The Theatre of Time
Nineteen sixty. Palazzo Reale, Milan. The emotion of staging a grand exhibition on the Compasso d'Oro Prize in the Sala delle Cariatidi marks the beginning of my life as architect and designer. From that time on, my passion for exhibition installations those bona fide architectonic vanitas, short lived but intense and fast paced would always be with me.
Two thousand nine. Palazzo Reale, Milan. Luigi Settembrini asks me to stage Magnificence and Design, Cosmit's cultural event of the year. It immediately proved to be a challenging nay, formidable exhibition to enact. It isn't just another antiquarian exhibition, nor one of the many showcases of design much less a new rendition of the old fable of the "modern" going arm in arm with the antique, which once held a sort of transgressive allure. Magnificence and Design Five Hundred Years of Italian Furniture is not an excursion through the past five centuries of furniture history along the axis of time in keeping with a facile criterion of developmental continuity. It is not this because it could not be this.
Magnificence and Design is a much more ambitious exhibition, an exhibition unlike any before it, one that seeks to make us reflect on the material culture of domestic furnishings from Mannerism to the present from a discomfiting virtual perspective, a perspective that bridges the vast political social and productive economic schism that marked the traumatic passage from aristocratic classicism to democratic modernity in the nineteenth century. A rift that ushered in a radical rethinking of an accumulated system of codes and an affirmation of new linguistic, cultural and productive models, now multicentric, in a continual state of experimentation and change.
Palazzo Reale of Milan. A sequence of ten large vaulted rooms, soberly devoid of decoration and natural lighting, immersed in half shadow and indeterminate within the "grey distance" of the walls.
Fifty six splendid pieces of contoured, carved, inlaid and gilded Italian furniture, ranging from Mannerism to Empire style, collected from palazzi, museums and collections from all over Europe, are arranged in a historic and thematic order along the enfilade of the rooms. In order not to detract in any way from the exceptionality, richness and diversity (different historical periods, different schools and different geographical cultural origins) of these masterpieces, they float as if suspended in the neutral space of the rooms. They do not stand on the floor, nor are they arranged in an orderly sequence along the walls of the rooms to which they must not and cannot belong. This is to banish even the tiniest suspicion of a summary reconstruction of "furniture" in complicity with the historical palazzo.
These fifty six masterpieces instead are literally put on stage in a sequence of thirty one "freely arranged" mobile platforms, which are made of noble gun oxidized iron from the rolling mill, and placed dramatically in the spotlight with theatre lamps. After the protagonist, Magnificence, has made its entrance into what will certainly be remembered as one of the most notable antiquarian shows of its kind ever to be staged, the cue comes for Italian furniture of the twentieth century to step on stage. And what an entrance! The dramatic tension rises and the entire perspective is overturned. The visitor suddenly beholds five centuries of history through the "multi focal" lens of our time. And vice versa.
Twentieth century Italian furniture thus plays a deuteragonist role, but it is more than a mere supporting act. This carefully selected collection of works, responding promptly to each one of the historical pieces in a sort of spectacular debate or cross examination, instead ends up playing a starring role that alternates between antagonist and co-protagonist.
These still warm expressions of our time, too close to us to be mixed with or even take up a place at the end of the line of objects that history has made into museum pieces, stand on a circular platform in the centre of each of the ten rooms. They are present but veiled behind an enigmatic and stenographic gauze screen that rises in a cone toward the ceiling, enclosing a source of light of fluctuating intensity. They are present yet almost absent as a result of the combined effect of the gauze, which either hides or reveals its contents depending on the degree of luminosity. Before each of the twentieth century pieces, strategically juxtaposed with a historical piece for comparison, the viewer will thus be provoked into thought, to find new interpretations, unexpected intuitions and sudden flashes of insight illuminating both our times and times past.
Let the show begin.
Mario Bellini Architects
Mario Bellini with Giovanni Cappelletti
Giovanni Cappelletti (project architect ) with Alessandro Zufferli (3D model and render image)
Enrico Colle with Manolo de Giorgi