ometimes a museum can make you angry. Like the Museum of Etruscan Art in Cortona, which I found dry, academic, flat. It would not have pleased the Etruscan people, so deeply sentimental, joyful, innovative and reflective. Lots of showcasing, but no show.
Sometimes a museum can bring tears to your eyes. I’m thinking of the Morandi museum in Bologna, where time stands still. There’s perfect harmony between the quiet paintings, airy space and devotional silence. The recreation of the artist’s studio, complete with his brushes, cot, and tools says more about the artist than any biography in the bookshop could. You feel his focus, concentration, and solitude.
Sometimes a museum can inspire. Recently I visited the Museo dell’Arte della Lana (Museum of the Art of Wool) in the remote village of Stia, in the Casentino Valley. For a weary and blasé traveler, this tribute to the art of weaving feeds the soul and refreshes the senses. Housed in one of Tuscany’s most historically important textile mills, it once employed hundreds of local workers and earned the area brandname recognition for its stunning “panno Casentino” fabric.
Now, the Lana museum is a happy harmony of innovation and reflection. The factory has been renovated in a way that allows visitors to imagine how it once operated. Spaces are in perfect keeping with the human eye and hand. The structural elements — plaster, stone, glass, and iron — all fit into the whole. As do the tools. Glass display cases, well-placed lighting, and clear texts are minimally invasive and highly effective. The huge carding machines stand in their own room, baskets of wool by their sides. You can listen to the deafening sounds they once produced. We walk around them and past the ghosts that once handled them. The jacquard looms, mechanical masterpieces first used in the early 19th-century, are located in another area, their rolls of punched and coded cards reflecting early automation of another era. The machine repair room is a kind of infirmary in this textile boarding school. Everything is tactile, tantalizing and textual. And the “laboratorio didattico” — the room where groups of students can try their hands at weaving — in the middle of it all. Education is appropriately at the center.
I met with the museum’s director, Andrea Gori, in Florence. His principle role is at the city’s Galileo Museum, where heads the education department. Gori’s work in Stia is strictly pro-bono and driven by his reverence for history, textiles, and for the loom as the quintessential machine.
He worked hard to make the Lombard family’s final wishes reality. He’s proud of the numbers of visitors the museum attracts and is hopeful about the future. The mild-mannered Gori is inclined to speak of everything and everyone but himself, a rare display of deference for a prominent Italian.
Not surprisingly, the museum would benefit from outside investments to assure its future vitality — maybe a university interested in preserving or renovating the remaining buildings in exchange for use of the space — maybe an art school.
In that sense, the Museo dell’Arte della Lana is another reminder of how 21st-century Italy remains rich in history and ideas but poor in values and economic health. The tough times persist, which makes the endurance of museums all the more precious.