Tucked inside the lower reaches of the Alps lies the Italian region of Trentino, famous for its stunning landscapes, picture-perfect villages and buzzing economy based around agriculture, tourism, and hi-tech startups.
But Trentino has recently acquired a new feather in its Alpine cap—a world-class modern art museum located in the small, historic town of Rovereto.
There is some logic to this. Rovereto was the hometown of Fortunato Depero, one of the stars of futurism, that peculiarly Italian approach to industrial fetishism that struck northern Italy like a lightning bolt in the early 20th century. It included a manifesto, a cookbook, and a giddy relationship with fascism which continues to cast a pall over the movement and its visionary practitioners. In Germany, the fascists despised modern art. In Italy, they embraced it. A new art for a new world.
And now a new museum for an old town.
Opened in 2002, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto (better known by its Italian acronym MART) is an exuberant sunburst of a building designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta. I’m not a fan of Botta, whose buildings always seem to aspire towards the aesthetics of a Bond villain lair (see his godawful casino in Campione d’Italia), but credit where credit’s due, he’s actually pulled it out of the bag here.
Hemmed in on one side by mountains and on the other side by two listed 18th century villas, Botta is working with constraints he’s unlikely used to, which is a benefit both to him and to us. The result is a building that is unusually subtle and restrained, with a strange sense of deference, crouching behind the historic palazzi of the old town and almost invisible until it’s right in front of you.
Despite this, Botta has crafted an unforgettable structure, focused around a central courtyard topped by a glass and steel dome and covered in yellow Vicenza stone. Inside, the building comprises four floors and 29,000 square meters of space making it one of the largest modern art museums in Italy. Vast windows mean the interior is constantly flooded in natural light, bouncing off the white walls and shimmering around corners. It’s one of the few modern art museums where I’ve been bowled over before I’ve even seen the art.
And what about the art? Along with the Museo Novocento in Milan and the Estorick Gallery in London, MART has one of the most extraordinary collections of 20th century Italian art I’ve ever seen.
It comprises works from the mid-19th century to the present day, beginning with Francesco Hayez and his salacious masterpiece Ballerina Carlotta Chabert as Venus (1830) followed by a selection of works from the laidback Italian impressionist group, the Macchiaioli. Moving into the 20th century, the gallery showcases the art of the Italian divisionists (so-called because they preferred to ‘divide’ colors instead of mixing them, often in a pointillist fashion). This includes landmark works by Gino Severini, Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla, all of whom transitioned into fully fledged futurists after the First World War.
Ah, futurism. We have Filippo Tommaso Marinetti to thank for that. Though born in Egypt, he spent most of his adult life stalking the factories of northern Italy, breathing in the heat, the noise, the dust, reveling in the aesthetic beauty of machinery and convinced of its profound emancipatory capabilities. He was obsessed with speed; his quasi-erotic response to a 1908 car crash anticipated JG Ballard by around 65 years. There were eccentric diversions and hyperbole but a belief in the transformative potential of industry remained core.
He gradually picked up acolytes, who went on to become the most important Italian artists of the interwar period. As well as the aforementioned Severini, Boccioni, and Balla, he enraptured Carlo Carrà, Enrico Prampolini, and Luigi Russolo, all of whose work is well-stocked here. A special mention should go to Tullio Crali, whose singular paintings have never left my mind since I first encountered them many years ago. There is The Strength of the Curve (1930), which visualizes Marinetti’s dream of “a motor car that runs on machine-gun fire” and Nose Dive on the City (1939) a videogame aesthetic picture from the point of view of a plane’s cockpit. They have a sense of immediacy, energy, and prescience that feels contemporary even today.
At its best, futurism represented a sensuous relationship with modernity, with all its volatility, thrill, and limitless possibilities. At its worst, it fetishized war, unfettered masculinity, and Mussolini, who makes a cameo appearance here in the form of Renato Bertelli’s whirring “aeroceramic” bust.
Other movements existed in tandem. Giorgio de Chirico produced his iconic metaphysical townscapes during this period. Achille Funi’s charged revivalism moved neoclassicism beyond pastiche and Carla Badiali’s expressionist forms helped shake up the all-boys club. An entire room is dedicated to local hero Depero, whose large canvases filled with psychedelic, Quechua-like tapestries defy easy explanation.
After the War, Italian art moved further into abstraction, including the famous ripped canvases of professional mischief maker Lucio Fontana. Social realism flourished in the home of the West’s most successful communist party, manifested here by Renato Guttuso’s Women of the Miners (1953). The influential Arte Povera emerged, which pushed the material possibilities of art. The conceptual movement is well represented, but not to my taste. A nice antidote is found in the Transavanguardia crew, with their wash of colors and symbolist sensibilities. Giorgio Morandi and his gleefully uncool still life drawings are also in attendance.
Moving beyond Italy, the gallery also has several notable works by Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel, and Marina Abramović on display.
After a breathless tour through the Italian 20th century, MART still had a few surprises up its sleeve. First was a special exhibition titled “Symbolism and New Objectivity” featuring a large collection of interwar symbolist, surrealist, and magical realist art from France, Germany and Austria including works by Gustav Klimt, Maximilian Lenz, and an artist called Richard Müller, whose bizarre paintings often feature lovesick armadillos trying to woo human females with heart-shaped boxes of chocolate.
And then–out of nowhere–I stumbled into an exhibition of 200 Antonio Canova sculptures paired with 20th century nude photographs by Mapplethorpe, Horst et al. It was so deliriously ambitious and over-the-top and yet–somehow–they pulled it off. All this in a provincial museum in northern Italy.
Can there be too much of a good thing? Staggering out of MART and back into the quiet, whimsical streets of Rovereto, I found myself wandering around in a kind of daze, eyeing each passing car, trying to find the one that runs on machine-gun fire.