On the way in Florence: How to get out of the archive?

Erik Göngrich and Ines Schaber in conversation with Angelika Stepken (2009)

Erik, last year I asked you whether you would be interested in staying at Villa Romana as a guest artist. That is, we were interested in your work with urban space, architecture and public monuments and hoped that your encounter with Florence would involve a return in the Villa. Of course, we are ourselves still discovering this city and every artist that stays here follows his own path… During that encounter, you then suggested coming here with Ines and renewing your collaboration. What was your common motivation for going into seclusion here for two months?

(IS) Actually, for us it was a wonderful opportunity to spend a lengthy period of time together in one place again, after so many years. In the mid-nineties, we worked together a lot in Berlin on the most varied of projects. It was a form of collaboration that did not continue in the same way after that because as we were busy with other things. There was a need to work on something together again. There are of course only a very limited number of spaces that make it possible for artists to develop or test something without a specific work project. We had that opportunity here. Our working methods have changed in the last years and therefore also the way we move in the city.

What do you mean by saying that a different method of working produces different movements?

(IS) My gateway to Florence was the work of Aby Warburg. For me, that mainly meant walking through his Atlas in the first few weeks and looking for the pictures that he used for it (1). Warburg’s Atlas consists of a series of boards, on which he grouped pictures according to themes. These groups or themes correspond to his search for certain expressions or cultural gestures, which he followed not only in certain epochs, but rather through the epochs. For example, he examined how certain gestures from the ancient world were repeated in the Renaissance. The Atlas could be described as an attempt to read cultural gestures through pictures and to follow them. It was very interesting for me to visit his references or seek out the places where he developed this form of observation, but somehow it also meant treading the path the other way around. In my case, the Atlas became the original and the works of arts were the reference or the document. It was a completely different path to the one I would otherwise have followed. Warburg lived here between 1898 and 1902 and both his Renaissance research and his ideas about the Mnemosyne were strongly influenced by his time in Florence.

Are there any traces in Florence of his visits and research?

(IS) I do not think that he is very important to Renaissance research here. And obviously, his approaches are of no importance in the museums, churches and palaces that he worked on. However, I have met people here for whom Warburg is important and that has been very interesting.

What would it mean if Florence were to keep Warburg’s legacy alive?

(IS) Warburg was particularly interested in the psyche of the Renaissance man. For him, that meant not only studying works of art and artists but also examining the links with their financial circumstances and private living conditions and their clients. This is well expressed in texts such as his famous essay about Sassetti, which indeed does not just describe the painter Ghirlandaio, but asks what Sassetti’s role in the process was. Sassetti was the most important banker of the Medici and Warburg examined his burial chapel. Warburg has a different way of observing history and often works of art are considered as documents of a period rather than as the masterpieces of a person. I did not come across that here in the general description of the history. However, as far back as more than hundred years ago, even Warburg himself often made fun of the superhumans on Easter holidays, as he called them, namely travellers on educational trips with an uncritical enthusiasm for art. Keeping Warburg’s legacy alive, in my opinion, would require a fundamental redefinition, if not indeed the dissolution, of the discipline of art history. An amusing idea in 21st-century Florence.

What did you promise yourself as regards your stay in Florence, Erik?

(EG) For me, the most important reason for coming here was that in the last 20 years I have always said that Florence is too much history, that kills me, I cannot access it. Therefore, I wanted to find out how this massive presence of history could be linked to a contemporary, artistic production. Indeed, this is still a problem today for architects and artists in the city. I wanted to engage concretely with a city in which a few rich families manifested themselves through pictures and who attempted to write their own history in churches, urban spaces and palaces. That tied in with the question of how this self-assertion was continued and interpreted in the last century. Did the destruction around the Ponte Vecchio in the war, for example, lead to a new discussion about dealing with the city?

Well, the reconstruction did not actually take place on a 1:1 basis. The rebuilding on the Arno is homogeneous, but not historicized…

(EG) I would say that the rebuilding is very arguably historicized. The whole discussion surrounding the rebuilding programme and the decision to build the area around the Arno the way it was before led to Giovanni Michelucci (2) resigning from his position as dean of the architectural faculty in 1948 because of his disappointment and frustration over the conservative development of the urban programme. This discussion, in parts, has actually reminded me very much of the discussion in the 1990s about the so-called critical reconstruction of Berlin, which became bogged down in historicized classicism-facades and in the urban development dictum of perimeter block development.

How did you move through the city?

