Byline: JENNIFER GREGO
Right now, Marco Goldin is probably the most controversial art curator in Italy.
In the annual list of the "best" and "worst" shows and critics, which appears each January in the Giornale dell'Arte (Art Newspaper), he - or his associates or shows - figure no less than 10 times in the "worst" category: probably a record.
This is largely sour grapes. Goldin's crime is his success in luring large numbers of visitors to cities well off the tourist track, using as a bait blockbuster shows featuring well-known names.
His first group of shows for the city of Brescia, in the Alpine foothills east of Milan, centred on a sure-fire winner, Claude Monet, under the title: "Monet, the Seine, the Ninfee".
The show has drawn more than 400,000 visitors in four months - and has now been extended by two weeks to April 3.
Goldin's rise has been helped by the growing market for art-tourism, acute overcrowding in well-established Italian tourist sites, and most of all by cheap airfares.
In Brescia, I met a couple from Birmingham at the Monet show, who had flown over for the day by Ryanair from Stansted and seen all five of the current shows curated by Goldin in Brescia, and were going back after dinner.
Many of the small and medium-sized northern cities are characterised by a glorious past with a somewhat dull industrial/agricultural present-day image.
This often means a rich seam of art treasures is waiting to be exploited.
Goldin was invited to Brescia by the city's mayor at the end of 2003, "to show", he says, "that Brescia was not just the city of the tondino (twisted iron rods used for reinforced concrete)".
Modern Brescia is also famous for the Beretta hand-gun. The city began life as a Celtic stronghold, Brixia, but its Celtic, Roman, and Renaissance past are now largely forgotten.
One of Goldin's more astute moves has been to involve local businesses in opening their cities to art tourism.
In Brescia, the local council, together with two local banks, Credito Agrario Bresciano and Banco di Brescia have established a private/public company, Brescia Musei.
They, together with Gruppo Euromobil, Goldin's long-term sponsors from his home-town, Treviso, are supporting Goldin's ambitious, four-year exhibition programme for the city, under the resounding title: Brescia: Lo splendore dell' arte.
The project involves no less than 17 shows between October this year and 2008, beginning with an infallible crowd-puller, Gauguin and Van Gogh.
Goldin organised his first exhibition in Treviso, just north of Venice, in 1984, aged only 23. He raised the L12m needed, and wrote the 100-page catalogue during his military service.
"My intended career," he says, "was as a footballer. But I was bowled over by the brilliance of the art history lectures given by the late Giuseppe Mazzeriol while reading literature at Venice university, so I switched to art."
His career progressed rapidly. Between 1988 and 2002, he was curator and creator of a new city gallery of contemporary art in a 16th century palazzo at Conegliano, just outside Treviso.
In 1996, he set up his current outfit, Linea d'Ombra, to organise art events - intended originally to deal more with an Italian rather than an international audience.
In 1998, he was appointed curator of a series of six shows on Impressionism at the Casa dei Carraresi in Treviso.
These were enormously successful, particulary the 2002, "Impressionism and the age of Van Gogh", which pulled in a total of 602,000 visitors, and large numbers of foreign tourists - something rarely seen in Treviso.
The exhibitions brought 2m visitors over six years, pretty good for a town of 80,000 inhabitants well off the beaten track.
Goldin now had the exposure he needed, and having set up his own publishing house in 1999, Linea d'Ombra Libri, and, last year, a third company, Ibiscus, which runs the call-centre for taking bookings, he can now offer an attractive exhibition "package".
Goldin has been accused of acute "Impressionitis", or over-reliance on popular artists for his success.
This takes us back to the long-standing and un- resolved dichotomy between what the critics like and what the public likes.
Whatever the truth of the accusation, the interesting fact is that Goldin is using the Impressionists to bring visitors where they would otherwise be unlikely to tread.
The success of the Monet show now on in Brescia rubs off on to an excellent small exhibition of the distinguished Italian artist, Mario Mafai (1902-65) in the same building.
This, the Museo di Santa Giulia, is a renovated ex-Benedictine convent.
A further ancillary exhibition is a selection of superb engravings by such as Durer, Rembrandt and Carracci, at the city art gallery, the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo - three of the five exhibitions that can be seen on the same ticket.
Brescia's restaurants and hotels are doing well out of Monet. Almost all of them, according to Mr Goldin, have joined the scheme whereby a "Monet-card", issued with the exhibition ticket, offers substantial discounts to visitors.
The Santa Giulia museum itself has acquired a handsome, new glass and steel extension, which houses a bookshop selling Linea d'Ombra publications, a bar and a 150-seater self-service restaurant run by Ristop, which owns the eating places on the busy Brescia-Padua motorway.
The food is only passable, but the restaurant is so popular with the young that they have to do four sittings to cope with the demand for lunch at the weekend.
Goldin stresses that he is bringing in people who have never been to a museum. There is also an extensive outreach programme to schools. This seems to be true, and cannot be bad.