March 2020: Beauty and Cultural Patrimony

I am seeing a lot of images in the media that stress, in deliberate contrast to the drama of the current situation, the beauty of our artistic heritage and its potential. This should be a pleasure, it is a pleasure. And yet, looking more closely, those captivating images of our country are in a certain way deceptive, since they are presented, in their extreme beauty, without what is usually one of their defining features, which is to say people, whether residents, visitors or tourists. All of which in reality disturb the perfection that emerges from those images.

What does this mean? Beauty without this kind of contamination is of course possible, but it does not make sense in our case. It doesn’t make sense in terms of enjoyment and participation, and it doesn’t even make sense in terms of economics. And so, we need to take a step back and think about that beauty. What does it mean?

The cultural capital

There has been a lot of talk on the subject of cultural assets and especially the artistic heritage and extraordinary humanised landscape that characterise our country. This has been discussed in particular since the 1970s, but a lot has changed since then. Today, people talk insistently about valorisation, and this concept would also seem to be implicit in plans for recovery: but the term valorisation is often meant in a predominantly economic sense. It is about assets, assets that we can, that we will be able to capitalise on. Maybe so. Perhaps this, too, could be a useful component of recovery, but not without first questioning and discussing the stance.

Can our country really be, as is sometimes thought, this place of beauty to be offered to the world, this extraordinary capital upon which to cultivate our interests? Perhaps, but I do not believe that there can be cultural capital without production, and I do not mean solely cultural production, I mean production.

The country needs to produce goods, technologies, it needs industry: those assets and attractions from the past were produced by the wealth and work of our predecessors. We also need to consider that while the beauty that we can enjoy today was of course the fruit of extraordinary brilliance and cultivated skill, this was often in connection with absolute power, injustice and exploitation. Our captivating heritage is a superstructure, a wondrous superstructure, of economic, social and religious phenomena.

The historical, social and anthropological dimension of cultural heritage

Thinking about our heritage in this way is not deprivation of that beauty but rather, in my view, restoration of its historical, social and anthropological aspect.

And it would therefore seem to be time to revive a few of the hopes for the future that were cultivated forty or fifty years ago, now updated for the present: our art-historical heritage needs to be seen as an opportunity for gaining knowledge and new awareness that generate widespread consciousness and civic awareness, and its strength cannot come from above, from an economic plan focused on monetary value, but from below, through a new awareness that considers it in its full reality, as also made up of labour, suffering and faith, in short comprising the history of a population.

Such that the same population can recognise the beauty of the evidence of the past, also comparing it to the bleakness, and see its quality, contrasting it with the falseness and deception and making it into riches, an absolute value.

This is why I hope to see a new iteration of what happened in the 1970s in Bologna, when the city identified itself in terms of its university at a time of major urban renewal, or in Palermo when its young people rediscovered the beauty in its neighbourhoods disfigured by speculation and presented the fragments to the public as signs of liberation and new creativity, or in the Sanità quarter of Naples, which recognised its history and beauty, from the depths of its catacombs to the Baroque beauty of its churches, as deliverance from the cultural impoverishment of a violent and desperate society.

Bologna, historical centre

In this anguished moment, with the museums closed and the churches locked, without people, without the public, the powerful image seems to me to be the one of the pope, in the absolute beauty of St Peter’s Square, where the genius of Bernini is revealed even in the now solitary and empty embrace of the colonnade. And so, beyond all conservative polemics, it was right for the pope to want the images of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani and the San Marcello Christ, so rich in history and faith, beside him. The Crucifix, beset by rain, reminiscent of countless past processions, redeems the too-often reductive museum image and rediscovers communion with the devotion, piety and popular culture that are so wrapped up in that symbol, not only religiously, but also secularly. It is our fortune and our uniqueness: our artistic heritage still preserves a few ties, among the many that have been cut, that link it to the country and can rediscover the connection with its history, which is to say with the population, and become liberation, renewed critical awareness, public spirit, even opposition, if necessary; in short, culture and desire for beauty.

Lauro Magnani

Lauro Magnani

He is Full Professor at the University of Genoa where he teaches History of Modern Art and History of Art in Modern Europe. His fields of research focus on painting, sculpture, patronage, iconographic themes, especially religious, between the 16th and 18th centuries. He has also dedicated numerous studies to the space of the historic garden, and its relationship with the decorative interior spaces. He is currently Dean of the School of Humanities and Rector’s Delegate for the conservation and communication of the cultural patrimony of the University of Genoa.