The View from the Hermitage. A Cultural Brand
that is More Valuable than Oil Article from the St Petersburg Vedomosti
This month Russian-Italian negotiations were held in the Italian city of Bari. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi took part in the ceremony at which agreements that are important to both countries were signed. Agreements were reached in the fields of aircraft manufacturing, railway construction, banking... More than ten different documents were signed, including one concerning the creation of a Hermitage Centre in Italy in the city of Ferrara.
For some time now, the Hermitage has been opening centres abroad. This kind of ‘cultural offensive' is a very important part of the museum's policy. Today, when there is a need for multifaceted interaction between countries and not merely the delivery of raw materials, the museum's activities have coincided with Russia's foreign economic activities. We note that the for the first time the signing of a document in the field of cultural cooperation - the creation of the Hermitage Centre in Italy - took place in the presence of the respective heads of state.
Not long before the events in Bari, there was a public forum in Rome where issues of cultural interaction were discussed. In my address there, I drew a kind of parallel between museum activity and economics. What the Hermitage does in creating centres in various parts of the world cannot be compared with trade in oil or even with the building of your own gas filling stations. This is an activity on a higher order: a combined product is made from Russian parts and the participation of Russian ideology. In our case we have a cultural product - exhibitions, lectures, in a word, the demonstration of our achievements and our history. This is the highest category of cooperation and no resources are used up in its operation.
What will the Hermitage Centre in the Italian city of Ferrara be like? We already have centres outside of Petersburg - in Kazan, Las Vegas, London and Amsterdam. They are all different. In London the centre is run jointly with the Courtauld Institute of Art. Together we make programs and exhibitions. You might call that type of cooperation ‘academic.' In Amsterdam we work in common with the Nieuwe Kerk exhibition centre. Aside from exhibitions, we also have children's study circles there. Not long ago a book of drawings by Amsterdam children was published. Their works were done under the influence of what they saw at an exhibition from the Russian museum. In Las Vegas we put on exhibitions for the general public together with the Guggenheim Museum. In Kazan, there is a ‘mini-Hermitage' where we put on exhibitions, run children's study circles and have lectures...
In Italy everything will be different. We do not plan to have more than one or two exhibitions there per year. Of course, we will exhibit there the Ferrara paintings from our collection which you can now see in the Twelve-Columned Room of the New Hermitage. I think an exhibition of Moslem art will then go to Ferrara. But on the whole, what we are creating there is a research centre. Its basic task will be to publish scientific catalogues of the Hermitage's Italian collections. Our staff will be busy with this, but for work of this kind it is necessary for them to have contact with Italian universities, museums and libraries. Hermitage staff, and later staff of other Russian museums as well, will get an opportunity to live and work in Italy. We will publish scholarly works and conduct conferences on Russian-Italian relations. Management of the centre will be assumed by a joint Russian-Italian board and it will be financed by the city of Ferrara.
The Hermitage will bring to Italy its ideas, ideology and materials. Our Italian colleagues will help us with financing and creative support. This is the very essence of a combined product.
I would like to point out the following: offers to open Hermitage centres such as the ones already existing come to us from all over the world. All the centres have come to be as the result of insistent requests. From Italy as well we got several proposals from various cities and we had to make a choice. Among the competitors were Venice, Mantua, Verona and Ferrara. Cities like Rome and Venice, where there is a lot going on, fell by the wayside at once: in such places the centre would not be an event. We chose Ferrara because it has its own university and not far away there is also the university îf Bologna. Moreover, the city looks after its heritage, tries to attract tourists and strives to develop cultural activities. Not long ago they restored their castle, which is where a sculpture in the Hermitage came from.
The presence of the Hermitage is an event for Ferrara. The Russian academy in Italy is, in a certain extent, the realization of a long-held dream. This is interesting for both Russians and for Italians who want to develop relations between our countries.
At a recent seminar in Rome, there was a conversation about mutual understanding between our countries, about how well we understand one another. One of the participants in the seminar was the well known Russian expert and publicist Vittorio Strada. He spoke heatedly about the fact that interest in Russia is falling in Italy. During the Soviet period, there was an interest in Russian exotica, and later Italians became interested in the new stage in the history of our country. Nowadays study of the Russian language is falling off there and interest in our culture and literature has moved to the background. A fresh impulse is needed.
The recent initiatives differ very greatly from state initiatives of past years. We are creating in Italy a strong cultural institution which, as a brand, carries information about our country. We are showing what kind of remarkable exhibitions we can create, books we can publish, lectures we can present... This is a movement towards the return of interest in Russia. It would be a pity to be smart, rich and interesting to nobody.
Thinking over how culture and economics develop in parallel, it is important to understand that politics and economics will develop normally only if they become a part of culture. It is no less important that culture proceed side by side with religion. I think that notwithstanding all the serious economic effect that will result from President Putin's visit to Italy, it will become historic only if it serves the cause of reconciliation between the Orthodox and Catholic churches.
During his visit, President Putin met with Pope Benedict XVI. It is obvious that the President spoke with the head of the Roman Church after receiving the blessing of our Patriarch. It is no secret that tense relations have developed between the heads of the churches that create a multitude of problems for the Christian world.
In Bari, President Putin visited the church of St Nicholas, and as a result there was an agreement on the transfer of part of the property of the Russian Orthodox Church. St Nicholas is the protector of Russia and is also a Catholic saint. Here is one of the points of convergence. The church is ancient. It has many elements of Byzantine and Romanesque decoration. Looking at them, you feel yourself closer to home. The time when our cultures still had not gone separate ways comes to mind. There was a moment in history when common Byzantine roots united them.
In case a common cultural and religious line is continued, one of the thorniest and longest lasting conflicts between the churches will be resolved. And when religion and culture are together, it serves a rapprochement of peoples.
Having institutions of culture, the economy and religious institutions work in unison is for the moment only being examined, but already we can see a united rhythm. Not so long ago we just pumped out oil and gas, but now there is talk of working with foreign partners to build airplanes and railways together, to cooperate in banking....This means working together and not only using up resources to make money. Culture was the first one to go this route.