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An Aerial Sensibility: Notes on Franco Albini, Caterina Marcenaro and a Museum of Floating Objects

Artists Graham Ellard and Stephen Johnstone consider the radical museum and exhibition display design of Franco Albini.
Installation view, Giovanni Pisano, Fragment from the Tomb of Margaret of Brabant, 1313 (right), Palazo Bianco Museum, Genoa, designed by Fanco Albini

‘[The Palazzo Bianco] museum reconstruction was the first to question the accepted methods of display and to provide solutions that were to be enormously influential later. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the mounting of the fragment from the tomb of Margaret of Brabant.’ 01

Franco Albini’s atmospheric museum and exhibition display designs of the 1950s have recently become the focus of renewed critical attention by artists, curators and historians. Originally celebrated by critics such as Manfredo Tafuri, Gio Ponti and Michael Brawne as simultaneously producing a ‘dreamlike suggestiveness’ (Tafuri) and an unprecedented concentration on the isolated autonomous artwork, Albini’s extraordinary floating and aerial display devices from the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa are now referred to as key examples of the ‘radical new visual modality’ 02 that animated Italian post-war museum design. 03 The case for such radicalism can be tested against one of Albini’s most renowned, but now dismantled, display systems: the viewer operated hydraulic hoist or ‘piston’ for Giovanni Pisano’s Fragment from the Tomb of Margaret of Brabant (1313). Images of this extraordinary device, which, in a gravity- and convention-defying manner, spiralled Pisano’s Carrera marble sculpture through the air, are now a common feature in discussions about the radical designs and display systems introduced by architects into European and South American museums in the post-war years.

Enigmatic and emblematic, the limited number of photographs of the streamlined and polished steel support holding aloft an ancient stone fragment now circulate as some of the most striking visual depictions of a form of museological modernity associated with post-war Italy. As the photographs evidence, it is a form of display that is concerned with suspending objects in space: with lightness, an aerial sensibility, the isolation of objects, the juxtaposition of old and new, durational looking, and the production of atmospherics. 04 While this circulation of images is paired with an increasingly awareness of Albini’s display design, 05 detailed discussion of his most renowned and reproduced setting, the hydraulic piston, remains scant to non-existent. To our knowledge, there is no film or television footage and no one can recall seeing Albini’s display system at work in the Palazzo Bianco. There are no accounts of what it was like to use your hand to spin an apparently now weightless and free moving Late Gothic masterpiece around in mid-air.

Michael Brawne, Neue Museen . Plannung und Einrichtung, Stuttgart: Gerd Hatje Verlag, 1965
G.E. Kidder Smith, Italy Builds – L’Italia Costruisce; Its Modern Architecture and Native Inheritance, London: The Architectural Press, 1955

Images of Albini’s device are perhaps most readily available in the pages of Michael Brawne’s 1965 book Neue Museen. Planung und Einrichtung. 06 Hovering between a gazetteer, a photographic survey of international post-war museum design and an instruction manual for exhibiting art, Neue Museen contains images and descriptions of the museums that had been newly built in Western Europe, Scandinavia and America in the immediate post-war period alongside drawings of light fittings, fixing systems for hanging paintings, and diagrams of climate control systems. Notably, Brawne begins his survey in Genoa in the Palazzo Bianco designed by Albini in conjunction with Caterina Marcenaro, who was for a period of nearly 30 years Superintendent of Museums in Genoa. Italy, according to Brawne, is the home of the modern museum. ‘The quantity and quality of Italian museums’, he claims in his opening paragraph, ‘has been astonishing’. 07  Stylistically, the Italian museums illustrated in Brawne’s book all employ a certain grammar: sculpture floats on narrow plinths and supports, platforms raise objects from the floor, pictures are suspended, walls float, the display design hovers, and there is a preponderance of custom-built armatures holding ancient objects aloft. In this world of inventive and extraordinary display devices, Albini’s designs for his three museums in Genoa 08 are positioned as particularly innovative. What distinguishes them is the way in which this logic of suspension is pushed to the point where everything appears to be touched by a kind of fragility. Here handles are attached to old master paintings that pivot on metal stanchions and seem to be projected at dizzying distances from gallery walls, or they hang on extremely long thin wires in high ceilinged galleries, while sculptures are mechanized and made mobile.

