May 16, 2022

Italy’s New Digital Art World

Silvia Anna Barrilà speaks to Reasoned Art about what makes the NFT space different in Italy
Credit: Annibale Siconolfi, O2 Distribution System, 2020. Courtesy of Reasoned Art
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Italy’s New Digital Art World

Recently, the Italian contemporary art world was shaken by an Instagram scam in which the accounts of four individuals, used to generate hype around young artists, were ultimately shown to be fake. The case highlighted how the digital sphere has increasingly become a site for the promotion and purchase of works by emerging artists, but also how the contemporary art world can be as much of a Wild West as the crypto space.

Despite their speculative associations, NFTs have been broadly welcomed in Italy, with the general public inspired by last year’s hefty sales figures and the association of globally renowned auction houses. The word NFT is still on everyone’s lips, and not only in the contemporary art world. Many well-known Italian law firms are now seeking to engage with digital art’s unregulated landscape.

Given Italy’s rich cultural heritage, NFTs have been surprisingly successful in bridging the traditional and digital art worlds. One of the major stories of 2021 was the sale by Florence’s Uffizi Gallery of a DAW (Digital Art Work) edition of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (1505-6) for €140,000 ($168,000). The proceeds were shared between the museum and Cinello, a new Italian company specializing in digital multiples of famous paintings, certified with NFTs. Cinello recently partnered with Unit London to curate “Eternalising Art History: From Da Vinci to Modigliani” which reinforced the practicality of having digital equivalents of fragile old masters at a time when, post-Brexit, transport costs have soared.

Installation view: “Eternalising Art History: From Da Vinci to Modigliani”, 2022. Courtesy of Unit London

Like Cinello, Reasoned Art seeks to unite traditional and digital art worlds. For its founder and CEO, Giulio Bozzo, the project emerged organically out of modern art history: “In 2019, I organized an exhibition of digital collages and Surrealism at Palazzo Rosso in Genoa, to show how digital art, which was born in the 1960s, has roots in the historical avant-garde. Later, I won a startup tender, and so Reasoned Art was born. The difference from other marketplaces is that Reasoned Art uses the advantages of the blockchain to certify digital works of art, but at the same time we work as a traditional art gallery to generate the cultural value typical of the traditional art world.” 

Since its launch in January 2021, Reasoned Art has arranged for works by 25 Italian digital artists to be displayed in ways that engage a wider public. So far, the works have been curated across three distinct channels: Institutional settings like foundations, museums, and galleries; the public space of railway stations such as Milano Centrale and Roma Termini; and in ways that transform historical monuments themselves into digital works of art. 

One prominent intervention by art collective Ouchhh reimagined the Arch of Peace in central Milan, built by Luigi Cagnola in the early nineteenth century, as an NFT monument in flux. Installed as part of the new year celebrations, the work’s imagery was generated by an AI system based on a vast data set comprising works of Italian art and literary culture. As a consequence, AI Dataportal_Arch of Light (2021-22) both reinforced Italian cultural history and rendered it momentarily contingent on the protean movements of a second, machinic, skin.

Ouchhh, AI Dataportal_Arch of Light, 2021-22. Courtesy Reasoned Art

Reasoned Art groups its artists according to different categories, with sale proceeds going to support training programs for the artists and curators. Their categories include artists working with AI (fuse*, Giuseppe Ragazzini, Sebastiano Barbieri), those creating digital avatars (ab(Normal), Lorenza Liguori), and a number who address dystopian futures (Paola Pinna, Hardmetacor, Waarp, Joe Karava). It also represents a cluster of architects, from Alvar Altissimo to City Maybe, as well as designers like Blade Runway, who recently collaborated with Bvlgari on a necklace titled, The Eternal Sun (2021).

Bozzo is keen to stress that the company has “no exclusive contracts with artists […] We want to leave [them] free to choose us for what we offer compared to our competitors.” In this sense, Reasoned Art tracks more closely to traditional galleries than the transactional model — and casino aesthetics — of canonical crypto marketplaces. “At the same time we collaborate with two law firms, Piselli & Partners and Negri-Clementi, working on smart contracts according to the kind of collaboration with the artists. In this way we also contribute to the development of the legal frame, that is still missing in Italy. Right now, there is a lot of speculation, but we want to create a culture for digital art, connecting with traditional art and also other disciplines, like electronic music.” 

Reasoned Art on the street, Milan, 2022. Courtesy of Reasoned Art

Like SuperRare, Reasoned Art prioritizes unique, single-edition NFTs, thereby privileging the traditional aura of quality over quantity. This approach recently convinced the investment company, LVenture Group, along with the art collector Rosario Bifulco, to invest €360,000 ($375,000) in the startup. “The vision of Reasoned Art was strong” says Giulio Montoli, Head of pre-seed investments and Acceleration at LVenture Group, “and aimed at targeting, within a market of enormous prospects such as that of digital art, a very specific group of artists and collectors: Valuable art for ‘high net worth’ collectors and experts in art, bridging the large collections of traditional art and the new digital horizon through a platform to select, guarantee, and seamlessly manage one’s assets. Reasoned Art is our first investment in the Art Tech field, but it is a trend that we follow with great interest and attention. LVenture Group, moreover, through the special ‘Love Italy’ project, has been supporting initiatives for the protection and enhancement of the Italian artistic and cultural heritage for years.”

Among Reasoned Art’s partners are MEET, an organization based in Milan that supports digital culture and creative technology. That Italy’s Minister for Cultural Heritage, Dario Franceschini, has recently allocated €6 million ($6.3 million) to fund the nearby Museum of Digital Art (MAD) will in practice turn Porta Venezia in the north of the city into a new hub for art and technology. It therefore builds on the success of the Museo della Permanente that recently collaborated with DART Milano to exhibit crypto art in an immersive fashion, collected by a global network of private collectors. Co-curated by Alessandro Brunello, Alan Tonetti, and Serena Tabacchi, the show was born of a collaboration with WRONG THEORY, another disruptive project that seeks to carve out opportunities for creative “contamination” in the NFT space.

Given the current level of interest — and notwithstanding another crypto winter — 2022 may prove to be a decisive year for the affirmation of digital art in Italy. Either way, what is eminently clear is that, in Italy at least, the NFT has come to be associated with a renewal of traditional art world practices rather than a futurist revolution.

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Silvia Anna Barrilà is a freelance journalist and consultant. Since 2008 she has covered the art market for Il Sole 24 Ore. She also teaches the Masters in Art and Cultural Heritage Management at the 24 Ore Business School. She is co-founder of Collective, an association of Italian collectors, and founder of the Contemporary Art Galleries platform. She is also co-author of the BMW Art Guide by Independent Collectors.