Anna Coliva: Which Artist From the Past Would You Like to Meet?

The director of Rome’s Galleria Borghese on her earliest memories of art museums and the mystery of Caravaggio

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Proserpina, 1621–22. Courtesy: Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali and Galleria Borghese, Rome; photograph: Luciano Romano

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Proserpina, 1621–22. Courtesy: Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali and Galleria Borghese, Rome; photograph: Luciano Romano

Is there one work of art that inspired you to become an art historian?
I have often thought about this. I believe it was Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin (c.1606), which I have always considered to be one of the most striking paintings in art history. It was my favourite artwork when I was around 16 years old. When I was a child, I was astonished by the Winged Victory of Samothrace (c.190 BCE). I wonder why?

Which was the first art gallery you ever visited?
The Jeu de Paume in Paris, when it was still an Impressionist art museum. Now I realize that it amazed me because it was the first time I had experienced a bright, joyous, friendly museum. Perhaps it was not the first gallery I ever visited, but it is the one I vividly remember. 

Which art historians have inspired your writing?
Without a doubt, Giulio Carlo Argan – but I have never been able to compete with him. 

Is there one work of art in the collection of the Galleria Borghese that you return to time and again?
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble sculpture The Rape of Proserpina (1621–22). I see it almost every day, and I am always taken both by its realism and the mystery of how the artist created it. 

What, if anything, do you feel is missing from the collection of the Borghese?
Paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi and Valentin de Boulogne. I cannot understand why the founder of the collection, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, did not acquire them, considering he had the means to do so.

What is the most enigmatic work of art in the Borghese?
Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (c.1610). Its terribilità emanates mystery and disquietude. The eyes of the two characters adamantly avoid locking with ours; they look away from a humanity that is irredeemable from sin.

What is your favourite title of an artwork?
Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (c.1514). It implies the existence of a narrative that demands to be unfolded and, like a Gothic novel, creates the anticipation of a story to come.

Is there an art form you don’t relate to?
No, I do not think there is. 

What is the relationship between contemporary and historical art in the Borghese?
The Borghese is a museum of historical art but it incorporates the work of contemporary artists to explore its current identity: the art of the present is a formidable tool with which to understand the art of the past. 

Which artist with a work in the Borghese collection would you especially like to meet, and why?
Bernini, who, while seemingly presumptuous and unpleasant, was full of untameable vitality.

Translated by Francesca Girelli 

This article first appeared in Frieze Masters issue 8 with the headline ‘Questionnaire: Anna Coliva’.

Dr Anna Coliva is director of Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy.

Issue 8

First published in Issue 8

September 2019

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