A number of technical drawings of the support reproduced in Neue Museen indicate that the column was hydraulically powered, its pump hidden behind a false wall, and that it could be raised or lowered by a viewer using a small switch mounted on the wall to one side. Brawne then tells us that the device was, in fact, built around a ‘found’ hydraulic jack from a car mechanic’s workshop and that as the mount rose and fell the Pisano’s sculpture could be spun around by hand.

For Brawne, the museum focuses attention. The museum must communicate what is ‘individual and specific’ about the artefact so that the observer can have ‘an intense experience among selected objects’. But reading Brawne’s account of the Palazzo Bianco display it’s immediately apparent that Albini’s hydraulic device does something quite extreme to the experience of monumental forms of sculpture. Thinking of monumental funerary sculpture like the Fragment from the Tomb of Margaret of Brabant and its use of massive volumes of stone or marble, it is implicitly understood that its defining characteristics are stillness, permanence, and immutability. Albini’s ‘support’ for the Pisano fragment, however, endows the Margaret of Brabant with the very opposite qualities: the combination of fragment and armature promising motion, animation and change. Here, the weighty becomes light and airborne, spiralling through the space before the now stationary viewer. As it becomes airborne and acrobatic the experience of the sculpture becomes temporal in a new and surprising way.

Left, installation view, Giovanni Pisano, Fragment from the Tomb of Margaret of Brabant, 1313. Right, design drawing, Franco Albini, hydraulic lifting device

Lightening the Museum

‘In 1942, Albini wrote of an “aesthetic of modernity” which is made of “a maximum lightness of densities [spessori], an extreme fluidity of forms, an almost unconditioned overcoming of the sense of volume and weight”.’ 09

Some three years after the completion of the Palazzo Bianco, Caterina Marcenaro, published, in the pages of the UNESCO journal Museum, a vigorous defence of the designs she and Albini initiated. Acknowledging her responsibility for first commissioning and then guiding Albini’s transformation of the two Genoa museums, Marcenaro’s essay justifies the unprecedented mounting of the Pisano fragment, suggesting that it should be mobile because it is a fragment and no one is certain as to its original placement. At the same time she outlines her distinct approach to the display of works of art and what she terms the ‘museum concept’. 10 Throughout, she describes the various techniques she and Albini made to ‘lighten’ the museum: removing frames; suspending pictures and sculptures in mid-air; painting walls white; showing only a few selected objects; allowing light into the space; suspending artificial lighting on invisible wires; rationalising the height at which pictures were hung; using glass doors to create long site-lines; installing light and moveable ‘campaign’ seating for visitors to pick up and position in front of paintings; and, in the case of Pisano’s fragment, making art acrobatic and durational. Her essay is a strident outline of a new museological imperative that radically disengages art from any form of historical context. For Marcenaro, the modern museum rejects the history of decorative display and random accumulation in period-styled rooms (what she terms ‘the palace concept’) in order to foreground a new concern with the ‘direct and specific’ apprehension of the individual autonomous artwork. Connecting the claim of autonomy to a new vitality of looking, a new kind of ‘contact’, she suggests:

‘We do not need a mediaeval building for the housing of a Giotto picture, a piece of sculpture by Giovanni Pisano, or a standard of Frederick II. […] On the contrary, the greater the gap which separates us from the past and the more clearly we can detach an object from the age which created it, the quicker and keener will be our reaction and the better the contact established.’ 11

In ‘lightening’ the Museum space a ‘modern’ atmosphere is produced in which paintings and sculptures, whether old or new, can coexist as autonomous artworks. 12

Patricia Falguières points just how much of a challenge this kind of rhetoric posed to the traditional idea of the museum and the idea of the coherent historical series, as it threw ‘into obsolescence the entire secular tradition of hanging art’. 13 Combined with the idea that only a few select objects should be on show, Falguières quotes Albini to indicate why atmosphere, or air, is so important in his display design:

