current exhibitions

May 29, 2014

“UROBOROS” - James Lee Byars encounters Leon Battista Alberti

May 30 – November 8, 2014

Opening, Thursday, May 29, 7:00 pm

The Marino Marini Museum in Florence cordially invites you to the opening of the exhibition “URUBOROS”: James Lee Byars encounters Leon Battista Alberti on Thursday, May 29, at 7:00 pm. Curated by the museum's artistic director Alberto Salvadori, this unique project involves Leon Battista Alberti’s Rucellai Chapel and Sepulchre, reopened to the public in 2013, which it places in an unprecedented dialogue with a work of contemporary art by the US-born artist James Lee Byars.

The Uroboros (from the Greek οὐροβόρος, tail-devouring snake) denotes the figure of a snake biting its own tail, endlessly catching up with itself and recreating itself to form a perfect circle. The symbol of the Uroboros is associated with Gnosticism, hermeticism, and alchemy. Representing the dualistic nature of all things, it illustrates the idea that opposites are not in conflict with each other, but contribute together to the development of spiritual harmony.

Leon Battista Alberti was one of the Renaissance’s most sophisticated intellectuals. In Ouroboro Poietico, Gabriele Morolli called his Rucellai Sepulcher “an object that can generate spiritual creativity. In the sepulcher we see a perfect conceptual mechanism that embodies both material pursuits––linked to the archaeological/antiquarian culture of the Renaissance’s great artists––and spiritual pursuits that can be traced back to fifteenth-century Florentine Neoplatonic culture with its esoteric inflection.” If one were to look for a contemporary artist whose works share these traits, one would certainly have to consider James Lee Byars (Detroit, 1932 – Cairo, 1997), an artist who successfully escaped classification, wishing to remain free to reunite the opposites within himself­­––yin and yang, black and white, day and night­­––by turning them into complementary parts of a single thought.

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Their refusal to be categorized as well the spiritual and intellectual dimension of their work explains why Alberti and Byars, albeit in different eras and contexts, held original and independent positions, eluding all traditional frames of reference and choosing as the main goal of their pursuit to elevate the intellect into a means to achieve transcendence. Despite the centuries separating them, their interest in astrology, astronomy, mathematics, and intellectual syncretism brought them in contact with other, faraway cultures. For both, the flow of the cosmos shaped forms and concepts; their objects and decorations can therefore be read as talismans of authentic power capable of capturing divine and astral influences and reconnecting them to the works of man through architecture, sculpture, or literature of great evocative power.

Alberti’s idea shows us how Plato’s iconoclasm leaves room for the enhancement of the image, as a reflection of divine Beauty, and in the way that the Renaissance filled the gap between reality and invention with the rules of composition and perspective.

It is in the wake of this that The Platon Head, a work modelled by Byars, finds its place, a work with the volume of a perfect sphere. The white marble sculpture belongs to the body of work dedicated to the American artist’s primal passion for philosophical questions. Between the Renaissance and Classicism in Alberti, and Minimalism in Byars, manifested in this encounter\dialogue is the individuality of the artist who instills his own creation with the idea of creating order and meaning. A Neoplatonic element connects the work of both artists across the centuries: a poetic centered on light, whether cast directly by the sun or reflected by the moon, by precious, purest white marble (from Greece in the case of Byers, from Carrara in that of Alberti), and by precious metals.

This approach results in both cases in basic, geometrically perfect forms conveying the transcendence of thought rather than doctrines­­––whether those of medieval scholastic thought (Alberti) or the dogmatism of American Minimalism (Byars)––, as witness the Rucellai Chapel at the Museo Marino Marini in Florence, where Alberti’s sepulchre is put in dialogue with the extreme material purity of Byars’s sculpture.

Both artists were primarily interested in representation and the phenomenological potential and supernatural quality of art. Alberti’s treatise De Statua marked a breakthrough in the history art in that it elevated sculpture to an intellectual dimension. Alberti also pointed out that man-made works of art derive from forms found in nature, which in turn allows man, through the empirical study of the law of the half-measure, to achieve mathematical, divine and universal harmony within himself as the ultimate goal of his ethical and intellectual training. Similarly, Byars progressed empirically from the practice of performance as an act of the body’s natural pantheism to the creation of sculptures that condensed the quest (past) and the spiritual and intellectual dimension (present).

