IF YOU WANT TO FIND PEACE AND QUIET in the touristic cacophony that is Florence in the summer, visit the contemporary art museum. The Museo Novecento faces the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, the “new” Saint Mary’s built in the fifteenth century. As if enacting a parable, everyone on the piazza is snapping photos of her tower, backs turned to the Museo Novecento, where I am shaded beneath the colonnaded Venetian façade, waiting for the doors to open.
I am sitting here with my doubts. Or, if not quite doubt, then something like worry. Here we are in Florence, and I’m bored with the Renaissance.
There are half-repressed dynamics of class and social anxiety at work here. I grew up working class, a first-generation college student who leapfrogged into the echelons of subscribers to the New York Review of Books. For centuries of social climbers like me, art history has been a shortcut to signaling our arrival among the cultured. If you can recognize a few tunes by Bach and Beethoven, properly pronounce “Goethe,” and parse the differences between Botticelli and Titian, you can look like someone who belongs in the foreign country to which you’ve immigrated—that strange land called academia, with its faculty clubs and ivied hierarchies.
But then, when you’re not experiencing the rapture that your education tells you should happen in front of a Piero della Francesca, the imposter syndrome comes roaring back. What am I missing? Am I an obtuse philistine? Do natives of this land of the cultured have something I’ll never acquire? Maybe I’ve been faking it all along. Maybe I don’t belong here.
Add another layer of self-doubt: For a country-boy convert like me, all those dynamics are entwined with a religious anxiety. Having clambered my way out of evangelicalism, with its Left Behind novels and garish warehouse worship spaces, I’m expecting my pilgrimage to Florence to be another sign that I’m not one of those Christians. Loving Florence is supposed to complement shelves filled with Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, season tickets to the Bach chorale, and an enthusiasm for The Four Quartets. So when the Duomo isn’t doing it for you, when the treasures of the Uffizi fall flat, those self-doubts inch toward a crisis of faith. Not only am I wondering if I’m an inveterate hick, I’m also wondering: Am I a terrible pilgrim? A bad Christian? Is this a failure of devotion?
So here I am on the threshold of the Museo Novecento, bored by Michelangelo. The doors open. There are only two of us waiting to get in. The spaces inside are hushed and cool. There are long moments when I have entire galleries to myself.
I have come to see a major exhibition of work by Filippo De Pisis titled The Illusion of Superficiality (though here I am, worried that my own superficiality is all too real). While looking for it, I peek into another gallery and am immediately entranced by a different exhibit: Quando è il presente? (When is the present?) by a contemporary Italian artist I’ve never heard of before: Giulio Paolini.
In the large space is a curious scene. The stuccoed, vaulted ceilings and light gray walls recall the sterile hospital this building once was. On the walls are a series of large works, each composed of multiple canvases. Each canvas is stark. In most, minimal black or red lines are drawn on a white surface. Arranged in grids of nine, twelve, or fifteen, the assembled canvases create a composite perspective. Like those early Renaissance painters who created riots of tiled floors and terraced villas to show off the newfound trick of painting in three dimensions, Paolini builds a minimalist geometry of depth on these flat walls. Two or three canvases in each amalgam are populated with cartoonish figures and silhouettes, their backs turned to us, looking at what we’re looking at. And then some element of collage is layered on top: a yellow envelope, upside down, notepaper spilling out; or a piece of architectural drawing, askew and yet echoing the geometric scene.
In the middle of this room sits a sculpture that oozes red and umber, an earthy oasis amid the sterile walls. I say “sculpture,” but even now I’m not sure that’s right. What we see is a pair of easels, an empty embroidered chair, and frames waiting to be filled, all atop a gorgeous Persian rug laced with flowers and vines—as if an artist has just gotten up and left the studio. On a table is a large book, sans title, covered in a blue grid, over which square pieces of photographs are scattered haphazardly, as if the table has been bumped and the grid shaken. In the middle is a single black chess piece: the king. On the easel is a painting that echoes this scene: an artist in a red fez is seated on a chair on a Persian rug, with a painting on his easel. Draped over the entire assemblage—down the painting, under the table, flowing off the carpet—is a large silken piece of fabric on which seems to be emblazoned yet another painting. Mise en abyme in three dimensions.