We must construct emptiness Albini explained of his design for the Palazzo Bianco; ‘air and light are construction materials. The atmosphere should not be solidified, stagnant, but should on the contrary, vibrate; and the public should find itself immersed and stimulated without realizing it. Each painting’, he continued ‘should be given its own volume of air … what could be called the zone of influence of its pictorial space’. 14

Installation view, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Flemish, French-Flemish and Dutch paintings, Palazo Bianco Museum, Genoa, designed by Fanco Albini

Ross Jenner, in an essay on Albini and Edoardo Persico, opens out this idea of atmospheric spatiality and further indicates how the pursuit of a ‘setting’, or ambientamento, for artworks is linked to the poetics of air. 15 Pointing out that Albini’s display design is composed of things that ‘barely touch’ or are ‘delimited by hints’ – he uses the term ‘paratactic’ to describe this – Jenner’s essay is an attempt to consider how we might make perceptible the kind of ‘airy quality’ 16 or atmosphere that is so central to Albini’s museums. 17  Connecting this quality to Albini’s domestic interior design, as well as to his earlier temporary exhibition designs such as Scipione in Black and White, 18 Jenner identifies a form of magical dematerialisation, ineffability or poetic suggestibility in Albini’s interiors. This is caught in his essay in a fabulously offhand and completely unexplained caption for a photograph of a display stand in the Museum of the Treasury in Genoa. The caption reads:

‘The sculpture of St Laurence, its shadow and the shattered hexagonal plate beyond, once taken to have been the Holy Grail, now presented as radio telescope.’ 19

Production still, Graham Ellard & Stephen Johnstone, Neue Museen, 2011

In fact, Marcenaro had already understood the poetic consequences of dislocating art objects from any sense of context when she wrote that such detachment transforms the object and informs its ability to ‘supply the present with allusions, suggestions and meanings that it certainly did not originally put forth’. 20  Tafuri used the term ‘dreamlike suggestiveness’ to describe the atmosphere of The Treasury of San Lorenzo and perhaps it’s precisely because of the possibility of this kind of anachronistic and allusive reading that the photographs of Albini’s display systems still resonate. 21

Guided by Gernot Böhme’s idea of the production of atmosphere as the aesthetic staging of that which lies ‘between’, 22 Jenner looks at a wide range of texts that attempt to make Albini and Persico’s aerial experiments in interior design comprehensible. Of course, the problem here is how do you pin down, or describe atmosphere? What’s particularly interesting about the literature Jenner cites is the turn to a form of ‘paratactic’ critical poetics itself, as writers reach to find a language to define the atmospherics of Albini and Persico’s interiors and exhibition designs – complex imagistic conjunctions abound as adjectives suggestively modify nouns: ‘breathing richness’; ‘ineffable colour’; ‘plastic solitude’. 23 Similarly, across the recent literature on Albini there is a tendency to try and capture this ‘airy quality’ through a rich but ambiguous poetic language that creates enigmatic compound phrases in order to construct a kind of image based sympathetic transport. Jenner himself talks of Albini’s early exhibitions taking on the form of ‘aerated diagrams’, or producing a ‘shimmering evanescence’; 24 Kay Bea Jones frequently returns to descriptive phrases such as ‘luminous weightlessness’, ‘interiorized transparency’, ‘relational transparency’ and ‘abstract lightness’; 25 Bea Jones also quotes Cesare De Seta, who describes Albini’s interiors for the Holz Dermatological Institute (1945), as employing ‘unstable equilibrium’;26and Stephen Leet turns to the phrases ‘rationalized serenity’ and ‘lyrical minimalism’. 27


In Storage and Rusting

Seeing the device in the back corridor of the Museo di Sant’Agostino, where it had been in storage for 40 years, all such descriptions appeared to be more than a little fanciful. The piston had rusted and seized up and evidence of some significant repairs and crude alterations made it look rather forlorn. Nonetheless, although it wasn’t the polished, sleek object pictured in the photographs, as we began to study, measure and draw it, it wasn’t difficult to appreciate the audacity of Albini and Marcenaro’s decision to mount the Pisano fragment on such a narrow support.

