TRAVEL

5 Places To See Contemporary Art In Rome

Palazzo Merulana. Credit: Palazzo Merulana

Want to spend a weekend exploring Rome as a contemporary outpost? I’ve lined up where you need to go and stay in my latest update on contemporary art in Rome for Forbes Travel, December 2018.

Rome is where the art is, but these days it’s more than just colossal monuments, dusty archeological sites and beautifully decorated Baroque churches.

Contemporary art is finally making a significant mark on the Eternal City’s landscape. The destination is now replete with an itinerary of museums, galleries, concept spaces and creative hubs. We’ve plotted out five top places that bring this ancient city back to the future.

WHAT TO SEE

Palazzo Merulana
One of the newest galleries on the scene, this former municipal office building underwent a three-year renovation in preparation for the eclectic, 90-piece collection of Elena and Claudio Cerasi, prominent local patrons of the arts. Most of the museum’s works are Italian pieces created between World War I and II by artists such as Giacomo Balla, Giorgio de Chirico and Alighiero Boetti.   

Art aficionado or not, you’ll want to hang around at CafeCulture, the palazzo’s boutique and coffee shop. The menu features a variety of fare sourced from local purveyors, such as cheeses from ProLoco DOL, hamburgers from famed butcher Bottega Liberati and sweets from patisserie Cristalli di Zucchero.

Contemporary Cluster 
This avant-garde experience is the 21st-century manifestation of those iconic multidisciplinary performances of the 1960s and ’70s: a boutique/art gallery/event space housed in a decadent 17th-century palace on a side street off Campo de’ Fiori. 

The hybrid art and commercial venue hosts monthly exhibitions, weekly performances and DJ sets, while its grounds have permanent and pop-up shops and cafés.

In essence, Contemporary Cluster is a concept store with an artsy vibe that constantly draws an eclectic crowd with almost everything being for sale as a bonus.

Sarah Sze at Crypta Balbi
It’s not every day that one of the world’s most famous contemporary art galleries joins forces with an ancient archaeological site. Gagosian, whose imprint in Rome has upgraded the art scene over the past 10 years, has turned to the past for a site-specific, National Roman Museum-partnered installation at the Crypta Balbi ruins.

Through January 27, the first-century theater provides a rustic backdrop for contemporary sculpture Split Stone (7:34) by American artist Sarah Sze. Using an ultra-modern process by which thousands of tiny cavities etched into the rock are filled with pigment, Sze has created a captivating crystalized sunset scene on the stone’s mirror-like surface.  

Sant’Andrea de Scaphi. Credit: Erica Firpo

Gavin Brown’s Enterprise: Sant’Andrea de Scaphis
To find the pulse of the international art scene, head for British art dealer Gavin Brown’s Rome outpost — it’s everything and nothing you’d expect. Located in a nondescript, deconsecrated church on a side street of Trastevere, Sant’Andrea de Scaphis is a single, rustic room of hauntingly charming medieval architecture that usually features a single artist installation.

Exhibits rotate every few months, so it’s unlikely you’ll run into the same works twice. The historic space is hosting a politically charged display by American graphic designer Sam Pulitzer, “May The Last Nationalist Be Strangled With The Guts Of The Last Technocrat,” through December 8.

Palazzo Rhinoceros. Credit: Pino LePera

Palazzo Rhinoceros
The name Fendi is synonymous with Rome’s fashion scene, but the designers’ youngest sister, Alda, opts for a more innovative interpretation with Fondazione Alda Fendi — Esperimenti, her nonprofit arts foundation.  

The group’s latest experiment is Palazzo Rhinoceros, a new creative hub in the Velabro neighborhood that opened in October. Architect Jean Nouvel rebooted a centuries-old palazzo into a multi-level gallery, 24 luxury apartments and a rooftop restaurant, without altering the building’s historic bones.   

While the interiors are stunning, some of the venue’s highlights are actually found outside, including a can’t-miss portrait projection of Alda by Pierre et Gilles on the façade and a life-sized resin rhino that lurks in the front yard.   

