Rome. The Caput Mundi. The ancient seat of the Republic, then the empire, then the church, which gave us the Renaissance. “You must serve her,” Marcus Licinius Crassus declaimed in Stanley Kubrik’s Spartacus. “You must abase yourself before her. You must grovel at her feet. You must... love her.”
But while for centuries Rome maintained hegemony over both temporal affairs and the exalted arts, in recent times its creative denizens have found themselves living in a museum of previous accomplishments, forced to wallow nostalgically in the pomp of the past—an attitude exemplified by Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty. Now, however, there seems to be a new drive to reinvigorate the city’s art scene by turning the spotlight to the contemporary moment. These efforts came refreshingly into flower over the weekend with the debut of GRANPALAZZO, a new pop-up event that took place in the prestigious countryside premises of Zagarolo’s 16-century Palazzo Rospigliosi, just outside of Rome.
A detour from pessimism about the city’s cultural vitality, GRANPALAZZO set out to demonstrate the will of professionals in the Roman art scene to make the city a hub for contemporary art in Italy—though one rooted in the city's glorious cultural history. (The palazzo itself, once owned by the Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, is distinguished by its elegant domed ceilings and frescos of hunting scenes, the Battle of Lepanto, and other august subjects.) “We all love Rome,” says Paola Capata, the owner of Monitor Gallery, who co-founded the event with curator Ilaria Gianni, gallerist Federica Schiavo, and the events manager Delfo Durante. “We decided to be committed to the city, and to give it everything we have to offer.”
Above all, GRANPALAZZO was a recognition of the fact that Rome, against all odds, has been evolving as an increasingly potent draw for the international contemporary art scene. Artists, curators, and other tastemakers are lured to the city by glamorous residency programs in institutions such as the American Academy in Rome, the French Academy, and the British School at Rome—often with collectors in tow. Now, eight years after Gagosian opened an outpost in Rome (primarily to cater to Cy Twombly, who lived outside the city), the dealer Gavin Brown has also announced plans to bring his vanguard-leading gallery to Trastevere. The city’s art scene, in other words, is slowly starting to take part in the international artistic discourse.
Overall, though, the infrastructure remains largely absent, and the galleries are mostly young—the kind that you see in the emerging “spotlight” sections in art fairs. The key players, inaugurated in the mid-2000s, include the galleries Monitor, T293, Lorcan O’Neill, and Federica Schiavo; the magazines/publishing houses NERO and cura; and the newspapers Exibart and Artribune.
The city has also benefited from the launch of new private art initiatives, such as Matèria Gallery and the Fondazione per l’Arte Contemporanea. The former was opened a few months ago by the Roman photographer Niccolò Fano in the once-working-class neighborhood of San Lorenzo to feature a program of photography and printing-related exhibitions. The latter, located in Mandrione, is a foundation established last fall by a young Rome-based collector couple Ilaria Bozzi and Flavio Ferri to present site-specific installations. Both spaces are away from the city’s noisy historical center, and a short distance from the streets of Pigneto, the city’s equivalent of Williamsburg.
It’s in this emergent context that GRANPALAZZO is rooted—and the fluidity of the scene could be read in the nature of the pop-up event itself, which refused to define itself as either an exhibition, a pop-up event, or a cosy small-scale fair. Featuring 18 artists brought by the same number of galleries, “GRANPALAZZO is a new and different experience,” Capata explains. “It was first conceived as an art show, and all the artists involved were supported by their own galleries to realize and show the works. The artworks were all for sale, and collectors could interact directly with the galleries over the course of the weekend in order to ask questions and make potentially deals in a smooth and relaxed way, without the pressure that normally you find at art fairs.”
Visitors encountered that laid-back atmosphere already in the silent and peaceful walk from the ancient gates of the village of Zagarolo to Palazzo Rospigliosi, a road distinguished by views of the forested valley that leads down to the town, as well as flower-decorated alleyways running off the path. Two fuchsia drapes bearing GRANPALAZZO’s logo hung down from the central windows of the palazzo’s façade to a greet new arrivals, and on Saturday morning a crowd of curious locals—accustomed to visiting the palace for seasonal wine events and village feasts—mixed with the black-clad jet-setters of the art world.
“Why are all these people speaking English in Zagarolo?” may have been a question running through the heads of locals, and the answer could be found in the multinational spectrum of the galleries taking part in the event, most of which flew in from abroad. Participants included the Zürich-based gallery BolteLang (which featured the sculptor Vanessa Billy), London’s Josh Lilley Gallery (Benedetto Pietromarchi), Amsterdam’s Stigter van Doesburg (Amalia Pica), and Karlsruhe’s Weingrüll (Sascha Pohle). Among the Italian exhibitors were the Milan-based Zero… (Giorgio Andreotta Calò), P420 from Bologna (Riccardo Baruzzi), and Galleria Tiziana Di Caro of Naples (Damir Oćko).
“We chose among some of the most interesting, serious, and consistent artists and galleries in the contemporary art scene,” says Ilaria Gianni, the co-founding curator. Walking around GRANPALAZZO, one could perceive an electric buzz in the air—the happy mood of likeminded talents brought together by a common cause. Asked why she was drawn to take part in the event, Ilaria Leoni, of the fledgling nomadic gallery Ermes, she said, “We immediately embraced the project because of our high regard for the quality of the initiative and its organizers.”
More than a conventional fair, where the drive for sales can obscure the art behind dollar signs, GRANPALAZZO genuinely gave the impression of a site-specific exhibition project where commerce took the back seat—and with each room hosting just one or two installations, the dealers were free to wander around chatting and meeting people here and there. Clearly, the participants were embracing the basic marketing concept that building strong relationships between buyers and sellers is a more successful long-term strategy than the hard sell.
“The great thing about GRANPALAZZO is that a curator has worked with all of the artists and the galleries involved to establish a relationship based on an intimate viewing experience and promoting a conversation,” said Josh Lilley, owner at the eponymous gallery in the London’s Fitzrovia neighborhood. The art scene of Rome, and Italy more broadly, felt newly relevant after touring the event. Its general vibe of sprezzatura was a potent part of its charm. As Capata says, “It was really important to us that our public appreciate the cosy and intimate dimension of our project, framed in a really different way compared to all the other contemporary art events around the world.”