Pisano’s Fragment is now mounted on a large squat plinth, and the combination is anything but aerial, poised, acrobatic or light. Standing next to it, it’s immediately apparent what Henry Moore intended when he suggested that his appreciation of Pisano was transformed by seeing his carving close up. 28 The folds in the drapery, the twisting form, the intertwined arms, the tension in the neck as the figure of Margaret raises her head, are all compelling; – the sculpture seems to unwind and tighten itself up again as you walk around it. Combining this sense with the art historical evidence that Pisano’s sculpture represents the ‘empress being raised heavenward by two angels’, 29 either in the form of the ‘elevatio anime’ (the soul being raised to heaven), or the bodily resurrection, the combination of represented and real movement must have been an incredibly seductive idea.

All of which makes the recent attempt to reconstruct the device so disappointing. Marco Ferreri’s installation of the hydraulic device as part of the ‘Sindrome dell’influenza’ exhibition at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan, 2014, lovingly repaired and refurbished the piston but exhibited it with a silhouette style cut-out of the Fragment hanging above it. Ferreri’s restaging was really only a diagrammatic representation of the elements of the display without any of its material, visceral actuality that would make the original experience of the displayed work so enthralling. Everything that makes the photographs of the device so strange, so magical, was lost. The device is extraordinary precisely because of its relationship to the fragment and the improbability of what it does to a heavy object that ought to be immovable. In short, Ferrari’s presentation lacked atmosphere and enchantment and, although the now immaculately polished piston now rose and fell, its movement appeared entirely prosaic.

It’s still possible to get some idea of how radically innovative and atmospheric the galleries must have appeared at the time of their design. While there have been some changes and the galleries need some refurbishment, much of what Albini designed is still in place. It’s still possible to pick up one of the ‘campaign’ chairs and place it in front of a painting and the moving picture supports do still work. The effect of using them is genuinely eccentric, some of the paintings can be made to project about a metre from the wall and they look terribly precarious floating in mid-air. In some of the galleries in the Palazzo Rosso it is possible to create a kind of maze of floating pictures, some with the image facing you, some now appearing to be back to front. To protect the pictures from damage when being swung back to their location on the wall a small piece of cork is attached to the back of the frame or picture board.

It should be said that there is something unnerving about holding a small metal handle attached to an old master painting and pulling it away from the wall. Falguieres talks of the new Italian museums of the 1950s being flooded with a zenithal light and Bea Jones suggests they are ‘prismatic spaces’. In the Palazzo Bianco, these are perfect descriptions. There’s an intensity about the galleries in the way they engage the senses; brilliant bands of light are reflected in shifting patterns on the black and white marble floor, an effect that is multiplied as light is refracted by the glass doors. And it’s perhaps this physical sensation prompted by a hands-on and bodily engagement with the space of display that is the measure of just how radical Albini and Marcenaro’s project was. 30