The Ruccellai Chapel and the Temple of the Holy Sepulcher by Leon Battista Alberti

Though little considered in Florence, Leon Battista Alberti’s sepulcher, built in 1467 as a scale copy of Holy Sepulchre in the Anastasis in Jerusalem, is well known to art historians worldwide. The chapel was formerly part of the Church of San Pancrazio, owned by the Curia of Florence. In 1808 it was separated from the church, which was deconsecrated and turned into a seat of France’s Imperial Lottery by Napoleonic edict. Consequently, the door linking the two parts of the building was walled up and the chapel, which continued to be used for worship, received a new entrance on Via della Spada.

The chapel has been restored with the support of the Marino Marini Foundation in Pistoia. In 2013, the opening of a passageway on the left side, inside the central aisle of the Marino Marini Museum, allowed it to become part of the museum’s spaces. The chapel is now permanently open to the public during museum hours, while maintaining its purpose as a holy place for worship.

June 13, 2014

Gio Ponti and Richard Ginori: a unique correspondence

curated by Livia Frescobaldi Malenchini, Oliva Rucellai and Alberto Salvadori

14 June – 8 November 2014

"Our industries must align with the qualities of those abroad, and represent our local motifs with decoration that uses pure and well-chosen stylistic references, making that quality recognizable, sought after and representative."

Gio Ponti, 1926

the Marino Marini Museum hosts the exhibition 'Gio Ponti and Richard Ginori: a unique correspondence', curated by Livia Frescobaldi Malenchini, Oliva Rucellai and Alberto Salvadori. The exhibition, backed by the association Friends of Doccia in cooperation with the Richard Ginori Doccia Factory Museum, has been sponsored by the Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze foundation with a contribution from Richard Ginori 1735, the company which was purchased last year by Gucci and which plans to reopen its historic shop in via Rondinelli, Florence, in June.

Gio Ponti and Richard Ginori: a unique correspondence presents a select group of about 50 lesser-known pieces taken from the Doccia Museum’s vast collection of ceramics by Gio Ponti, and a selection of over 30 letters written by the architect/designer - most of which have never been seen before - from the Doccia Factory archives, including sketches, drawings and manufacturing instructions. The letters mark a new starting-point for exploring Gio Ponti's work methods and his relationship with Richard Ginori, which was characterised by a constant quest for innovative ideas and products. At the same time, they offer an opportunity to reflect on Italian creativity, of which Ponti was one of the greatest representatives worldwide. The works presented in the exhibition emphasise the close connection between the idea and the product itself, displaying the original design or sketch beside the object actually produced in Doccia. Many of the ceramics on display were not produced serially; some are unique pieces from the Richard Ginori Museum's prized collection. The exhibition has been intentionally kept small, but includes well-defined, specific sections: from idea to product; special commissions; communication; and the role of exhibitions.

The years following World War I were some of the most glorious for Richard Ginori, which by then had become one of the main ceramics producers in Europe, boasting five factories. Its success was mainly due to the young architect Gio Ponti (1891-1979), who began to work with the company in 1922 and served as its artistic director for a decade from 1923 to 1933. His highly imaginative talent; his passion for the industry, and at the same time, for the most sophisticated craftsmanship; and his skill in guiding the taste of his peers, interpreting expectations with irony, all made him the ideal person to revitalise Richard Ginori's fine ceramics. His work was met with acclaim from the public and critics both in Italy and abroad, and at the 1925 International Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris he was awarded the grand jury prize.

The correspondence between Gio Ponti, who was working in Milan, and the Doccia Factory includes 230 letters for a total of 426 documents. Although incomplete, this correspondence - along with the drawings, catalogues, photographs and other documents preserved in the Richard Ginori Museum archives - has proven to be of incomparable value to the study of Ponti's work at Doccia and, more generally, to our knowledge of the artist. In addition to providing information that helps to establish the timeline, and in some cases even the attribution, of his ceramics, the signed letters offer an up-close perspective on the Milanese architect's oeuvre and on the way he operated within the industrial and manufacturing context of the Richard Ginori ceramics company.

