One of the largest collections of Italian art is in this tiny mountain town

Tucked away in the lower reaches of the Alps lies the Italian region of Trentino, famous for its stunning landscapes, quaint villages and a vibrant economy based on agriculture, tourism and high-tech startups.

But Trentino has recently acquired a new feather in its Alpine cap – a world-class modern art museum in the small historic town of Rovereto.

There’s a certain logic to that. Rovereto was the hometown of Fortunato Depero, one of the stars of Futurism, that idiosyncratic Italian approach to industrial fetishism that struck northern Italy like a bolt of lightning in the early 20th century. It spanned a manifesto, a cookbook, and a dizzying relationship with fascism that continues to eclipse the movement and its visionary practitioners. In Germany, the fascists despised modern art. In Italy they accepted it. A new art for a new world.

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And now a new museum for an old town.

Opened in 2002, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto (better known by its Italian acronym MART) is an exuberant ray of sunshine in a building designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta. I’m not a fan of Botta, whose buildings always seem to aspire to the aesthetics of a Bond villain camp (see his damn casino in Campione d’Italia), but credit where credit is due, he actually pulled it out of his pocket here.

Surrounded by mountains on one side and two listed 18th-century villas on the other, Botta works with limitations he is not used to, which benefits both him and us. The result is an unusually restrained and subtle building that crouches behind the historic with a strange reverence palazzi of the old town and almost invisible until it is right in front of you.

Nonetheless, Botta has created an unforgettable structure centered around a central courtyard topped by a glass and steel dome and covered in yellow Vicenza stone. Inside, the building has four floors and 29,000 square meters of space, making it one of the largest modern art museums in Italy. Large windows ensure the interior is constantly flooded with natural light, reflecting off the white walls and shimmering around corners. It’s one of the few modern art museums where I was blown away before I even saw the art.

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto.

Adam Eastland/Alamy Stock Photo

And what about the art? Along with the Museo Novocento in Milan and the Estorick Gallery in London, MART has one of the most extraordinary collections of 20th-century Italian art I have ever seen.

It includes works from the mid-19th century to the present day, beginning with Francesco Hayez and his salacious masterpiece Ballerina Carlotta Chabert as Venus (1830), followed by a selection of works by the relaxed Italian Impressionist group of the Macchiaioli. Stepping into the 20th century, the gallery showcases the art of the Italian Divisionists (so-called because they preferred to ‘divide’ colors rather than mix them, often in a Pointillist manner). These include seminal works by Gino Severini, Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla, all of whom became full-fledged Futurists after World War I.

Ah, futurism. We have Filippo Tommaso Marinetti to thank for that. Although born in Egypt, he spent most of his adult life haunting the factories of northern Italy, breathing the heat, the noise, the dust, reveling in the aesthetic beauty of machines and being convinced of their profound emancipatory abilities. He was obsessed with speed; his quasi-erotic reaction to a 1908 car accident anticipated JG Ballard by some 65 years. There were eccentric distractions and exaggerations, but a belief in the transformative potential of the industry remained core.

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto.

Adam Eastland/Alamy Stock Photo

He gradually collected acolytes who became the most important Italian artists of the interwar period. In addition to the already mentioned Severini, Boccioni and Balla, he inspired Carlo Carrà, Enrico Prampolini and Luigi Russolo, whose works are all well sorted here. A special mention goes to Tullio Crali, whose unique paintings have never left me since I first encountered them many years ago. There is The strength of the curve (1930), who visualized Marinetti’s dream of “a car that runs under machine gun fire” and Nose diving in the city (1939) a video game aesthetic image from the perspective of an airplane cockpit. You have a sense of immediacy, energy and foresight that still feels contemporary today.

At its best, Futurism represented a sensuous relationship to modernity in all its ephemerality, thrill, and limitless possibilities. At its worst, it fetishized war, unleashed masculinity and Mussolini, who makes a cameo appearance here in the form of Renato Bertelli’s buzzing ‘aeroceramic’ bust.

Other movements existed in parallel. Giorgio de Chirico created his iconic metaphysical cityscapes during this period. Achille Funi’s charged revivalism pushed neoclassicism beyond pastiche, and Carla Badiali’s expressionist forms helped shake up the all-boys club. An entire room is dedicated to local hero Depero, whose huge canvases covered in psychedelic, Quechua-esque tapestries defy simple explanation.

After the war, Italian art continued to move towards abstraction, including the famous torn canvases by professional mischief maker Lucio Fontana. Social realism flourished in the home of the West’s most successful communist party, manifested here by Renato Guttusos miners’ wives (1953). The influential Arte Povera emerged, which pushed the material possibilities of art. The conceptual movement is well represented, but not to my liking. A nice antidote can be found in the Transavanguardia crew, with their splash of color and symbolist sensibility. Giorgio Morandi and his cheerfully uncool still life drawings are also included.

Beyond Italy, the gallery also features some notable works by Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel and Marina Abramović.

After a breathless tour of 20th-century Italy, MART still had a few surprises up its sleeve. First there was a special exhibition entitled “Symbolism and New Objectivity” with a large collection of symbolist, surrealist and magic-realist art from the interwar period from France, Germany and Austria, including works by Gustav Klimt, Maximilian Lenz and an artist named Richard Müller , whose bizarre paintings often depict lovesick armadillos attempting to woo human women with heart-shaped chocolate boxes.

And then – out of nowhere – I stumbled across an exhibition of 200 sculptures by Antonio Canova paired with 20th-century nude photographs by Mapplethorpe, Horst et al. It was so insanely ambitious and over the top and yet – somehow – they pulled it off. All this in a provincial museum in northern Italy.

Can there be too much of a good thing? Stumbling out of MART and back onto the quiet, quirky streets of Rovereto, I found myself in a kind of daze as I eyed every passing car, trying to find the one that was machine gun fire.

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