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The Colour is Brown

Curator Sergio Risaliti speaks ‘Cecily’ at Museo Novecento

 An Interview by Linda Falcone

Ph. Mark Hartman, Portrait of Cecily Brown, Courtesy of Florence's Museo Novecento

On Tuesdays mornings, Florence’s Museo Novecento is a meditative place. Founded at the start of the Thirteenth Century, the complex predates the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, whose glinting marble façade stares at the museum’s shady arcade from across the square. The venue, which is now a museum and centre for modern and contemporary art, was initially a hostel for pilgrims and beggars (dedicated to Saint Paul). Later, in 1345, it morphed into a fully-fledged hospital, managed by Franciscan tertiaries and named for Saint Francis.


Today, I have come for a different saint, however. An abbot of admirable stoicism, he is pictured in the Temptations of Saint Anthony, to which ultra-acclaimed British painter Cecily Brown dedicated a decade of brain-space. Brown’s 30-work show in the Tuscan capital is the product of a conversation that started six years ago with Sergio Risaliti, the Museo Novecento’s artistic director – also the show’s curator – who has been working as culture consultant to Florence mayor Dario Nardella for the last ten years, “to bring Florence into the modern world”. 


The plan is for us to walk through Brown’s show together, and I await his arrival in what was once the structure’s cloister. Despite its contemporary art installations, the Museo Novecento’s space still has a monastery feel that the Leopoldine suppression of religious orders in 1870 did not manage to erase. Readers of Restoration Conversations will be interested to know that Pietro Leopoldo, upon claiming the space as state property, transformed it into a school for girls – aged 6 to 16 – whom the Grand Duke wished to see educated “in the first duties of religion and catechism, the rules of decency and cleanliness appropriate to the state of the girls, reading, writing, the abacus, and women’s work of knitting, sewing and the weaving of both ribbons and veils, linen and woollen cloth of all kinds and silk cloths wide and narrow”.

Ph. Serge Domingie, 2022, Museo Novecento during the Jenny Saville exhibition


One day, I will learn more about this space known, until recently, as Le Scuole Leopoldine, because the Grand Duke’s intentions were upheld – more or less – until the school closed, just over a century later, in 1975. That is not today’s job, of course. Today, I am here to see what ‘ribbons and veils’ Brown is weaving in her mostly Abstract works that Risaliti traces back to “post-impressionism, starting with Cezanne and passing through late Monet and towards Abstract Expressionism, including Pollock and de Kooning” [Willem, not Elaine].


More soft-spoken than I anticipated, Risaliti surprised me, as he does most. “Despite Cecily Brown’s vibrancy and her exciting vitality, she is exceptionally rigorous,” he says, as we cross the threshold of the first room. Rigorous is not a word I expected to encapsulate a show whose title promises ‘a bit of a mess’: Temptations, Torments, Trials and Tribulations. Risaliti reads the surprise in my face. “I say this because she was born an artist, and she knows how to avoid ruining a painting. She throws an untold number of colours onto canvases that are packed with pictorial gestures and chromatic nuances. There’s almost an ecstasy involved, a delirium or fury, but the artist does not succumb to it – or more accurately, the painting does not succumb to it. Cecily is always controlled, and she generates a new form of perfection… To understand her work,” Risaliti suggests, “think of the evolution of classical music from Mahler and late Beethoven to contemporary Jazz and even the sounds of Led Zeppelin. What appears cacophonic or is perceived as a threat to harmony and composure is simply a new world that has never been seen before.”


Cecily Brown, 2023, The Aspiring Subordinate

I’m well aware that Risaliti likes bringing new worlds to ‘old spaces’, so thus far, I’m following his discourse. He brought Jeff Koons’ stainless steel Pluto and Proserpina to Piazza della Signoria way back in 2015, and, one year later, sought to realign the “plates of the piazza’s scale” by installing Jan Fabre’s giant turtle, Searching for Utopia, not far from the Neptune fountain. “I wanted to offer citizens a landmark, to introduce completely new scenery and correct the square’s imbalance,” Risaliti explains. “Tourists seemed to slide away into the void, at the corner of the Loggia de’ Lanzi, and Fabre’s sculpture provided a point of attraction, of magnetism, that prevented that from continuing to happen. It was a healthy shock for the citizenry, but, eventually, I think they assimilated it.” The list of Risaliti’s contemporary “points of attraction” is growing as Florence museums – from the Bardini and Forte Belvedere to the Museo del Opera del Duomo and Casa Buonarroti – open their monumental gates to the modern world. Risaliti brought Jenny Saville’s Michelangelo-inspired works to these last two venues in 2022, and Saville’s art proves one of his most deeply ingrained convictions, “Artists of today love, understand and have profoundly assimilated the great Renaissance and Italian traditions. Therefore, they naturally create connections with the past.”

