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Baroque Meets Modern: Contemporary American Art in Rome

Visitors to the Eternal City have always been immersed in an assemblage of centuries of art history, but few would ever have seen the ancient, classical and Baroque line up quite like this before: the largest public display of contemporary American art ever to grace the Eternal City. For the first time in Rome since 1572, and in celebration of the 500th anniversary of both St Peter’s and the US, this pastichio of Rome and America will be on view to the public. It is a curatorial story that blends utmost tradition with ultimate modernism. Ever since the 16th-century when cardinals began amassing paintings, the Baroque palaces of Rome were filled with magnificent canvases by Italian masters of the Catholic faith. Today, American artists join an artistic lineage that dates back to those cardinals. And despite the absence of Italian language skills and a native-born resident population of foreign culture, the Roman citizens paint with great skill and maintain an aesthetic that respects the art and the Baroque city in which they live. It is a city that has swept away outer lines of art onto its marble superstructure. And the Baroque, like the US, is a principle of connection, a pulsating force that embeds art into its very identity and physical fabric.

The Intersection of Baroque and Contemporary Art

Rome in baroque is all about expression, scale and movement, expression and scale, drama in form and drama of expression. Picturesque. Dark. Expressionist. Swirly. At first glance, it couldn’t be a worse setting to show the mostly minimalist, often abstract, pieces of contemporary American art included in the show. Just the right amount of incongruent. Looking closer, the sheer contrast allows you to appreciate more the common features of these works, such as an exquisite sense of line, use of light and shadow, resonances of grand scale, exploration of human emotion and, last but not least, occasional experimentation with technique.

It can also be a conceptual intersection: for example, baroque images served to contextualise religion and politics at the time, while contemporary American art typically concerns itself with social, cultural and existential matters. Examining a Caravaggio alongside an Alexis Rockman illustrates that certain themes and ideas in art remain consistent: it allows us to appreciate art’s enduring role as a vessel of human expression and as a mirror on humanity.

Secondly, installing contemporary art in Baroque settings changes our interpretation of both displays. Modern works that directly challenge traditional canons of aesthetics might give visitors a deeper appreciation for the agility and sophistication of Baroque art. The historical grandeur of a Baroque environment, on the other hand, could give contemporary works additional shades of meaning and emotional resonance. Regardless of the specific direction of an artwork’s influence, its embodiment of cultural cosmopolitanism enriches the experience of both contemporary and Old Master art for the viewer. For many, it might make art galleries no longer dreadful, but delightful.

Key Exhibits and Artists

Among the works on view are pieces from some of the most important figures in contemporary American art, selected to respond at times bawdily, at times reverently, to the Baroque backdrop. There is a selection from Jeff Koons – a maker of kitsch sculptures that are mirrored to infinity in steel, seemingly offering an endlessly manipulable playground to the viewer; and there is a selection from the American artist Kara Walker on the topic of race relations. Every work has been chosen for its potential dialogue with the historic space.

The contrast is deepened by the reflection of museum lighting in the shimmering surface of Jeff Koons’ sculptures, which feature glossy toy animals and balloon-dogs. These pieces comment in their own subterranean way on consumerism and popular culture, subjects of Koons’s recent paintings, which themselves have been shown in a pair of suspended rooms hung with a golden striped silk fabric. The old masters are profoundly engaged in commentary on their own contemporary world The juxtaposition of new and old is compelling, drawing viewer to consider the evolution of norms in society and the history of painting.

The installations here, most notably those of Kara Walker, which display silhouettes of scenes from slavery and contemporary politics with a certain bite, let the narrative hand outstay the eye, tingeing the show with something like Baroque’s own idea of didacticism – a history that makes you think, rather than revel, crucially deepening the intellectual and emotional nuance of a show whose curatorial vision braved the highfalutin spectacle of Baroque. Ministers preaching, disasters sinking and soldiers shooting at each other – that’s less than half of the story.

The Role of Location: Rome’s Baroque Architecture

The Palazzo Barberini or the Church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale – the majestic Baroque interiors and super-structures where works are on view – are part of the spectacle, and part of the message. Baroque architecture cultivates excess, palatial extravagance and hurricular swirl. Its epic geometric forms epitomise and complement the manifest genre artificio of contemporary art.

Such a historic framework creates a new context for the modern work: a contemporary sculpture, for example, placed in the great hall of a Baroque palace makes the two spaces speak to one another for the time they co-exist, creating a dialogue that reveals their differences as well as their similarities, namely in the ambition and the scale of the undertaking, spanning centuries.

In addition, the location of the exhibition in Rome is carefully considered. Placing the work of contemporary Americans in a city that’s home to classical and Baroque masterpieces questions old-fashioned hierarchies of art history. It suggests that contemporary art isn’t merely another chapter in the history of art, but is itself an important, independent commentary on culture and issues of the day – an intelligent and respectful response to them. Indeed, through the inspired curating of the exhibition, these works invite the viewer to look at the historical heritage of the city through a contemporary lens, enhancing their enjoyment of it in the past and the present.

