Milan: Museo Archeologico predicts new Museo Etrusco

Marta Galli  -  January 8, 2019

A show at Milan’s old fashioned Museo Archeologico prepares the ground for the upcoming brand new Museo Etrusco, founded by the Fondazione Luigi Rovati.


‘The architect Mr. Ponzoni keeps on building houses in Milan, but at the same time (we all have our hobby-horses) he’s one of the few Etruscologists in this scarcely Etrurian city.’ So was writing Carlo Emilio Gadda in one of his work papers, yet, the ‘scarcely Etrurian city’ is actually getting ready to become a point of reference for Italian and international etruscology.

The awaited Museo Etrusco which will be housed in one of the palaces on Corso Venezia, currently under restoration by Mario Cucinella Architects, is going to be a pole of excellence dedicated to the conservation, study and valorisation of the Etruscan culture. The museum thus aims at attracting specialists from all over the world and at creating synergies between the various cultural offers on the territory. The institution, whose mission is to become a place of public interest, has a private origin and is born out of the desire of the Fondazione Luigi Rovati – named after the doctor, researcher and pharmaceutical entrepreneur Luigi Rovati – forefather of a family of cultured and curious collectors. The Vice-president of the Foundation Giovanna Forlanelli Rovati revealed that the occasion that brought to the conception of a museum was the acquisition, four years ago, of the collection Cottier-Angeli in Geneve, which has joined the Cambi and Giorgio Taccini’s ones.

Here is the starter. In order to tickle the palate of an audience who is short in ‘etruscherie’, the above mentioned Foundation in collaboration with Soprintendenza Archeologica has promoted an exhibition titled Il viaggio della chimera. Gli Etruschi a Milano tra archeologia e collezionismo. The show is hosted in the dusty, almost forgotten Civico Museo Archeologico of Milan which, to its own benefit, is located adjacent to the beautiful Church of San Maurizio, right in the city centre.

The exhibition gathers together over two hundred finds, from many Italian archaeological museums – amongst others, the Biblioteca Trivulziana, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Florence, the Musei Vaticani as well as presenting a preview of the very same collection of the Fondazione Luigi Rovati itself. The selection includes ‘Bucchero’ furnishings, the typical Etruscan black impasto, and various canopic jars, expression of a form of funerary art used to preserve the ashes of a dead person: generally clay urns with the lid shaped like a human head, supposedly that of the deceased in an idealised version of their youthful aspect.

However, what really strikes the viewer, as you can clearly read into the exhibition incipit – besides the more or less of common use or more or less artistic manufactures – is indeed how the ‘scarcely Etrurian city’ has actually been revived – between the late 19th century and beginning of 20th century – by a lively group of collectors, particularly interested in antiques and archaeology. The personal passions of some pivotal characters like Pelagio Palagi, Amilcare Ancona, Emilio Seletti – who acquired their pieces on auctions or directly on the sites, where excavation campaigns were taken up again mid-18th century – will lead to the constitution of the oldest nucleus of Civic Archaeological Collection.

This embodies an extraordinary memorandum of the tight link between collectors (private) and museums (public, in their destination) which, since ever, lies at the basis of any culture of a given place. In this regard, it is interesting to mention the emblematic episode that involved the exquisite collection of ancient and modern ludic and theatrical objects of Milanese dealer Jules Sambon who was planning to sell it on the secondary market. A group of Milanese gentlemen managed to raise the necessary sum in order to ‘save’ the collection and keep it in the city through a public subscription as well as the contribution of the Italian Government; that’s how the Museo Teatrale alla Scala was born.

Il viaggio della chimera also recalls one of the apical moments of the affair between Milan and etruscology, that is the major exhibition ‘Mostra dell’Arte e della Civiltà Etrusca’ which took place at Palazzo Reale in 1955 supported by Kunsthaus Zurich. The show was a great success to the extent that the wide coverage it received from the media ended up influencing the fashion and lifestyle of the time. Etruscology became a trendy topic and ‘the modern jewelry from twenty-eight centuries ago’ literally ‘made the ladies’ go crazy – so newspapers headlines were claiming -, even a Olivetti Calendar was created as a tribute to the Etruscan civilization. Everything contributed to fatten that romantic feeling surrounding the ‘Etruscan mystery”, which still remains a cliché no matter how much studies and researches have move forward.

This was well-explained by Massimo Pallotino, curator of the successful exhibition and leading expert in the field, as well as author of what has been for a very long time the only compendium on this matter, Etruscologia (Hoepli), from where the following excerpt is taken: ‘ The Etruscan topic inspired, by the way, some meaningful passages of contemporary literature, especially English authors like D.H Lawrence (Etruscan Places, 1932) and A. Huxley (in the novels Those Barren Leaves, 1925 and Point Counter Point, 1928): through these passages the interpretation of Etrurian civilization appears symbolically transfigured into the myth of a ‘lost world’, of a naturally genuine, festive, carnal mankind as opposed to the rational and moral order of the Greek, Roman and Christian civilizations’.

The Etruscan legend was hence able, even after the Second World War, to penetrate the social imaginary. And we can suppose it was replaced – a few years later – only by another tale of time travel – in this case however it wasn’t fantasizing about a lost past but about a seizable future- that on the moon; 2019 actually marks the 50th anniversary of the first humans landing on the Moon.

Going back to the Etruscans, that Milanese show in 1955 didn’t merely ended at being just a fashionable trend, but prompted a new wave of excavations: the Milan City Council financed researches in the necropolis of Spina (on the ancient Po Delta), while private entrepreneurs like the engineer Giuseppe Torno and published Aldo Garzanti funded explorations at Vulci. Contributions from the Fondazione Lerici at Cerveteri and from Milanese universities will follow later on, as highlighted in the current exhibition.

Now, despite Il viaggio della chimera being only the prelude of an upcoming project dedicated to the Etruscan civilization, at the moment it doesn’t really seem to reflect the interest – that about 60 years ago thrilled an entire nation- in a far away culture, third civilization after the Greek and Roman ones in terms of importance, and conveniently dismissed during the Middle Ages because of its pagan traits (the 20 volumes of the Tyrrenika work by Emperor Claudio had never been copied by the monks, therefore went lost). Nevertheless, we are confident that the modern approach of the new Museo Etrusco could soon reawaken some dozing souls.