16mm film still, Graham Ellard & Stephen Johnstone, Neue Museen, 2011


  • Michael Brawne Neue Museen. Planung und Einrichtung, Stuttgart: Gerd Hatje Verlag, 1965, pp.32–33
  • Marisa Dalai Emiliani, Per un Critica Della Museogrfia del Novocento in Italia: Il “saper Mostrare” di Carlo Scarpa, trans. and quoted in Patricia Falguières, ‘Politics for the White Cube: The Italian Way’, Grey Room, no.64 (summer 2016), pp.24–25.
  • This essay is part of an ongoing film-based project that looks at Italian display design in the 1950s. The project has resulted in two 16mm films exploring the atmosphere of Albini’s Genoa museums (Neue Museen, 2011) and the prismatic effects produced by the display cabinets in Carlo Scarpa’s Cast Gallery in Possagno (Everything made Bronze, 2013). Neue Museen, an excerpt of which is presented here, includes a sequence that uses CGI visualization to imaginatively reconstruct the movement of the display device for the Fragment from the Tomb of Margaret of Brabant.
  • Most recently, a photograph of Albini’s device was given a full-page reproduction in the Mousse special issue ‘On Display’, no. 61 (December 2017–January 2018). Contrasted with other photographs of display design collected there, the images of Albini’s piston appears as one of the most eccentric and surprising.
  • For instance, recent years have seen a surge of interest in Albini’s interior design, with Patricia Falguières placing Albini at the centre of an exploration of the importance of Italian museums for rethinking narratives of museum display, Kay Bea Jones’s major monograph on Albini, Suspending Modernity: The Architecture of Franco Albini, claims that he is the pre-eminent Italian architect of museum design and, particularly since the re-installation of the ‘crystal glass easels’ at The São Paulo Museum of Art, the extent of Albini’s influence on Lina Bo Bardi’s design sensibility has been variously recognised. A number of artists, including Celine Condorelli, have also recently looked to Albini’s work, and the piston in particular. On this last point, see Tara McDowell ‘Interview with Celine Condorelli. Any Form of Cultural Labour is Collective’, Mousse, no.53 (April–May 2016), p.232.
  • Once we began to look for more images of the device we found that the same three photographs reproduced in Brawne’s book were not only widely published in Italian architectural and design magazines of the post-war period, such as as the December 1952 edition of Domus. Rivista di Architettura Arredamento Arte, but also featured in other key English language architectural and design surveys from the 1950s and 1960s, such as G.E. Kidder Smith’s Italy Builds – L’Italia Costruisce; Its Modern Architecture and Native Inheritance, London: The Architectural Press, 1955 [dual English and Italian text] and Misha Black’s Public Interiors. An International Survey, London: B T Batsford, 1960. One of the images was also reproduced in Vittorio Gregotti’s New Directions in Italian Architecture, New York: George Braziller, 1968.
  • M. Brawne, Neue Museen, op. cit., p.30.
  • Palazzo Bianco (1949–51), Palazzo Rosso (1952–62), The Treasury of San Lorenzo (1952–56).
  • Ross Jenner, ‘Ambient Atmospheres: Exhibiting the Immaterial in works by Italian Rationalists Edoardo Persico and Franco Albini’, in Interstices : Journal of Architecture and Related Arts, no.14 (2013), p.19.
  • Caterina Marcenaro, ‘The Museum Concept and the Rearrangement of the Palazzo Bianco, Genoa’, Museum, vol. 7 no. 4, 1954.
  • Ibid., p.262.
  • Albini too explicitly wrote about the importance of freeing art from any dependence on its original context and in a lecture given in the same year as Marcenaro’s Museum essay was published claimed: ‘The work of art detached from the environment from which it was once connected, and having lost its practical destination, acquires its essential autonomy as a work of art, and becomes a source of spiritual pleasure by way of contemplation’. Franco Albini, ‘The Function and the Architecture of the Museum: Some Experiences’ (1954–55), trans. and quoted in Kay Bea Jones Suspending Modernity: The Architecture of Franco Albini, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2014, p.71.
  • P. Falguières, ‘Politics for the White Cube’, op. cit., p.27.
  • Ibid., p.25. The production of atmosphere becomes a central concern for many museum designers and architects during the immediate post war years, Lina Bo Bardi for instance, explicitly makes the connection between the production of a modern atmosphere and the ability of the public to view art as art: ‘The purpose of a Museum is to provide an atmosphere, a conduct likely to create in the visitor a mentality prepared for understanding the work of art, and in this sense no distinction is made between an old or a modern work of art. With the same objective the work of art is not located following a chronological criterion but is presented almost deliberately so as to produce a shock, to awaken reactions of curiosity and investigation’. Lina Bo Bardi, ‘O Museu de Arte de São Paulo’, quoted in Cathrine Veikos, ‘To Enter the Work: Ambient Art’, Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 59, no. 4 (May 2006), p.75.
