The Museum at Capodimonte has a great collection, including a large part of the Farnese heritage of Italian Renaissance paintings and, also, many distinguished Neapolitan works. But nowadays, when most visitors come to museums primarily to see temporary exhibitions, attracting an audience is a real challenge. And this is a special concern in Naples, for that fascinating city, which can be difficult to love, is only just starting to be recognized as a major art tourist’s destination. As recently as 2014, this large institution had only 126,000 visitors. Here, then, the very imaginative conception of Sylvain Bellenger, the relatively recently appointed director, and Andrea Villani, director of the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina, known as Museo MADRE, the Neapolitan Kunsthalle devoted to contemporary art, was to ask ten famous intellectuals—artists, industrialists and professors – associated in some way with Naples, to select works illustrating thematic concerns from the permanent collection. And, also, the curators offer a reward to that visitor who proposes his or her own best personal supplement to this exhibition. The resulting show, Carta Bianca: Capodimonte Imaginaire, is a popular success – for the first time in visits now over more three decades, I actually found crowds in the galleries. And, this is equally if not more important, the exhibition offers a dramatic conceptual challenge to our usual ways of thinking about art history.
In the show Paolo Pejrone, who is a landscape artist, collected paintings showing gardens. Gianfranco D’Amato, who runs a packing company, gathered pictures—Jacopo dè Barbara’s Portrait of Luca Pacioli (1500) was one example—displaying various containers. Laura Bossi Régnier, a historian of biology, presented paintings with medical themes. The French intellectual historian Marc Fumaroli organized a display arguing that Bernardo Cavallino, a painter whom he greatly admires, is as significant as the more renowned Jusepe de Ribera. And the great Neapolitan-born conductor Ricardo Muti chose to display but a single work, Masaccio’s Trinity (1426), accompanied by a large photographic reproduction, a picture which in his judgment encapsulates the values of the entire collection. Too often, Bellenger and Villani suggest, “the traditional narrative of the History of Art,” an historical presentation, “is too often considered as the only key for understanding art.” By opening up discussion of that cliché, Carta Bianca aims to inspire up reflection, offering a real alternative to these interpretive traditions, which poses challenging questions about how to we are to understand the history of art. Walking out of the show into the permanent collection, inevitably one thinks critically about the adequacy of our usual ways of understanding visual art. Is there not something inherently limiting, one asks, in focusing too exclusively on historical thinking about the arts. It happens that Bellenger is in charge not only of the museum, but also of the large surrounding park, which like the hanging of the collection has now been renovated. On a plaque at the entrance he offers a statement from Michael Foucault: “A garden is the smallest particle of the world, and, at the same time, it is the totality of the world.” I believe that this quotation suggests how museum collections, like gardens, also can reveal the power of imagination. Certainly it demonstrates how old master art may be seen in ways that reveal its living significance. And that is a very important goal for museums devoted to traditional painting.
Carta Bianca: Capodimonte Imaginaire at the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples on view December 12, 2017 to June 17, 2018