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