Sylvain Bellenger, who was born in Normandy, took French degrees in philosophy and in art history. He then moved to the United States, where he held curatorial posts at the Cleveland Museum of Art and at the Art Institute of Chicago before being appointed in 2014 Director at Capodimonte in Naples. This museum has a complicated history—and the appointment of foreign-born to Italian museums is controversial. In the mid-eighteenth century, following the lead of the Louvre, many European countries built public art museums; the Bourbon monarch decided to construct the present building on a hill above Naples. But thanks to the convoluted history of Italy, it was only in 1957 that the painting collection was installed there; the very important large archaeological collection is in a separate institution, the National Archaeological Museum, which is in the historic center of the city. King Charles of Naples and Sicily began construction of the Capodimonte Palace in 1734 as a royal hunting lodge and to house the famed Farnese collection he inherited from his mother Elisabetta Farnese. The Farnese collection was created by Pope Paul III Farnese and his son Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, commissioning works directly from Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael, and the greatest artists of 16th century Italy. The Capodimonte was the royal residence of the Bourbon and Savoy dynasties, and after WWII, became a National Museum open to the public in 1957. Today the Capodimonte collection contains works from the 13th – 21st centuries, the Farnese collection of old master art, and a very important collection of the art of Naples.
In this, the seventh in our ongoing sequence of interviews with museum directors, our interest lies in understanding how varied these institutions are. Italy, in particular, poses special challenges. Paradoxically, despite its very rich artistic tradition, it has been oddly unable to properly support its public art museums. This has been a special concern in Naples where Capodimonte, which is a world-class museum, had only 126,000 visitors in 2014. The problem is partially that the city itself is not in a prime location for tourists. Furthermore, because the museum is on a scenic hilltop high above the city many of the people who do make their way to Naples hesitate to visit.
It happens that one of us, Carrier, is writing a book about Naples. In recent years, the city has worked hard to make itself more attractive to tourists, and there is a growing industry in scholarship devoted to Neapolitan art. We were especially interested in learning how Capodimonte could capitalize on this situation. Significant changes were already evident. At the outdoors entrance to the park surrounding Capodimonte, there is a posted notice about the major recent improvements to the grounds, including the construction of a soccer field. And a quotation from Michel Foucault is presented: “A garden is the smallest particle of the world, and, at the same time, it is the totality of the world!” Then, within the museum, there is a large temporary exhibition, Carta Bianca: Capodimonte Imaginaire, (December 12, 2017 – July 17, 2018) organized by Bellenger and Andrea Villani, director of MADRE, the Museum of Contemporary Art Donnaregina, a Kunsthalle devoted to contemporary art, which asks Ricardo Muti and nine other famous artists and intellectuals to respond to the permanent. “Carta Bianca” is discussed in our interview. This interview was conducted on March 1, 2018 by Carrier, with substantial advice and suggestions by Pissarro.
David Carrier (Rail): Thank you so much for having us, I know you’re so busy.
Sylvain Bellenger: It’s crazy. It’s not a job; it’s a life. I never gave so much to my job anywhere, in France or America. But I never received so much back from the city.
Rail: You appear in the interview with Philippe de Montebello—years ago, when he thought of doing a show with Girodet, he asked around and someone said “who’s that? I’ve never heard of Girodet,” and Philippe replied, “Well precisely because you asked the question ‘who’ that is why!” [laughter]. Joachim gave some questions that are a good starting point. He, like you, is French and moved to America, and the question Joachim posed is “it must have been complicated, you moved from a very French museum world to the American Midwest and now to Naples.”
