The Museum of Oriental Art

One of a pair of Tenno, ‘heavenly guardians’, Japan, 2nd half of 12th century, Japanese cypress wood, traces of pigments, height 118 cm, property of Compagnia di San Paolo, Japanese Gallery. Photo: Alessandro Bosio

The Museum of Oriental Art (Museo d’Arte Orientale, MAO) in Turin is celebrating its 10th anniversary on 5 December. The institution, which was established under fortuitous circumstances following the onset of the new millennium, is now the most visited Asian art museum in Italy.

‘The creation of the Museum of Oriental Art (MAO) in 2008 marked the culmination of various strands of interests in this field,’ says new Director, Marco Guglielminotti Trivel, who was appointed on 1 November. ‘On the one hand, Turin boasts a long tradition of Asian studies at the university; and on the other, the city witnessed a strong wave of extra-European immigration at the turn of the millennium. The need to create specific instruments to further our knowledge and understanding of distant cultures was thus strongly felt by the city and the Piedmont regional government.’

The Force Behind the Museum of Oriental Art

The force behind the creation of the MAO was Prof Franco Ricca, a native of Turin, who has a passion for Asian art. He believed that a modern institution focused on the artistic expressions of Asia might be formed by redefining and expanding the existing Oriental Section of the Civic Museum of Ancient Art. Prof Ricca was hugely influential, and managed against all odds to persuade the Turin city government, the Piedmont regional government and the San Paolo Banking Foundation to make a colossal investment in the museum. In the event, he was named the MAO’s founder and first director.

The new museum is housed at the Palazzo Mazzonis on via San Domenico, straddling the Roman and mediaeval quarter of Turin. The palace had been built between the 17th and 18th centuries and subsequently belonged to prominent members from the nobility. In 1870, its last owner, the textile magnate, Chevalier Paolo Mazzonis carried out extensive renovations to what was designated the headquarters of the Manifattura Mazzonis. His successors made further embellishments in the 20th century, adding ornamental features after the WWII. However, following the crisis affecting the textile sector, the Mazzonis business failed in 1968 and the premises were vacated. In 1980, the Turin City Council purchased the property and adapted it to house a section of the Law Courts from 1982 to 2001.

Restoration of Palazzo Mazzonis

The restoration of the Palazzo Mazzonis for the Museum of Oriental Art and its transformation from Baroque palace to Asian art museum took five years. It was undertaken by leading Turin architect, Andrea Bruno, an Italian representative of UNESCO and an expert on the restoration and preservation of artistic and cultural heritage. Great care and much thought have gone into the museum’s design. The coexistence of east and west – which the visitor is about to encounter in the palace – is made known already at the entrance courtyard: Adjacent Japanese gardens, a ‘dry’ Zen one of gravel and stone and another of ‘wet’ bamboo, have created a symbolic passage between the two worlds.

‘Somehow Asian artefacts interact in a very singular way with the ancient corridors of European architecture,’ says Dr Guglielminotti Trivel. ‘The only drawbacks are essentially matters of limited space. It is impossible to expand anywhere around the museum quarter and the building lacks a large space in front.’

Today, the MAO carries some 2,000 works from all over Asia. It aspires to be as representative as possible of the major cultural regions of that continent. Moreover, the separate galleries spread over four floors might be adapted to form structurally distinct exhibition areas.

Musee of Oriental Art Collections

Much of the MAO’s collections comprise objects already in institutional hands. The South Asian gallery covering Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent on the first floor offers a case in point. ‘At the core of the Oriental Section of the Civic Museum was an important group of friezes retrieved in the 1950s during archaeological excavations in the Swat valley by IsMEO (Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East) in Rome and the Centro Scavi, ‘Excavation Centre’ of the University of Turin,’ says the Director. These objects were divided in equal measure between the National Museum of Oriental Art in Rome and the MAO. Schist sculpture and stucco pieces went on to form the latter’s Gandhara section (1st to 5th centuries) of Buddhist art with Hellenistic-Roman, Persian, Central Asian and Indian elements. They were then enlarged by new acquisitions from the art market, including Indian stone sculpture from the 2nd century BC Madhya Pradesh to 15th-century Tamil Nadu.

