The first thing one notices about Jeff Koons’ Pluto and Proserpina is the color—an almost greenish gold. But after one manages to tear their eyes away from the reflective form, they remember they are in Piazza della Signoria, here to see the reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, or The Fountain of Neptune. One might wonder why a contemporary work is being displayed in one of the central squares of Florence, and one would be right to wonder, as few people come to Florence for the contemporary, but rather to bask in the greatness of the old masters. Before September 24, 2014, the contemporary was hidden inside unassuming galleries, or tucked away in small squares throughout the city. But no longer. Until December 28, 2015, a contemporary work will stand among influential Renaissance sculptures. This juxtaposition elevates a contemporary work as another symbol of Florence’s art culture.
Jeff Koons is a prominent American art fabricator, mainly known for his bright and iridescent sculpture, such as Balloon Dog. His piece Pluto and Proserpina, displayed in Florence as part of the exhibit Jeff Koons in Florence, is designed to open a dialogue between contemporary and Renaissance works in the city. Another piece by Koons is displayed inside Palazzo Vecchio: Barberini Faun, part of his collection Gazing Ball, is a work that combines a modern everyday object, a garden gazing ball, with casts of well known Greek sculptures. Both Pluto and Proserpina and Barberini Faun demonstrate the goal of this exhibit: to spark a conversation between old and new. But does the city of Florence just want to open a conversation between the Renaissance and the contemporary? Or does this exhibit have more suspicious motives?
Both of Koons’ works displayed in Florence have a strong foundation in Greco-Roman sculpture, as Renaissance works did, and also add a contemporary interpretation, again as Renaissance works did. Although Koon’s works can be defined as contemporary, because they were produced recently, are they truly contemporary? Or do they just perpetuate the Renaissance ideal? Many ask if a contemporary work, by an American, should be displayed in such a prominent place, between a copy of Michaelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith? Those who ask this question miss the purpose of Jeff Koons in Florence. The juxtaposition of a contemporary icon like Koons with old masters like Michelangelo and Donatello does not overshadow Florence’s deep appreciation for the Renaissance, but rather celebrates it anew, using a popular contemporary artist to redirect attention to the Renaissance. At first the display of Pluto and Proserpina seems revolutionary: ‘A contemporary work being displayed in Piazza della Signoria? What a step forward! Florence is embracing the contemporary!’ But the reality is less promising. The city of Florence is not displaying a contemporary work to embrace the beauty and importance of contemporary art, but rather to bring new blood to an old trade, as demonstrated by the paradoxical sight of Koons cutting the ribbon to open the Biennale Internazionale dell’Antiquariato (BIAF), Florence’s oldest and most acclaimed art festival, an event happening at the same time as Jeff Koons in Florence. The New York Times said “High-end fairs specializing in old masters and antiques, such as BIAF, have struggled to retain and attract buyers in recent years. Mr. Moretti and BIAF’s 88 participating dealerships were hoping that Jeff Koons in Florence— a three-month showing of those two sculptures, conceived by the city’s mayor, Dario Nardella, and curated by Sergio Risaliti — would broaden international interest in Italy’s oldest and most prestigious fair devoted to its own historic art.”
This begs a final question: will Florence ever display contemporary works that do not have roots in the Italian Renaissance, or perpetuate and refresh the public’s interest in it, thus driving tourist euros into the city’s economy? I dare say no; the city of Florence would not have featured Pluto and Proserpina so prominently if it did not continue a near obsession with the Renaissance, with the past.