‘Recycling Beauty’ at Fondazione Prada, Milan

Words by Dan Thawley

Right hand and foot of the Colossus of Constantine, 312 CE, from the Basilica Nova (also known as the Basilica of Maxentius), Musei Capitolini, Rome.

Recycling Beauty, a new exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in the southern reaches of Milan, conjures inertia and posits its contents as a contemporary cipher with which to decode the wonders of a distant past. Curated by the Italian archeologist and antiquities scholar Salvatore Settis, the show assembles over 60 important relics of Greek and Roman provenance from diverse periods and is the third act in a series of research-based antiquities exhibitions hosted by the institution. It is an arresting epilogue to the twin shows Serial Classic and its Venetian counterpart Portable Classic, the former having inaugurated the Milanese foundation in 2015.

Designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ Rotterdam-based office OMA inside the Fondazione’s historical ‘Cisterna’ and the ‘Podium’ space he himself imagined, Recycling Beauty is a show about layers. Layers of meaning, layers of context, and layers of material. It is also a show about fragments: the splintered miasma of our planet’s history reshaped and reconstituted by generations of human ingenuity and craft to preserve value and tell stories.

‘What I think you see here in this third exhibition is the advantages of working with the same team,’ said Koolhaas, ‘Because by understanding each other better and better, we were able to create a concept for the exhibition that sees itself mainly as supporting a polemic. I think the more I have gotten to know Salvatore Settis, the more I realised that he is actually a polemicist, and that has a very clear resonance with my own character, whether we want it or not. And I think also Miuccia Prada is partial to that kind of mentality, a mentality which never takes anything for granted and that is able to see connections that are typically relatively hidden.’

Exhibition view of ‘Recycling Beauty’, Fondazione Prada, Milan.

As the show’s title suggests, aesthetics play an undeniable role here, in an exploration of predominantly figurative objects that have been considered beautiful and as such worth immortalising in the eyes of the nobility, of religion and academia for thousands of years. Some, like the Farnese cup – an exquisite sardonyx cameo chalice from the 2nd-1st century BCE – have changed hands so many times as to construct a provenance worthy of the illustrative, circular world map (displayed alongside it) that plots its journey across continents. Others demonstrate the ingenuity and irreverence of secondary artisans who have re-configured, for example, the spectacular Orsay Minerva – her draped alabaster torso reworked (with a helmeted head, feet, outstretched arms and baby owl in hand) in bronze during the early 17th century and later with marble in the late 18th century. Elsewhere, the repurposing of materials and fragments is studied in-depth to reveal the way that, through the ages, both the utility and meaning of objects has shifted through disparate contexts.

In a harmonious call-and-repeat where controlled statements of spatial design meet the unavoidable constraints of museum protocol, statuary and architectural fragments are exhibited upon their original pedestals throughout the show. Rather than hiding the welded steel and foam supports, OMA’s Giulio Margheri explained, the team worked with the imperfect materiality of the bases to create graphic statements. In one instance, blue rubber shock absorbers sit beneath a slab of MDF holding a porphyry latrine from the age of Hadrian, whilst elsewhere transparent layers of acrylic create prismic pedestals beneath a bronze peacock (on loan from the Vatican) or a 15th century horse’s head in bronze by none other than Donatello. Viewing stations recall the corporate environs of the Fondazione’s recent show Useless Bodies by Elmgreen & Dragset though their subject matter could not be more different, offering viewers the chance to sit and reflect upon antiquities at eye level, from Roman friezes and busts to a spectacular gold gospel binder from the court of Charlemagne inset with a 4th century cameo, emeralds and sapphires.

Farnese Cup, 2nd–1st century BCE
Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

‘I think what has made these three exhibitions so interesting and for me the most recognizable part of the polemic is that if you look at the art world today, or the world of architecture, it is almost in a corset of good intentions,’ said Koolhaas, whose metaphor stands in sharp contrast to the show’s  playful frame. ‘More and more, the room to manoeuvre is extremely limited and you are almost forced to behave well. I think that by playing with antiquities, we are able in a subversive way, which is not directly in your face to comment on the current condition of art.’

To wit, one of the show’s most radical statements can be found in its final act, where viewers enter the last chamber of the Cisterna to face a full-scale reconstruction of the 4th century Colossus of Constantine. The 1:1 replica of the legendary statue – itself a rework of a previous statue of Jupiter – has been crafted from an unprecedented combination of existing fragments, exact replicas and hypothesised pieces. Swathed in golden cloth, grasping a staff and cradling an orb, the postmodern Constantine stands over 11 metres high resplendent in a figurative collage of plaster, polystyrene, chalk powder, resin and bronze. I for one felt goosebumps upon fixing the statue’s gaze, his monumental scale made all the more imposing in the enclosed space. And whilst other works will return home to their rightful homes in the hallowed halls of the Uffizi in Florence, the Galleria Borghese and the Musée du Louvre, the Colossus will find his rightful seat in the grounds of the Musei Capitolini in Rome – a future relic and a tool to reflect upon the infinite strata of meaning imbued in raw material and invoked by figurative art: forever open to new analysis and interpretation for generations to come.


Recycling Beauty is on show at Fondazione Prada, Milan, until February 27th, 2023.

Discover the exhibition catalogue designed by 2×4, New York, here.

The Ada Gospels binding
1499 (binding), before 326 CE (cameo)
oak wood, silver, partially gilded, applied with gemstones (binding); sardonyx, three layered (cameo)

Nicolas Cordier, The Gypsy Girl, 1607–1612, reuse of a statue of the beginning of the 1st century CE, Rome, Galleria Borghese, inv. CCLXIII.

Exhibition view of “Recycling Beauty”
Fondazione Prada, Milan
Photo: Roberto Marossi Courtesy: Fondazione Prada

Nicolas Cordier, The ‘Borghese Moor’
between 1607 and 1612, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Départment des Antiquités greques, étrusques et romaines, © 2022.

Exhibition view of “Recycling Beauty”
Fondazione Prada, Milan
Photo: Roberto Marossi Courtesy: Fondazione Prada

“Cy + Relics—Rome,” 1952, by Robert Rauschenberg.

Read more…



The 26th issue is the Vietnamese-American designer’s most intimate project to date, inviting readers to explore the idea of home and understand the internal narratives of the shy designer.

Read more

See all Articles

A News in your inbox