Bellenger: I may have what Marilyn Monroe called “the seven year itch.” [Laughter] I need to move on. But actually it’s less than seven years because I was in Cleveland for ten years but only in Chicago for four. I came to Washington to the CASVA [Center For Advanced Studies in Visual Art], working on a project regarding representation of children after Jean-Jacques Rousseau, when children started to have their own life, and at the last week I had to give a talk, my English was much worse than it is now and I had to express so many things that my talk was supposed to be for forty minutes and it ran close to two hours. And then after that there was a dinner and I had to choose the menu. I remember, still now, for the main course I had chosen steak Chateaubriand [Laughter] as an homage to Girodet. I was very displeased with my talk, but I may have done better than I thought because the day after, the director of Cleveland Museum of Art called me and asked if I would be interested in being in charge of the European collection. I went to Cleveland to see the collection, especially the famous Jacques-Louis David painting that I had studied for many months and then I started to think, “it must be very interesting; this could be such an adventure!” I had decided to be very difficult so the director asked me if I needed an apartment, and what sort of apt did I want? I said, “I want a bathroom, a bedroom, and a ballroom.” [Laughter] and they found it for me! They found it! I had a marvelous apartment with a very large living room in one of those 1930s buildings in Cleveland Heights.
Rail: But you had no plan of moving to America?
Bellenger: No, I had no plan. Like many young Europeans, America was not part of my picture, until I went to America. I just realized America was not England, as I thought it was. I discovered a new world and this new world became not only part of my landscape but part of myself.
Rail: It must be complicated being a Frenchman here in Naples since France and Naples have a complicated history at the end of the 18th century. Is any of that still in the world, or has that gone away?
Bellenger: When you are French, when you are abroad, you see today a huge respect not for France, but for French culture. When I was in America, I benefited from this reputation of culture and story of organized culture. If there is one place in the world where France is still considered a great important country, it’s Italy. And you know why? It’s because the old Italian system of Italy as one country is simply made from the French organization of Napoleon the Third, especially in the culture of the administration. The great difference is that France went through many transformations whereas Italy has complicated everything but hasn’t made any true reform. The only reform that Italy has made for the cultural institutions is this last reform, that has asked the world to consider twenty of the first museums in Italy to be open to international candidacy. So when I came to Naples the first time, I realized that this system was one I knew so well because it was the system I was educated in, so it was not difficult. What was very difficult indeed was the fact that Italy has not made any adjustment from the 20th century into the 21st post-war era, and I often say to my colleagues, “We have a collection, but we don’t yet have a museum.”
Rail: The Capodimonte building is old, the collection is old, but the museum is from the 1950s.
Bellenger: 1957. The building was constructed for the Farnese collection, which has a its own story. The collection is not the same as what Cardinal Alessandro Farnese put together. It was transformed by taste, by acquisition, and by accessions. For example, the last king sold some paintings to pay for the army to fight against Garibaldi troops. So it was not completely intact when it came to the Italian state in the 19th century.
Rail: You have the antiquities down at the archeological museum, so is there a way to connect all those places so a visitor could easily go and circulate among them?
Bellenger: Circulate is the right word because if there is something that doesn’t work in Naples, it’s circulation. Traffic. There is no public transport. The number C63 that is a bus that serves this part of the city is called “the Invisible” by the neighborhood because it never comes. It’s a big mess. It’s a city that has no talent for organizing basic services. As I often say, in Naples, you cannot have the normal, but miracles happen every day.
Rail: We’ve come here only occasionally for thirty years now, and there’s been so much improvement in the center because we came here shortly after the earthquake of 1980, and then it looked like the city would never recover. The churches—you couldn’t do anything, and there was no point in being here because you couldn’t see anything. And now, the churches are open—
Bellenger: Not all of them, but a large number.
Rail: There are new hotels and restaurants in the historic center. The services are better—and the cabs even have meters now.
Bellenger: Cabs are okay, and if they try to cheat you, they just rob you two Euros, maximum. They are very funny these cabs. I remember once because we had to make a sort of convention with the cab companies about the price to Capodimonte, and it’s eleven Euros, but you have to ask for it. I don’t ask for it, and one day I was in a bad mood, I asked for it, and I arrived at my house, which is on the other side of town, and the guy told me, “Okay, it’s thirteen Euros.” I said, “What do you mean thirteen euros? It should be eleven euros.” He said, “Okay, eleven euros.” And then I looked in my pocket, and I had no money, so I told him, “Okay, wait a minute. I’m going upstairs to grab some money.” And he said, “Oh it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Please don’t do that.” So he was ready to get two euros more, but he was even more ready to do the trip for free. That’s Naples.
