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Contemporary Art in Diplomatic Avatar: Farnesina Shows the Way

Binny Yadav

All Foreign offices as policy matter function under strict protocols of communication and these communications mostly are anything but related to art. In the diplomatic parlance secrecy, traditionally, is the unwritten code but at the end of 20th century one foreign office in Europe tried to ease out its foreign department from tight lipped and stiff language to be more open and inclusive by adopting a ‘new’ way of expression.  The purpose was to bridge the gaps in relationship with foreign lands by exchanges through the richness of the past while sharing the contemporary realities in order to “build a better tomorrow”. This ‘new language’ was art, chosen for the diplomatic communique and the office was Farnesina, the office of ministry of external affairs of Republic of Italy and the man behind this ‘grand vision’ was ambassador Umberto Vattani, the then Secretary General of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy.

“Art can not abide indifference”, believed Vattani, as the saying literally translated into reality when Farnesina was opened to the world more than twenty five years ago, by using art as a ‘new’ language of diplomacy. Till late 20th century the only possible interpretation of the magnanimous foreign office premises of Italy, the Farnesina, could have been the building which intended to house the fascist party which was occupied by the daily diplomatic activities. But the “narrative” was changed.

The grand open spaces at the atrium, staircases and halls of Farnesia were introduced and filled with the works of ‘living artists’ whose work reflected the ethos of contemporary Italy. It was for the first time that the doors of any foreign office building were open to the common people. With rotating artworks of accomplished and new artists, foreign office of Italy over the years has also become an important seat of contemporary Italian art.

Today, Farnesina, as they say, stands as a “unique symbol of contemporary Italy” where art finds the most prominent space as an ambassador, representing to the world, Italy, as it stands today, giving a message of peace, diplomacy and its openness to engage with the world through cultural exchanges. Around seventy two masterpieces out of 630 Farnesia Collections are traveling to New Delhi after its lag in Singapore and Japan.

Art has its own language and the “Grand Vision of Italy, The Farnesina Collection”, was intended to break-away from the established shackles of “secrecy” element of diplomatic world. The message was clear: diplomatic communication should be more human centric, learning the lessons from the past art should talk about the contemporary realities and dig solutions for the future.

An old-world telephone set with a dial can be passed off as a mere antique collection but when it is displayed as an art piece, the artist reminds us of how we have progressed and how it is important to retain the glories of the past which has led us to contemporary times and these should prepare us to take on the future challenges. The life-size sculpture of man with raised hand facing the mirror by Michelangelo Pistoletto expresses the future of the human race. “Raised arm in front of the mirror measures the distance left to humanity before the final catastrophe. The warning reminds us of the fragility of our planet”, explains ambassador Umberto Vattani.

Discussions with Vattani, on the sidelines of the unveiling of Farnesina Collection in New Delhi in the last week of May, during a tour through the National Gallery of Arts in the city, made it more understandable how it is most important to retain the historic values in current times. While Italy’s place as a leader in inspiring the world through its Renaissance, Classic and Baroque era is unparalleled, Vattani, as  a seasoned diplomat visualised how contemporary art can also become the medium to express the current political dispensation of his country. This was how the project of adorning Farnesina with masterpieces of contemporary art was initiated at the end of 20th century.

Foreign office as an art gallery? The “reaction of surprise and bewilderment” were natural. Works by the great masters of the twentieth century and the artists from the beginning of the twentieth century overlapped triumphing over the architectural lines of the building of Italian foreign office and this “created trauma….that was what we desired”, explained Vattani, “the arrival of these works unsettled more than one person. My colleagues realised that they would have to share the space with unknown entities.”

Ambassador Umberto Vattani and his wife Isabella in National Museum of Art, Delhi

Vattani wonders, “ why it took others so long to open up to contemporary…..Italy which has immense cultural heritage…all this entailed a strong commitment to shielding and safeguarding our vast legacy … .aura of the mystical past continues to enshroud our country”.

At the government level also it was considered important to tell the world about the richness of Italian contemporary art as, “many end up believing in the cliche that the past is particularly important to us”. It was sought to place various large sculptures in some of the most prestigious public places. First such initiative was in 1986, when near Mayfair square in London, near the Italian Embassy, a fountain with Greco’s Nereide was placed.

These works of art were not only the masterpieces of contemporary art but also bore the political messages, chosen for their inherence to the themes and content of different international situations. In the year 1989, President of Italy, Andeotti donated the Disco Solare by Amaldo Pomodoro to Mikhail Gorbachev on his visit to Italy, in recognition of his policy of detente between East and West. The structure today is placed in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow.

Objective of the collection in the words of ambassador Vattani was to “make contemporary art-together with the literature, theater, music and research, a vital instrument of cultural diplomacy”. The art is being used as a medium to project Italy as “a lively, multi-faceted country, rich in diverse voices, projected towards the future, where nothing stands still and everything is in movement.” The  collection, he says, will continue to inspire new developments.

The starting point of this project is still the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy, which, says the people in-charge of the affairs, will play an “analogous role in favour of Rome and its territory,” where ancient Rome would continue to be relevant along with the contemporary Rome with the message of “co-existence” to the world.

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