The Museum of Oriental Art (MAO) is a museum contains one of the most important collections of Asian art in Italy. The collection works represents cultural and artistic traditions from across the Asian continent.
MAO, the Museum of Oriental Art, is located in the historic 18th-century seat of Palazzo Mazzonis. The museum’s heritage encompasses some 1500 works, in part from the pre6thous collections amassed by various city institutions, in part acquired in the past few years. The Museum’s exhibition layout is di6thded into f4the cultural areas: South Asia, China, Japan, the Himalayan Region and Islamic countries. This layout corresponds naturally with the building’s physical structure which is di6thded into the same number of interlinked but structurally separate exhibition spaces used to house the various sections.
The museum opened on December 5, 2008, with the merger of the Asian collection of the Turin City Museum of Ancient Art at the Palazzo Madama and contributions from Turin City Hall, the Region of Piedmont, the Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli and Compagnia di San Paolo. Architect Andrea Bruno oversaw the restoration of the Palazzo Mazzonis to house the newly formed museum.
The exhibits now housed in the new Oriental Art Museum in Turin are mostly works already present in the city’s Ci6thc Art Museum. Others, however, were donated to the museum by the Piedmont Region, as well as by the Agnelli Foundation and the Compagnia di San Paolo.
The museum’s exhibition space, which has been designed to host f4the different thematic areas, such as the entrance hall where you can observe typical Japanese Zen gardens. Each area, from this point on, enjoys a different characterization of the space and the works on display. On the ground floor you can admire artifacts from South Asia, most of which are very ancient, and from South-East Asia. On the first floor there are Chinese-made artifacts, including bronze and terracotta works dating back to 3,000 BC, and in the appropriate rooms, it is possible to admire numerous artifacts of Japanese art. But that is not all. In fact, on the third floor of the Oriental Art Museum of Turin there is also a collection of objects from the Himalayan region, while the top floor is entirely dedicated to Islamic art.
Inaugurated on December 5, 2008, the MAO – Museum of Oriental Art in Turin is among the most recent museum institutions to fit into the already rich cultural context of the Piedmontese capital. For some time the local institutions have been wondering how to better organize the oriental collections, previously preserved in the Civic Museum of Ancient Art and, with the contribution of the Piedmont Region, the Compagnia di San Paolo and the Agnelli Foundation, during the early 2000s a considerable number of finds have been reached. Concrete support was also guaranteed by the Municipality of Turin, which made the prestigious Palazzo Mazzonis available to the nascent museum complex. The museum was directed until 2013 by Franco Ricca, a university professor of quantum mechanics, who has long been a passionate lover of oriental art.
From its origins as the residence of Savoy aristocrats during the Baroque period to becoming the offices of a textile company in the late nineteenth century, from witnessing the terrorism of the “Anni di Piombo” (or Years of Lead) at the turn of the last century to becoming a window onto the East in 2008, the building that houses the MAO can be seen as a microcosm of the great changes experienced by its city and surrounding region.
Retracing the history of the building, which is as symbolic as it is unassuming, means grounding the Museum firmly into the texture and life of the city.
Palazzo Mazzonis is a seventeenth-century stately home, located in via San Domenico, in the center of Turin. Since 2008 it houses the headquarters of the MAO – Museum of Oriental Art. For a good three centuries the building was the Torino residence of two branches of one of the major families of the Piedmontese aristocracy: the Solaro della Chiusas (descendants of the Solaro di Morettas) and the Solaro della Margaritas. Originally, the Solaro family belonged to the patrician class of Asti that had invested its proceeds from European trading and usury activities to acquire seigniorial rights. Subsequently they were integrated into the administration and honours system of the state of Savoy.
The building was known ever since 1587 and its story is closely linked to its owners’ history, which can partly be revisited through the stucco decorations in the great hall on the main floor of the building. Carlo Ubertino I is portrayed in sixteenth-century armour and dress; he was ambassador for Duke Carlo Emanuele I to Rome, France, Spain, Portugal, England and Scotland.
