Rome and Its Museums: 1870-2010

By Bernini, Rita | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Rome and Its Museums: 1870-2010

Bernini, Rita, Annali d'Italianistica

In a city with as rich a heritage as Rome, cultural artifacts ought to be accessible to residents and visitors alike in a way that is systematic, univocal, and understandable. Rome's historical, artistic, and intellectual traditions, that is, should not be reserved for the chosen few. As Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel argue in The Love of Art, a taste for culture--or "cultivated taste"--is not innate but rather socially produced and unevenly distributed (109). In the light of this claim, the question of equal educational opportunities, as much as that of economic advancement, is an important challenge for contemporary cities, and especially for a twenty-first-century metropolis like Rome--a capital city "afflicted" with a glorious past.

The situation of Rome's museums is emblematic of Italy's principal difference with respect to other countries: the indissoluble bond between each museum and its territory. In the words of Christian Whitehead,

"Every museum is intimately connected with its region, not only because of the local circumstances which caused the museum's creation, but also because the museum, consciously or unconsciously, serves in some way to reflect, through the display of objects, the particular civilization inherent to the locality. [...] this sense of the museum both as element and expression of local culture, has been unusually important in Italy, where regionalism, perhaps more than elsewhere, is at the center of cultural identity."


Because of this intimate bond, Italian museums and cultural sites are sometimes called "diffused museums" or "open-air museums" (Jalla). Thus, for example, museums in Italy are often located inside a building that is itself a cultural site, within an urban context or landscape that is in turn part of Italy's cultural heritage (Chastel 11). It is also for these reasons that Italy has been unable to develop a museum politics similar to that of other European nations.

In the case of Rome, obstacles to the creation of a coherent plan for museum development emerged when the city became the capital, as well as the symbol, of the new Italian Kingdom. Starting in 1870, Rome had to face its own past, in terms of architecture, archaeology, urban planning, and museums. Ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque Rome could not just be destroyed in order to build modern Rome. Rather, the new city had to cohabit with what it inherited from the past--first and foremost, its cultural heritage--and make of it a symbolic point of reference. In a climate made especially difficult by the pope's hostile attitude towards the new government, the political classes strove to create a sense of Italianness through examples drawn precisely from the past of the Eternal City. The city's cultural heritage was chosen to perform an educational function: new museums, it was hoped, would help citizens move toward the new political and, more generally, national institutions. Extant museums, however, could not simply be ignored. It thus proved the case that, between 1870 and 2010, Rome's museum system would continually evolve as attempts were made to adapt to, rather than supersede, what was already there. This compromise-based politics has characterized the entire period, up to the present day. Very recently, in 2010, there have finally been some important and positive signs of change, originating from both legal and planning quarters.

In what follows I will outline the transformations of city and state museums that have resulted, among key urban players, in misunderstandings, rivalries, and lack of dialogue that could and should be overcome so that both residents and visitors may more readily enjoy the historical and artistic patrimony of the Eternal City. Unwittingly, united Italy's early leaders enabled the creation of an unproductive dichotomy between city and state museums, in terms of management and authority, beginning when the newborn Italian state decided to leave its mark on Rome--a dichotomy that perhaps today, almost a century and a half later, could be overcome for the sake of a freer and easier fruition and enjoyment, by both residents and visitors, of the Eternal City's historical and artistic patrimony. …

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