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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of La Galleria Nazionale in Rome

What is La Galleria Nazionale?

The Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, or “National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art” in English, is a neoclassical building in Rome that holds Italy’s largest collection of modern and contemporary art.

The Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea

Sergio D’Afflitto, CC BY-SA 3.0 IT, via Wikimedia Commons

La Galleria Nazionale History

Nestled in amongst the trees between the River Tiber and the Villa Borghese, Rome’s Galleria Nazionale boasts around 20,000 artworks that represent the major artistic movements of the last two centuries. From Neoclassical works to Modernist masterpieces, and with highlights such as Water Lilies by Monet, Klimt’s The Three Ages of Woman, Composition A by Mondrian, and Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale, Attese, a visit to the Galleria Nazionale will immerse you in the works that shaped the course of art history. With its high ceilings, white walls and diffuse natural light flooding in through the large windows, the Galleria Nazionale is the perfect setting in which to view this iconic collection.

The museum began its life in the 1880s, on the first floor of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (or Palace of Exhibitions), with a small collection that took up three large and three small rooms. While other museums focused their collections on particular regions, the Galleria Nazionale was founded in order to showcase modern art from across the entire country. Italy had become a unified state just a couple of decades previously, in 1861, and so the aim of the gallery was to display the nation’s collective creativity.

The Palazzo delle Esposizioni soon became far too small for the growing collection, and meant that each time a temporary exhibition was held, the entire permanent collection had to be removed from the space. The collection’s current home was designed in 1911 by Cesare Bazzani, for an international exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the unification of Italy. The grandiose Neoclassical design of the building, named the Palazzo delle Belle Arti (or Palace of Fine Arts), aimed to celebrate the splendour of Italian culture. Before entering the museum, look up at the three elegant relief friezes that adorn the building. On the left is Ermenegildo Luppi’s The Procession of Beauty and Strength; on the right is The Procession of Life and Work by Adolfo Laurenti; whilst at the centre, beneath the portico, you’ll see The Artists and Artistic Battles by Giovanni Prini. Four sculptures crown the palace, personifications of Architecture, Painting, Sculpture and Decoration. A line from a poem by the Renaissance artist Michelangelo has been engraved onto the south-facing wall to embody the artistic pursuit: ‘Questo sol m’arde, e questo m’innamora’ (‘This alone makes me burn, and fall in love’).

When the gallery re-opened after the Second World War, curator Palma Bucarelli opened the collection up to non-Italian artists. It is thanks to her tireless 30-year tenure that the collection now holds works by some of the world’s most groundbreaking modern artists, including Picasso, Braque, Calder, Cézanne, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Pollock. In the 1950s, Bucarelli made a point of curating shows by artists that the Italian Fascist regime had stifled over the years it was in power, and she also encouraged exhibitions by provocative and controversial artists. An exhibition in the ‘70s of Piero Manzoni’s works proved especially scandalous, in particular his work Artist’s Shit, which is, well, exactly what it says on the tin.

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