Hotel Eden’s La Terrazza. Credit: Hotel Eden

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Eden
Rome’s undeniable harbinger of style and hospitality, this Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star stunner is dripping in fashionable touches — think art deco details, custom furniture and resplendent marble accents.

For a picture-perfect end to a day of gallery-hopping, dine at La Terrazza, the luxury hotel’s rooftop restaurant boasting some of the best views of the city.  

Gran Meliá Rome Villa Agrippina. Credit: Melia Hotels & Resorts


Gran Meliá Rome Villa Agrippina
Located on the bluffs of the famed Janiculum hill (between Trastevere and Vatican’s Borgo neighborhood) on the site of an imperial villa, this Four-Star retreat is a city-center oasis that comes complete with a 1920s-era pool and lush greenery.

Though its origins are ancient, Gran Meliá’s style is contemporary: sleek modern furnishings, wide-open spaces and the sophisticated My Blend by Clarins spa.

The Rooms of Rome
Stay in the heart of the action when you book into Palazzo Rhinoceros’s fully immersive-art experience on the edge of the Roman Forum. Each of its 24 rooms is minimalist chic, meticulously designed and curated by the aforementioned Jean Nouvel, the superstar architect behind the cutting-edge Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The stylish rooms are outfitted with luxe touches, too, like Bang & Olufsen TVs, fully equipped kitchens and L’Occitane amenities.

{ART}Sarah Sze recycles Time at Crypta Balbi

Split Stone (7:34), Sarah Sze at Crypta Balbi. Photo by Erica Firpo.

There are so many ways to experience Rome but there is nothing I like best than the time-bending contradiction of ancient and contemporary in the exact same moment. Rome isn’t simply ancient, or Baroque, or modern. It’s all of that at once, which is what makes visiting and living in Rome so thrilling and stressful. It’s knee-jerk to say Rome is chaotic- because it truly is. Hit pause for a second, you’ll see that the chaos is just all of the layers of time fighting for space.

Timeless. Timely. Time waster. Sentimental. Rome practically begs you to take a bigger bite of its personality. And lately, museums, cultural sites, monuments and galleries are serving it up in on a time-bending platter. Latest is Split Stone (7:34) by American artist Sarah Sze, a Gagosian Gallery/Museo Nazionale Romano collaboration appearing this month and through January.

Looking close for the pixels. Photo by Erica Firpo.

Rock of Ages

Head down to the subterranean of Cripta Balbi and you come face to face with a split boulder. It’s Sarah Sze's latest installation and counter-part to her self-titled gallery exhibition at Gagosian. Two halves of a monumental granite rock that sneakily resemble a geode sit in the travertine-lined remains of the 1st century BC theatre of Balbus- just one incarnation of Cripta Balbi, an archaeo-museum that is all about recycled space. Walk around the site and you’re stepping through millennia-spanning detritus from its incarnations as ancient theatre, medieval house, Renaissance convent and 19th century orphanage. Walk back to Split Stone, take a closer look. Sze permanently drilled a slick and pixelated image of sunset (that she snapped on her smartphone!) on the face of each stone.

This is not the Crypta Balbi show that Darius would dream of, but it’s the kind of show I have been waiting to see- recycling Rome through an incredible (yet barely visited) archaeo-museum and inserting the very contemporary into its historic context. Because that is Rome every day life- imperial leftovers while we wait for the bus, Baroque backdrops while we visit the dentist, unification monuments while we shop at H&M.

“Rome is a constant intersection of ancient and contemporary, all the time mixing together”, says Sze. It’s a never-ending conversation of permanent and ephemeral, analogue and dialogue, and old and new, aka Rome every day.

I want to see this show- How do I do it?

