- Associated Press - Sunday, May 30, 2010

ROME | A huge museum for contemporary arts and architecture is set to open in Rome this weekend in a bid to draw avant-garde art lovers to a city defined by its ancient monuments and Baroque fountains.

The MAXXI museum designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid is the latest and most ambitious project to try to refresh the Italian capital’s image of a decadent city bent on its glorious past.

“My work just really stems from the fact that we can make new juxtapositions with the old,” Ms. Hadid told the Associated Press during last week’s preview opening. “The idea of connecting between the old and new is very critical.”

The museum marks its opening with a three-day extravaganza that included the unveiling Thursday of inaugural exhibits; a party Friday night for 5,000 artists, fashionistas, aristocrats and other VIPs; and an admission-free day for a fortunate few thousand ticket holders.

The $223 million MAXXI is made of white curving cement walls, intricate black stairways that connect halls and pathways, and floor-to-ceiling windows that give the museum natural light and visitors a look out onto the neighborhood.

From the outside, the museums looks like a wide structure that expands horizontally rather than vertically. Built on the grounds of a former military barracks — of which a facade is still recognizable — MAXXI is located in a residential neighborhood outside the city’s historic center.

Officials unveiling the opening exhibit Thursday stressed the link between old and new, their belief that a city and nation that have been on the avant-garde of art and architecture for centuries should be promoting contemporary arts.

For Ms. Hadid, who became the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, the challenge was to work with the “layers” of Rome’s artistic past and bring a new space for art in the city. She recalled visiting Rome in the 1960s and posing in front of the Trevi Fountain, a masterpiece of Baroque art.

“Rome has fantastic light,” Ms. Hadid said. “The idea of this project is about layering and bringing in light to the space so that you have a naturally lit space — and to give the curators tremendous freedom in the way they can organize exhibits.”

Rome is visited by some 12 million people each year, mostly attracted to the artistic glories of its past — the ancient ruins, the Colosseum, the fountains designed by Bernini or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

In recent years, officials have tried to expand Rome’s culture offerings with some cutting-edge works, but these efforts have met mixed responses. Romans have been hostile to some new buildings, apparently not convinced that a modern structure can successfully stand beside the marvels of the past.

For example, the structure by Richard Meier that houses the 2,000-year-old altar Ara Pacis has drawn widespread criticism, including from the current city mayor. Renzo Piano’s Auditorium, which opened in 2002, has been more widely appreciated, giving Rome its first major-league concert hall and becoming a hip spot and the venue of the new movie festival in the Italian capital.

The Culture Ministry awarded the project for the MAXXI to Ms. Hadid after an international competition in 1998.

The inaugural shows’ highlight is “Space,” an exhibit that takes visitors along a route of art works by Anish Kapoor, Sol Lewitt and others, combined with installations by architecture studios. Mixing art and architecture, the show represents MAXXI’s dual soul.

Among others, works on display are Andy Warhol’s “Fate Presto,” in which he reproduces the front-page of an Italian newspaper in the wake of an earthquake; Italian Francesco Vezzoli’s “Democrazy,” a video installation featuring two hypothetical candidates for the U.S. presidency played by Sharon Stone and Bernard-Henry Levy; William Kentridge’s “North Pole Map” tapestry in which dark figures are set against an ancient geographic map.

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