SONCINO, Italy — Having just returned from Venice, with its literal acres of art, crowded parties, Arsenale hikes, and tourists wielding umbrellas through the rain, one exhibition left me gratefully awed. Ca’ d’Oro, an example of late Gothic architecture built between 1421 and 1440, is one of most beautifully preserved palazzos along the Grand Canal. Purchased in 1894 by Turinese Baron Giorgio Franchetti, he passionately devoted himself to the restoration of the patrician palace. Searching for lost architectural details from local markets, he personally created the floor mosaic from antique marble pieces.
At the same time, the Baron amassed a highly personal and poetic collection. Contrary to the tastes of the day, he loved minor masters, ancient art, both Italian and Flemish. He collected antiquities, sixteenth century Flemish tapestries, sculptures, ceramics, paintings by Titan, Andrea Mantegna, and Van Dyck. He had portraits of his wife and son painted by Franz von Lenbach. A particular masterpiece, Mantegna’s pierced “San Sebastian” is housed in the “Chapel of Mantenga,”designed by Barone Franchetti.
It is this collection that comprises the first floors of this family exhibition. Each room is filled with work that the Baron chose solely for pleasure and appreciation. In 1916 he donated the palace with his collection in it to the Italian state, and in 1927, 5 years after his death, the Ca’ D’Oro was opened to the public; the Baron’s ashes rest under a porphyry stone in the portico.
In the portega of the second floor the focus is the modern collection of Giorgio Franchetti. The Baron’s nephew and namesake, a civil engineer, was a friend and patron of the “Scuola di Piazza del Popolo”, the vital art scene that thrived in post war Rome. The name comes from the square of the Caffe Rosati, where Roman artists like Schifano, Festa, Angeli and the sole female member, Giosetta Fioroni gathered. Formerly a stage for public executions, Piazza del Popolo was recently in the news as the site of womens demonstrations against Berlusconi. New York’s Drawing Center recently exhibited the first American show of Giosetta Fioroni. Post-war Rome boasted a true artistic firmament with artists like Rauschenberg, Calder, De Kooning, Kline, Rothko, Twombly and many others who were enchanted by the Rome depicted in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
Giorgio died in 2006 and is remembered as an intuitive and intimate collector. Unlike today’s mega-collectors, Franchetti was truly devoted to contemporary art and developed his collection outside the mercenary confines of a controlling gallery system; he was never interested in collecting paintings for venal intentions: he, like his uncle, had a generational fascination for beauty and a romantic vision of aesthetic pursuit. In fact, Giorgio lived in the same community as the artists in he collected. Franchetti is remembered as a strong creative influence who pushed both artists and curators to experiment. Excited by the post war artistic movement, he befriended artists like Enrico Baj, Mimmo Rotella, Tano Festa, all pioneers of the Italian pop movement. Checking dates of Rotella’s collaged posters and Piero Manzoni’s objects on canvas, one wonders if Italy influenced America in portraying our increasingly consumer motivated society. (I am writing this from the small Lombardian town of Soncino, birthplace of Manzoni.)
On view are masterpieces like Cy Twombly’s “La Caduta di Iperione” from 1964. Twombly, a young ex-pat in Italy in the early 50s, was championed by Franchetti: in 1959 he married Giorgio’s sister, Tatiana. Her striking portrait of her brother outshines others that were done by Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente.
Included in the show is one of the last surviving crystal glass sculptures of Luciano Fabro from 1968, a glass map of Italy. Also exhibited is Luigi Ontani’s 1972 photograph “Pinocchio.” Lola Schnabel’s beautiful short movie documenting Luigi Ontani, too, was premiered in Venice at the Hotel Bauer during the Bienalle opening.
Ca’ D’Oro is a short vaporetto ride from the Biennale, and minutes from the Grand Canal. Trip off the tourist path to a magnificentally restored palazzo to see masterpieces that range from Paris Bordone’s lush fifteenth century “Venus Asleep with Cupid” to Boetti’s iconic 1983 “Map of the World a Kabul Afghanistan.” The reverence and sheer non-commercialism are a welcome respite from today’s charged art scene.
Ca’ D’Oro presents a monumental restoration and masterpieces of a family collection that spans the centuries. The Barone envisoned his palazzo as a museum to house his treasures and celebrate historical architecture. This ground-breaking exhibition reveals a remarkable dialogue between generations, between two men that shared a unique brilliance. As Giorgio Franchetti said in an inteview at the age of sixty four:
It is a dream reborn, my family’s dream, and also an example of the potential of private realities that Italy can boast of to the world. The result is fascinating: it contains all the values that were dear to my grandfather, as well as the objects of his great dream of aesthetics and beauty.
Ca’ D’Oro is located at number 3932 in the Sestriere of Cannaregio (Venice) and open seven days a week.