(EG) For me, research means a number of different activities, such as research in photographic and other archives and at the same time moving and drifting through the urban space. Sometimes there are also coincidental encounters, which I follow up and which I accompany with drawings. These drawings connect various manifestations to the dealings with the public area. The movement through the city and the simultaneous drawing of this movement on paper almost automatically develops a real and fictive guided tour through the city. For me, urban space is also an exhibition space at the same time – a space in which coincidental, short-term ready-mades and classical sculptures both feature. There is an interesting example of this in Florence in that the first two equestrian statues erected in the city were of Cosimo I, in Piazza Signoria, and of his son Ferdinando I, on Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. The statue of the father was erected so that the son could place his own during his lifetime. The two equestrians can therefore be read as the beginning of a sculptural manifestation of bourgeois power in public space. This self-portrayal of the bourgeoisie through art involved pictures and monuments in chapels, reference to the church, but also to science and research – such as in Francesco I’s private Studiolo in the Palazzo Vecchio – and temporary strip cartoons and town productions such as for the arrival of Christine of Lorraine (3) for her wedding. For the procession from the Porta al Prato to the Palazzo Vecchio pictures as big as houses and 3D sequences were constructed. A high point of the wedding celebration, which went on for months, was the flooding of the courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti to hold a battle there with miniature galleys. Knowing about these temporary theatrical, sacred two-dimensional and urbanistic three-dimensional productions means that the crossroads in the city are today loaded with additional meaning. Connections are created between the contents, which are not so obvious. This can be of lesser importance such as with the placement of the guildhall (4) between the cathedral and the town hall (5), or staged on a massive scale as with the so-called Vasari Corridor (6) from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti. The theme of leading the way then becomes essential in Michelucci’s work. The strengths of his architecture are the paths that one makes in his buildings, with the buildings or around them. With his motorway church (7) for example, the paths should actually have led up onto the roof to the church cross.

These days that marvelous church stands in an inaccessible no man’s land, you can hardly find the access road…

(EG) … as always I can only recommend approaching this church by bicycle and then you cannot miss the paths! This church was meant as a monument to the workers who died during the building of the motorway. In this city, which is so firmly established, everything is a monument and is lying dormant such as the private house and the studio of Michelucci’s student Leonardo Savioli (8). In any other city, this house would be a showpiece for a town, a house of studies or a museum.

Have you been to see the new district of Novoli, where the hideous Law Courts were built, for which Michelucci refused to participate in the competition?

(EG) Yes. Andrea Aleardi from the Michelucci foundation told me that Michelucci took part at first but he always said that the Law Courts must stay in the city and not be transplanted to the former FIAT site. For the purposes of dispensing justice, the citizens of the city should gather in a building that is part of the city and not on its outskirts. Then he withdrew his participation, and the design by his student Leonardo Ricci (9), which has been built since the 1980s, led to the ending of a 40-year friendship. I think that Michelucci’s radicalness is also shown in his foundation, which he had already founded eight years before his death, giving it a very specific focus. This focus was the development of urban outskirts, the inclusion of socially disadvantaged groups and their contact with urban life, as for example the examination of prison buildings.

In the Michelucci foundation, we actually found only one city map with references to 20th-century architecture in Florence. The last exhibition of Archizoom in Florence was imported from Lausanne; the archive left the city. The Superstudio archive has an area of around eight square metres and is looked after and carried on privately. It is as if the city no longer wants to deal with its own history from the 20th century.

(IS) That is a question that goes far beyond Florence. Which history is preserved and which is not? In Florence, there is an almost complete focus on the examination of the Renaissance. The work of architects in the 1960s and 70s is seemingly regarded as being not very important.

(EG) Today we ask ourselves why the city pays so little attention to its history of the 1970s. But for me, the question also arises in our perception of the Renaissance of which pictures were not created at the time or are no longer there? Which pictures, pieces of evidence and documents were never created and do we not have today?

(IS) What we can see and study in Florence today are the beginnings of a bourgeois culture and its power. What is representation in politics, and what is action and negotiation in politics? How do we absorb and convey history today? We still only marvel at certain forms of representation, but also at the forms of conveyance here in Florence, but that matters of course only to a limited extent. Rather I would be much more interested in how one could make certain negotiation spaces from those days visible today? How do things get out of the archives and what gets shown and how?

(EG) But that would require actively dealing with the archive. Perhaps the question is not just a question of research but rather a question of activating and conveying history – a question of how we represent history.

(1) Aby Warburg produced the so-called Mnemosyne picture atlas in the final years of his life.

(2) Giovanni Michelucci (1891 – 1990) was the most important modern architect in Florence and taught subsequent generations of architects including Leonardo Ricci and Leonardo Savioli.

(3) 1589: marriage to Ferdinando I

(4) today the Orsanmichele Museum

(5) today the Palazzo Vecchio

(6) The corridor, which is around 1.5 km long, was built in 1564 in just five months. It crosses houses and the church of Santa Felicità, winds around the tower of the Mannelli family and crosses the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio, arriving at Palazzo Vecchio through the Uffizi Galley.

(7) The motorway church was built in 1961 – 1964 on the outskirts in the north-west of Florence. Unfortunately, the route up to the roof was never carried out for financial reasons.

(8) The house is still inhabited by his wife Flora Wiechmann Savioli, while the studio – crammed with Leonardo Savioli’s (1917 – 1981) items, drawings, pictures and books – is deteriorating visibly due to considerable water damage.

(9) Leonardo Ricci (1918 – 1994), architect from Florence