His son, Emanuele Filiberto Solaro, was a also trusted subject of Duke Carlo Emanuele I, and was appointed Governor of Vercelli, ambassador to the courts of France and Mantua, and Great Chamberlain. Emanuele Filiberto Solaro is portrayed in early seventeenth century garb and wearing the Collare dell’Annunziata (Collar of the Annunciation), the highest honour granted by the Dukes of Savoy. Marquis Carlo Ubertino II wears late seventeenth dress and the Collare dell’Annunziata (Collar of the Annunciation). During the civil war during which the brothers of the deceased Duke Vittorio Amedeo I opposed Duchess Marie Christine of France, he supported the latter and served as her diplomat. He was also Grand Master of the House and a member of the secret Council of State. There is no evidence of substantial architectural interventions during the seventeenth century.
In 1723 the Marquis Francesco Amedeo Ludovico decided to modernise the building and create a residence suited to his status. His son, Giuseppe Ludovico Maurizio, who was possibly linked to a decoration project that is still visible in the great hall, probably commissioned the medallion that portrays him. Following renovation work in the seventeenth century, the building became the aristocratic residence we can still see today.
In 1830 the Solaro della Chiusa family sold the Palace to count Clemente Solaro della Margarita, the Minister and First Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of Carlo Alberto, well known for his political conservatism. In 1870 Clemente’s son sold the building to Cavaliere Paolo Mazzonis, a textile industrialist. The ground floor of the building was quickly redeveloped as company offices and then remained unchanged for a century. The building is still known as Palazzo Mazzonis.
In 1910, at the request of the Ministry for Education, a municipal usher served a notice listing the building a noteworthy art and history monument. The notice mentioned a visit to the building by a young Jean Jacques Rousseau. This colourful note was due to the attribution of the building to the Solaro di Govone family, whom the newly-converted Rousseau had served, as he wrote in his Confessions. However, several elements lead to the belief that the Solaro di Govone family– and hence Rousseau – never resided in the via San Domenico Palazzo. The most recent interventions on the building were made along the main stairway and were commissioned by Ottavio Mazzonis. Ottavio Mazzonis was, amongst other things, a pupil of the artist Nicholas Arduino and in 1955 he frescoed the vault with the allegory of Art and Industry and the family coat of arms. Two years later he used oils to portray the Judgement of Paris on the East wall.
The Mazzonis Company closed down in the sixties and the building was left unused. In 1980 Ottavio Mazzonis, who in the meantime had moved elsewhere, completed negotiations to sell the building to the City of Torino. Following a five-year renovation period, between 1980 and 1985, the building was redeveloped to become Court offices. The building was equipped with facilities and ample spaces for large groups of people and became the venue for major terrorism and “armed struggle” trials.
The building’s last great transformation too place between 2004 and 2008. It opened again in December 2008, when the collections of the MAO Oriental Art Museum, were displayed for the first time surrounded by Baroque stucco decorations and walls steeped in recent history.
The MAO is a cultural institution that aims to collect, preserve and present its audience with significant works from the historical and artistic production of Asian societies while also enabling in-depth study of its works for scholars interested in the culture and art of Asian countries. The MAO also aims to be a bridge between the works it displays and its visitors, who are generally little acquainted with the cultural concepts and the environment from which the works originate. The Museum seeks to provide visitors with inspiration for new forms of thought and representation and a thorough awareness of the great value of all expressions of human knowledge.
The MAO aims to be point of reference for Asian communities in Torino and throughout Italy by providing them with a greater awareness of their native cultures. The MAO therefore seeks to act as a bridge between different worlds and cultures.
The museum was installed between May and December 2008, following a project by architect Andrea Bruno, an Italian Unesco expert for the restoration and conservation of artistic and cultural heritage, and with the advice of museum Director, Professor Franco Ricca.
