Palazzo Strozzi offers up a different view of Florence, discovers Donald Strachan
Every time I walk into the open courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, there’s a reminder I’m somewhere a little different. It’s not the building; this is Florence, after all, and the palace’s elegant, angular design was created in the 1480s, with heavily rusticated brickwork to give the impression its stones were placed by giants. So far, so Florentine.
But these days, the courtyard’s centrepiece is by English sculptor Henry Moore. His Warrior with Shield was placed here after Moore’s death in 1986, creating a near-perfect metaphor for the Strozzi’s future role in the 2000s. Florence’s marquee art exhibition space lives inside a Renaissance palace, smack in the middle of the Renaissance city. It doesn’t ignore its surroundings, yet it does attempt to interact with them in a different way to pretty much everywhere else in the centre.
Art events have been staged here since the Second World War. In 2006, a regular programme began, with three exhibitions a year using the Piano Nobile — the first floor, where nobles entertained their guests — plus a below-ground space known as the Strozzina.
The dilemma facing the Strozzi’s curators isn’t hard to fathom: how to stage shows that draw in visitors, in a city that already has one of the richest art heritages in the world?
The current exhibition, Bill Viola’s Electronic Renaissance, reflects the Strozzi’s special place in the city’s museum scene. Viola is an American video artist who lived in Florence in the 1970s and became heavily influenced by its artistic traditions. The exhibition shines a bright light on the conversation between Viola’s work and some monumental Florentine paintings.
Many Strozzi exhibitions still ride comfortably on the Renaissance. From September, for example, Maniera Moderna brings Michelangelo and Giambologna to the venue, completing a trilogy of interrelated shows that began with Bronzino in 2010, followed by Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino in 2014. The subject matter of all three — Florentine Mannerism — was an art movement that followed the High Renaissance, inspired by Michelangelo, another famous Florentine.
But, occasionally, a Strozzi exhibition cleverly rubs against its iconic location. Last year, an acclaimed Ai Weiwei retrospective drew 150,000 visitors. It’s rare, though, for a show to straddle the Renaissance/contemporary divide so adeptly — and encompass the Strozzi’s role so perfectly — as Bill Viola does.
Any menu of motives to visit (or re-visit) Florence is already long. When the Strozzi is on form, like it is here, there’s always room for one more reason on the list.
‘Bill Viola: Electronic Renaissance’ runs at the Palazzo Strozzi until 23 July 2017.