Yearlong Festival Brings Italian Culture, Old and New

Muscovites hungering for a taste of the Mediterranean have no need for a travel agent — from Renaissance oil paintings to experimental theater, 2011's Year of Italy festival is bringing Italy to Russia. With several hundred events in 32 cities, the festival showcases both Italy's ancient treasures and its 21st-century novelties.

Through the festival and its companion, the Year of Russia in Italy, officials in the two countries hope to deepen their growing relations. At the year's official opening on Feb. 16, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi praised the countries' "special partnership." Russian President Dmitry Medvedev applauded the festival as a catalyst for further economic and cultural contact.

Top 5 Things to See in Russia-Italy Year of Culture

Check out the precious collection of the most powerful Italians of all time in "Treasures of the Medici Dynasty" at the Kremlin Museum. Runs through Aug. 1.

View world-famous masterpieces by Baroque bad boy Caravaggio at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. December to February 2011.

Brush up on Italian cinema from neorealism to comedy at the Moscow International Film Festival. June 22 to July 2.

Hear one of the world's best choruses perform Verdi's "Requiem" on the Bolshoi's renovated main stage. Nov. 12.

Discover Italy's renegade art scene at the Multimedia Art Museum's exhibition of modern artists after World War II.† Through July 17.

"Existing forms of cooperation between Italy and Russia are under a magnifying glass," said Giuliano Urbani, the festival's head Italian coordinator. The year's main objective is "to link the past — meaning respective cultural heritages and their deep historical relations — with the future," he said.

The two countries share a rich history of cultural ties. In the 15th century, Tsar Ivan III invited Italian architects to Moscow to renovate the Kremlin. Peter the Great commissioned famed Italian architects such as Carlo Rossi to design the new capital of St. Petersburg in the early 1700s. The tsars drew on Italy's prestige to enhance their rule in other spheres as well: For centuries, their families swathed themselves in gowns made of Italian textiles, considered the best in the world.

Italy's status as Russia's cultural inspiration continued into the 19th century, when great Russian artists such as Sylvester Shchedrin and Alexander Ivanov studied landscape painting in the temperate Mediterranean country.

Although contact with Italy lessened during the Soviet period, certain cultural links survived. Russia's socialist realist artist Alexander Deyneka enjoyed great popularity in Italy in the 1930s (an exhibition of Deyneka's work kicked off the Year of Russia in Italy). Following World War II, painter Renato Guttoso influenced Soviet ideological art with his depictions of struggling peasants, and both he and writer Italo Calvino made several public visits to the U.S.S.R.

The tsars drew on Italy's prestige to enhance their rule. Their families swathed themselves in gowns made of Italian textiles, the best in the world.

In Moscow, a host of events trumpet Italy's classical heritage. The Kremlin Museum has the exhibit "Treasures of the Medici Dynasty" on until Aug. 1 displaying vases, jewels and armor collected by Florence's powerful Medici family from the 15th to 18th centuries. The exhibit also includes portraits of the Medici clan, from its founder Cosimo the Elder to its last Baroque figureheads.

Zelfira Tregulova, one of the Kremlin's curators, said the exhibit shows the Medicis' understanding that "art is the best decoration of power," as they collected precious items from antiquity to "associate themselves with the great heroes of Greece and Rome." This maxim was used to great effect by subsequent rulers including the Russian tsars, whose own imperial treasures are on display in Florence.

After displaying Raphael's "Young Woman with Unicorn" this spring, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts next will feature early Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli's "Pallada and the Centaur" (runs through July 14). "It's one of Botticelli's most famous and important symbolic paintings," said Pushkin Museum deputy director Zinada Bonami, featuring a mysterious contrast of chastity and eroticism that has fueled a centuries-long debate among art historians. From June 1 to 30 the museum will also display Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini's "Bust of Medusa."

Other classical art offerings include several paintings by early Renaissance master Antonello da Messina, which will be on show at the State Tretyakov Gallery from Sept. 9 to Nov. 30. A master portraitist, Messina was one of the first to introduce Flemish oil-painting techniques in Italy.

Many other shows offer a break from classical tradition. The Multimedia Art Museum is showcasing Italian modern art from the second half of the 20th century in "Arte Povera in Moscow: Works from the Castello di Rivolli Collection," on show through July 17. The exhibit includes works by groundbreaking artists Mario Mertz and Luciano Fabro. The radical "Arte Povera" movement they founded in the late 1960s rejected institutional authority and championed artists' use of everyday objects.

In July and August, the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture will feature sculptures by young Italian artist Fabio Viale, who offers a more playful critique of his country's weighty culture heritage. According to curator Anastasia Shavlokhova, Viale unifies "a traditional technical approach … with a modern look at art," transforming classical methods and references through a modern dose of "deception." An impeccably formed Mona Lisa, on closer inspection, is pockmarked with dents and missing a nose.

Modern offerings also abound onstage. From June 15 to 19, the International Chekhov Theater Festival will stage an experimental work by young Italian director Emma Dante, "The Glasses Trilogy." The play features three stories on the themes of poverty, age and illness. The last story, about an old woman reliving her relationship with her recently deceased husband, is told entirely through movement. Dante's minimalist depiction communicates "her own social values" in a way that is "not at all classic," said project coordinator Tatyana Trostnikova.

The Teresa Durovaya Theater's children's theater festival "Gavroche" will offer more child-friendly fare in the fall. Participating companies include the La Baracca — Ragazzi theater, whose "On-Off" on Sept. 18 uses lights and rhythm to present the history of the world through a riot of color.

From June 22 to July 2, the International Moscow Film Festival will feature a retrospective of classic Italian films, titled "A Voyage to Italy," along with several premieres of new films.

Italian culture is also making its way into public space: Beginning in June, Italian poetry will festoon the interiors of a selection of metro trains. "The idea was to give a survey of Italian poetry from its beginning to today," said Adriano Dell'Asta, director of the Italian Institute of Culture, which is organizing the project. Featured poets include beloved "Divine Comedy" creator Dante Alighieri, romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi and modernist Giuseppe Ungaretti.

While the poems will be translated into Russian, Dell'Asta said Italian language is "very popular and attracting more and more interest."

In this respect, Russian has some catching up to do: Russian committee head Mikhail Shydkoi told Izvestia that Russian "isn't even studied [in Italy] as a second, third, or fourth [language]."

Beginning in June, Italian poetry will festoon the interiors of a selection of metro trains. Featured poets include Dante, Leopardi and Ungaretti.

The festival will wind down in grand fashion in November, when the world-renowned Teatro alla Scala performs Verdi's "Requiem" on the newly renovated main stage at the Bolshoi Theater on Nov. 12. La Scala Ballet's performance of "Excelsior,"† Dec. 15-17, and "The Other Casanova," Dec. 20-22, will officially bring the year to a close at the end of December.

If the festival's organizers hopes are realized, the year's spirit of cooperation will live on after its participants return home. According to Urbani, Russians and Italians can look forward to "an intensification of relations not for a one-year period, but from now onwards."†† †

Russia - Italy 2011
Russia - Italy 2011
This color publication is devoted to the Year of Italy in Russia, which will see a host of cultural exchanges in 2011, as well as to Italian businesses working in Russia.
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