On my first visit to the MADRE Museum of Contemporary Art back in 2006 I went without any expectations. Besides not being a huge fan of installation art, which forms a large part of MADRE’s collections, I just couldn’t conceive of a contemporary art museum in the heart of Naples historic district. Modern art, ancient city, the two seemed incongruent. I couldn’t have been more surprised. The museum’s collections are definitely impressive. Works by major international contemporary artists such as Jannis Kounellis, Francesco Clemente, Mimmo Paladino, Anish Kapoor, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andy Warhol form the crux of its permanent and historical collections. Many visits later and Anish Kapoor’s Dark Brother still has me staring into infinity wondering how something that looks so simple could create such a complex affect. On top of that, the museum’s temporary exhibits, which launched with the Jannis Kounellis retrospective in 2005 and most recently featured the work of photographer Johnnie Shand Kydd are always thought provoking.
But there is something else that keeps me coming back to MADRE. When I first headed out in search of the museum I had a picture in my mind of the Tate Modern or MoMA. Knowing however that MADRE was in the center of the historic district, tucked away on a side street between the Archaeology Museum and the Naples Cathedral, I had no idea what to expect. So as I wandered down the narrow Via Settembrini, I wasn’t surprised when I stumbled across what looked to be a recently renovated building and realized that it was home to the museum. Rather than a contemporary work of architecture sticking out like a sore thumb, the building clearly respected its surroundings (even if it was in much better shape than most of the buildings around it). Stepping inside it opened up to reveal a meticulous renovation that showed great respect for the building’s architectural integrity. At the same time I found the wide open, bright and airy spaces created by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza in the 19th century Palazzo DonnaRegina perfectly suited for displaying contemporary works of art. The result was fascinating. As I wandered around the museum immersed in these modern works of art I was also admiring the 19th century architecture of the building. And then I noticed the spectacular views of the city peeking in from the building’s many windows and I was reminded of where the museum was set. The ancient, the old and the modern woven together into one harmonious tapestry, that to me is the true art and the true genius of MADRE.
So whether or not you’re a fan of contemporary art, MADRE is definitely a museum not to be missed and I find myself there several times a year. Since I know precious little about contemporary art however, I’ll leave that to the experts. MADRE has an excellent website that is in both Italian and English that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the museum, the palazzo and its renovations, the collections and the exhibits, and then some. Just a word of warning though, as contemporary arts are bound to do – they push the envelope, and you may find some exhibits unsuitable for children. To be honest, I have found some unsuitable for myself. Luckily however, there are signs posted both in Italian and in English that will warn you of this.
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