  • ‘A new function was born: that of promoting public contemplation of the art work ‘in its essentially aesthetic values’. This new function, Albini suggested, found its architectural expression in ambientamento, an almost untranslatable word which implies acclimatising, setting, settling in, giving an ambience or environment to something’. F. Albini quoted in R. Jenner, ‘Ambient Atmospheres’, op. cit., p.20.
  • R. Jenner, ‘Ambient Atmospheres’, ibid., p.19.
  • Jenner suggests that this ‘airy quality’ can be traced back to the atmosphere of the Crystal Palace, Prampolini’s ‘Futurist Atmosphere-structure – Basis for an Architecture’ (1914–15), Impressionism as well as the more obvious and well-known examples of Italian commercial and state sponsored exhibition design such as Edoardo Persico, Marcello Nizzoli and Lucio Fontana’s 1934 Hall of the Gold Medals at the Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan.
  • An image of the open framework gridded display system from this exhibition was also included in the Mousse special issue ‘On Display’.
  • R. Jenner, ‘Ambient Atmospheres’, op. cit., p.22, our emphasis. The full caption reads: ‘Fig. 14 (right) Franco Albini & Franca Helg (1952–56). Museum of the Treasury of San Lorenzo, Genova. The sculpture of St Laurence, its shadow and the shattered hexagonal plate beyond, once taken to have been the Holy Grail, now presented as radio telescope’.
  • C. Marcenaro, ‘The Museum Concept’, op. cit., p.262.
  • Manfredo Tafuri quoted in K.B. Jones, Suspending Modernity, op. cit., p.143.
  • See Gernot Böhme, ‘Atmosphere as an Aesthetic Concept’, Thesis Eleven, vol.36 no.1, 113–26. On Böhme, see Mark Dorrian, ‘Museum atmospheres: notes on aura, distance and affect’, The Journal of Architecture, vol. 19, no.2 (2014), pp.187–201.
  • Giulia Veronesi ‘ineffable colour’ (1953), R. Giolli, ‘breathing richness’ (1936) and Zeno Birolli ‘plastic solitude’ (1983), trans. and quoted in R. Jenner, ‘Ambient Atmospheres’, op. cit., pp.15, 16 and 20 respectively.
  • R. Jenner, ‘Ambient Atmospheres’, op. cit., pp.18 and 19. In a second essay on Persico and Albini, Jenner talks of the Treasury of San Lorenzo as a paradoxical space in which suspended objects are placed in a building that appears to float in the ground. Ross Jenner, ‘What Goes Up Must Come Down: The Combat of Impulses in Italian Futurism and Rationalism’, Interstices : Journal of Architecture and Related Arts, no.6 (2005), pp.73–83.
  • K.B. Jones, Suspending Modernity, op. cit., pp.57, 87, 88 and 152.
  • Ibid., p.76.
  • Stephen Leet, ‘Franco Albini and the Scrutiny of the Object’, in Franco Albini: Franco Albini and his Studio: Marco Albini, Francis Helg, Antonio Piva Architecture and Design, 1934–1977, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1990, pp.33 and 34.
  • Stephen Leet, ‘Franco Albini and the Scrutiny of the Object’, in Franco Albini: Franco Albini and his Studio: Marco Albini, Francis Helg, Antonio Piva Architecture and Design, 1934–1977, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1990, pp.33 and 34.
  • In the late 1960s Henry Moore and Michael Ayrton produced a superbly illustrated book on Pisano, straightforwardly titled Giovanni Pisano. Both sculptors are lavish in their praise for Pisano and the book is positioned as a strategic attempt to write him into the sculptural canon. Moore in particular talks about Pisano’s extraordinary ability to represent energy and movement, writing about the first time he saw Pisano’s carving up close at Pisa in 1946 and the marvelling at the way Pisano articulates the ‘pieces’ of the body conveys movement and intensity. The photographs in the book are meticulously cropped to avoid showing Albini’s device. The two pins inserted into the Fragment to float it just above the plinth are visible, as is the gridded Ardesia slate wall in the background, but the device is not.
  • John Pope-Hennessy, ‘Giovanni Pisano’s Tomb of Empress Margaret. A Critical Reconstruction’, Apollo, September 1987, p.223. The Italian art historian Gian Lorenzo Mellini, in his 1970 monograph on Pisano, claimed that the sculpture inherently suggests an upwards, spiralling movement. The figure of Margaret, he says, ‘liberates herself with slow heliecal rhythm’. Gian Lorenzo Mellini, Giovanni Pisano, Venice: Electa Editrice, 1970, trans. and quoted in Peter John Blackman, The Tomb of Margaret of Brabant by Giovanni Pisano, PhD thesis, University of British Columbia, 1974, p.47.