Everything I’ve just written is a failure of description. I can’t possibly re-create the complexity and play of Paolini’s discrete works, let alone the full constellation. I circle the room, engrossed. The doubts I brought with me from the portico have left me in a reflexive mood, and so I start asking myself: What is Paolini doing here that so fascinates me? This is the sort of frisson I was expecting in Florence; I just didn’t expect it here.
I wander into the next room of the exhibit to find La commozione e l’ispirazione (Emotion and inspiration). A diptych hangs high on the wall: cartoon Athenian women rest their elbows pensively on the remnants of columns while red lines run downward in perspectival angles. Seven identically sized canvases cascade askew below, tumbling toward the floor. Each is etched with geometrical shapes and angular lines, but again the grid is disrupted. None of the lines meet up. How much do I want them to? How much is my mind trying to “correct” all this? How much of me revels in the disruption? The geometric echoes capture something of our human craving for mastery: here is a euclidean world governed by the axiom, shaped by the algorithm. But the disrupted angles and jumbled grids push back. There are things in heaven and earth that can’t be subject to your algorithms, Horatio. Thank God. I am immersed in this exhibition, with no idea what’s going on, and loving every second of it.
Why was I bored by Botticelli but enchanted by Paolini? I’m still asking this question, and still coming up with different answers.
Environmental conditions are not irrelevant. I think part of the problem is what Walter Benjamin described as the challenges for “the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction.” In a world of not only endless reproduction but also digital proliferation, we are blocked from seeing by familiarity. It is almost impossible to truly encounter Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, for example, because its power has been drained by repetition. Furthermore, the conditions under which I see Venus in the Uffizi are hardly conducive to contemplative encounter. Jostled and herded, everyone clammers for a selfie in front of the painting. Botticelli isn’t really seen but merely collected as a commodity for our Instagram feeds.
All of this was different when I encountered Paolini at the Museo Novecento. Being alone in the gallery afforded mental space for contemplation. And Paolini’s work arrived as a surprise. I was unable to master what I was seeing. I brought no horizons of expectation to this encounter, and Paolini offers few guardrails or guidelines. Unlike a pilgrimage to the Uffizi, Paolini’s installations ask for something other than devotion; his work occasioned in me a kind of wondering that was something other than awe. It invites conversation rather than adulation. The artist is relinquishing control rather than demanding attention. You get the sense that Paolini is as wonderfully puzzled and curious as we are.
Curator Bettina Della Casa rightly notes that in Paolini’s work, the observer “is directly called into question.” But it is not the artist in the role of master who puts the observer into question. Rather, artist and observer share this experience of decentering. Both are “called to participate in an incessant search for meaning.” Both are grappling with something that can’t be mapped onto a euclidean grid. Paolini even appeals to what he calls “a metaphysical dimension.”
Something is dawning for me. Unconsciously, I think I came to Florence to prove something: to be in the know, to collect my own encounter with “the masters,” arriving as a learned devotee. But what I’ve found here in the Museo Novecento is something other than devotion. It’s the joy of disruption, a learned ignorance, a willingness to let go of the penchant to master the masters and instead commune with an artist who is as perplexed and dazzled by the world as I am.
In my backpack as I wander the museum is a copy of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. Already in the first pages, Merton seems to be describing what I experienced with Paolini. Contemplation, Merton opens, “is spiritual wonder.” Such wonder doesn’t sit on the plane of “knowing,” though: “in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows, the contemplative mind takes back what it has said and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by ‘unknowing.’” The contemplative life is not so much the achievement of enlightenment as learning to live the question—living into spiritual wonder. Merton continues: “It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us to contemplation He answered the question, so that the contemplative is at the same time question and answer.”
If my pilgrimage to Florence began as a conquest devoted to the masters, the gift I received was disruption. Unsettled by art I couldn’t master, I experienced the distinct joy of letting go. I leave with gratitude for an artist who invites me to the unknowing that is spiritual wonder.
Unlike a pilgrimage to the Uffizi, Paolini’s installations ask for something other than devotion; his work occasioned in me a kind of wondering that was something other than awe. It invites conversation rather than adulation. The artist is relinquishing control rather than demanding attention.”
Image: Giulio Paolini, L’Altra Figura, 1984