It’s pretty easy. Split Stone is in situ at Crypta Balbi, all you have to do enter the museum. Here’s a tip: Cripta Balbi is one of the four locations of the Museo Nazionale Romano- an incredible, four-venue ticket which at 15 euro for a 72-hour period is one of my favorite ways to explore the city- ancient and present day. Each of the four Museo Nazionale Romano venues focuses on Ancient Rome, with a large stress on sculpture, and each is a unique architectural experience- an ancient bath structure (Diocleziano), a Renaissance palace (Altemps), a late 19th century townhouse (Massimo) and an ancient Roman theatre/crypt/medieval residence/archaeological site (Balbi). All four museums hide in plain sight -Palazzo Massimo and Terme di Diocleziano by Termini Station, Palazzo Altemps by Piazza Navona and Crypta Balbi by Largo Argentina.

Tickets: 10 euro per site, or a 15 euro cumulative ticket which lasts 72 hours

Split Stone closes January 27, 2019.

An Art Lover's Guide to 36 Hours in Milan

Photo Credit: Erica Firpo

Fashion, food, finance and all-round fabulousness. Here’s how to spend an inspired 36 hours in Milan, Italy’s “It” city.

10am: Check in at Hotel Indigo Milan – Corso Monforte and you’ll find yourself in the centre of an art-focused crossroads, from Milan’s illustrious Baroque to its contemporary cultural kingpin vibe. Step into modern Milan of the 1930s at the Villa Necchi Campiglio, in park Villa Campiglio directly across the from the hotel.

Named for socialite sisters Gigina and Nedda Necchi and Gigina’s husband, Angelo Campiglio, the Villa Necchi Campiglio was the centre and centrepiece of Milan’s mid-twentieth century social scene. Architect Piero Portaluppi combined his unique rationalist flair of sleek lines and materials with Frank Lloyd Wright’s functional sensibilities (including custom pieces and built-ins). His 1930s design was innovative in details both inside and out. In 2000, Gigina bequeathed the property to FAI, Italy’s national trust, which opened the villa as a museum in 2008.

Photo credit: Villa Necchi Campiglio.

12pm: For lunch, the villa’s solarium doubles as a charming cafeteria and features favourite Milanese dishes including a green risotto and traditional veal cutlets. Wondering why the Villa Necchi Campiglio looks familiar? The iconic home was setting for the 2009 Italian movie I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton.

3pm: Make your way to Fondazione Prada. This 205,000-square-foot complex is home to an intense collection of contemporary art works by 20th and 21st-century Italian and international artists—from Giacomo Balla to Francesco Vezzuoli and Damien Hirst. Its 2015 Rem Koolhaas/OMA design includes a cinema.

Photo Credit:  Fondazione Prada.

Photo Credit:  Fondazione Prada.

6pm: Stop for aperitivi at Fondazione Prada’s cocktail hub Bar Luce, the Art Deco–inspired bar designed by director Wes Anderson. And then make your way up the newly opened Torre, a nine-story modernist tower, with art galleries that eventually lead to the rooftop terrace bar.

8:30pm: After drinks, stay for dinner at Ristorante Torre, the Fondazione’s tower restaurant. The illuminated cityscape of Milan sprawls away beyond its floor to ceiling windows, and the views inside are equally good with art work including custom wall-hung plates and midcentury design pieces like Tulip tables, and executive chairs by Eero Saarinen. The menu features regular new tasting dishes created by a rotation of Michelin rising star chefs from the CARE’s Chef Under 30 project.

Ristorante Torre. Photo credit: Fondazione Prada.

Ristorante Torre. Photo credit: Fondazione Prada.

Day 2

8.30 am: Build up an appetite with a stroll through the historic Giardini Pubblici, established 1784 and considered the oldest city park in Milan. Then find a counter spot at Pasticceria Marchesi, the posh cafe on via Montenapoleone in Milan’s Fashion Quadrilateral. A city landmark, Marchesi is the perfect scene for morning coffee, and has a mouthwatering line up of pastries, traditional pralines and savoury treats. Take a look around the Fashion Quadrilateral, an oasis of haute couture. Via Montenapoleone and its side streets are lined with beautiful boutiques representing some of the world’s most admired fashion houses.

