Today we meet Prof. James Bradburne, the Director General of the Pinacoteca di Brera and the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, Milan.
What impact did Milan have on you when you first arrived?
I was impressed by the city’s dynamism, its diversity, and above all its civic coherence.
Milan and Florence: different worlds, different cultures, different histories…
Indeed. Florence is a monoculture, albeit a cosmopolitan one, and historical continuity plays a large role in Florence, both in its current economic model, based on Renaissance-based tourism, and its civic model, based on antagonism. Modern Florence still lives in a world of Guelfs and Ghibellines.
Brera comprises an Art Gallery, a Library, an Observatory, and a Botanical Garden: are you planning to link them with some kind of “fil rouge”?
Although the Pinacoteca is in fact primus inter pares of the palazzo, and responsible for coordinating the use of the common spaces, Brera is home to eight institutions, accountable to two different Ministries, so it is impossible to impose a single vision. On the other hand, since even before my arrival, the eight institutions have worked together, and my ‘100 Days’ speech on 21 January 2106 described a vision of the future use of the palazzo as an urban space that was developed together with and endorsed by all the residents. This vision includes increasing the public amenity of the courtyard, requalifying the entrance to the gardens and the observatory at via Fiori Oscuri 4, putting in a new lift to the observatory, and connecting the Palazzo di Brera to the Palazzo Citterio after it opens.
The keynotes of your “soft revolution” are “accessibility, reception of the public, and listening to users”: can you talk to us about these?
The mission announced in 2016 makes two main promises: to put Brera back in the heart of the city and to put the user back in the heart of the Brera experience. This means greater attention to amenity, welcome, and visitor services, especially when it comes to making Brera accessible to different publics.
Which doors are you finding open and which closed in your efforts to renew the Polo di Brera?
There is a great enthusiasm and a great desire on the part of the Milanese to see Brera back at the level of the world’s great institutions. The only resistance has come from a small group of self-interested academics who are unwilling to see the current function of the palazzo change. For instance, they are currently blocking plans to create a handicapped lift from the courtyard to the museum and library. Fortunately they are in the minority, and can only obstruct the development of Brera temporarily.
What artists and masterpieces are hidden in the Gallery, waiting to be discovered or rediscovered?
The Pinacoteca has been described as Italy’s best unknown museum, and indeed although its masterpieces – Mantegna’s Dead Christ, Raffaello’s Marriage of the Virgin, Piero della Francesca’s Pala di Brera, Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus – are all known internationally, even if few realise they are at the Pinacoteca in Milan. One of its greatest treasures is the collection of Italian Modern Art, which is one of the best in the world, but almost completely unknown except to specialists. This will change when it moves to its new home at Palazzo Citterio, which will become in effect, Brera Modern.
A museum becomes a living, functioning organism to some the extent according to how it blends with the kind of urban space and city area in which it is located: how are you hoping to bring the museum and its context together?
The first thing to do is to open the doors wide! Last March we put banners on the façade to show the treasure inside, installed new electronic signage, provided benches and bins to ensure the courtyard was clean and well-kept. We are now open to 10.15pm every first and third Thursday, with young musician playing in the exhibition spaces every third Thursday, which has brought thousands of young people to Brera who had never visited before. We are currently working on a series of guides to the surrounding neighbourhood, and working with the retailers’ associations to knit Brera and the palazzo closer together.
During your “first hundred days”, what have you learnt about the Milanese and their approach to art and culture?
For better or for worse, I have now been at Brera over 800 days, but the extra 700 days have only reconfirmed my initial respect and affection for the city’s business-like, committed and enthusiastic support of the city and its culture.
Apart from Brera itself, of course, what other environments, locations, or monuments have given you a glimpse of the real Milan and the Milanese character?
Milano is a city of discoveries, and nearly every day I find something new: the Monumentali, the Navigli, the marvellous small churches. What impressed me is the architectural discretion of the city – the beautiful courtyards hidden behind modest doors, the grey seminato paving stones, the sobriety of the façades.
You spend your days immersed in beauty, breathing the essence of art, imbibing the poetry of masterpieces: what kind of images, emotions, dreams are engendered by this precious space you inhabit?
There is no short answer to such a question. The best way to see the effect of working at Brera is to look at the diversity of projects on our website, which range from children’s concerts to educational programmes to children’s books to the Brera Summer Ball. It is hard not to be inspired working around one of the world’s greatest collections, and one of the country’s greatest libraries.
Interview by Luisa Mariani and Giovanni Zaccherini