Galleria Nazionale D'Arte Moderna: Main Page

An Art historical interpretation


The Galleria D'Arte Moderna in Rome

The Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna is located in the Villa Borghese in Rome. Construction began in 1908 using the blue prints of famous Italian architect Cesare Bazzani (1873 - 1939). The opening ceremony took place on the 17th of March 1911 to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the Italian Unity. An international exhibition hosting contemporary and modern art dating back from the early 1800s to 1911 was open to the public until the 17th of March 1915. Today, the Galleria functions as a museum, which displays contemporary and modern art from artists all over the world.

The following article outlines why the Galleria Nazionale D'Arte Moderna was built, according to our interpretation. We interpret its historical context and want to answer the question of its purpose by consulting architectural, societal, and autobiographical sources and artworks presented by the Galleria.

Follow the links below to an in-depth discussion of relevant aspects that concern the GNAM.

The Collection The Context The Building

1. The Question
2. The Answer

The Question

Fondazione Cariplo: Palizzi Fillippo, La Primavera

In the analysis of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna it is important to consider the original purpose of the building. When the institution was founded in 1883 the young Italian nation - just united in 1861 after the struggle of the Risorgimento. The aftermath of the wars against French and Austrian occupiers led to widespread famine. However, the country also faced the problem of large indecisiveness regarding its own national identity. In essence the modern Italian borders embraced an area that had not been united under an independent flag since the downfall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Afterwards the area developed into independent nation states that heavily fought among each other. Even in 1861 - after official declaration of the Italian State - it would have been naive to assume that the new unity was supported by all those former states, given that they had constantly fought among each other and each developed a unique culture of their own. A common national spirit was unthinkable as the Italian people went through a difficult transformation towards a national convention. Under the reign of the Kings Emmanuel II and Umberto I much effort was spent on the creation of an Italian unity through buildings like the Il Vittoriano - the Altare della Patria - and great celebrations of the National Unification Day. Another popular method was the establishment of national symbols in the form of statues, icons art and, naturally, museums and galleries that served the exhibition of all these.

Problems such as the conflicts between social classes or famine and unemployment in the South were not solved by unifying the Italian people. The attempt to solve their problems by uniting the country proved to be uneffective. Therefore the Italian people needed a new approach in order to deal with their problems. Within Europe competition amongst the states was fierce; colonization was in process and Italy had missed the chance to be among the first to profit from ressources abroad. Projects like the World's Fair that accompanied the industrial revolution did not take place on Italian ground before the early 20th century for the very reason that Italy was not considered a global player during the 19th century. This struggle for international success that came to be associated with modernity during that time stood in deep contrast to the common past of the small Italian states, that is, it did not befit the descendants of the glorious Roman Empire that had ruled over most of Europe and large parts of Africa and Asia, producing advanced technology, civilization and art. Much like the Germans, Italy strove after images of greatness in order to create a sense of unity, that resembled its own great, common past and national pride.

The only question was how to create an image of a modernized Kingdom of Italy without letting go of its common past.

The Answer

Luigi Nono: Abbandonati

A solution to the problem Italy faced in its struggle for success and modernity was offered in the shape of many projects; among them the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna.

Pre-unification Italy was deeply marked by the turmoils of the Risorgimento. Decades of Italians, caught in their daily struggles, drew hope from the ideal of a unified Kingdom of Italy. Blame as well was vastly directed towards the matter of missing unity. However, the unification did not solve many of the issues such as poverty, famine, or large absence of education, that Italians faced in their everyday life; the beacon that guided them for many years was reached and did not live up to expectations. In their need for orientation and motivation the Italians were in desperate need of a new perspective on themselves and their future: The goal of becoming a modern state served as a replacement for old ideals. In this sense the need to adapt to modern circumstances became the dictating principle of the Italian Nation's perspective on itself. Furthermore, the notion of modernity, as opposed to tradition, implies that the Italian people had to effectively incorporate their past into the present.