11.30 am: Milan’s designers all know that contemporary style comes from centuries of culture. Catch up on Milan’s history at the Galleria Arte Moderna, a late 18th century villa whose Baroque trappings are the backdrop to an enviable collection of Italian and European artwork from the 18th to the 20th century. The rise of modern Milan is shown through key work by Balla, Boccioni, Canova and Segantini, which sit side by side with Van Gogh, Manet, Cezanne and Gaugin.

1pm: For lunch, head to LuBar, the galleria’s on site cafe for creative Sicilian street food in a whimsical fin-de-siècle setting.

 

3pm It’s time to go back to the future by visiting the Pirelli Hangar Biccocaa free-entry contemporary complex on the grounds of a former Pirelli tire factory. This is now one of Europe’s largest exhibition spaces, with three buildings covering 100,000 square feet. It’s dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions featuring works by Italian and international artists. Guides are on hand to help you navigate around the vast complex.

8pm By early evening, you’ll want to grab an outside table at Iuta BistrotHangar Bicohcca’s onsite gourmet restaurant where the city’s cognoscenti congregate for stylish conversation and aptly-mixed cocktail.

10pm Ready to head home to the hotel? Before you do, make a pit stop at Bar Basso, a cult classic popular with the fashion and design crowd, known for introducing the world to “aperitivi” hour and its own take on the negroni.

This article first appeared in Belong Magazine, June 2018.

The Florence Experiment: Contemporary Art Slides Through The Renaissance Town

Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn! - Better Off Dead, 1985

Merry-go-round, monkey bars, teeter-totter, geodome, tether balls, swings. Of all the places I could play at the pulbic playground, my favorite was always the slide.  Ours was metal, super slick from decades of descent and most likely not up to any 21st century building code.   We fought to stand at the top and lord over all the playground serfs, and we never waited for the kid in front to get safely out of the way.    Our slide iced over in the winter so we banked snow at the base to test out the human snow plow technique.   In the summer,  the metal shoot was scalding hot from hours baking in the sun, and every method to avoid skin contact was attempted, only to find that lifting up your hands and legs caused three glorious seconds of maximum velocity.  Scary?  Stupid? Dangerous? Yeah, plus panic and pure adrenaline rush.

Playgrounds don't have seem that enticing thrill of danger any more.  Structures are well made, perfectly portioned and the ground covering is reinforced plastic flooring so that no one falls and breaks an arm.  Maybe that's a good thing, but when I stand atop today's slides, I miss the fear that something bad could, but probably wouldn't, happen.  And I think Carsten Höller does too. 

Höller makes thrills.   His beautifully designed slides, carousels and more are all about perception and experience, and are exaggeratedly reminiscent of playgrounds past.  And this time he's experimenting with more than just nostalgia, he's playing on emotions in a Renaissance palazzo in Florence.   The Florence Experiment, a double cork screw careening down the internal courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, is wit plus a bit of biology.   Teaming up with Italian neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso, Höller sends sliders on an emotional rush strapped with a seedling.  A ten-second rush of maximum velocity in a metal shoot, you feel like a kid again.  

Here's where it gets brainy. Once you've finished, you're invited to bring your bean seedling to Palazzo Strozzi's underground laboratory where Mancuso's team analyzes the effects of your emotional experience on the growth of the plant.  And if you want, you can stick around and watch film clips based on your slide reaction- terror (clips like The Shining) or joy (Some Like It Hot)  - in a glass-enclosed viewing room where the effects of your emotions are funneled out to plants fastened to Palazzo Strozzi's external facade.  Sounds hokey? It could be, but it's fun and if you take a step back, it's pretty damn clever.  Every knows that emotions have the ability to bring down the house.