Visitor Experience and Engagement

Deliberately juxtaposing contemporary American art with the Baroque architecture of Rome creates an immersive dialogue between the two eras, encouraging audiences not only to look, think and react emotionally in parallel, but to examine the art in greater depth and contrast dramatic grandeur with a sense of playful irreverence. Installations and multimedia exhibits incorporate visitor interaction to engage a wider, generally changing audience.

Educational programmes and campus tours embed the contemporary works in their Baroque context, offering introductions to the themes explored by contemporary and historical artists; definitions of what the Baroque was and meant; and curatorial ideas about siting and framing historical and contemporary works. These programmes are aimed at deepening the viewer’s aesthetic and epistemic engagement and experience of the artworks.

The show also involves some technological innovation: visitors can open up their phones to augmented-reality (AR) apps that let them see additional layers of information and artistic interpretation. These kinds of digital tools are very much of the moment, an attempt to make a contemporary sensibility and sensibility work in an art-historical setting: brought together, the exhibition is a delightful mix of the old and the new.

Cultural and Artistic Impact

The installation of modern American painting and sculpture in Rome, amid its Baroque surroundings, makes a statement about artistic universality, about the importance of movement and dialogue across cultures, testifying convincingly to the ability of art to transcend both space and time and engage us in a global dialogue.

Finally, at the cultural level, the visual impression of an exhilarating and ever-changing city is a salute to Rome’s presence in the world as a major centre of cultural innovation that welcomes and valorises the past, while making itself open to the future. It promotes a dialogue between traditions, and not only inspires foreigners but makes the inhabitants of the eternal city – or at least some of them – feel part of a cosmopolitan community.

It is also an artistic challenge to the old conventions and an invitation to fresh thinking. Select immersive mid-century and contemporary works in a Baroque setting forces curators and artists to rethink thoroughly traditional – and, therefore, limiting – considerations regarding exhibition design. The curatorial work of Montecchi represents an exciting way of stimulating and confirming that art is itself a language that always goes through among body languages, speaking also ‘our’ present, and reinventing itself over and over again in new ways.

Future Prospects and Legacy

More importantly, the success of this exhibit will set the stage for future collaborations and projects that also bring artists from different traditions and time periods into dialogue. It demonstrates that this model can be carried forward, and that contemporary art can be presented in historical contexts in ways that deviate from longstanding musological practice to open up new possibilities for curatorial innovation. For example, one can imagine future exhibits that continue to connect artists of disparate origins and periods into a dialogue that creates ­­­­an innovative and intriguing anthology of images and ideas.

The legacy of this exhibit goes on, not just to the thousands of people who read about it or who attended the 24th Street Celebration, but also to the ongoing conversations regarding the role of contemporary art in sacred spaces – and what this signals to artists, curators and art historians about the future roles of their respective specialities. The lessons that were culled from this exhibit can, ideally, echo through future projects and contribute to a greater diversity of interdisciplinary voices in the art world. Through initiatives such as this, we might eventually come to a place where the dialogues attempting to bridge the ancient and the modern are complementary, rather than in competition.

Furthermore, the cultural exchange and artistic innovation that the show is promoting is a crucial lesson for all global art practices. Art can and should spur cross-cultural dialogue and solidarity at a time when we desperately need to be more porous and engaged through multiple angles. Contemporary US art making, now made part of Rome’s historic legacy, sends an open message from Trump’s era to one of the cradles of the western world, and perhaps a change.


Finally, this exchange of the new and the old between American and Baroque art seems to breathe new life into the city’s artistic legacy and narrative. This may be an attempt at changing the very game of artistic curation, by forcing museum-goers to respond differently to the works in the exposition, as well as encouraging a dialogue between the past and the present. The curators of this exhibition, then, seem to welcome new and innovative forays in the art world. And in this way contemporary American art is finally making a mark on Rome – by showing that artistic styles and people can cross borders, without the art itself or us losing anything, but rather gaining more.

Robert Spencer
Robert Spencer

Robert Spencer is a proficient author with a rich expertise in Art & Design, nature, people, and trends category blog writing. With a career spanning over eight years, he has cultivated a unique voice that resonates with a diverse audience. His keen eye for detail and profound understanding of contemporary trends make his writings insightful and engaging. Robert's work often explores the intricate relationships between human experiences and the natural world, bringing a fresh perspective to his readers. A graduate of Fine Arts, he combines academic knowledge with practical insights gained from years of observing and interacting with the subjects he writes about. His articles are known for their eloquent style and informative content, making complex topics accessible and enjoyable. Beyond writing, Robert is also an avid traveler, drawing inspiration from different cultures and landscapes. This extensive experience enriches his blog posts, providing readers with a well-rounded and compelling narrative.

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