Interview with Stefano Zuffi: The value of a Choice

When we are be able to start moving again, we will all be eager to take our lives back. It will be crucial to use this moment to make the experience of art not just something secluded, a reaction to the isolation that we have all suffered, but a beautiful habit

The year 2020 that has just finished allowed us to understand once and for all that Italy’s artistic heritage is a fundamental economic asset for the country.

We have experienced how the fear of gatherings and the need to guarantee social distancing have been an important drive for introducing virtual art visits, and for rediscovering local tourism in so-called “minor” Italy, which is just as beautiful nonetheless.

Yet what will happen when we are finally allowed to fully, freely enjoy the endless tourist and cultural attractions of the country and more? Will we be able to make use of the hard lesson we learned during these dark months?

We have asked Stefano Zuffi, an art historian, exhibition curator and writer.

Stefano Zuffi

When we are be able to start moving again, we will all be eager to take our lives back. It will be crucial to use this moment to make the experience of art not just something secluded, a reaction to the isolation that we have all suffered, but a beautiful habit.

As professionals from the field, we will all have the duty and important responsibility to work at satisfying everyone’s craving for art and beauty, and turning it to a constant pleasure.

Our goal will be to develop a liberating action in a pleasure that renews itself.

Stefano, how will it be possible to make all of this come true, in your opinion?

First, I think it will be necessary to make it easier to enjoy art experiences, by shredding as many bureaucratic requirements as possible, which are now making it rough to access exhibitions, museums and monuments. All of this is annoying and pushes visitors away, whereas we need to try and keep them close.

Our job is to open the doors of artistic beauties by facilitating the experience.

In Italy, we are excellent at preserving, but not as much at developing and enhancing our extraordinary artistic heritage.

Italy has artistic treasures from all periods, ranging from archaeology to contemporary art.

This is what I personally find amazing, and the way I see it, what should become the key factor of our future success: enhancing artistic coherence and the distribution of art masterpieces in the area.

So far, we have often confused enhancing art with its commodification – nothing further from the truth.

In the next future, I dream of exhibitions that could provide multi-sensory stimuli.

What do you mean exactly?

In my vision, for example, an altarpiece should be enjoyed together with light, the scent of candles burning at its sides, and the music that accompanies religious ceremonies. I believe that technology could naturally help us with this, by creating an all-round captivating experience for visitors.

An immersive exhibition, then, like those that Milan has recently dedicated to Klimt at the MuDec museum, to Van Gogh at the Fabbrica del Vapore, or the permanent one about Raffaello?

It is actually a different scenario.

The immersive exhibits that you mentioned do not showcase artworks, i.e. physical objects, but offer real immersions in the visual adventure that is the artist’s world.

As far as I am concerned, this is something between cinema and an art exhibition, which might not have found its own language yet, but surely has the merit of attracting the general public.

An extremely interesting cultural experiment in the direction that I have been following for years: bringing as many people as possible closer to art.

Spreading art has always been my strongest motivation, the ultimate reason for my choices.

This was really hard in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I started my career.

Back then, the rivalry between popularizers and academics was based on the assumption that art should be reserved to an elite, and that popularizing it meant vulgarizing it. The impenetrable wall that had been raised was only destroyed in 1996, with the exhibition on impressionism and the avant-gardes “Da Monet a Picasso” from the Puskin museum. This exhibition represented the fault line between academic science and the economic endeavor of popular exhibitions.

Luckily, things have changed today, which also happened because of some TV experiments with remarkable professionals, like Piero and Alberto Angela’s programs, or the cordial way in which Philippe Daverio addresses the general public.

You have mentioned the debut of your career, how did you start feeling the desire to devote your professional life to art?

My parents introduced me to this amazing world, and instilled this passion in me. Even as a child, I was never intimated by museums, which I considered as big games rooms back then.

I remember loving the Touring guide books, I used to inhale them as if they were comic books.

Their descriptions made me picture marvelous journeys…

And yet, making this my profession has not been easy.

I can still hear my Italian professor at the end of high school clearly advising me to take a much easier forensic career, and to make art history nothing more than a hobby for my free time.

When I decided I was interested in art history, the only university course I could take was humanities, with a specialization in art history. The very job of art historian did not exist. The offer is extremely varied now, there are different options, but the vocational and professional development is still complicated. Let’s just think that 2020 is now gone, and we still lack a professional association and laws that could rule historians’ work.

Only recently did we feel the need to better define this professional profile. A decision that, although vague, has now become essential to create that connection between cultural assets and the public that visionary Giovanni Spadolini was hoping for, when in 1974 he promoted the institution of the Italian Ministry of Culture and Environmental Heritage.

Stefano Zucchi evento mediolanum

An exhibition curator, an art historian, a writer: what is Stefano Zuffi’s real identity?

I think that art is an essential part of the human soul.

To this effect, my work in prison was revealing to me. I was not the one explaining art to prisoners at San Vittore, I would only be a facilitator: works would give back their own personal echoes to all of them. The value of art and the artist is that they are able to reach the larger public.

We are not talking superstructures, but human beings’ inherent needs – the need to leave a mark. Discussing art is a priority to me, and it is important that someone interprets it.

Then, there is my specialization, which is medieval and modern art, which has given me the chance to help curate exhibitions that had quite some success. I am thinking of the one held during Christmas time at Palazzo Marino in Milan on Tiziano’s splendid Pala Gozzi, strongly backed by the municipality and dedicated to the city, or the most recent show “Divine e Avanguardie, Le donne nell’arte russa” at the Royal Palace of Milan.

Setting up an exhibition is exciting. It is about building a visual path inside an architectural space. Finding a common thread, a story to tell. In order to do this, all technological tools can be used, first of all light!

Stefano Zuffi as a writer is something recent.

The characters of my books are always artists – Rembrandt, Durer, Raffaello. I try to convey the human daily dimension of the artist. I would like to take artists off their pedestal to paint them in all their humanity, which is once again an attempt to bring as many people as possible closer to art.

presentazione Stefano Zuffi

My books are about normal people who did extraordinary things.

To this end, I do a lot of preparatory research work. I never move away from history. The focus is on the magical moments of artists’ realization, alongside anecdotes, events that give back to us a snapshot of these humans at their time.

Raffaello non deve morire

In your last book, though, titled ”Raffaello non deve morire”, you seem to move away from this rule…

During the lockdown, I tried to take steps forward, or rather sideways, in the relationship between art historians and storytelling.

The narrative fiction comes in when I move away from proper reconstruction to imagine possible alternatives.

The question I would like to answer is: how would story have changed if…?

I have had lots of fun imagining different endings for well-known events, I hope my book will entertain my readers just as much.


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