The new Gucci Museum in Florence opened its latest show this month — a selection of US artist Cindy Sherman’s early works — in a setting where mediaeval architecture meets fashion history. “For visitors to Florence, it’s nice to react with something that is contemporary and alive,” said Francesca Amfitheatrof, curator at the Gucci Museum and a celebrated London-based jewelry designer in her own right. The temporary exhibit “Cindy Sherman: Early Works”, which runs until June 9, is the latest loan from the vast collection of Francois Pinault, the French luxury goods tycoon whose holding company PPR took over Gucci in 2004.
Pinault’s contribution to the contemporary art scene in Italy in recent years has included the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana museums in Venice.
“Murder Mystery People” (1976) featuring Sherman in a variety of costumes greets visitors in a former chapel that also once served as a Gucci fitting room, which overlooks the city’s breathtaking Piazza della Signoria.
The exhibit continues in a room decorated with a mediaeval fresco of the Virgin Mary, which contains the series “Bus Riders” (1976) with Sherman posing as different bus passengers in Buffalo, New York where the she studied art.
“These works show her fascination with dressing up, identity and gender,” Amfitheatrof said. A close-up of the artist’s hand in the short film “Doll Clothes” (1975) represents “a society that puts women back in their boxes.”
Previous exhibitors at the Florentine museum have included US video artist Bill Viola and edgy British sculptor Paul Fryer whose representation of a dead Jesus Christ on an electric chair in “Pieta” caused something of a stir.
The mix of art and business is particularly fitting for a museum housed in Palazzo della Mercanzia, where Florence’s trade guilds met to commission famous artists to decorate the city, including Michelangelo and his David statue.
“The history of turmoil, passion and creativity in this place is amazing,” said Amfitheatrof, in charge since the museum opened in 2011, who explained that half the proceeds from ticket sales go towards renovating local art works.
Most of the museum is devoted to Gucci products through the ages starting with suitcases from the beginning of the 1920s when founder Guccio Gucci opened his first store inspired by his time as a bellboy at the Savoy Hotel in London.
The diamond pattern and the red-and-green stripes that are still used on Gucci products today are already discernible in the early works, which have inspired some of the latest collections by creative director Frida Giannini.
One spotlit room is dedicated to Gucci dresses worn for film awards like the shimmering gold dress made for “Gossip Girl” star Blake Lively and some feather and chiffon numbers for Cameron Diaz, Salma Hayek and Jessica Chastain.
The museum guards the Gucci archives in a basement which is strictly off-limits for visitors, and has special agreements with auction houses and antique dealers around the world to purchase historic Gucci products.
The collection is displayed in glass cases and is accompanied by explanatory videos and mood music, with collections treated as true works of art.
It has become a major draw for international fashion students, as well as Florentines curious about a local brand that has become a global fashion icon.
In its first year of operation last year, it had 60,000 visitors.
There is a strong emphasis on the evolution of Gucci themes, like the stirrup patterns and horseshoe buttons on women’s caftans from the 1970s.
The use of bamboo wood for handbag handles and the mix of leather and textile for suitcases were due to leather shortages during World War II.
Even the use of floral patterns was fortuitous — the product of a request for a silk neckscarf by Grace Kelly at a time when Gucci was not producing any.
Aside from a Gucci-themed Cadillac dominating one room, the collection is perhaps surprisingly un-blingy and contains a bewildering array of Gucci products from sledges to backgammon sets, from drinking horns to surf boards.
Amfitheatrof said: “Even though Gucci’s become a massive machine, when you go back to the roots, it’s exactly the same. It’s the DNA of Gucci.”