Spaces were designed around pre-existing groups of collection works. This entailed articulating the collections into 5 different galleries, one for each different cultural area.
Previous uses of some of the areas were redesigned to provide visitors a better experience of the Museum. So, for instance, access to the collections is not via the monumental staircase and the covered entrance courtyard has become a visitor reception area; the central courtyard has been encased in a glazed structure containing two Japan-inspired gardens. It now acts as a place of transition between West and East. The space under the roof has become an easily accessible and attractive open exhibition area, an artificial space that conceals the building’s structural elements.
Installation of the museum involved moving works that until then had been in suitably equipped and monitored storage facilities. All the exhibits currently on display were included in the move, from the more fragile glass and ceramic items, to the more sizeable ones in stone. Specialised operators carried out all the transport and handling activities with the support of museum staff. Subsequently the works were unpacked under the control of museum staff and placed in purpose-designed display cases. The cabinets and display cases were customised for the specific exhibits they were to hold, and made with a variety of features and materials.
An aesthetically suitable graphic layout was designed for the whole exhibition area, providing visitors with useful information for their visit and enhancing their experience of the collections.
From the lighting of the display cases to the installation of the structures, from the graphic elements in the galleries to the handling of the artefacts, the installation of the museum required the coordination of a number of professionals and specialists working side by side and combining their timelines and activities in view of a common goal.
A major re-installation project led to the creation of a large area for major temporary exhibitions in the spring of 2015.
Fruit of the need to use a new tool for the knowledge of distant worlds, the MAO welcomes the oriental collections previously preserved in the Civic Museum of Ancient Art but also owes much to the contribution of the finds from the collections of the Piedmont Region, of the Compagnia di San Paolo and the Agnelli Foundation. The aim of the museum is to preserve and make public the emblematic works of oriental artistic production and to become a privileged access to scholars of Asian culture, also with the help of specific initiatives. The interior layout, designed by the architect Andrea Bruno, provides for the rotating exhibition of 1,500 works, some of considerable importance, arranged in five sections. The criteria that suggested the design choices made it possible to create an enjoyable museum itinerary, despite the typical layout of an ancient building and therefore not always favorable. The entrance hall, in which a large glass space has been created, preserves the nineteenth-century cobblestones which houses the Japanese Zen gardens, with sand and moss. This is the starting point to visit the five areas, characterized by different chromatic and stylistic choices, with extensive use of teak, steel, glass and a museum graphic evocative of the places of origin.
The MAO aims to achieve the broadest possible representation of artistic production from the many Asian countries. The museum houses the main cultural and artistic traditions of the Asian continent. The Museum’s holdings comprise some 2200 works from several Asian countries. The permanent exhibition area is divided into five galleries each devoted to a corresponding cultural area: South and Southeast Asia with works from the Indian subcontinent and from Indochina; China, the cradle of a centuries-old, proteiform artistic civilisation; the Himalayan Region with its fertile interaction between Indian and Chinese cultures; Japan, a land with original artistic developments that arose from the encounter between Asian and European cultures; the Islamic countries bearing witness to the extraordinary artistic effervescence that extended from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.
The first floor houses the first part of the Japanese Gallery, where you can admire large painted screens and a series of lacquered and gilded wooden sculptures. On the second floor the gallery continues with the display of weapons and armor, paintings, fabrics and precious prints.
On the third floor is the Himalayan Gallery which houses precious and rare specimens of Tibetan thang-ka and bronze sculptures; worthy of note is the part dedicated to the display of manuscripts with precious wooden covers.
The fourth floor concludes the itinerary with the strictly green room dedicated to Islamic art. The environment, characterized by the trussed ceiling of the historic building, appears as a large corridor flanked by the exhibition furniture which houses Ottoman velvets, ceramics, bronzes as well as rare Persian manuscripts and calligraphic copies of the Koran.
