Italy’s dynamic new wave of arts festivals

Cultural patronage is having a renaissance in Italy, with grand old family names injecting dynamic new ideas into the performance and arts scenes in Florence, Puglia and Sicily. Maria Shollenbarger reports

The New Generation Festival, now in its second year, takes place in the gardens of Palazzo Corsini al Prato, Florence
The New Generation Festival, now in its second year, takes place in the gardens of Palazzo Corsini al Prato, Florence | Image: Guy Bell

In 1680, the Corsinis – one of Florence’s oldest aristocratic families, with politicians, a pope and even a saint among its ranks – inaugurated a music festival at their palace on the Via il Prato. It was cultural patronage of the sort they, along with the Medicis, had fostered amid noble families since the early Renaissance, of which the festival was just one example (the family art collection, replete with master works spanning five centuries, attests to many others).

Opera features prominently in the programme
Opera features prominently in the programme | Image: Guy Bell

This spoke, of course, to the enormous wealth and power such families wielded, but also to the role of culture in society. It’s said that in late-15th-century Florence there were more woodcarvers than butchers; the commissioning and exhibiting of beautiful things – art, operas, plays, symphonies – was a fundamental social conduit. While noble patronage undoubtedly served as a vehicle for Florence’s richest to self-aggrandise, it was also a great class-crossing connector.

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In Florence in June of this year, I met Princess Giorgiana Corsini, along with Roger Granville and Frankie Parham, co-founders of The New Generation Festival, which on August 29 will kick off its second year. It takes place in the gardens of Palazzo Corsini al Prato – the site of that first Corsini festival in 1680, and Giorgiana Corsini’s home – and this year will feature performances ranging from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to late-night DJ sets, to Tchaikovsky concertos performed by the British violinist Charlie Siem, to Henry V (set to William Walton’s soaring score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 cinematic version of the Shakespeare play). The players and organisers are almost all under the age of 35 – Parham and Granville are 29 and third founder Maximilian Fane just 26. The aspiration is to institute a platform for young talent, with an audience characterised by its diversity and united by its passion for music.

Today’s New Generation Festival is held on the same site as the first Corsini festival in 1680
Today’s New Generation Festival is held on the same site as the first Corsini festival in 1680 | Image: Guy Bell

Enter Princess Corsini, who has form with such endeavours. For years she has hosted Artigianato e Palazzo, a fair for working artisans in the Palazzo Corsini al Prato’s grounds, as well as artists’ residencies and the odd choral performance – including, several years ago, one featuring a then-teenage Fane. Shortly after, Fane and Granville conceived what the latter has referred to, aptly, as “Glyndebourne-meets-Glastonbury” – “this incandescent celebration of beauty and music, staged in the exact place where it happened before, so many years ago,” he says. “We basically had an aspiration to create, in Giorgiana’s garden, some small renaissance of the Renaissance, in its every facet. And she was totally on board.”

Cultural patron Princess Giorgiana Corsini
Cultural patron Princess Giorgiana Corsini | Image: Guy Bell

“Giorgiana is someone who doesn’t just support by giving the means,” Parham adds. “She’s our fourth producer; it really is Frankie, Max, myself and Giorgiana backstage, the whole time.” The Princess’s response, for her part, is direct: “I prefer to work on things that are not passive culture. I like culture in practice – culture that is lived.”

Palazzo Daniele can act as a base for exploring Capo d’Arte
Palazzo Daniele can act as a base for exploring Capo d’Arte | Image: Enrico Constantini

Financial patronage in Italy is far from defunct. Think of grand geste restoration projects subsidised by marquis names in Italian fashion: the multiphase rehabilitation of the Colosseum by Tod’s Group (total cost: a reported €25m), Fendi’s c€2.5m restoration of the Trevi Fountain, Bulgari’s contributions (thought to be around €1.7m) to preserving the Spanish Steps. They’re laudable endeavours, ensuring the future of some of Europe’s great monuments (while conveniently virtue-signalling for the brands themselves). But Corsini’s “living” culture – inviting interaction, inquiry or the exchange of ideas on an ongoing basis – contributes to the soul of a city in a different way, putting a contemporary lens on a culturally “old” place and thereby helping secure its relevance in the present and future.