Rail: But the whole city is changing now, and I take it that your directorship is part of this larger change—because in a sense the museum has to depend on the city, and you need to have people find an easy way to come up here.
Bellenger: Yes, so it’s exactly true. People to come up here—they are starting to come—I have to fix basic things such as parking spaces that are not very nice. My first instinct was to reorganize the park. The park is enormous, and this is the largest urban park in Italy. When I arrived two years ago, this park was a mess. I was finding syringes in the front. The place called Belvedere, you couldn’t see anything because the patch that is around had been uncut for fifteen years, so the trees were huge. So I started to clean all that. The gates were all destroyed. You couldn’t close them. It was completely run down.
Rail: You’re also in charge of the whole park?
Bellenger: Yes. I realized that to start with the park was the key because I would get the public. Now, I have two million visitors in the park ever year. And I have only 300,000 visitors in the museum, which is very, very low. So the next goal now is to combine those two publics. The public of the museum we know splendidly, but there is a park—magnificent buildings in the park where we are now organizing foundations, restaurants, all different things, and the public of the park doesn’t know that there is a museum. So we are combining these two publics, considering the park as a museum for botanic art.
Rail: What I discovered in Cleveland when I taught there in classrooms within the museum—no one will come to the permanent collection. People only come to shows. Is it the same at Capodimonte?
Bellenger: So why the public doesn’t come to permanent collections is very simple. It’s because—especially in a museum like Capodimonte—you are just immersed in a sea of masterpieces with so little information that if you don’t know how to swim, you leave. And the museum has been famous for organizing a series of shows in the ’80s, ’90s, —important exhibitions, but never about the collection. There was one exhibition of the Farnese collection twenty five years ago, so it’s almost two generations. If you go into the galleries, you see so little about information, about education. I always say to my curators, “You have to remember that when you say ‘the Farnese collection,’ more than two thirds of the world has no idea who the Farnese’s are, and at least half of the world doesn’t know what a collection is.” So when you say “the Farnese collection,” you give no indication except to people who don’t even need to know that it is Farnese collection because they already know it, so you communicate with a little social club, and that is not our mission, so if you want to become a museum, you have to create an education service—we did that.
If you visit a temporary show and there is a story, when you leave the place you have learned something specific. Instead, if you want to visit the permanent collection, if you’re not intellectually organized and knowledgeable before entering the museum, it’s very difficult to decide what to see and how to see it and how to connect it. A museum is always a compromise between the history of art, the collection, the architecture, the taste of the curators, the dimensions of the rooms, the quality of the light. These are all the things we organize to tell a story, but there is not one story. There are hundreds of stories. This is why for “Carta Bianca” I asked ten people who have a strong connection with art in general, not necessary visual art—but not one of them is part of the museum system. No one is a curator. No one is a teacher. I wanted to have a gardener. And the great gardener I found, Paolo Pejrone, is the only one who curated a room that doesn’t have a concept.
Rail: That is wonderful. And I love the idea that at your show, you asked the visitor at the end to compose their eleventh—their own space.
Bellenger: Exactly. For now it’s virtual, and the best one will be realized. Physically realized.
Rail: What fascinates me about your city but also what seems to be difficult is that there’s so much art to see, but it’s in all these scattered places. And it’s true that the historic center is small. You can walk across it in twenty minutes, but it takes a while. You have to know where to go, this church, that church.