In order to form a new national identity the italian government undertook several reforms with whom the Italian government tried to unity the country. One of such was public education that standardized the knowledge of the Italian youth and thereby knowledge regarding the Italian heritage. This standardization secured an omnipresent consciousness of what Italy meant to its people and offered a new aspiration in the shape of elevated standards and increased productivity within the international context. Increasing globalization trends, particularly driven by the industrialization, made it essential for Italy to become a global player in order to fill the gap between their current state and their rich heritage. Hence, it might be appropriate to say that modernity, as a final state, represented the instauration of the long-lost glory commonly associated with Italy's heritage - it represented the goal of a modern Kingdom that befitted the heirs of the great Roman Empire.

Italy's alignment to modern standards of technology, education, welfare and culture, may be understood as an attempt to satisfy the cognitive dissonance between the proud Italian self-image - that of an heir to the mighty Romans - and their actual self as a nation, which was in a rather desolate state after the Risorgimento (see also "The Context"). The new Italian beacon was to not just be like other nations, but to be even greater than them. The Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna represents a proper offspring of this line of thought.

The GNAM's architecture serves as a reminiscence of classical elements hinting towards Italy's glorious past without losing touch to the contemporary Rome, which is discovered in its baroque-like ornaments that leave room for the (back then) modern looking neoclassic emphasize of planar qualities. The building's front emphasizes being a national gallery of modern art, while combining this purpose with the names of old and new artists, which serves as further evidence of the ambition to create a link between Italy's past and present. The building was supposed to represent a modern Italian identity that is related to Italy's great past (see also "The Building").

Furthermore, it is important to note that the Galleria Nazionale was initially indeed a gallery, not just a museum. The museum as such mainly serves the purpose of presenting works that already are of confirmed importance, while the gallery particularly aims at familiarizing the viewer with art of contemporary interest. A gallery is far more flexible and timely in its exhibitions and therefore much more suitable to present an image of modernity. The GNAM was supposed to be an active player in the art-scene, not just a place of preservation, which makes the institution all the more remarkable as it was also the very first modern-art gallery in Europe. It is interesting to note that the first collections of the Galleria (see also "The Collection") contained works of artists that were concerned with interpretations of Roman classicism and Romanticism (e.g., Francesco Hayez), with symbolism of Roman mythology (e.g., Antonio Canova), but also with the quest for truth that was often found in representations of traditional Italian life-style (e.g., Giovaccino Toma). These rather nostalgic aspects were mixed with visualizations of struggle in the social reality of Italy (e.g., Luigi Nono), pointing towards the necessity of humanitarian visions (e.g., Guiseppe Pellizza da Volpedo) that were a highly relevant component of contemporary Italian art at the time of the first exhibitions. The art hints towards the dream of an Italy that is created by and for the Italian people. However, the first collection also contains the notion of modernity: The Italian viewer must have experienced feelings of nostalgia and also pride with regard to his own heritage, as a considerable amount of works displayed contemporary Italian tradition on a rather emotional level. But at the same time the viewer was also confronted with social issues and grievances that were often associated with the post-risorgimento Kingdom of Italy. This mixture of nostalgia, pride and disliking of reality delicately represented the feelings of Italian contemporaries and thereby evoked the desire for an answer. This answer was presented by multiple artists in the shape of humanitarian utopia that stood in stark contrast the ambivalent feelings associated with the present. In their longing for a better self-image the artists outline a collective trend towards a highly dynamic future as can be seen in the contemporary trend of Futurism (e.g., Giacomo Balla).

Quarto Stato

The establishment of the GNAM can be interpreted as an attempt of King Umberto I and his minister Guido Baccelli, who organized the foundation of the institution, to create an image of Italy as being a highly progressive supporter of art, especially compared to other countries, but also as a message that indicates the new focus on modernity and the importance associated with it. Facing the struggles of the present, becoming an active and successful participant in the globalized competition, and unity under the consequential goal of restoring Italy's long-lost glory, are all messages contained in the establishment of the GNAM. A contemporary of the opening of the GNAM must have been aware of the countries needs and the tension between Italy's ideal and actual self. For him or her facing the GNAM in its original state must have been as if King Umberto I himself told them to gather up their stuff and prepare for a rough ride into the glorious future of the Kingdom of Italy. The GNAM gave orientation, it gave motivation, and most importantly it communicated the prospect of an ideal state.