Valentino a Roma, 45 Years of Style

Review

of an Exhibition

by Mihaela Schwartz

Published on April 03, 2012, Modified on April 20, 2012

  • Description:

    The exhibit Valentino a Roma, 45 Years of Style was held on 2007 at Ara Pacis Museum, Rome,(for about four months,) between July and October. It was a tribute to the famous fashion designer Valentino Garavani for his over 45 years of serving the fashion world stage.
    The exhibition was clearly marked by Valentino’s glamour but also appealed me from the beginning because of its location. Like many other women, I enjoy watching catwalks on TV but I don’t know much about fashion brands and do not have deep thoughts in this field. So, I visited the exhibit because I was in Rome for a few weeks and one of my best friends convinced me to be her companion to see one of the newest museums in town.
    As I mentioned before, the Ara Pacis Museum hosted the exhibit. Why this location was so important for me, and why intrigued me enough to see the exhibit? First of all, the museum is built around the ancient altar named the Ara Pacis Augustae, (Latin, “Altar of Augustan Peace”) and was dedicated on July 4, 9 BC by the emperor Augustus after years of war. The arch features sculpted images of Augustus and his family making offerings to gods. Second, the monument celebrates “Pax Augusta”, an important historical period that marked the beginning of peace brought by a long supremacy military domination in the Roman Empire. Thus, the monument is a recognized masterpiece from the ancient times that differentiates it from the Greek sculptures by representing individuals’ portraits rather then idealized figures. In addition, the Ara Pacis monument has an interesting story, having been restored by many Italians rulers, among them Benito Mussolini. The Ara Pacis Museum contains the reassembled ancient sacrificial altar integrated into a massive new marble-and-glass construction built by the American architect Richard Meier. The new building opened in 2006 and highlights the altar that stands on the Mussolini’s site.
    In the end, what a great place to display Valentino’s life work! Also, what an honor for the Italian fashion gurus to celebrate his 45year career in a historical location that was once used to celebrate victories and gods. In fact, gossip from back stage mentioned that this was his triumphant return to Rome after more than two decades when he run out from the city and set up his first shop in Paris. Thus, let’s see if the exhibit design met the fashion genius in the context of celebrating victory and an initiate journey as the ancient altar represents.
    Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda created the entire exhibit. Valentino himself commissioned the designers on the strength of their installation for “Anglomania” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The heart of the exhibit was centered on the Ara Pacis monument. The exhibit designers filled the 40,000 square foot museum with highly fashionable mannequins, ready to set out in a pagan procession. The main idea of the exhibit was to recreate a noble atmosphere of an initiate celebration depicted by the Augustan monument. The exhibit design emphasized the life work of the artist Valentino, work that romanticized the idea of woman as a goddess. Gilded goddess-like mannequins surrounded the sacrificial altar. Their arms stretched out as if in prayer, girded in red, white or black Valentino gowns.
    The visitors were welcomed by the first piece of the exhibit, a Valentino’s signature red evening gown situated in a transparent red cube outside the entrance to the museum. Moreover, a long glass wall followed the Lungotevere Boulevard filled with mannequins made the passers-by curious about what was happening inside the museum. The display of ten 70’s outfits along the street emphasized the commercial side of the fashion world.
    The exhibit was divided into three themes and three levels – the lower dark level, the low-ceilinged level and the more typical ‘museum’ level. The three themes were The Valentino’s Signature (which included the famous reds, blacks, and whites gowns), The Valentino’s Haute-Couture works (displayed in the dark room) and Valentino the Craftsman. The whole exhibit was a chronological display of Valentino’s best outfits from evening gowns or Haute-Couture works to the more wearable outfits. By displaying each theme in a separate room, the curators marked the three levels of exhibit.
    The first level was accommodated in the ancient altar’s room where the best red, black and white evening gowns mixed with the monument’s symbolism. Lined glass-paneled white wooden risers flanked the altar. Approaching it head-on were two rows of mannequins robed in white. The atmosphere was amplified through a low level music suggesting an ancient pagan procession. Despite the fact that the sound was a key component in this room, there weren’t any evidences of cables or wires that could distract the visitors’ experience. Labels were not present in the display room. The only way that the visitors could get information about artifacts was to walk around accompanied by laminated cards that you could get when you entered the room. The cards contained a sort of ‘behind’ story for each of the representative red, black or white gowns. The centerpiece of this room was a dress named “The Peace Dress” which looked like a white column with the word “Peace” embroidered on it in 14 languages. In fact, that was the entire message of that level, celebrating peace as in the ancient monument that stood next to the garments. In the same room, as a special attraction, was the “Harlequin Dress” surrounded by mirrors, and placed in a well constructed as a part of a ‘concave building within a building’.
    The next level was defined in a dark-opening room situated on the mezzanine. Valentino himself selected the dresses displayed in that room as being the most representative Haute-Couture creations. The dresses were pinned to the walls from floor to the ceiling. The atmosphere created in that room was a perfect contrast to the dramatic black and white dress from the previous room. I noticed again the lack of labels and the idea of providing artifacts’ information through the same type of cards. I noticed also that just a few visitors were interested in reading the cards; most of them just walked and enjoyed the absorbing atmosphere created in rooms.
    The last section offered to visitors a lined-up dresses idea worn by famous Valentino’s clients. Each dress was accompanied by a video that showed when and how the dress was worn. Most appealing in the last section was an impressive archival collection. Valentino went through his personal collection and chose the most significant sketches, notes, or “behind the scene” stories for some of his dresses.
    Overall, the location, the light, the sound, the exhibit design, and of course, Valentino’s fashion genius shone through the passionate work of both curators. It was a real celebration; a celebration of peace, of art, of goddesses, of women, of an interesting and maybe unique art/life journey.

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