Foreign hires rattle Italy’s art world

The controversial shakeup of Italy’s top museums has divided art experts across the country, with the ex-director of Florence's Uffizi Gallery particularly bitter about losing his job to a German.

Foreign hires rattle Italy's art world
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini is seeking radical reforms to promote the country's art collection. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/

Seven foreigners are among the 20 new directors appointed by the government to run some of the world’s most popular museums in a bid to lift their patronage and performance.

Antonio Natali, who has run the renowned Uffizi Gallery in Florence since 2006, was particularly bitter about being replaced by 47-year-old German art historian, Eike Schmidt.

“It was clear that they wanted to turn the page,” Natali told the Florence daily, La Nazione. “So there was no possibility for me to be reconfirmed.”

Then in a swipe at his foreign replacement, he said: “I knew I would not win the bid for the Uffizi when the government statistics office told me I could not change my name to Anthony Christmas. ”

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini is seeking radical reforms to promote the country's art collections, by expanding opening hours, renovating buildings and developing new products.

Among the 10 men and 10 women appointed by the culture minister are 14 art historians and four archaeologists. Of the 20 appointees, 13 are Italian.

Art critic Philippe Daverio was scathing about the government’s appointments, saying they were “absurd choices”.

“These are not the top names,” Daverio told Italian daily Corriere Della Sera. “These decisions reveal a government that has thrown in the towel.”

Tomaso Montanari, a critic and art professor at the University of Naples Federico II, expressed dismay over the government’s failure to utilize experts inside its own culture ministry.

“The cultural ministry’s administration has no one ready to manage a museum?” Montanari said.

“First you have to make the museums function and then look for directors. They have instead started with the ‘generals’ without thinking of the ‘troops’.”

But Adriano La Regina, the president of the National Institute of Archeology and Art History, said it was the “right move”.

“Finally, particular criteria will be adopted even by us,” La Regina said. “We live in a world without barriers in the culture sector.”

Achille Bonito Oliva, professor of art history at La Sapienza University, said: “For once merit had been recognized. All the appointments are of the highest level.”

While Schmidt will run the famous Uffizi Gallery, another German, Cecilie Hollberg, 48, will head the city's Accademia Gallery.

The Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan will be headed by a 59-year-old Briton, James Bradburne.

With these 20 appointments “the organization of Italian museums will turn a page and recover from decades of delay,” said Franceschini

Despite boasting works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Caravaggio, Italy fails to attract the number of visitors that are seen in top museums abroad like the Louvre and the British Museum.

“We are turning a page,” said Franceschini. “With these appointments, Italy’s museums will make up for lost decades. It is a historic step for Italy and its museums that will establish the basis for a modernisation of our museum system.” 

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Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Spooky traditions haven’t really caught on in Italy where strong Catholic beliefs mean the country has its own way of honoring the dead, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Many Italians gathered last night to celebrate Halloween dressed as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies. Hotels, restaurants and pubs organised Halloween-themed events with spooky decor and music.

Each year I’m shocked by how Halloween penetrates Italian culture even though it’s a foreign import from Anglo-Saxon countries.

The real Italian festivities this week are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti) celebrated on November 1st to remember all saints and martyrs during Christian history, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, known elsewhere as All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the beloved deceased ones, mainly family members but also close friends.

While November 1st is a public holiday (and many Italians exploit it as an excuse for a ponte, a long weekend), November 2nd is a working day.

The entire week preceding All Saints’ Day sees cars queuing up to go to the cemetery, people rush to bring flowers and a few prayers to the tombs of deceased loved ones, and streets are often jammed.

For many Catholic Italians, it’s actually the only time of the year they remember to honor their dead, as if ‘imposed’ by their religion. A bit like going to mass on Sundays; if they fail to do so, they might feel guilty or even fear punishment from above. 

After spending an hour or so at the graveyards – places Italians usually tend to avoid – on All Saints Day, after the spiritual duties are accomplished, they might gather for lunch, bringing cakes and pastries.

People in Italy bring flowers to their loved ones’ graves on All Saints’ Day. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

In some southern regions so-called ossa di morto (bones of the dead) pumpkin-filled biscuits and raisin pan dei morti (bread of the dead) are bought, while in the north chestnut pies are baked. 

Ognissanti is a very private event that usually involves little or restricted get-togethers, brothers and close relatives share the graveyard trip but then each goes back home, with little feasting on fine food. 

Catholics don’t have any macabre ritual involving leaving an empty place at the table for a spirit to join us. It is a moment of sadness but also of joy because our dead loved ones have ascended to heaven and are all there waiting for us. It’s the celebration of love, rebirth over doom, and the promise of a future reunion with them in heaven. 

That is why November 1st and November 2nd in Italy really have nothing to do with Halloween, which I call the ‘culture of the grave’ and the celebration of ‘scary death as an end to itself’. 

Even though they may partake in Halloween as a mere consumeristic party, Italians are mainly Catholic and believers do not believe in the darkness of the night, in the damnation of the grave, in being haunted by wicked spirits who long to take vengeance on us, in witches flying on broomsticks and terrifying zombies coming out of tombs. 

Pumpkin is something we occasionally eat as a pasta filling; it’s certainly not a decorative spooky element.

Halloween, which in my view is imbued with paganism and the Protestant belief in an evil superior being and naughty spirits ready to strike down on sinners instead of forgiving them, is celebrated in Italy but lacks a religious or spiritual nature. It’s like the Chinese celebrating Christmas for the sake of buying gifts and acting western. 

Halloween deeply affected my childhood. I’m Roman Catholic and I attended Anglo-American schools abroad where Catholics were a minority and each year I drove my mom crazy by forcing her to sew me a ghost or witch dress. She’d take a bed blanket and cut open three holes for the eyes and nose, annoyed that I should be influenced by a celebration that was not part of my tradition. 

In elementary and middle school my foreign teachers would make us decorate classrooms with spooky drawings, bake skeleton-themed biscuits for trick-or-treating, and tell us ghost stories in the dark to create an eerie vibe. 

Once we were also taken to visit a cemetery and when I told my dad about it he got annoyed and did all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. 

Halloween has always freaked me out but I did not want to miss out on the ‘fun’ for fear of being looked down upon by other kids. And so I too started believing in vampires, zombies, and ghosts, particularly at night when I was alone in my bed and had to turn on the light. Still today, and I am much, much older, I have a recurring nightmare of an ugly evil witch who torments me and chases me up the staircase.

I soon learned that if for Anglo-Saxons a trip to the graveyard is a jolly event, like a stroll in the park, and ‘graveyard tourism’ is on the rise, for Catholic Italians it is a place accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. 

Last time I visited Ireland the guide took us to a monumental graveyard with tombs as high as cars, and lavishly decorated. A few of my Italian male friends refused to enter and spent the whole day scratching their genitals to ward off jinx.

Halloween night is said to be when the barrier between the worlds of ghosts and humans comes down. But Italians don’t usually like to ‘party’ and mingle with the dead or other spirits. We instead honor the deceased with our prayers but the boundary remains firm in place: in fact, this is why our graveyards are placed outside of city centres.