James Bradburne, the director of Palazzo Strozzi, tells Lucinda Bredin why when working in Florence, you need a Machiavellian touch
This is a city of oppositions," says James Bradburne, the Director General of the Strozzi Foundation, who is giving a vivid description of the 'challenges' of working in a city in which everyone is probably descended from Machiavelli. He leans forward to make his point more forcibly. "Politics in Florence is not about doing something, but stopping other people doing things. No one wants to do anything in a particularly different way... it's that you don't want them to do it." He pauses somewhat theatrically. "It's pure Florentine."
We are sitting at a table under the arched colonnade of Palazzo Strozzi, one of the great urban palaces of Florence, which is the Foundation's HQ. The building's history itself illustrates the cut-throat nature of Florentine politics. It was built for Filippo Strozzi, whose family were a rival faction to the Medici. No sooner was it completed, in 1538, than Cosimo de' Medici confiscated it, only returning it to the family 30 years later. It now houses Florence's largest temporary exhibition venue, which at the moment is showing The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence 1400-1460, a quite staggering show that has brought in loans from, among others, Berlin (Donatello's Pazzi Madonna), the Louvre (Gentile da Fabriano's Presentation of Jesus in the Temple) and the V&A (the Chellini bust). The exhibition travels to the Louvre in September.
Bradburne, a flamboyantly dressed Canadian – he commissions a special waistcoat to mark each exhibition – has been the Director since 2006 (he lives with his wife in an apartment behind the Bargello museum), but he talks with the enthusiasm of a new arrival. I mention that seeing the Donatello Madonna from Berlin beside Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child from the Palazzo Medici in Florence was an extraordinary experience. Bradburne explodes like a fizzing can of cola. "Uh! Oh! UNBELIEVABLE! I mean, why do we do exhibitions?" I don't have to wait long for the answer – Bradburne is in full stream. "You do them to provide those moments that are otherwise impossible... that can only be done by creating juxtapositions of actual works. We also only do shows that create new scholarship, otherwise it's not worth risking the pieces. I mean think of the risks involved of taking monumental sculptures through the windows of a 15th century palace. Of course, we minimise the risks, but the insurance value is still over ¤800 million." Bradburne then takes it up a notch: for him, exhibitions have to be transformative. "If a visitor leaves this show, unchanged, it's a failure in every sense. There's no reason to come to work in the morning if people merely shuffle listlessly in front of the stuff."
Interestingly, the Strozzi also wants to transform the works that it shows. So the foundation always puts the restoration of particular works into the budget. "We want to send works back in a better condition than they came," is how Bradburne puts it. In this case, the sum allocated was ¤150,000. One of the pieces singled out for special attention for this exhibition was Donatello's free-standing figure of St Louis of Toulouse (the patron saint of the Florentine Guelph party), that once stood in a niche on the façade of the church, Orsanmichele. After the river Arno burst its banks in 1966, and Florence was flooded up to 22 feet for two days, the gilded statue took a particularly severe battering. At some point in the preceding centuries, it had been moved to the refectory of Santa Croce, which was in one of the areas worst hit. Now, the show has paid for it to be regilded to its original splendour.
It's then that Bradburne suddenly announces that the point of the Strozzi Foundation isn't to mount exhibitions at all. But, I point out, you've just spent half an hour telling me why you do. But apparently I've got it all wrong. As he says, "Let's be really clear. This foundation is here to give people another reason to come back to Florence and to see Florence with new eyes." The fact remains that the enticement offered by the Foundation is a series of exhibitions that in some way relate to Florence. In the past, there has been a definitive exhibition of Bronzino's work, a show featuring Picasso, and one about Italy in the 1930s. According to Bradburne, "That showed that although Fascism was the dominant ideology, not all art was Fascist. You had Severini painting giraffes' heads on native male torsos. That I dare you to call Fascist art. So you have a complexity that lets you see Florence totally differently. Our mission is all about the city. We are here to make it such a cool place to be that you can come back two, three, four times."
Florence was not always such a cool place. For many decades, it was the despair of Italy – and of people who cared about art. The flood of 1966, and the damage that it caused to works of art, was one factor. The reaction of the city fathers was another. Roger Graef's brilliant – and horrifying – 1968 documentary Why Save Florence? shows a city mired in more than mud: it was ossified in bureaucracy.
One of the most damaging notions was that the city should encourage as many tourists as possible to visit. If it meant clogging the streets with coaches and souvenir shops selling miniature plaster casts of Michelangelo's David, it was worth the price. Before long, the very historical artefacts that the visitors had come to see began to crumble away, damaged by a cocktail of exhaust fumes. It took until 1988 to ban all traffic from the historic centre, and many of the statues were then moved into climate-controlled museums, but one only has to look at the figures on the panels from the Duomo's Campanile, now in the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, to see that many have been reduced to hollow-eyed husks.
The creation of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation in 2006 also arose out of a crisis. The city's largest public exhibition space was on the verge of bankruptcy. As Bradburne explains, "For a magical moment in the life in the city, there was near consensus between people who are normally in opposition. They all agreed that something should be done, so they created Italy's first autonomous public-private foundation, in which both sectors run it – there are three board members from each."
Bradburne also claims that the foundation's birth marked the shift of emphasis in the city towards attracting sustainable, quality tourism instead of a policy of concentrating on the easy pickings of cheap coach tours – visitors who often cost more to clean up after than they bring in revenue. In short, Florence didn't want to become Venice. As he says, "The foundation was born with the explicit mission of turning its back on the first-time tourists. They have to see the Uffizi; we are here to answer the explicit question of why come back to Florence."
Funding provides 40 per cent of the Strozzi's income, he says, while the remaining 60 per cent comes from sponsors and revenue. "It means we have to listen to our public carefully. And because funding from the public sector is involved, we have to think about the long-term cultural heritage of the city and the country. The involvement of the private sectors means we have the best tools to manage well. It's the absolutely best practice management system for knowing where every penny goes. And," he adds in what passes for a whisper, "completely un-Italian."
Bradburne, a museum curator for 30 years – his other eclectic posts include Director General of the Decorative Art Museum in Frankfurt, Head of Research and Education for the Nemo Science Museum in Amsterdam, and working for Lego – was chosen as director from stiff international competition. However, he cheerfully admits that while some think his appointment is a "miracle", others – he says in a self deprecating way – think it's a "disaster". So far, there have been 13 exhibitions, and they have certainly attracted critical attention. He claims that even more important than the shows is the Palazzo Strozzi's 'soft value' to the city. "Every year since we were founded on a budget of ¤8 million, we have created a direct and indirect impact on Florence and the surrounding territory of more than ¤16 million. In 2011, it peaked at ¤34 million; last year it was ¤28 million. That is revenue from people who came to Florence because of the Palazzo Strozzi. If they go to the Uffizi as well, we don't count them."
The Springtime of the Renaissance has put Palazzo Strozzi even more firmly on the world's cultural map, but Bradburne knows enough about Italy to realise healthy figures and glowing reports are sometimes taken for granted. "Some people seem happy with what I do, some think they could do better. But hey, this is Florence. As Sir John Hawkwood [the 14th century English mercenary] said, Florence is a city where 'you're never sure in your saddle'."
Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.
The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence 1400-1460 is at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until 18 August.