South Asia and Southeast Asia Gallery
The South Asia gallery houses collections from three major cultural geographic areas: Gandhara, India and Indochina.
Gandhara is the geographical term for an area between Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. The same term denotes the Buddhist-inspired artistic production that flourished in the area between the second century BCE and the fifth century CE. In addition to the friezes from the great Butkara stupa, that was discovered in the Fifties by the excavations of the Piemonte section of IsMEO, the Gandhara section displays a series of recently purchased schist, stucco and terracotta statues.
India section displays artwork inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism from Kashmir, India and East Pakistan. The stonework, bronzes, pottery and paintings on cotton span a period from the second century BCE to the nineteenth century. The Indian art rooms contain reliefs and sculptures from the second century BCE to the fourteenth century CE, and include examples of Shunga, Kushana, Gupta and medieval Indian art.
Southeast Asia Despite reflecting strong Indian influences, artwork from the area that includes Thailand, Myanmar, Viet Nam and Cambodia expresses iconographical conventions and stylistic features that are determined by the cultural history of these countries. The Southeast Asia rooms contain Thai, Cambodian and Burmese art as well as important sculptures from the Khmer period.
China’s millennial history and its control of vast territories generated a great variety of art forms. However, thanks to its centralised political structure and the organic nature of its cultural models, it can be characterised in a generally homogeneous way.
The Chinese Gallery contains ancient Chinese art from 3000 BCE to approximately 900 CE, with Neolithic pottery, ritual bronzes, pottery, c and terracotta. Over two hundred examples of funerary art from the Han and Tang periods are also on display.
Japan’s artistic production reveals the originality of what developed from the merging of refined traditional craftsmanship with an almost religious respect for the intrinsic qualities of materials, together with a willingness to welcome outside elements issued from the highest levels of cultural expression.
Buddhist-inspired statues (from the twelfth to the seventeenth century) can be found in the rooms dedicated to Japan, together with magnificent screens from the early seventeenth century, paintings and polychrome woodblock prints and a rich collection of finely worked lacquer objects.
The art of the Himalayan region (Ladakh, Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan) shares a common Tantric version of Buddhism from which emerges a worldview that influences architecture, statues, painting, books and ritual instruments. The Himalayan Gallery displays notable collections of wood and metal sculptures, ritual instruments, tempera paintings dating from between the twelfth to the eighteenth century, and a series of carved and painted wooden sacred texts covers.
The Islamic section of the museum displays works from the Middle East, Persia, Turkey and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The collections include bronzes, ceramics and manuscripts, with particular emphasis on the aesthetic value of calligraphy.
The gallery presents a rich collection of pottery and glazed tiles that illustrate the evolution of ceramic production from the ninth to the seventeenth century.
The restoration project for the building was drafted by the Buildings for Culture Department of the city of Torino, following the guidelines of architects Durbiano, Isola and Reinerio who had been appointed by the Compagnia di San Paolo. Interior decorations were restored between 2004 and 2005 installing facilities and systems and structural consolidation were completed between 2005 and 2008.
The guidelines for the restoration project were to consolidate the building’s structure, respecting its existing features, with as little visual impact as possible. Hence facilities were installed in less important areas, underfloor heating was used, while piping and cabling lines were placed in existing ducts. Great attention was paid to the all the building systems. A totally new lighting system was installed as well as systems for emergency lighting, fire detection and fire protection, intrusion protection, an audio system for emergency evacuation, video surveillance, climate control, plumbing and sanitation.
A brand new glazed pavilion, containing two Japanese-inspired dry and wet gardens, was created in the inner court. Furthermore, assembling the MAO collections required constant conservative maintenance and, if necessary, restoring works to their original condition. Accordingly, a significant restoration campaign was initiated to ensure the preservation of the works and optimal conservation conditions for display purposes. Restoration work began in 2005. It was partly completed inside the building during the months before its public opening in 2008.