MILAN — “The Medusa is seduction and I want to seduce people.” This was one way Gianni Versace explained his choice of the mythological Medusa head as the brand’s logo, which still lives on and clearly reflects his fascination with the Magna Grecia.
Unveiled on Thursday and open to the public from today, 20 years after the designer’s murder in Miami on July 15, an exhibition in Naples traces the links between Versace’s passion for the art, culture and iconography of ancient Greece and the remains from that era displayed at the prestigious National Archaeological Museum in Naples, or the MANN, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Called “Dialoghi/Dissing — Gianni Versace Magna Grecia Tribute” and curated by Sabina Albano, the museum displays a selection of Gianni Versace designs owned by private collector Antonio Caravano. The Versace company is not involved in the exhibition.
“The fashion language is a historical one, which can decode anything,” Albano said. “To speak of Gianni Versace and of Magna Grecia means to go to the roots of our culture. One of his dresses from the Nineties is a piece of our history. Fashion is too often considered frivolous, but it can interpret history and I want to give it a historical significance.”
Although she studied archaeology, Albano confessed “a stronger love for fashion.” At first, Albano merely appreciated Versace’s costumes for the theater, but then she began to be drawn to and intrigued by the depth of the designer’s study of antiquity.
“Versace’s designs were not superficial, but based on archaeological findings,” the curator said. For example, she cited a drawing he reproduced of “a small palm tree with a particular shape that is a symbol in antique vases. This is a philological revisitation. He never copied patterns but was inspired by them.” Antique masks used in Greek theater appear in another pattern on shirts.
“Versace’s home in Reggio Calabria faced archaeological site,” Albano said. This played a big role in his childhood, as “Gianni would rather contemplate those remains than engage in children’s games.” His mother was a seamstress and he famously grew up in her atelier playing with swatches of fabrics and observing her work. When he moved to Milan, his love for his roots and his home territory influenced his fashion. “Unconsciously, as an emigrant, he was inspired by the memories of that southern creativity,” Albano observed. In a 1991 documentary, Versace referred to his childhood home, and said: “Italy was a Greek colony and this was part of my background. It’s the only link I have with my country. I feel very, very classic in this.”
Versace became a collector of antiquities. “He was curious, he bought a lot of pieces in Naples. He also likes the Neapolitan Baroque from the 1700s,” Albano added. Versace’s Villa Fontanelle in Como had patterns reminiscent of the treasures of Paestum, Pompeii and Herculaneum, she remarked. The designer made goddess dresses, Corinthian motifs and gladiator sandals his own.
“Reggio is the kingdom where the fairy tale of my life began: my mother’s seamstress shop, the couture show. The location where, as a child, I started to appreciate ‘The Iliad,’ ‘The Odyssey,’ ‘The Aeneid,’ where I started to breathe the art of Magna Grecia,” Versace has said.
The exhibition comprises 11 dresses and 20 accessories, from bracelets and earring to watches and home pieces, such as the opulent Vanitas chair or the brand’s ceramics produced by Rosenthal.
“I did not want to simply place the objects in the museum, but to create a dialogue between fashion and architecture, as well as a contrast, as fashion in a museum is unusual,” Albano explained. Hence the reference to “dissing and the rappers’ battles.” Among the standout pieces, there is the innovative Metal Mesh dress from the fall 1994 collection, which feels like silk, noted Albano. There is also a suit with black and gold decorations and the image of the Medusa.
In 2012, at the Museo del Traje (Museum of Costume) in Madrid, the exhibition “15 anos sin Gianni Versace [15 years without Gianni Versace]” also paid tribute to the designer’s Mediterranean tradition.
The exhibition in Naples runs until Sept. 20. A gala dinner at nearby resort Averno Damiani will be held on July 15 to benefit Fondazione Operation Smile Italia helmed by Gianni’s brother and president of the fashion company Santo Versace.