Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In which we sneak into Siena for a covert museum meeting

Thursday, October 17, 2019
Panzano, Italy

Well, this has been some day! James arranged for us to catch a ride on a produce truck into Siena, and he took the bus from Firenze along with one of his young colleagues. As he explained later, the museum situation in Firenze had become so volatile that it was just as well that most of the original meeting participants could not attend.

The trip itself was a revelation. I felt like I was transported into some WWII movie. There actually were whole families traipsing out of the city on foot, on bicycle, on scooters, trekking down the 1A. My perch on top of a crate of Black Tuscan Kale felt luxurious by comparison. (Do I have to confess that I nicked a pear? Mea Culpa. It was delicious.)

Siena feels like a medieval city again, partially emptied this time by riot in addition to plague (several areas of the old town have been quarantined for ReDS. The city lost about a quarter of its population to the Black Death in 1348 CE--what a return to the past!)

We met up with James and Peter at the Orto Botanico dell'Università di Siena, a beautiful botanic garden in the middle of the city. Walking through the university campus, signs of unrest were everywhere. Students and professors were holding classes in the street, in defiance of the university closure. Periodically the police would come and shoo them off in a perfunctory manner, but they always reassembled. I had the feeling the officers were actually rather sympathetic.

From the botanic garden we walked to the museum of the Elephant Contrada, a beautiful structure built over two Etruscan tombs and an ancient grain cistern, all of which can be accessed from the lowest floor. The museum contains the banners won by the Elephants over the years in the annual Palio, or horse race. The Contradas were originally neighborhoods, but it seems to me that they function as clans, and very close-knit clans at that. We had the use of the museum because Peter had married into an Elephant family, making him "one of their own." (As an outsider, he actually had to sign a pre-nup agreeing that any children born to his wife would be raised as Elephants!)

James described the political situation in Firenze, which is rather grim. A number of the museums, notably the Palazzo Strozzi, have transitioned to semi-private status over the past decade. Contrary to the old Italian model, they are not governmental museums but are run by public/private boards. But, unlike the US, their funding is not broad based. The entities that appoint representatives to the boards (the state, city government, and major companies) provide the money and exhert a lot of control. And the politics of Firenze are such that everyone owes everyone favors. The president of the board of the Palazzo (who sits on every other major museum board as well) is the brother of the Mayor of Firenze. The Mayor is rabidly anti-immigration, and has been trying to whip up popular sentiment against granting residency to non-Italians, much less providing temporary housing for refugees and displaced persons. Through his brother, the board chair, he is pressuring museums in the city to mount exhibits and programs supporting this agenda. And he has solicited the support of the representatives of the major companies represented on most of the museums' boards.

Needless to say, the museum staff are not inclined to go along with this. But, other than mass resignation, what is their alternative? James wants my help in bringing the issue to international attention. If we can make it clear, as a very indirect, polite threat, the PR damage that would be done if this became public, the Mayor might well back off. We had a very productive hour making lists of who to recruit to this cause. The ICOM directorate, of course. They are great on righteous indignation. The American Association of Museums and their counterpart in the UK. I can also get the ear of Ludmilla Esteban, the noted international patroness of the arts. She is a passionate advocate of refugee rights, and when she speaks, the press listens. This could actually be fun. For me, at least, at a safe remove, assuming I find a way home. Poor James has to suffer the politics! But he seems more than capable of doing so. Indeed he seems to have thrived on the Italian social and political scene since his arrival over a decade ago.

Now, back at the Villa, we are nursing Gilles with increasing concern. ReDS or not, he is not well, and is having trouble breathing. I made another trip to Simonetta's house to use the short wave radio, attempting to get a message to the US Embassy. I think I got through...but what can they do to help?

No comments: