AS ORSON WELLES'S CHARACTER famously observed in The Third Man, "In Italy ... they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Indeed, long after the Renaissance, Italian modernism continued that love affair with trouble--from Futurism's romanticization of war onward. And at present, Naples is much like a city at war; Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently deployed troops to stifle escalating Mafia violence in the city and clean up mounds of refuse left over from the recent garbage crisis. Meanwhile, vigilantes have been torching Roma camps in the wake of a national backlash against immigrants. Naples also lies in the shadow of an active volcano, of course; Mount Vesuvius last erupted in 1944-not so long ago--but that docs not stop people from constructing illegal homes in its red zone. This is a sign of the indomitable spirit of the gritty, vibrating port city, which has attracted artists from Caravaggio to Joseph Beuys. The painterly backdrop of the volcano acts as a memento mori, adding an urgent frisson to Neapolitan culture. Here, the contemporary is always reminded of its impending obsolescence.
In fact, Naples has been experiencing something of a cultural renaissance since Antonio Bassolino, now president of the Campania region, became mayor in 1993 and initiated numerous projects promoting contemporary art. In 1994, he began an extensive expansion of the city's transportation system, including new stations incorporating art from the likes of Luisa Rabbia, Jannis Kounellis, Sol Le Witt, and Mimmo Paladino--the first collaboration of its kind in the world. Anish Kapoor and the architectural firm Future Systems have designed the new Monte Sant'Angelo station, which is slated for completion in February 2010 and will feature a monumental sculptural entrance, augmenting the revitalization of the peripheral Fuorigrotta area. Downtown, the Piazza Plebiscito has hosted annual temporary installations; this past year, Michelangelo Pistoletto laid down a red silhouette of the Mediterranean that mapped and consolidated the regional cultures of its coasts.
A similarly cosmopolitan impetus is behind the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina Napoli (madre), which opened in 2005 in a seventeenth-century palazzo near the Duomo to spur gentrification and draw tourism to the area. One floor is dedicated to permanent installations by artists of international prominence, from Rebecca Horn to Jeff Koons to Richard Serra; temporary exhibitions are installed on the floors above and below. The current presentation, "Robert Rauschenberg: Travelling '70--'7.6," includes the masterly "Cardboards," "Venetians," and "Early Egyptians" series--creating an unwitting visual connection between the local trash overflow and Rauschenberg's brilliantly recycled constructions.
Waste is never far from excess or luxury, and the relationship between public and private patronage has generated strange bedfellows in the city. In this fertile civic environment, a new generation of galleries and private dealers has sprung up, introducing an edgy international roster of artists into a milieu previously defined by blue-chip venues such as Galleria Lia Rumma and Studio Trisorio, which along with legendary gallerist Lucio Amelio defined the city's extraordinary avantgarde scene of the 1960s and '70s. Among the latest upstarts are T293, Annarumma 404, Giangj Fonti, and Blindarte--the last bravely opened by the eponymous auction house on the frontier of Fuorigrotta in 2004.
Although government initiatives have provided a hospitable context for contemporary art, the exchanges among public and private players have not been entirely tranquil, with the galleries accusing the institutions of needlessly borrowing from outside collections. …