is two museums: Maxxi Art and Maxxi Architecture, which includes the files of architecture designs. The campus — which covers 312,000 square feet — also includes an auditorium, library, media library, study rooms, laboratories, a bookshop, cafe and spaces for live events and commercial activities.
Rome has several other modern and contemporary art spaces, but the Culture Ministry says Maxxi is the first national museum devoted to contemporary arts.
Baldi, the head of the Maxxi Foundation, said the aim is for the museum to act as a sort of “antenna” which broadcasts Italian contemporary art overseas and receives international culture at home.
“Art and architecture are essential components of the image and perception of a country abroad,” he said. “This holds true today ever more immediately and rapidly” considering the globalized world.
Hadid is best known for her tram station in Strasbourg and her Vitra fire station in Germany, which was cited by the Pritzker jurors in awarding her the 2004 prize, architecture’s most prestigious honor. More recently, she designed the aquatics center for the 2012 London Olympics, the games’ architectural showpiece.
While Maxxi museum opens to the public officially on Saturday, it’s a limited two-day opening. The museum will formally open its first exhibits in 2010, when five shows are planned.