The modern artist’s fascination with the Old Masters lies at the core of Brown’s show as well. “There is this idea that from the early Twentieth Century onwards, when art lost its more figurative element and forfeited its more classical foundations, it somehow lost its value,” Risaliti explains. “In the eyes of many, Abstractionism was something created, more out of daring than from skill. Certainly, I acknowledge our debt to the great personalities of the past, as does Cecily, who contradicts traditional models of order and symmetry by reinventing them completely. Yet, she manages to produce a harmony that is equal to that of a Renaissance painting. In a work like The Aspiring Subordinate, I see the same search for chromatic harmony, the same forms of tension and movement, that you find in a Baroque work by Luca Giordano or Corrado Giaquinto, because of the exuberance and quality of her colours and the way she develops energy.


A quality like ‘la perfezioneis the product of a process, apparently, and Brown works on her paintings for several years. “Cecily goes back to her canvases and completes them, years later, adding that brushstroke of blue or white, or this squiggle and that slash mark,” the show’s curator says. “One day, she told me, ‘I have a painting brain’. It means she does not think about herself divorced from painting or recognise herself, if not as a painter.”


Ph. Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio, 2023, 16-century depiction of St. Anthony, after an engraving by Martin Schongauer

But what of her method, I ask, and what of my stoic saint? “Cecily’s work starts with a sort of infatuation,” explains Risaliti, “She becomes enchanted by a work from the past. It might be a painting by Degas, a work by Bosch, a Tintoretto – and that piece gives rise to years of creativity. She worked on the image of Saint Anthony Abbott resisting temptation for a decade, and it ended up being the cycle she wanted to present in Florence. Saint Anthony is her initial inspiration. In the original engraving from the fifteenth century, he is the centre of gravity, and around him, and there is centrifugal and centripetal activity, created by the monsters. At a certain point, Brown frees herself from the figurative element; she disconnects from it, without denying the compositional forces underlying the image.”


We reach the lofty ‘chapel’ room, empty except for a small plate attributed to Michelangelo from the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, Texas and a small-scale painting that Risaliti found last year, while wandering through Florence’s antiques fair, the Biennale dell’Antiquariato. Now in a private collection, it is considered an early copy, by a sixteenth-century Flemish painter, according to an attribution by Cristina Acidini. “I’ve exhibited it here in the chapel, as a surprise for Cecily, and she was really happy to see it,” Risaliti says. Then, he shares an incident involving Michelangelo, recounted by both Vasari and Condivi. Michelangelo was still an adolescent, aged 13 or 14, and doing his apprenticeship in the bottega of Ghirlandaio. “He was assigned a task to test his painting ability, namely to reproduce, in colour, an engraving by Martin Schonghauer, depicting the temptation of Saint Anthony. Vasari and Condivi tell us that in order to get the monsters’ colours right, he went to fish market, to study the scales of every fish on sale there. Michelangelo looked to life, as always.”


Ph. Cecily Brown, 2010, The Temptation of St. Anthony (after Michelangelo)

“Looking to life” in Florence today, I have to ask whether Risaliti has encountered resistance to his efforts to “rejuvenate Florence’s relationship with the past”. The Museo Novecento puts on fifteen to twenty exhibitions a year, not counting the art its artistic director installs in other venues city-wide, including Palazzo Vecchio, the Museo Innocenti and Santa Croce. 

No. He has not encountered resistance. “When you speak to cultured people who love art and propose serious projects that are mediated and pondered, where the objective is not to clash, shock or engender provocation… when you seek connection, between a story of today and one from the past, the doors open. The mind is full of prejudices, but the sensitive, creative side of ourselves is much more open to dialogue.”


Well stated, Sig. Risaliti, and lovely to see British New -York-based Brown in a place whose quiet both challenges and embraces such measured turbulence. I’m already looking forward to our conversation on Louise Bourgeois, whose Museo Novecento show is scheduled to open come June.

This article was originally published in Restorations Conversations magazine,

Winter 2023, Issue 4



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