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An Art Nucleus:
The Tradition-Rich Villa Romana Opens with a New Profile

In 2005 Villa Romana celebrated its 100th anniversary. Since 1905, the villa in the hills above Florence has accommodated the winners of the oldest German art fellowship. The stipend is awarded by the Villa Romana Association, whose work has long been sponsored by Deutsche Bank. Not only Gustav Klimt and Max Beckmann found peace and inspiration here, so did Georg Baselitz and young art stars such as Amelie von Wulffen and Marc Brandenburg. Following extensive refurbishments, the venerable institution is now moving into the future with a new director and program. Kito Nedo talked with director Angelika Stepken about her plans and perspectives for the house.

Stipendiary Silke Markefka in her studio
Photo: Heinz Peter Knes

The rattling of compressors is the first thing that greets visitors to Villa Romana on this hot August day. In the blazing sun, a bulging orange-colored plastic form juts from the first floor of the classicist manor in the hills outside Florence, slowly but surely growing in volume. Helpers run around busily, repeatedly checking the gradually unfolding form, installing provisional supports, making sure that the plastic skin is not damaged where it touches the bright gravelly soil in front of the villa's portal. Only after a few hours, at the onset of dusk, can one discern what this blown-up thing actually is: the emergency escape chute of a jumbo jet.

The Villa Romana in Florence
Photo courtesy Villa Romana

It was brought by the young Dusseldorf-based artist Michail Pirgelis, who on this August afternoon is testing whether the installation could be appropriate for the official reopening of the artists' house at the beginning of September. Pirgelis, along with painters Barbara Kussinger and Silke Markefka and the video and installation artist Andrea Faciu, has received a Villa Romana stipend this year and will live and work here for around ten months. It's too bad, actually, that the artist decided not to show his architectural intervention on opening night after all, for the contrast between the Tuscan idyll and the technoid foreign body impressively illustrates the process of upheaval that the tradition-steeped artist's house on the Via Senese near the Porta Romana has been undergoing over the past few months.

Antique door in the Villa Romana
Foto: Heinz Peter Knes

Villa Romana dates back to 1905, when the Leipzig painter and sculptor Max Klinger acquired the spacious but near-derelict building to found, together with the Deutscher Künstlerbund (Alliance of German Artists), an artist's colony independent of state authority. In the very first years of its existence up until World War I, art history was written there. Great artists such as Käthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, and Max Pechstein resided and worked in the house, and it soon had a reputation as an "Arcadia of Modernism." Recent fellows who have lived in the house include Georg Baselitz, Katharina Grosse, and Amelie von Wulffen.

Angelika Stepken, the new director of the Villa Romana
Photo: Heinz Peter Knes

Angelika Stepken, who last November succeeded Joachim Burmeister as director of the villa following his thirty-year tenure, knows about the reflex-like romantic notions that the renaissance center Florence still evokes in the German cultural soul. She is not only there because of her great enthusiasm for Italy, but to produce an image of Florence "that bears in mind other, current realities," as the resolute exhibition-maker explains over an espresso and cigarette on the terrace at the back of the building, which commands a view of the estate's vast garden. "I'd like to see the house and its possibilities more in terms of content than atmosphere," she asserts. Thus, she doesn't much miss taking reverent strolls through the house's own olive grove or through its imaginary ancestral portrait gallery, which she wouldn't have had time for anyway - too urgent were the practical concerns the art historian initially had to deal with. The villa, recalls Stepken, who had previously directed the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe for nine years, demanded a considerable amount of improvisational savvy from her at first. The house, she says, was like one big construction site.

In the garden of the Villa Romana
Photo: Heinz Peter Knes

Extensive modernizations had already begun under Burmeister last summer, with a million euros earmarked by the German federal government. Electrical lines were revamped, sewage systems replaced, all ceilings and floors brought in order, the guest rooms in the attic provided with air conditioning, and the house finally furnished with a wireless Internet connection. A functioning infrastructure - for Stepken, who had to go to an Internet café for several weeks last winter to make phone calls and send emails, there is almost something luxurious about this. She seems almost amazed that everything works when she clicks on her office computer to show her guest pictures from the construction phase.

Exhibition space in the Villa Romana
Photo courtesy Villa Romana

Following the careful renovations made based on the plans of the Bacciochi architectural office in Arezzo, Stepken made some changes to the building's spatial arrangement that were intended to give the building back "its volume" and thus make it more attractive to outside visitors. For example, the office was moved from the top to the ground floor, while the little library was transferred to the top floor and a former studio next to the office was transformed into an approximately sixty-square-meter exhibition space, which now constitutes a considerable extension to the salon, the house's traditional exhibition room. For Stepken, these very practical measures serve to open the house further and give it more of a distinct image as an international hub of contemporary art.

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