Bellenger: It’s very, very rich. I don’t even think Rome has the same kind of artistic concentration as Naples because Naples is an older story. It’s not only Greek history, but there are these medieval moments of Naples where Naples was already a great story. I think it’s only the south of Italy and in Naples where you find Gothic architecture. Really Gothic architecture, not Gothic revival like in Milano. Naples looks like an open museum, even though the Neapolitans do not always seem to possess a very clear understanding of what they have. They don’t especially respect it. They write the name of their girlfriends on 16th century sculptures without knowing it. There’s a great ignorance in the city, and it’s difficult to fight against that—but it’s our mission to do it. So to come back on your question about the connection between these works, we are starting to organize a net.
Rail: Years ago I was interested in Masaniello’s 1647 revolt and—as you know—there are two paintings of it. I was in San Martino looking at the one that’s there, and suddenly I realized that I could go look in the market—and you can see that very place that the painting represents!
Bellenger: Yes, even though the marketplace has been very badly destroyed, terribly destroyed, and badly reconstructed. Very badly. It’s very, very extraordinary, like it should be absolute ugliness and disaster—and it’s not. Because even the humiliation of beauty sort of adds an extra beauty that is more sentimental, more moving, even more pure than organized and well kept beauty.
Rail: Exactly. It has a strange mystique.
Bellenger: You may have read a little of a short story of Francis Steegmuller who was your famous specialist on Flaubert—the husband of the writer Shirley Hazzard. (Described in the publication The Ancient Shore by Hazzard and Steegmuller.)
Rail: Yes, I read that.
Bellenger: There’s one moment where Steegmuller has been robbed in the streets, he lost his handbag and he has his shoulder bag broken—that was the violent moment—and then the people of the street come around him and take care of him, and take him to the hospital—and he’s taken care of for free! At the very last moment, he leaves the hospital and the Doctor gives him a suit, because he has no decent suit, and when he arrives in New York, he goes to the clinic, and the first question is, “Do you have an insurance card?” And then he arrives—the conclusion of the short story is, “I knew, now, where hell was.” [Laughs]
Rail: It’s strange. It’s a city with a complicated history. If Naples becomes more popular will that destroy the mystique?
Bellenger: I don’t know, it’s a good question. The other day I was looking at one of the very beautiful palaces from the thirteenth century called Palazzo della Parma. Now there is only a façade, the door is a broken piece of iron, there’s no windows—you can see that trees are growing in the apartments behind the façade; it’s all broken. I was thinking: what is going to be worse? This? Or if someone buys it and make a boutique hotel from it. I don’t know.
Rail: I see what you mean.
Bellenger: When this reform was created I was in Chicago. I applied to this reform because a Neopolitan friend said, “You have a perfect profile, you are French, you have an international reputation, you speak seven languages, you have been in great institutions—surely you would have great success in this international competition.” So I applied and did everything that needed to be done, of course the fact that I was curator of the Art Institute, the fact that I was French, the fact that I had written a book on the Neapolitan créche—all this mattered. It was not about being the nephew or the uncle or the son of anyone. The process was completely transparent—but it was not very clearly organized, I did not understand what they wanted exactly. So I went to this opening day when the minister had decided to make public the nominations. There was a journalist from Rome who jumped on my shoulders, saying, “Why do we need a Frenchman to take care of Italian art?” And I responded, “wait a minute—I am a Normand—we were in Naples much before you Italians, so I can ask you, ‘What are you doing in Naples?’” [Laughs] But, on the contrary, when I arrived in Naples, I had on my desk—this desk—a large box of chocolates from the curators and the staff saying, “Benevento a Capodimonte.” That never happened in Chicago or Cleveland. [Laughs] And not in Paris.
Every day the people from the neighborhood stop me—because this is a village—I cannot go out without being recognized by people in the street because of televisions and all that. So, they stop me, even if I’m speaking on the phone—this is an interesting characteristic—this part of the world has created the most individualistic civilization in Europe. Everyone is convinced they are unique and have all the rights. It’s extraordinary. You see people in the street that you have never seen; they don’t think for a minute that you may not know who they are. They assume that you know who they are, and they speak to you immediately, and a lot of them tell me: “Thank you very much for what you’re doing for Naples. We needed a Frenchman to do that.” Very, very often. And recently there was a meeting and certain members of the staff said, “We never had a director who was not only thinking of exhibitions and publications, but was taking care of every detail. Who was calling us saying, ‘The door is not open, there is no light in that room, the bathroom is not clean—’” because I am obsessed with details. I’ve always thought if details are okay, the rest is fine.