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When perusing these impassioned letters, what clearly emerges is Ponti’s role as a true industrial designer, which can only be compared to the work that Peter Behrens carried out in Germany for AEG, Berlin's general electricity company. Gio Ponti personally looked after every aspect of his ceramics production, from the initial idea, often presented as a sketch, to its development, which was determined by an individual combination of various factors. He created new colours, such as the two shades of Ponti blue; he designed packaging and price labels; he came up with brands and identifying symbols for the objects he produced and for the entire factory; he planned pavilions for exhibitions; he discussed the prices at which the objects were to be offered for sale, assessing their marketability.

Ponti was amongst the first to take an interest in promotion and communication, overseeing such areas as product presentation in graphics and photos; press relations, partly through the magazine Domus which he founded in 1928; and relationships with influential critics - Margherita Sarfatti, Ugo Ojetti, Roberto Papini - as well as the company’s most distinguished clients.

Many of these letters were addressed to Luigi Tazzini, Ponti’s "right-hand man" in Doccia and artistic director of the Tuscan factory. They bear witness to the deep trust between the two men, whose relationship was not merely professional, but one of friendship and respect. Tazzini proved to possess the gift of exceptional patience, as he had to deal with such a decisive and touchy personality as that of his Milanese colleague. In the letters, we also read about how other artists were involved in many of Ponti's projects: the sculptors Libero Andreotti and Italo Griselli, the architect Giovanni Muzio, the decorator Elena Diana, Vittorio Faggi and many others.

The ceramics designed by Gio Ponti for the Doccia Factory always have two fundamental aspects: tradition and innovation; over the 10 years of his constant, tireless work, this combination made Ponti’s contribution an extraordinary and unrepeatable experience, not just because of the marvellous objects that were created, but also - and above all - because it is the first example of artistic objects being produced industrially in Italy.

Amongst the objects on display bearing witness to the special commissions Ponti received, a large majolica vase with blue potiche-style decoration and gilt bronze stands out. The vase, requested by the Cassa di Risparmio delle Province Lombarde bank, was part of a remarkable centrepiece commissioned by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for its embassies located throughout the world.

The bonbonnière Homage to the Snobs, Ponti's ironic message for the world of the cultural elite, features two dancing figures in traditional folk costume, combining the artist's creative and innovative imagination with the classical style permeating his other works.

The idea behind the exhibition came on the heels of the last project by the association Friends of Doccia, which led to the publication of the complete works of Gio Ponti at the Doccia Museum, about 560 pieces in all. The volume, which is forthcoming, is the result of the invaluable work that Maria Teresa Giovannini began in 2007, sifting through letters, photo albums and books of samples preserved at the archives of the Doccia Factory.

Coinciding with the exhibition, a competition called Letters to Ponti will welcome ideas for the development of design concepts inspired by the work of Gio Ponti, with special reference to the letters written in the years 1923-1930. The competition is open to the students at the University of Florence's Architecture Department, the Design Campus at Calenzano, the Libera Accademia fine arts academy (LABA), the Istituto Superiore Industriale Artistiche (ISIA) design academy and Florence's Academy of Fine Arts; it is sponsored by the Richard Ginori Museum and the association Friends of Doccia. The initiative has been made possible through cooperation with the arts and crafts association Associazione Osservatorio dei Mestieri d'Arte, the Gio Ponti Archives and the Association for Historic, Traditional and Typical Shops in Florence.

As part of the initiative, Stefano Follesa, instructor at the Calenzano Design Campus, has invited his students to express their own personal reinterpretation of Ponti's oeuvre - specifically, his object designs, graphics, decoration, displays and small-scale architectural projects - in the form of "letters" in a standard A3 graphic format. In each university, a lecture has been held to present both the initiative and Ponti's works themselves, serving as an introduction to the project that each student will work on individually; students also enjoyed a guided tour of the Ponti room at the Doccia Museum.

A jury composed of professors and experts will select the top 20 works, which will be displayed in the shop windows of the city centre whilst the exhibition is running, thanks to cooperation with the Association for Historic, Traditional and Typical Shops in Florence.

These 20 works will compete for the first prize: a scholarship of 2,000 Euro as a contribution towards a master's degree programme in Italy or abroad; the second prize is a scholarship of 700 Euro as a contribution towards a training or specialization course in Italy; the third prize is a reissued porcelain by Gio Ponti, produced by Richard Ginori; and the remaining winners will receive a copy of the complete catalogue of the works of Gio Ponti at the Doccia Museum.

The chosen projects will also be available for viewing online at the organisers' websites.

photo credits dario lasagni