Florence Gets Contemporary

Collector Roberto Casamonti bows the Renaissance city’s first museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art

Imagine the magic of a Renaissance palazzo married with modern masterpieces by Alighiero Boetti, Giorgio de Chirico, Lucio Fontana, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol. Thanks to Roberto Casamonti, who founded international gallery Tornabuoni Art in 1981, this has become possible. Indeed, Florence boasts its first-ever museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art on the Via de’ Tornabuoni, in the heart of the historic city. A native Florentine, Casamonti has bequeathed 250 artworks from his renowned private collection—highlights include Ernst’s “Femme, Maison, Moineau” (“Woman, House, Sparrow”) Fontana’s “Concetto Spaziale, L’inferno” (“Spatial Concept, Hell) and Alberto Burri’s “Rosso Nero” (“Red Black”)—and has chosen to house them in the spectacular Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni that he recently renovated. “If you’re expecting to find a ‘shrine’ to my long career as a gallerist, you’ll be disappointed!” he warns. “If you’re looking for surprises and off-the-beaten-track works, on the other hand, you won’t be.” In Casamonti’s opinion, there’s no need for another space celebrating “Futurism, Arte Povera, or Italian Spatialism. But I do believe there is a need to tell more stories about a genuine love of art,” the 77-year-old reasons.

The 16th century palazzo was tailor-made to house Casamonti’s passion. Built by the architect Baccio d’Agnolo, it’s a triumph of High Renaissance architecture. The façade is Roman-style classical with its pediments above the windows and niches for statues. Inside, however, it soars with illustrious details such as the all imposing hallway and the Column of Justice that was given by Pope Pius IV as well as the exquisite stenciled work by Andrea di Cosimo Feltrini adorning the inner courtyard and balcony. Meanwhile, it’s up on the Piano Nobile—the first floor with its six-meter-high gilded ceilings—where the Roberto Casamonti collection hangs.

The collection is divided into two sections. According to Bruno Cora, the esteemed curator, “The first includes works from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1960s, while the second (set to bow in 2019) spans the second half of the century from the 1960s until the 2000s—that is, the present day.” Walking through, it becomes obvious that the works are hung chronologically—a smart idea since it either highlights what Cora refers to as “the different artistic movements or tendencies to which the artists belonged or indeed helped found.”

In appearance, the bespectacled Casamonti may look may look like an elegant Italian businessman. But don’t be fooled by the classic attire. An innovator, he’s blessed with a sixth sense when it comes to acquisition. A major lender to the 2012 Alighiero Boetti exhibition at Tate Modern and MoMA New York, as well as to the 2015 Lucio Fontana exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Casamonti was one of pioneers behind the recent trend of Post-War Italian artists. “I fell in love… long before they gained worldwide acclaim,” he recalls. “It thrills me to be able to hang works by these now established and international names next to works by other artists who today find themselves outside the glare of the international media spotlight and the machinations of the art market.”

What’s refreshing is Casamonti’s blatant honesty and absolute lack of self-consciousness. As a collector, he’s not trying to rewrite history about how he began. For instance, amongst the Giorgio de Chiricos in the first room, there’s Boldini’s “Ritratto Femminile” (Female Portrait) dating about 1890. The Belle Epoque artist is considered old-fashioned by today’s standards, but it makes no difference to Casamonti. “This project reflects my firm belief that we should love art for what it is, not for what it’s worth socially and financially,” he says. Casamonti also believes in “the educational value of art, how it stimulates [and] animates. I want my collection to be accessible to all, regardless of their ability to pay, because I too believe, like Dostoevsky, that beauty can save the world,” he says. Nevertheless, he refuses to point out his favorites in the collection. “That would be like having favorite children,” he says with a smile.

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