Redefining Brera

An interview with Anglo-Canadian museologist James Bradburne, the man behind the recent Reinassance of the Pinacoteca di Brera that brought Milan’s major museum back into the heart of the city’s cultural life

  • Redefining Brera
  • Redefining Brera
  • Redefining Brera

The glorious Pinacoteca di Brera has long been one of Italy’s most underrated gems. But not anymore. With an art patrimony only second to Florence’s Uffizi, including beautiful works from Bellini, Mantegna, Raphael, Tintoretto and Caravaggio, Milan’s historic institution has finally freed itself from its former somewhat dusty, outdated public image to become a world-class museum. 
Behind this epic feat is a British (and Canadian) gentleman who loves to collect rare books and wears beautifully crafted waistcoats. Mr. James Bradburne, a museologist and a cultural manager as well as the former director of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, was appointed in 2015 by the then culture minister Dario Franceschini as director of the Pinacoteca di Brera and the Biblioteca Braidense.
Painting the walls in deep hues, installing new lights, asking curators and authors to write new bilingual labels, commissioning new uniforms by Trussardi and inviting taxi drivers, hotels concierges and tourist guides to visit the museum for free have all been part of a strategy to give back the Pinacoteca to the local community, turning it into a “the coolest place” in town, and to offer foreign visitors an excellent service.
We spoke to Mr. Bradburne to learn more about his vision for the Pinacoteca and for the whole city as new and eminent foreign resident.
Brera, the Pinacoteca and the Accademia have played a very important role in the history of Italian and International art, and yet they have long remained somewhat below the radar.  Why is that?
JB: Brera as a whole - the gallery, the art school, the library, the garden, the observatory and the Istituto Lombardo - have been at the physical, intellectual and cultural heart of Milan for centuries, first as the headquarters of the Jesuits, then as Napoleon’s ‘Royal Palace for the Science and the Arts’. Unfortunately, in the mid-1970s, with the creation of the Ministry of Culture, which centralised the management of Brera in Rome, and the death of the Brera’s visionary director Franco Russoli in 1977, Brera’s autonomy - its ability to connect to the city - was profoundly undermined. It took the reforms of 2014 to give back to Brera the autonomy it once enjoyed, and the current transformation is one of the most obvious results.

You embarked on a mission to turn the Pinacoteca into a more accessible, enjoyable, and modern museum, to bring it into the very heart of the city. What’s the outcome so far?
JB: We can definitely see an increase in young people, families and children to the museum, and a big increase of visits by the Milanese themselves. For the first time in decades Brera is regularly covered in the international press.

It is common knowledge (or maybe just a cliché) that we Italians underestimate our cultural heritage. Would you agree?
JB: I think that Italians do tend to take culture for granted - if a Rome aqueduct was standing in Cincinnati I am sure it would attract far more attention. On the other hand I don’t think that means that Italians undervalue culture, on the contrary, Italians are very proud of their heritage and very aware of how much a part of their identity it plays.

As a comparatively new resident, what do you think of Milan?
JB: I arrived in Milan post-Expo, so I just assumed the city was always dynamic. Every day I discover something new in Milan, another element of the city’s diversity that makes it an exceptional place to live and work.
What’s the city’s main flaw?
JB: A lack of instruments to help institutions to create synergies.
Can you mention some of your favourite things and/or places in town and describe your typical day in Milan?
JB: As you can imagine, my days are mostly spent working in or very close to Brera. They begin with a coffee at the Beverin caffè, and often include a visit to Demetra, the rare book shop and lunch at the Tokyo Grill, just across the street. A rare day may include a walk across the park to the Triennale, or through the Orto Botanico to via Montenapoleone.
Give us 3 three reasons why people should absolutely add Milan to their bucket list.
JB: One, it is not yet submerged under a tsunami of mass tourism. Two, the mix of art, music, design and fashion is extraordinary. Three, it is international, dynamic and contemporary.

Which artists and art periods do you prefer as an art enthusiast and connoisseur and what’s your relationship with art outside of your work?
JB:I have very eclectic tastes, and I curated exhibitions on 16th century Mannerist art and American Trompe l’Oeil painting. Outside work I tend to collect rare booksrather than art.

Can you recommend three small/minor museums in the world that we should absolutely visit?
JB: The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, the Museon Arlaten in Arles, France, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, UK.

Author : The Slowear Journal


Milan  | Brera  | pinacoteca  | art museum  | James Bradburne  |

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