The Art History

PUBLISHED in 'THE ART NEWSPAPER' (London) August/September issue 1998

Caterina di Russia: L’imperatrice e le arti
Exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy
Date :     24 May 1998 - 24 August 1998

Report by : Raichel  Le Goff


         CLOSED, NO TOURISTS CAN VISIT is the aggressive message that greets anyone entering the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. “What does that mean? Italians only?” exclaimed a timid British tourist peering through the massive doors. A uniformed concierge deterred her from ignoring the sign and she left. So did countless others.
Strange tactics for attracting visitors to ‘Catherine of Russia: The Empress and the Arts’ an exhibition running until August 24th on the first floor. Compared to previous attempts at launching blockbuster  exhibitions like “The Dacians” 1997 where the facade of the Strozzi was hung with a trompe l’oeil Dacian fortress complete with horsemen, the promotion of Caterina di Russia is embarrassing. A single small banner high above the entrance announces the exhibition and there is no hype in the press. In fact the agents Arte e Eventi had been instructed not to hand out press packs to non-Tuscan journalists.
       The privately owned Strozzi palace is in the process of being sold which may account for this change in strategy. All inquiries about who is selling and who is buying are rebuffed but the Commune di Firenze were confident there would be a clause in the contract allowing the city’s control of the exhibition rooms to continue.
Perhaps the reason why nobody was at the exhibition on only its third day open was due to the off-putting sign and lack of advertising or perhaps it was simply that people don’t come to Florence to see a Russian collection. Indeed the few persistent artlovers that showed up on day four of the exhibition were mostly Italians. They were in for a rude shock when once past the sign barrier they could not find a way into the exhibition. The lift was out of order and all doors were barred. Eventually a sheet of A4 was  found with the words ‘Chiusa per turno’ (loosely translated as closed for a rest). People swore and left outraged.  The banner said ‘open every day’. There had been no forewarning of the closure.
Those who manage to enter into the inner sanctum will view a small and overly ambitious exhibition that aspires to explore Catherine the Great’s diverse collecting interests.  The Hermitage has loaned 247 works of art not all of the highest quality. A mediocre mythological painting by Paris Bourdon is hardly what the Hermitage is famous for.
       The first two rooms are filled with portraits of  Russian royals and cabinets of period costumes. There are several full-length portraits of the Empress and no images show Catherine in her youth. Unfortunately this Russian sovereign has none of the allure of latter day Romanovs of whom the slightest mention can still hold the entire world captivated. As you wander around the rooms gazing at Catherine’s china, a reliquary crucifix bearing her diamond initials, her snuffboxes and her extraordinary gilded sleigh, there is no romantic inspiring image to relate the objects to. At best the portraits show us Catherine as a portly, benevolent, matron. In her memoirs Catherine wrote “Together with the spirit and character of a man, I had the attractions of a most amiable woman.” Houdon  embodied these characteristics in a bust of the Empress where he has curiously managed to make her look like Voltaire whom she admired as “the most illustrious man of our age”.  Houdon’s bust of Voltaire is also on show.

       The best thing about the exhibition is that it is the perfect place in Florence to escape groups of irreverent schoolchildren and tourists. The soothing period music and the empty rooms will revive you in the heat of the summer better than a Campari and soda.
The organizers Italiana Mostre Internationali said the Strozzi exhibition “will surely repeat the success of that staged at Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk which attracted 250,000 people”. Initial signs look doubtful.

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