Art, Travel

Ciao, Chianciano!

Biennale Of Contemporary Art 2015 – Museo D’Arte Di Chianciano Terme

by Gregg Lopez

If you’re an art lover thinking of taking a road trip to Tuscany this fall – and really who isn’t? – type Chianciano Terme into your GPS (granted you’re in Western Europe), and let the satellite guide you through the winding country roads and beautiful amber laced vistas that inspired the Renaissance. When the sun begins to set you’ll recognize the famous somber hillsides from so many restaurant landscape paintings, the golden aura that captivated Diane Lane in Under The Tuscan Sun and helped her heal from her divorce and find romance once again.

There you’ll find the Chianciano Art Museum, the internationally renowned collection of London-based Italian collector Roberto Gagliardi housed in a four-story former hotel on a street with many hotels.

There are so many beautiful mid-century hotels in fact that it seemed odd how empty the town was when my wife and I rolled up in our rented Citroen with our toddler and a studio apartment’s worth of luggage stuffed in the back. Apparently the season lasts only two months in the spring. In the hot summer months, most tourists clamour for places less landlocked, perhaps unaware of the thermal spas that are a 10 minute drive from the piazza.

Look for the building with the sign that says ‘Art Museum’ in block type (and not ‘Hotel’ or ‘Nail Salon’) and you’re in the right place. We were ever so glad to be in the right place after our car broke down in Nice and we arrived four hours after we’d originally scheduled. Marie Gagliardi was gracious enough to keep a bottle of prosecco cold, which we enjoyed on the roof of the museum.  

Upon entering it’s likely you’ll be startled by a dark figure sitting facing the front door. A shiny black clothing mannequin wearing a floral print shirt and holding a mandolin.

“I know it even scares me sometimes when I come down here.”

It’s the first of many mannequins you’ll see at the Chianciano. In addition to paintings and sculptures spanning from contemporary to antiquity, the Gagliardis own a vast collection of vintage clothing, and rather than keep them in a separate room, they’ve placed mannequins all throughout the galleries positioned as if viewing the artwork.

After our first good night’s sleep we were able to relax on the spacious balcony and the little guy could run around the room on the tile floors, spin around and kick his little Minions ball back and forth. He’s really getting good at football.

Before getting the tour of the gallery we would be hitting one of the famous sulfur springs I remember from my visit to Italy as a child with my mother. My memory is vague but it seemed like it was a ditch on the side of the road with steam clouds rising from the dark water filled with old Italian ladies seeking the fountain of youth. I remember being told of the health and restorative properties of the eggy-scented sulfur water and, after a season of fast food, child care and deadlines, I needed a thermal fix.

By the guidance of google and GPS we navigated our way up a narrow winding road and managed to find the thermal baths of St. Filippo. Rather than the roadside ditch of my memory these thermal baths are towered by the Mount Amiata in High Val d’Orcia, a natural Tuscan environment that belongs to the UNESCO world heritage sites. Chianciano Terme can trace its history back to the 5th century BC and the Etruscans, who had built a temple dedicated to the god of Good Health. I hoped the baths could sort out my allergies at the very least.

In Roman times, word spread of the curative power of Chianciano water. Horace visited the area on the advice of his physician during the 1st century BC. Luxurious Roman villas were built in the area near the thermal baths. Today, amongst the 20th century hotels, the calm restorative feel remains.

After the relaxing baths and one of many outstanding meals at local restaurants it was finally time to tour the museum guided by the Gagliardis.  Two floors and 3000 square metres of classic, contemporary and historical works: Louden, Liu, Rembrandt, Goya, sketches by Toulouse Lautrec, Munch and Magritte, a 1950 portrait of Umberto II, pieces from the China’s Han dynasty, W.A Turner’s self-portrait, many paintings from the tortured psych of Frances Turner (no relation) whom the Gagliardis supported (“She came in here and asked us if we wanted any art.”).  The Mayor of Chianciano was on hand as well to welcome us. They’re quite passionate about promoting the town as an international destination for art lovers or just lovers in general and I’m happy to assist hence this piece of holiday propaganda you hold in your smart-phone ravaged thumbs.

Here’s the deal. From the 5th of September to the 13th, the museum will host the 4th Biennale of Contemporary Art, a premier exhibition bringing the finest contemporary artists from around the world. The Biennale is a celebration of carefully selected artists and their work, emphasizing beauty and overall quality. By eschewing recurring themes, movements or styles the viewer can appreciate each work as a single entity. The work will replace the regular collection and be lovingly displayed in the museum itself, but the festival takes over this whole town, with concert and wine tastings – and it’s all free. An area steeped in rich cultural diversity and artistically inspiring scenery. In many ways it’s the perfect location for an international art festival. The sleepy villa will instantly come alive.

The night before we left, we had the second best pizza in town – a restaurant with a kids’ room. A perfect summer night dining al fresco while being able to watch the kids play through a window. This is where we really felt the vibe of this town, low key, friendly but not at all dull.  

The next afternoon, before popping off for good, we took nice warm summer stoll around the empty tourist mecca, gelato, a little shopping and “the best” pizza before we were to embark on the three hour drive down south towards Castelforte. Walking through the piazza it was clear that the absence of a nearby beach accounted for the lack of foot traffic and the feeling that we had an entire resort to ourselves. You sort of wanted to walk down 500 years or so to a beach, but we settle for a benetton shop. Despite being the only punters inside, there were three clerks on duty. And everything was 30% off.  

Everything’s fine in Chianciano and we were sad to leave.