And guess what?  It's about time art made us laugh, and better yet, scream.  For Höller,  "the madness of a slide, that “voluptuous panic,” is a kind of joy. It is an experience with value far beyond the confines of a museum, or a playground. It might be time, for all our sakes, to begin to explore exactly how far that might be." I agree. Let's do it.

Photo credit: Palazzo Strozzi.

The Florence Experiment

Palazzo Strozzi, through August 26

For those looking to discover more of Tuscany, Palazzo Strozzi is more than just a museum.  It is keystone to Associazione Partners Palazzo Strozzi APPS a coalition of personalities, institutions and firms that  support the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi , Florence and its "made-in-Florence" treasures through multi-cultural projects.

 

View from room 516, Hotel Savoy.

R & R:   Rooms and Restaurants

Room 516 at the Hotel Savoy.  516 is a deluxe room with the coveted view of Brunelleschi's dome, and you can bet we were hanging out the windows every hour on the hour just to listen to the bells.  We chose Hotel Savoy for its unbeatable Piazza della Repubblica location, one minute walk to Palazzo Strozzi, and an easy walk to everything else - Piazza della Signoria and Stazione Santa Maria Novella, the Giardini Boboli and San Frediano.  Earlier in 2018, the Savoy went through an aggressive renovations which refreshed the rooms to a more airy, organic vibe and increased space.  Best hotel perk? Velorbis bicycles with Brooks saddles.  I am hoping that the next I stay,  Savoy and Velorbis will have added a back seat.

Antica Ristoro Cambi, a yesteryear osteria in Florence's San Frediano niche neighborhood in the Oltrarno.  Cozy, casual, and absolutely no pretensions with an open kitchen counter,  every time I enter Cambi, I feel like I've walked into someone's home.  For my group, the  focus is always singular:  a proper bistecca alla fiorentina, 800 grams of Chianina beef grilled on extremely high temperatures and garnished with salt.  Along with the perfect bistecca, Cambi serves traditional Tuscan dishes- homemade tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce, tripe and even local favorite lampredotto.  Personally, I don't go there.

The laboratory.

Did You See the Dramatic Hands Trying to Save Venice from Drowning?

This article first appeared in Fathom, February 2018.

The hands that shot out of the sea and were seen around the world. Photo courtesy of Halcyon Gallery.

Venice is a floating city of a million unforgettable moments. And in 2017, the most unforgettable was Support, a Venice Biennale sculpture by Lorenzo Quinn depicting a pair of colossal hands rising out of the Grand Canal, seeming to hold up the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel. If you happened to be in Venice this year, you know what I’m talking about. (If you're desperate to see it before it goes, the show closes on February 28. Hop the 1 or 2 vaporetto water bus from Santa Lucia train station and get off at the Ca d’Oro stop.)

The stark white hands look like a submerged Atlas reaching out to support (or grasp) the closest palazzo. Quinn created Support as a site-specific piece that was both a figurative and a physical support to Venice. The idea was (and still is) to open the doors to a discussion on climate change, global warming, and cultural heritage. Did it work? Yes, and then some. Magical, absurd, funny, poignant: No matter what your mood, the hands drew you in and brought out emotion.

The first time I saw Support, I laughed. A good, happy, hearty laugh. It was a clear, sunny day, and Venice was giving me everything — and I felt like those hands were giving me the world. I came back in the late afternoon and watched the sun set on the canal in a rainbow fire while those white hands practically prayed in gratitude to the raw siena color of the palazzo. 

Another time, I saw the sculpture on a raining morning on the way to Piazza San Marco. I was elbowed into an uncomfortable corner of the vaporetto with what felt like every tourist Venice has ever seen. The hands seemed to desperately claw at Ca’ Sagredo’s walls. The last time I saw it was at twilight, when those fathomless colors of Venice were fading and the hands seemed to be gently cradling the side of the palazzo, protecting it, holding it, cherishing it. Magical. Powerful. Venice.

Find It

Support will be on display until February 28, 2018. It is best visible from the 1 or 2 line of the vaporetto water bus at the Ca d'Oro stop. 

