‘Every age has the renaissance of antiquity it deserves,’ said Aby Warburg. The new Rem Koolhaas-designed Fondazione Prada in Milan opened with ‘Serial Classic’, a fascinating exhibition that examines the reproduction and dissemination of lost Greek masterpieces via Roman statues of the 1st and 2nd century CE. Clearly, it is a statement: like the Medici, the Prada family position themselves as part of a noble lineage of High Art patronage. The gold leaf covering the building’s facade testifies to the brand’s opulence and corporate power. Koolhaas’s design, which he calls a ‘collection of architectural typologies’, on the vast site of a former distillery, mirrors the ambition of the Fondazione to establish itself as the ideal museum – the house of the Muses – by hosting a library, as well as art, music, philosophy and science, like the original Museion of Alexandria. A related exhibition, ‘Portable Classic’, opened concurrently at the Fondazione’s Venice venue, Cà Corner della Regina, and follows the production of multiples of classical statues from the Renaissance through to the 18th century, lending an additional art-historical perspective to the subject.
Both shows are impressive, with loans from 42 international museums and a refined selection of iconic statues, grouped by typology. Warburg’s pathosformel (a form evoking emotion) works all its magic here, enhanced by Koolhaas’s luxurious post-industrial display of thick methacrylate and travertine slabs. Both shows are also thought provoking, inverting clichés such as the staging of contemporary art against spectacular historical backgrounds, and the slightly random appropriation of classical iconographies by contemporary divas such as Jeff Koons and Francesco Vezzoli.
The exhibitions were both curated by the archaeologist Salvatore Settis (in collaboration with Anna Anguissola and Davide Gasparinotto), former director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. In his catalogue essay, Settis writes that ‘classical sculpture is […] a preferred field for reflecting on difference, repetition, seriality, imitation and originality’. When I met him in Milan, he also characterized the endeavour as ‘an experiment with the present’.
Antiquity has become readable as a manifestation of Walter Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction of art: we understand it in terms of seriality. Warburg’s great, unfinished Mnemosyne Atlas (1924–29) – his ‘montage-collision’ of reproductions of works from antiquity – is perhaps, in part, responsible for attuning us to this particular characteristic of ancient culture. ‘Serial Classic’ and ‘Portable Classic’ mark new chapters of the critical enquiry of repetition already begun by Fondazione Prada with the exhibitions ‘The Small Utopia. Ars Multiplicata’ (2012) and ‘When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013’, which replicated Harald Szeemann’s legendary show.
In Milan, following a first vitrine with fragments of Greek bronze statues, Roman replicas rule: elegantly installed next to each other, with no pedestals, around a ghostly digital image of the lost original, such as the 5th-century CE Discobolus, or Discus Thrower of Myron, printed on the floor. Difference and repetition create a choreography of physical gestures inscribed in marble, which recalls Oliver Laric’s ‘Kopienkritik’ at Skulpturhalle in Basel, in 2011, for which the artist exhibited the museum’s collection of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures with his own resin additions. A fascinating, virtual section of ‘Serial Classic’ is ‘Experiments in Colour’, in which Settis shows the original Kassel Apollo (90–125 CE) next to experimental reconstructions by contemporary archeologists, either fully painted or covered in coloured patinae in an attempt to revive the polychromy characteristic of ancient sculpture.
In Venice, ‘Portable Classic’ opens with a theatrical enfilade of replicas – in porcelain, bronze, terracotta, marble and resin, ranging from 15 cm to 317 cm in height – of the same object: the towering Farnese Hercules, discovered in Rome in the 1540s. The exhibition traces the birth of collecting – one room hosts Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) and two of the original statuettes that appear in the foreground of this depiction of a Humanist amidst his collection of antique marbles – as well as the diffusion of ‘new’ ancient masterpieces like the Laocoön (found in Rome in 1506) through their casts. The introduction of porcelain and, in particular, biscuit ware, generated a new wave of mass-produced souvenirs in the 18th century. The ‘migrations of the ancient gods’, as Warburg titled one chapter of his Atlas, continue.
I’d like to draw a quick comparison with another exhibition in Venice, also in a private foundation – François Pinault’s – with grandiose ambitions: ‘Slip of the Tongue’, curated by artist Danh Vo (with Caroline Bourgeois) at Punta della Dogana. In her introductory text, Elisabeth Lebovici describes the role of the ‘curator’ in the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages as someone who had the ‘responsibility of “repairing” things’ and quotes Italian art historian Cesare Brandi: ‘Any intervention that seeks to restore a product of human activity [is] an act of criticism.’ Mixing ancient and contemporary art, Vo focuses on the relic and its magical, spiritual aura – in both the ‘pagan’ context of antiquity and within a Catholic framework rich in desires, torments of the flesh and redemptions of the soul. It’s a different archaeological take on antiquity, deeply romantic, framing the present as a state of cultural uncertainty, built upon the ruins of our past – and worlds apart from the neoclassical neatness adopted by Settis. The latter ends his essay with an apt consideration by Giorgio Agamben: ‘Humanity is not placed before the future, which has nothing to offer it, but before the totality of its past, which it can retrace by means of archaeology so that it might […] use freely what has been, and experience for the first time what it has never lived.’