The rooftop has played host to installations
The rooftop has played host to installations | Image: Domingo Milella. Courtesy Capo d’Arte, the artist and Galleria Continua

Florence, of course, benefits from being one of the world’s most compelling cities – nice for The New Generation Festival’s founders, who don’t struggle to get people there. In Italy’s southernmost reaches, it’s a different story. Until recently, the tiny Puglian village of Gagliano del Capo, right at the tip of the heel of Italy’s boot, was, as Francesco Petrucci tells me, “virtually off the map”. Petrucci’s family, originally Neapolitan, arrived in the early 19th century, building their palazzo on the town square in 1861, the year of Italy’s unification. After a busy law career, during which he began collecting contemporary art, Petrucci settled here. “I’d lived abroad and wanted to reconnect with my roots, but I also wanted to bring a bit of my world – the things I had cultivated – to it.” Together with Francesca Bonomo, he created Capo d’Arte, a nonprofit international arts exhibition staged across Gagliano del Capo, from townhouses and chapels to an abandoned train car at the minuscule regional station (one platform, no café) to the square itself. Artists of the stature of Yang Fudong and Michelangelo Pistoletto have participated; in 2016, Petrucci partnered with the French Academy in Rome to create a six-week artists’ residency. “It gives them a chance to work in a place that’s geographically unique – and allows the people who live here to see what goes on in the wider world.”

The drawing room at Villa Tasca, the seat of the Tasca d’Almerita family
The drawing room at Villa Tasca, the seat of the Tasca d’Almerita family | Image: Antonio Chinnici

Petrucci recently restored the six-bedroom family palazzo, now called Palazzo Daniele, and has made it available to let, creating a perfect base from which to immerse in the Capo d’Arte experience (and the slow-moving Salento region). With a stunning renovation by PalombaSerafini Associati, its airy salotti and bedrooms filled with original frescoes and contemporary artworks, it’s one of the more characterful homes in these parts (and will soon host 700,000 Heures, an intriguing itinerant hotel project). “The contrast of what Capo d’Arte brings – cutting-edge video performances and installations – to this basically forgotten place… it seemed pretty unthinkable when I started,” Petrucci says. “I sometimes consider how different what I’m doing is to what my great-grandparents did in Gagliano del Capo. They built a hospital; I brought in sound art. But though they seem incompatible, I like to believe there’s a sort of fil rouge connecting them.”

The gardens of Villa Tasca will open periodically to the public next spring
The gardens of Villa Tasca will open periodically to the public next spring

A far more robust thread connects the vast holdings of the noble Sicilian Tasca d’Almerita family to that island’s long history. Their wines have long ranked among Italy’s most highly regarded; more recently, singular hospitality venues have been created, among them a resort on the Aeolian island of Salina, along with Villa Tasca, the splendid family seat in Palermo. Once upon a time the Tascas were among Sicily’s great patrons of culture; Wagner composed some of Parsifal during a stay as a guest of the Villa. But the postwar decades of political and social decline saw the Mafia achieve a terrifying primacy, and Palermo become a place where culture struggled, and often failed, to thrive. The past few years have seen a quiet flowering, and 2018 marked its leap onto the international stage, thanks to three events: its designation as Italy’s annual Capital of Culture; the inauguration in June of the 12th installation of Manifesta, Europe’s roving contemporary art biennial; and the imminent opening of Palazzo Butera in the centro storico’s magnificent Kalsa quarter. The palace was purchased in 2015 by Massimo and Francesca Valsecchi, avid art collectors since the 1960s; a massive restoration has resulted in a 9,000sq m space that Massimo Valsecchi characterises as a “centre for interdisciplinary research” (and which his wife has reportedly fondly referred to as his “crazy Enlightenment project”). The Valsecchis’ wide range of artworks, which has been called one of Europe’s greatest private collections, will fill the gallery spaces. A new public entrance now opens out onto the seafront – a symbolic upending of this once-closed, rarefied aristocratic world.

