Vittorio Sgarbi is the maverick of Italian art critics, so his recent appointment to curate the Italian Pavilion at next year’s Venice Biennale surprised many people in Italy. But some hope that Sgarbi may knock down a few cultural windmills and windbags.
Typically provocative when his appointment was announced, Sgarbi said, “My ideal Italian Pavilion might just include a single work, Mantegna’s Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, next to a photo of Che Guevara on his deathbed.” He went on to praise culture minister Sandro Bondi as “very courageous” for appointing him. “This job may be more of a danger for him than for me,” Sgarbi said. “Maybe he’ll get sacked for cruelty in rejecting the culture of phoniness.”
Sgarbi, 58, was born in Ferrara and studied at the University of Bologna. His many admirers overlook his occasional public displays of aggressiveness because they consider him talented and competent—”the only person who has visited every monument in Italy, and not once, but twice,” as art historian John Spike puts it. “Sgarbi has an extraordinary cultural preparation, with breadth, solid underpinnings, and training in both art history and literature.”
But Sgarbi can be unpredictable. In 2007, when he was culture councilman for Milan, he scandalized many Milanese by announcing plans for an exhibition on excrement (which was installed but never opened). He was responsible for a show that the city authorities called “Homosexuality in Art.” (Its real name, Sgarbi told ARTnews, was the punning “Vade Retro”—Latin for “Get thee behind.”) Milan mayor Letizia Moratti shut down the show the day after it opened because of an allegedly sacrilegious sculpture by Paolo Schmidlin, Miss Kitty, which depicts an aging transvestite whose face suggests a resemblance to that of Pope Benedict XVI. Nine other works were also considered too outrageous for a city-sponsored exhibition.
Discussing his plans for the biennale, Sgarbi says he hopes to appoint a commission of intellectuals—he calls them “thinking people”—to suggest the names of artists to be included. “I’m thinking of Umberto Eco, Alberto Arbasino, Giovanni Sartori, and the like,” he says. “After all, Pietro Aretino discovered Titian.” (Eco is a world-famous writer, Arbasino is a novelist, and Sartori is a political scientist and commentator. The playwright and painter Aretino was a close friend of Titian’s.)
The 2011 biennale coincides with the sesquicentennial of Italian unification, and Sgarbi plans to find a way to offer space in Venice to artists from all the Italian regions. Artists of high quality are abundant, he says, so “perhaps we should have primaries so we can choose better.”
The appointment brings this outsider back inside, even though his previous stints within the establishment have not always ended well. While in the employ of the superintendent for fine arts in Venice in the ’80s, Sgarbi was formally charged with obtaining medical certificates for illness when he was actually working elsewhere. As undersecretary of culture in 2002, he had daily feuds with then-minister Giuliano Urbani and eventually walked out. Sgarbi also has what critics call a cantankerous and abrasive personality, which he flaunts on TV talk shows.
For a time, he authenticated paintings for a shopping channel and appeared live on a TV show, describing paintings being offered for sale and commenting occasionally on the prices. “This is a bargain,” he said of one late Baroque work, adding that its age gave it value but that he didn’t find it very interesting. Sgarbi was a member of Parliament at the time, and other members raised formal questions about his participation in a TV program devoted to selling artworks.
More recently, Sgarbi became involved in a controversy over the loggia designed by Arata Isozaki to provide the Uffizi Gallery with a new exit. Construction is advanced but has been blocked by Bondi for lack of funds. The Florentine deputy mayor for culture, Giuliano da Empoli, has blamed Sgarbi personally for halting the project. “Sgarbi is the real culture minister, not Bondi,” da Empoli complained, according to L’Espresso magazine.
It may be relevant to the selection of biennale artists that Sgarbi is openly hostile to the arte povera rebels of Italy’s politically turbulent ’60s and ’70s and to what he calls the nihilist avant-garde. The political implications of this hostility place him in the good graces of the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi, which in March named him “personal adviser” to Bondi, to oversee the state acquisition of artworks. But Sgarbi has veered from the far left to the right and back again many times in the course of his political career.
He is currently the mayor of a small town called Salemi, in Sicily. With photographer Oliviero Toscani, who is known for his controversial photos for the Benetton brand and other clients, Sgarbi has put 1,000 abandoned dwellings up for sale for one euro each on condition that buyers renovate the houses within a reasonable time. To date, some 10,000 requests for them have been received.
Before he was appointed curator of the Italian Pavilion, in January, Sgarbi had already been asked to monitor future acquisitions for national public museums, including Rome’s MAXXI museum, which was designed by Zaha Hadid and inaugurated last year. The manner in which costly acquisitions were made has come under sharp criticism, and not only from Sgarbi, who considers the works so far acquired for MAXXI both overpriced and less than spectacular. In the future, he says, in order to keep sellers from hyping prices for artworks, the government should emulate the French by negotiating anonymously through an agent.
Judith Harris is the author of Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery.