Art mar­ket

A visit to the city’s Bi­en­nale of­fered temp­ta­tions be­yond the sale­rooms

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

IT was no hard­ship for me to be in Florence at the end of Septem­ber to visit the Bi­en­nale In­ter­nazionale dell’ An­ti­quar­i­ato in the Palazzo Corsini sull’arno—my first re­turn since 2011. Not only was the fair par­tic­u­larly hand­some, with a fresh de­sign by the de­signer Mat­teo Corvino, but it at­tracted 30,000 visitors over the 10-day run and sig­nif­i­cant busi­ness was done.

At the risk of read­ing like a tourist brochure, I must di­gress for a mo­ment. A con­sid­er­able bonus to these for­eign trips is that one is likely to run into friends and ac­quain­tances, as well as col­leagues, who may alert one to fur­ther en­joy­ments be­yond the im­me­di­ate busi­ness. This time, as I was mak­ing my way through the court­yard of the Palazzo Strozzi to see the fine ex­hi­bi­tion of Cin­que­cento paint­ings and sculp­ture from Michelan­gelo and Pon­tormo to Gi­ambologna, I saw the deal­ers Dino To­masso and Richard Knight hav­ing a cof­fee af­ter their visit.

They told me that they were about to go to the nearby Santi Michele e Gae­tano for a Gre­go­rian Mass chanted by nuns. Nat­u­rally, I put off the ex­hi­bi­tion un­til later and we en­joyed a re­mark­able ex­pe­ri­ence. De­spite be­ing a new or­der, the Sis­ters Ador­ers of the Royal Heart of Je­sus in their sky­blue man­tles looked and sounded per­fectly me­dieval.

Then, my col­leagues Su­san Moore of Apollo and Anne Crane of An­tiques Trade Gazette took me to what is si­mul­ta­ne­ously one of the old­est and new­est of the city’s at­trac­tions. The Opera del Duomo, or cathe­dral work­shop, has been look­ing af­ter the build­ing’s fab­ric since 1296 and has had its mu­seum since 1891, hous­ing sculp­tures from the first façade, to­gether with other trea­sures, in­clud­ing the orig­i­nal bronze Bap­tistry doors and the Piéta that Michelan­gelo in­tended for his own tomb. The mu­seum has been beau­ti­fully and in­tel­li­gently re­designed and I would urge any­one to visit it.

Also out­side the fair, but closely con­nected to it, was a sculp­tural dis­play in the Pi­azza della Sig­no­ria, where, along­side the Re­nais­sance states, we saw Big Clay #4 and Two Tus­can Men by Urs Fis­cher (b.1973) (Fig 4). One of the men de­picted was Fabrizio Moretti, chair­man of the fair, who com­mis­sioned the project and was seen blended into a sculp­ture from his own gallery; the other posed atop a fridge stocked with veg­eta­bles. Both were sculpted in wax as can­dles timed to burn down dur­ing the fair’s run, mak­ing a very ef­fec­tive con­tem­po­rary van­i­tas still-life.

As for Big Clay, it was very big and at­tracted com­ments such as ‘a pile of Man­zoni with­out the tin’.

The fair it­self was very much a show­case for older paint­ings and sculp­ture, with rather less fur­ni­ture, sil­ver and ceram­ics than I re­mem­ber from the past. Nat­u­rally, the ac­cent is Ital­ian, but there were other na­tion­al­i­ties and schools to be found among the ex­hibits. I think that the num­ber of for­eign gal­leries has also risen a lit­tle. This should in­crease fur­ther, as Ital­ian leg­is­la­tion that has con-

stricted and com­pli­cated sales to for­eign­ers is cur­rently un­der dis­cus­sion and likely to be amended.

Not sur­pris­ingly, how­ever, many of the for­eign ex­hibitors were busi­nesses that had ac­tual or his­toric Ital­ian con­nec­tions, in­clud­ing Sarti from Paris, Ro­bi­lant & Voena, Col­naghi and To­masso Brothers from Lon­don— but not, ex­cept in stock, Agnew.

Agnew was there for the first time and its sales in­cluded a por­trait of a gen­tle­man by the Cre­monese An­to­nio Campi (1524–87) and St An­thony and the Cen­taur by Benedetto di Mon­tagna from Vi­cenza (1481–1550). Among in­sti­tu­tional buy­ers, the Academy Gallery of Florence took two gold­ground pan­els by Mar­i­otto di Nardo di Cione from Sala­mon & C of Mi­lan

(Fig 3), as well as a mar­ble bust of Gio­vanni Bat­tista Nic­col­ini by Lorenzo Bar­tolini (1777–1850)

(Fig 2) from Gio­vanni Pratesi of Florence.

Nic­col­ini was a poet and play­wright who cham­pi­oned the Risorg­i­mento. Strangely, Bar­tolini was a favourite sculp­tor of the Bon­a­partes, de­spite re­act­ing against their regime’s Clas­si­cism in favour of a pre-canova nat­u­ral­ism.

I am told that Fras­cione Arte was very en­thu­si­as­tic about the sale —to an Amer­i­can Con­tem­po­rar­yart col­lec­tor who has de­cided to open up to the an­tique world —of The Holy Fam­ily with Saint El­iz­a­beth and Saint John the Bap­tist by the 16th-cen­tury Floren­tine Domenico Cresti, called Il Passig­nano.

The To­masso stand ben­e­fited from be­ing op­po­site a com­fort­able win­dow seat, where the brothers were able to hold court when not en­joy­ing chant­ing and ex­hi­bi­tions and they made a num­ber of sig­nif­i­cant sales. No­table among them was a stucco relief of The Madonna and Child with An­gels

in the form of a roundel within a rec­tan­gle mea­sur­ing 23¼in by 23in. It was at­trib­uted to the

stu­dio of Luca della Rob­bia (about 1400–82) and un­doubt­edly mod­elled from an orig­i­nal by him. Ac­cord­ing to an es­say by Dr Charles Avery, it is an early ex­am­ple of a roundel used for this sub­ject.

Among the paint­ings to sell were two that at­tracted me by be­ing con­trast­ing takes on the same sub­ject mat­ter—por­traits of pairs of sis­ters —a cen­tury apart. The one, with the So­ci­età di Belle Arte of Viareg­gio, was of Carolina Grassi and Bianca Big­nami, nées Gabrini (365⁄8in by 281⁄8in) (Fig 5) by

Francesco Hayez (1791–1882). The ma­te­ri­als of their 1830s dresses were beau­ti­fully ren­dered and so, too, but very dif­fer­ently, were those of the un­named sis­ters in Cag­nac­cio di San Pi­etro’s 1920s La Pri­mav­era, with An­tonacci and Lapic­cirella of Rome (Fig 1). Cag­nac­cio (1897– 1946) moved from Fu­tur­ism to Magic Re­al­ism and this was a nearSur­re­al­ist half­way stage.

Haystack nee­dle found

Fig 1: Pri­mav­era by Cag­nac­cio di San Petro (1923–25). With An­tonacci and Lapic­cirella

Fig 2 far left: Bust by Lorenzo Bar­tolini. With Sala­mon & C. Fig 3 left: The Madonna and Child with An­gels. With To­masso Brothers

Fig 5: Por­trait of Carolina Grassi and Bianca Big­nami—the Gabrini Sis­ters by Francesco Hayez. With So­ci­età di Belle Arte of Viareg­gio

Fig 4: Urs Fis­cher’s Big Clay #4 and Fabrizio Moretti in­stal­la­tion

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