The Southeast Asian collection of the Museum of Oriental Art  also consists of private donations to the city of Turin well before the MAO was conceived. The Khmer sculpture taking the form of bas-reliefs is inspired by the Hindu-Buddhist world. Among the stone, bronze and lacquered wood sculptures from Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, are a significant number of Burmese statues. They had been brought to Italy by Bernardo Scala from Turin, who worked on railway infrastructure projects in 19th-century Burma.

However, it is the Chinese section that dominates the museum’s five cultural areas. ‘More than one third of the MAO’s holdings is devoted to early and ancient China. It is by far the largest, and the most comprehensive, public collection of its kind in Italy,’ says Dr Guglielminotti Trivel.

Chinese Holdings

A substantial part of the Chinese holdings at the Museum of Oriental Art was inherited from the Meidaozhai collection assembled by the Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, based in Turin. An independent study centre founded by the legendary Gianni Agnelli in 1966 to mark the centenary of his grandfather’s birth, it has strong ties to the FIAT motor industry. When the MAO was being conceived, promised gifts from the Meidaozhai had included its excellent Neolithic collection, a large, comprehensive cross-section of monochrome and painted pottery. The remainder of the collection, originally acquired by the Turin City Council, the Piedmont regional government and the Intesa San Paolo Banking Foundation was a much later donation, and has contributed to the Chinese section’s exceptional size.

Spanning the 4th millennium BC to the 10th century, the Chinese gallery is focused on the place of funerary art in ceramics, bronze, wood (painted and lacquered) and stone. This is because Dr Marcello Pacini, the Fondazione Agnelli’s director until 2001, had been an avid collector of Chinese funerary art which was acquired in the 1990s from the international art market at large. He believed the ancient art of China, and its funerary art in particular, had a distinctive character and was fundamental to that civilisation. The collection was also gathered with the intention of its being permanently displayed in the foreseeable future.

The artistic output of Chinese antiquity is also represented by weapons and small ornaments from the Shang (circa 1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) periods and include significant ritual bronzes which were integral to their belief systems. The oldest known celadon products, a selection of stoneware from the 3rd and 4th centuries on show, represent a valuable transition between the genius of two important areas; the figurative earthenware of the Han (206 BC-AD 220) in the east wing and those of its Tang (618-906) counterparts in the north.

The Japanese Collection

The Japanese collection of the Museum of Oriental Art  is second only to the Chinese and forms a little less than a third of the latter’s holding. The original collection of around 60 ukiyo-e prints acquired by the regional government in the 1980s, had been  enlarged by a donation of 15 kesas, rare monastic robes. The gallery now owns major examples of Japanese Buddhist statuary dating from the 11th to the 17th century: They were selected by first director Ricca himself and restored by an important conservation centre near Turin. A particular highlight is a pair of tenno, ‘heavenly guardians’ and another is the 230 cm high temple statue of Kongo Rikishi. There are also two pairs of sixfold screens dating to the 17th century; one depicting Rakuchu Rakugai zu, ‘scenes in and around the capital’ and the other, the 12th-century battles of the Genpei war. However, the conservation needs of paper, fabric and other light-sensitive material mean that paintings, prints, illustrated books, lacquer and inro are only shown temporarily on a rotational basis. Any excess space left in the Japanese gallery was cleverly utilised by the reconstruction of a chashitsu, ‘traditional tea room’ where the tea ceremony might be performed.

The Himalayan Section

The Himalayan section, on the third floor, covers Ladakh, Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan from the 7th to the 19th century. It is focused on the Tantric version of Buddhism, its world-view and various esoteric art forms. Prof Franco Ricca was an expert on Himalayan art and wanted to enlarge the existing Tibetan collection of thangka of benevolent and wrathful deities dating from the 15th century: Metal statues, gilded bronzes, ritual objects and rare paintings, as well as carved and painted book covers  – one of the most important in Europe – have since formed the rest of the collection.