Learn more: Lorenzo Quinn's website.

Unbelievable: Damien Hirst in Venice {Review}

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A shipwreck.  A disaster.  A failure - that’s what the art world said about Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable , his mega-exhibition at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi/Punta della Dogana double header.    Lighten up, this is Damien Hirst, YBA poster boy and mug shot.  And the Wreck is the kind of show where that only asks for a bit of humor as you enjoy the lavish fantasy and Palazzo Grassi’s gorgeous exhibition spaces.

A legendary exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of The Unbelievable is a visual story about the discovery of an ancient shipwreck and its unfathomable cargo, a collection of monumental bronze and marble statues and gold coins and ingot, from Cif Amotan II, slave-turned-freedman.  It’s big, it’s extravagant, it’s over the top.  And it’s fun.  Best of all, it’s all Hirst, who bankrolled the research, discovery and subacquatic archaeological excavation of the 100 works of art which, um, he created. Yeah, you read correctly.  Hirst is behind all of it: from the production of incredible bronzes (seemingly distressed from centuries underwater) and the “contemporary reproductions” to the discovery backstory, images/videos and research collaboration with University of Southampton’s Center for Maritime Studies.  Kind of like having a dinner party with Steve Zissou, Jacques Cousteau, Indiana Jones and Marcel Duchamp, and Baron Munchaussen’s cooking.  In other words, eckless abandon.

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana through Sunday, December 3.  Coming soon-  Darius Arya’s 360 video, Archaeologist Examines the Unbelievable.

And even more unbelievable: Venice is just a day trip from Rome.  For real.

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#Girlisthenewtime, a women-only Empty event at La Galleria Nazionale for Museum Week

Girls, girls, girls....  What happens when a gang of girls hang out at in an empty art gallery?  That's the question we threw out for Museum Week 2017 at La Galleria Nazionale, in a collaboration instameet #GirlisTheNewTime with myself and GirlsInMuseums.  We brought together approximately 16 women whose single prerequisite was passion for the arts and giving them full reign of the museum including Conversation Piece (the latest exhibition) and behind-the-scenes of Body to Body, a capsule show focusing on 15 female artists' perspective on feminism.  

What is the purpose of the Empty, you may ask? For me, any opportunity to bring people inside an Italian museum, gallery or cultural site is an opportunity to inspire dialog that spreads outside of the museum and inspires visitors to come back inside.  Italy has an incredible wealth of cultural sites, but many get an unwarranted wallflower as more popular museums (hey, Uffizi and Musei Vaticani) are bucket list must sees.  I am to change that, or at least make a little dent by bringing Italy's museums to your small screens.

As a participant, I tend to take a roll of art voyeur and I've noticed in my photos that art work takes center stage and the viewer is simply a supporting role.  It makes sense, I love art. (And, Yes, I will lurk for what seems like hours by a favorite painting or sculpture, waiting to catch the right moment).  For #GirlIsTheNewTime, I set out to be, well, decisive and take individual (or small group portraits) of each participant where I would capture the vibe of each woman, and let art work - whether partially in frame or out - be a cultural background.  I wanted to force dialog between myself and each participant, a technique I've honed over the years of being extremely shy.

A week dedicated to women and museums is not enough.  Nor are Emptys, but I do think continuing the dialog on the importance of women in the arts is fundamental, and even more so, the dialog about the female communication.  Do I think that the dialog that women have with art is any different from that of a man? I couldn't tell you, I am so XX, but I do think the dialog among women is complicated.

Scroll down, catch up on all the scenes from #GirlIsTheNewTime in Instagram and in my VSCO journal.  Thank you to all the participants who patiently allowed me to push them around the galleries in search of a great vibe.

Wanna join us? For more info, here's where and how I started in 2014 and how it has spread from La Galleria Nazionale to Milan's La Triennale and GAM, back to Rome and the Vatican. Email me at erica@ericafirpo.com