Palermo-based Cogito events have been held at sites such as Palazzo Butera, which is to house the Valsecchi private art collection
Palermo-based Cogito events have been held at sites such as Palazzo Butera, which is to house the Valsecchi private art collection | Image: Antonio Chinnici

“This is not dedicated just to art or the past,” Massimo Valsecchi told me at the Palazzo in June. “I want it to be a tool for research, for cross-pollination of views and ideas. Palermo, in this historic moment, seemed like the right place for it.” The “moment” is a reference to the worldwide plight of immigrants and asylum seekers (that Sicily has been at the centre of Europe’s current immigration crisis is lost on no one here, least of all Manifesta’s organisers, who chose “Cultivating Coexistence” as this year’s theme). “In the DNA of the Sicilian there has always been a remarkable capacity to absorb, to integrate this flow. Sicily today is still impoverished of many things, but luckily, because of this capacity, culture and art aren’t among them.”

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The island’s millennia-long history of dominion and conquest accounts for the rich complexity of its patrimony, not just in architecture and art, but also its extraordinary agricultural and culinary traditions. They’re areas in which Alberto Tasca d’Almerita, the managing director of Tasca d’Almerita, has some expertise. At Regaleali, the Tasca estate in the interior, he oversees cultivation of heritage grains brought to Sicily nine centuries ago by Arab conquerors; on the tiny island of Mozia, near Marsala, the Tascas helped revive wine production begun by the Phoenicians around 2800 BC. Le Cattive, the multiroom space he conceived at Valsecchi’s request, occupying one seaside gallery of Palazzo Butera, is designed to be far more than a museum canteen-plus-enoteca. “The idea is for laboratories – of learning, exhibition, lessons and conversations,” Tasca d’Almerita says. “Massimo and I want exchanges and dialogues going on in here, reflecting what is happening with the Palazzo. The established way of thinking at Tasca has always put Sicily, with its uniqueness and diversity, at its centre. Sicily’s food and wine cultures have a deep history; we wanted to explore them the same way, and make them relevant today.”

On June 22, Valsecchi and Tasca d’Almerita collaborated again, when Valsecchi spoke at the ninth installation of Cogito, the cultural conversation series created by Tasca d’Almerita and his Roman-born wife Francesca Borghese. Taking place in unorthodox venues across Palermo – the old novitiate of the church of San Mattia dei Crociferi, the Marionette Museum – Cogito sees nationally known names in the arts, politics and entertainment convene to focus on a single topic. There is food and drink, usually music, but the idea is to put a subject that’s much on the minds of Sicilians under the conversational microscope. It’s been a hit with switched-on locals and visitors from other parts of Italy; the Palazzo Butera event was booked solid within days of being announced. There are firm plans to stage English-language Cogito events, and expand the series beyond Palermo into other Italian cities, by next year.

In the meantime, the Tascas’ four-bedroom Palermo villa will soon be accessible to a far wider audience, thanks to Alberto’s brother Giuseppe. From next spring, when Villa Tasca isn’t let to private clients, its magnificent eight-hectare grounds  – including 1.2 hectares of Romantic gardens, replete with huge Fici, plants from around the world and exotic temples – will be open to the public. Plans are being considered for a bistro, overseen by the villa’s own chefs (long accustomed to looking after royalty of the genuine, Park Avenue and Hollywood varieties), and also tours of the grounds; Giuseppe, a jazz aficionado, envisions regular concerts in the afternoons and evenings. It will, in some modest but meaningful measure, bring new life to Villa Tasca – and culture, as it was once lived, back to a place where it belongs.

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