The Permanent Collection
Objects of Encounter
For the first time since the post-war period visitors can admire a selection of this valuable heritage in the rooms on the first floor of the Museum of Cultures, in an organic and carefully considered exhibition, presenting a fully restored collection of material and the results of new, in-depth research that has revealed previously unknown aspects of numerous masterpieces, some of which are being displayed for the first time.
The many core groups that make up the collection of MUDEC have come into the possession of the City of Milan at different historical moments and in different ways: The display tells the story of the constitution of this civic heritage, not only reconstructing the chronology of its formation, but also clarifying
how and why this patrimony – so vast and apparently inhomogeneous in terms of content and provenance – came to Milan, evealing the multiple approaches that have conditioned the research and curiosity of collectors with respect to far-off worlds.
The exhibition is a journey across time and space through encounter/conflict with the ‘other’, starting with the seventeenth century and continuing up to the present day, presenting in the four rooms on the first floor of MUDEC more than 200 works of art, objects and documents selected not only for their extraordinary cultural and aesthetic value, but also as evidence of our society’s ever-changing way of viewing unknown cultures: the sense of wonder inspired by the exotic (Section 1), the drive to evangelise and towards scientific discovery
(Section 2), the desire for conquest (Section 3), and pressing trade motivations (Sections 4 and 5) have compelled people to travel and collect the most diverse range of artefacts, documenting the spirit of the age.
After World War II, which was a dark period for the collection, with much of it being destroyed (Section 6), the City Museums of the Castello Sforzesco launched a targeted acquisitions programme that has continued to the present day and expanded with the decision to found the new museum in 1999. During the post-war period, a different approach to ethnographic collecting gained ground in Milan, the fruit of a more mature and complex vision of the material and production of the ‘other’. This marked the rebirth of the city collections (Section 7), which are today housed in the Museum of Cultures.
The exhibition begins with broad selection from the collection of Canon Manfredo Settala (1600–1680), an eclectic and voracious Milanese collector who, over the course of the seventeenth century, built a rich collection of naturalia (curiosities and finds from the animal, vegetable and mineral worlds), artificialia (naturalia monstrously or artistically transformed by humans) and mirabilia and exotica (naturalia and artificialia that elicit wonder and astonishment and are expressive of far-off and unknown cultures): all pieces that came from places that were almost inaccessible at the time: the Americas, the Near East, sub-Saharan Africa, India and China, documenting the fascination felt for unknown and far-off civilisations.
The Settala Collection, one of the earliest examples of the collecting of non-European artefacts, largely comprises precious works on loan from the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana and is an emblematic case of the Wunderkammer, of ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, that spread throughout Europe starting in the sixteenth century, for the preservation and display of extraordinary objects from the world of nature or created by human hands in different countries and cultures, for many representing the first ‘draft’, in conceptual and aesthetic terms, of the modern museum.
The second section presents the early nucleus of the original palaeontology and ethnography collection founded in 1858 by the City Museum of Natural History, gathering together objects collected by explorers and missionaries, including the Missionary Fathers of San Calocero.
Among the explorers, we find the names of a few of the history-making figures in Italian science: travellers like Gaetano Osculati and Paolo Mantegazza, the consul of the Kingdom of Italy, Cristoforo Robecchi and the political exile Antonio Raimondi, an expert on Peru and one of the first to study it in-depth.
In the same room, the third section is dedicated to the colonial period. A new breed of travellers, like Giuseppe Vigoni (1846–1914), senator of the Kingdom of Italy and mayor of Milan, headed towards far-off lands, no longer with scientific or religious aims, but with the goal of identifying exploitable resources in view of actual conquest.
This section displays what remains of his collection, which was briefly on view in the 1930s in a room at the Castello Sforzesco along with other ‘colonial trophies’, such as the set-like panoply, a trophy made up of animal horns and African weaponry of various provenance, which has been reconstructed in the final case in the room.
Section 4 is dedicated to one of the most interesting and curious moments in collecting in Lombardy. In the middle of the nineteenth century, driven by an epidemic that struck the silkworm, a few textile merchants went to various areas of eastern Asia in search of silkworms for the production of the precious thread. Fascinated by eastern craftsmanship, technical expertise and fine materials,
longside the insects these pioneers also brought back to Europe, including Milan, important collections of Chinese and Japanese art objects, which are displayed here: silks, textiles, kimonos, theatrical masks, calligraphy boxes, sceptres, painted porcelain and fined chased bronzes.
Increasing intellectual interest in and curiosity about the east was also manifest in the Great Expos, which were organised with increasing frequency during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, reaching their apex, in Italy, at the International Exposition in Milan in 1906: the Expositions were an effective means of circulating non-European cultures and art in the west and an excellent vehicle for fine eastern artistic production,
to the point of creating a true fashion for eastern products. At the same time, objects began to be produced in Japan and China specifically for the Expositions and the western market, many examples of which are preserved in the MUDEC collections.
This room opens with a video-narrative of the bombardments that struck Milan in 1943, destroying part of the civic collections that had been gathered in the early twentieth century in the Castello Sforzesco, restored by Luca Beltrami to serve as the new seat for all of the City Museums. Unfortunately, a considerable part of the African and Pacific collections was destroyed or damaged, while the Native American and Asian collections were spared,
having been brought along with materials considered ‘prized’ to the storage facilities in Sondalo, near Sondrio, before the conflict ignited.
This section is completed by a selection of surviving works still bearing traces of damage from the war, including a precious Sino-Tibetan bronze statue of Yamantaka that was restored for this occasion.
The final section of the exhibition is dedicated to private collecting during the post-war period, influenced by the interest of the Avant-Gardes in non-European art.
The selection includes a work from the Museo del Novecento, Pablo Picasso’s Femme nue, which is one of the artist’s studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), produced after visiting the ethnographic collections of the Trocadero in Paris, a visit that made a permanent impression on the artist, leading him to develop a new expressive mode indebted to African art, distinguished by simplifying and taking forms to the extreme.
The collections of African art that had been already acquired (Bassani) or previously given on loan (Passarè) have been joined and displayed, in dialogue with Picasso, with the important collection of African art belonging to the Monti family.
In keeping with the same criteria, an abstract work by the historical exponent of the Bauhaus, Anni Albers, on loan from the Albers Foundation, is also on display, presented in comparison with pre-Colombian textiles from the Balzarotti Collection.