Rail: There’s a lot of local patriotism in Naples.
Bellenger: If you go to the train station—that is an interesting experience. Look at the bookstore library. You will see at least five-or-six-hundred books on Naples. I’ve never seen a city so obsessed with its own identity. It’s amazing! If you want to start convincing a Napolitano of anything, you have first to say how great is the city. If you start that way, then you can go ahead and be very, very hard with the city. But you have to first pay homage to the city. It’s amazing how deeply connected we are with this.
So we’re all convinced that the city of Naples has been robbed and devastated by every occupation, and we never say, “Okay. The collection of Farnese hasn’t been to the disturbed neighborhoods.” It’s a gift from the Bourbon, it’s an accident in history, it doesn’t come from the territory. They don’t think that this has been taken from Parma, Bologna, and Roma, they think that’s there because they won it. When I want to lend a Caravaggio for three months, they scream and say, “This is going away! This is leaving us!” Even though they never come to see it.
I often have the feeling that I’m working in a world that has never had a complete responsibility of its destiny. The Neapolitan thinks that solutions will come from somewhere, the state, San Gennaro. I had an interesting experience working on the park. One of the largest complaints was that there are no benches. And it was true, there were only thirty-four benches for the whole park. So, I decided to organize an experience of participation. I asked them to adopt a bench or a tree. And in three months I received more than a hundred benches. They’re not cheap—Naples is not a rich city, it cost 500 euros. So, some people got together to buy a bench. They wrote very, very particular phrases about it. There is one I was just looking at this morning that is dedicated to someone who is no longer alive. It says, “It is so wonderful to be able to sit next to you and hold your hand forever.” It’s a city where emotion is extremely intense. If you understand how emotional the Neapolitans are about their own city, then you can do a lot of things.
Rail: So, that’s going to be the basis for a lot of what you can do here? Look at their responses and their feelings?
Bellenger: Yes. We take a work and we give the largest possible context to give all the keys to understand it. For example, in the little room where we have one-work-shows, there is currently a Breughel, The Blind Leading the Blind (1568). Here is an interesting story, a few months after we were starting to rehabilitate the park, I received an email with a little piece of music and images of the park from a young man called Stefano who was telling me, “I’m born in this park, I’m thirty-three years old, I’ve never seen it so clean, so beautiful...” So I called him and I said, “Please have a coffee with me, I want to thank you for this.” He explained that he was an autodidact. He was not really trained as a musician, but he had won a prize in Hollywood for music. So, speaking with him, I was thinking, “Okay, we are used to explaining works of art with words,” which is truly using literature to explain something visual. So it’s a transposition of languages. So, I asked him to do the same, but not using words, but using music. I asked him to give me an interpretation of the most difficult painting, and one of the most important paintings in the collection, which is by Breughel and this young man took it very, very seriously.
He walked with bandaged eyes for days, and he came back and told me, “Okay, I understood everything. I’m going to write you a sonnet and it’s going to be about the first thing you see in the painting are the feet, they are so heavy, and I understand why because the real danger is walking when you’re blind.” You don’t know what is going there, so you are very in danger when you walk. So, the first movement is the walk, the next movement is the fall, just like it is in the painting. The third movement is the faith, which is represented by the the presence of churches in the landscape. He wrote these three movements, and it’s so clearly intelligent. I had an opening with him for the show, it’s a small show—it’s one work and one music—but I never saw the same people in the museum again. They all came from the neighborhood: the concierge, the baker, the pizza maker—they all came.
Rail: I feel like you’re the right person in the right place at the right time.
Bellenger: I feel so, too. I have this feeling every Monday I say, “It’s enough, I don’t want to do it.” Monday lunch—I’m excited again. [Laughs]