The Islamic Gallery

Finally, the Islamic gallery of the Museum of Oriental Art on the fourth floor representing Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the former Soviet Central Asian republics, emphasises the artistic production of fabrics, ornamental tiles, bronzes and manuscripts. A precious collection of Ottoman velvets owned by the Civic Museum, was supplemented by ceramics and bronzes dating from the Abbasid era (750-1258). All these objects have a cultural significance. They are used to explore the art of the Islamic world, an art characterised by geometric ornament and symmetry in all its forms.

Its galleries notwithstanding, the MAO aims to be accessible to everyone. Spaces are offered for temporary exhibitions and multifunctional rooms are available for conferences, workshops and other peripheral events. Moreover a tactile itinerary has been developed for the visually impaired and for blind visitors. There is also a library and photographic archive.

Dr Guglielminotti Trivel’s vision for the immediate future, is to make the MAO an international museum of Asian art – in spite of Italy not having an Asian colonial heritage. ‘For the first five years, we were focused on our permanent collections. We had only a few exhibitions and a fair amount of events. Yet the MAO emerged an important reality among the museums of the Piedmont region. But still, it had a basic local reach. The next five years saw the onset of many exhibitions, big and small, as we grew to become the most important Asian art museum in Italy which is now recognised nationwide.’

The challenge, he says, is how to make the Museum of Oriental Art more inclusive since it currently speaks to only a selection of Italian people who are fond of Asian cultures or are engaged in Asian art. ‘The last five years of programming however offered some popular and mainstream subjects which succeeded in bringing different audiences to the MAO. Only recently on 8 November, we inaugurated a ‘pop’ exhibition about tattoos to encourage people who do not usually frequent museums to visit.’

‘Our programming henceforth is to have at least three big exhibitions per year and about the same number of small ones. Among the former, the aim is to have international visibility which will be very demanding in terms of resources. Next year, we hope to have an original show about the relationship between Islamic art and culture with water. It will have many international loans. Some museums outside Italy are already expressing the wish to loan this exhibition following its first showing in Turin.’

For upcoming exhibitions in 2020 and 2021, the museum is already working with Asian counterparts including those from South Korea. Between 2022 and 2023, after joining projects with Mongolia and Japan initiated by other institutions in Turin, two great exhibitions from these countries will travel to the MAO. Meanwhile other exhibitions also being staged will be less demanding on resources. These include photographic exhibitions, some telling the story of Italian explorers in Asia and others of contemporary Asian art.

The Director is aware that Turin, ‘not yet being a tourist city like Rome, Florence or Venice’ is a setback. Moreover Italians are also ‘traditionalists’, who still prefer Western mainstream topics to innovative approaches to distant Asian cultures. He therefore does not expect blockbuster numbers even for the best exhibitions offered by the MAO.

One of the most serious issues that he says ‘must be addressed’ is that facing the greater part of Italian cultural institutions, especially museums. Following the international economic crisis of 2008, the problem is a chronic lack of resources, both financial and human. Ambitious projects like the Islamic one mentioned above need a lot of money which cannot be obtained from the Fondazione Torino Musei alone.

‘The way to address the issue is one, to create projects that can be part of a network of interests, with each stakeholder paying for a part of it. Another is to spend a lot of effort looking for sponsors. One of the first things I will do is to find a professional figure in charge of funding. Either way as an incoming director, I shall need to spend a consistent amount of time building relations that bring about collaboration and sponsorship.’

Ultimately, Dr Guglielminotti Trivel’s hope is the make the MAO a better museum both in terms of popular satisfaction and internal organisation. ‘To make your staff proud of the institution they are working in. We are aware that our museum was born in a very original and unusual way for a public institution. I guess we are a unique example anywhere in the world. Now, 10 years later, such a project won’t even be possible to contemplate. After the international crisis, with general economic losses and the weakening of institutions, nobody would be able to open another museum this way.’


Museo d’Arte Orientale, Palazzo Mazzonis, via San Domenico 9/11, 10122 Torino,