One of the highlights of my trip to Rome (doing research for the up coming study groups –more info) has, probably, been my visit to Centrale Montemartini which is the first public electricity plant in the city and, currently, showcases works of classical art from the Palazzo dei Conservatori, the Museo Nuovo and the Braccio Nuovo. Originally created as a temporary exhibition titled ‘The Machines and the gods’, which put side by side two apparently diametrically opposed worlds, those of classical art and, industrial archeology; when part of the collection was returned to the Campidoglio in 2005, on the conclusion of the restructuring works, it was deided to turn the building into a permanent collection for a collection of the Musei Capitolini’s most recent acquisitions. These are mainly the ones linked to the most recent excavations nearby the Theatre of Marcellus (Temple of Apollo Sosianus), the Largo Corrado Ricci (Villa Rivaldi), Largo Argentina (Theatre of Pompey where Ceasar was actually killed), Caelian Hill (Temple of Divine Augustus) and the Roman Horti (gardens) such as the Horti Lamiani at the Via Ariosto, the Horti Liciniani at the Via Labicana, etc. The classical pieces are, of course, great but the show is stolen by the huge machines with their multisensorial presence of weight, hight and even, smell.


Using a power plant to showcase art is not new. We don’t have to go far to find another another one. In London, however, Tate Modern decided to hide its industrial past while at Centrale Montemartini, that past competes side by side with Roman Imperial times for the viewer’s attention. The Italian obsession with industrial archeology can also be appreciated, from a completely different point of view at the Renzo Piano’s Lingotto Factory Conversion in Torino which had been originally designed in 1910 by Giacomo Mattè Trucco and according to legendary Courtauldian architecture historian Rayner Banham was ‘the most futuristic building ever buit’ with his car track on its roofstop.


Although Trucco/Piano’s Lingotto Factory is a private building, Centrale Montemartini seems to be a place only for Romans to visit. In fact, it was suggested to me by a Roman connoisseur as ‘a hidden jewel’. But why are the Italian elevating the (let’s be honest) ugly aspects of their industrial past into the category of art. I think there is a conflation of two things here. On one hand, what Ulrick Beck calls ‘second modernity’ or the time when modernity reflects on its own history. Piano’s Lingotto Factory in Torino is an act of aesthetic awareness because it aims at modernizing the old industrial infrastructure. This transforms the old modern infrastructure into a stage where a different kind of luxury is showcased. I am referring to the luxury that pays homage to the money that built those collections.


In Centrale Montemartini, the conflation of ancient classical fragments and Fritz Lang-like diesel machines take the whole show very close to the fetishisation of archeology and that is might have to do with the need that the cultural system (as in public funded museums) need to perpetuate themselves creating new forms of creating values. I loved it though. J A T