Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

The Palazzo Corsini in Florence, home of the XXII Florence Biennale

The Palazzo Corsini

View of the grotto in the Palazzo Corsini

Woman Mourning
at Colnaghi & Co., London

Guiliano da Rimini
Portrait of St. Catherine
early 14th century
at Moretti, Firenze

Andrea della Robbia
Madonna and Child
ca. 1475
at Piva & Co., Milano

Florentine ebony cabinet with pietra dura panels
early 19th century
at Guido Bartolozzi Antichità, Firenze

Majolica dish with trophies and a green and yellow chessboard decoration
16th century
at Altomani & Co., Pesaro

Lacquered ribalta secretary with golden chinoiserie decoration
at Genovese Visconteum di Carlo Montanaro, Milano

Dany Lartique
Five-panel screen
at Nicoletta e Barbara Lebole, New Art Gallery, Arezzo
Palazzo Fantastico
by Brook S. Mason

The XXII Florence Biennale, International Art and Antiques Fair, Sept. 22-Oct. 7, 2001, at the Palazzo Corsini, Via del Parione 11, 50123 Florence, Italy.

A timely barometer of the global art market after the tragic World Trade Center bombing just might be the XXII Biennale in Florence. Italy's largest and oldest art and antiques fair opened its 2001 edition just 11 days after the terrorist attacks in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. By the second day of the event, some of the 76 dealers had already racked up substantial sales, proving the robustness of the art market.

When first founded 42 years ago, this fair matched today's Maastricht European Fine Art Fair in stature. More than 100 international dealers participated, including a number from far beyond Italian shores. But the Florentine fair, held in the crumbling Palazzo Strozzi, lost its luster along the way as numerous dealers dropped out.

Now, under the leadership of Florentine antiques dealer Giovanni Pratesi, who serves as Secretary-General of the event, the fair has blossomed. There are a slew of dealers from France, the U.S. and Spain. Mounting this year's version cost a stunning two billion lire -- that's $1 million. Dealers pay half the cost.

The Biennale is held in the Palazzo Corsini, just blocks away from the Ponte Vecchio. The 17th-century palazzo alone is worth a visit, with its flamboyant grotto with super-size putti floating from the ceiling. It was home to Pope Clement XII, who founded the Capitolini Museum in Rome. The descendants of this august family, headed by Prince Filippo Corsini, still reside here and their collection of paintings is on view.

What's more, the Biennale installation has been "trimmed up" by no less than Pier Luigi Pizzi, the theater designer was responsible for the design of the Paris Biennale three years ago. Here, Pizzi has closed off the Palazzo's interior garden and created magnificent stands by trimming the doorways with the height of baroque molding in white and gold. Quite frankly, the stands marked by a bold cartouche with dealers' names in gold make our Seventh Regiment Armory's jerry-built booths look meager at best.

Who goes? Well, the vernissage was packed with clutches of Guccis, Puccis and Ferragamos, all appropriately stylishly clad, of course. Mixed in were the requisite Italian nobility, bejeweled marchessas and the like as well as Italian politicos such as Vittorio Sgarbi, undersecretary in the Ministry of Culture. Americans seem to be in scant evidence in town but there are masses of Japanese.

Perhaps the prime index of where this fair now ranks on the international fair circuit is the offering of London's Colnaghi. Here Jean Luc Baroni, Colnaghi & Co.'s managing director, is touting the Michelangelo study on paper of a mourning woman sold at Sotheby's London salesroom this June for $8.4 million. Now priced at around $11.2 million, the exceedingly somber work on paper depicting a woman clutching her robe is fast drawing hordes of visitors.

"This could be the only chance for Italians to see the Michelangelo in the flesh," says Baroni, who is half Florentine. He is hoping a UK collector will snap up the previously unknown example discovered in an album found at Castle Howard.

Tailoring his stand to the local population, Baroni's offerings are Italian, of course. So there is a charming Gaetano Gandolfi portrait for a reasonable $116,000, along with two Guardis, crisply rendered views of Venice and in pristine condition priced at $210,000 each.

By the second day of the fair, Altomani, which is based in Pesaro, had written up a hefty nine sales, including a Frederico Barocci portrait of a nobleman in ruffled collar for $342,000, a rare 17th-century jasper vessel for $80,000 and a 17th-century gilded bronze clock, in the shape of a cupola topped edifice, which still works. All of the works of art went to Italians except for one to a German client.

Altomani may hardly be a recognizable name in the U.S., but this dealer is one of six Italian establishments that participate in the Maastricht TEFAF, proving his distinction in haute art circles.

Another dealer boasting substantial sales is the Paris-based Canesso. Sold was a Carlo Baroni (1569-1632) portrayal of Saint Sebastian along with a lush early 17th-century still life of flowers, the bottom portion of the painting crammed with pomegranates, plums and peaches. "There remains a heavy demand for Old Masters," says Maurizio Canesso from his red brocade lined stand. Only five years ago, this specialist in Italian Baroque paintings sold 20 examples annually; now, he writes up triple that amount with some costing upwards of $1 million.

What makes this fair so superlative is the breathtaking quality in every area of the arts. Florentine dealer Fabrizio Moretti is touting a jewel of a gold-ground painting of St. Catherine by Guilianio di Rimini (1307-46). Only this summer, the painting on panel with surprisingly naturalistic modeling had been exhibited in the comprehensive Giotto exhibition in Padua. Even so, the price seems remarkably reasonable: $600,000. "Gold ground examples are undervalued these days," says Moretti, who believes that while this specialty is a particularly European taste, its collecting base will expand in time.

When it comes provenance, this fair boasts remarkable examples. Simply consider New York's Pandora Old Masters. Dealer Lester Carissimi is featuring a Tiepolo watercolor of St. Anthony with infant, which had once been owned by Franceso Guardi and later English collector Horace Walpole. It is only $18,000.

As to sculpture, the dealer to hit is Piva from Milan. They have a 1475 Andrea della Robbia seated Madonna. The massive, museum-quality, polychrome terracotta figure is priced at a seven-figure amount.

Speaking of sales, Galleria Silva of Milan just sold a pair of 18th-century Venetian sofas to a Russian buyer, no less. Could this be the a sign of new energy for post-Cold War collecting?

In addition to its status as the Dow Jones of the art world, this fair also tells volumes about Italian taste. Take Antichita Gallo. This dealer has got Venetian lacquered trays, one decorated with 18th-century commedia dell'arte figures, the harlequin clown and others as well as 18th-century furniture, a commode with carved and painted garlands of fruit and flowers in full relief on three sides. To complete a totally Venetian interior there is a pair of tiny Giacomno Guardi (1764-1835) watercolors of Venice.

Other must-see examples of the glories of Italian style include a cabinet with exquisite pietra dura (hard stone) panels of flowers at Guido Bartolozzi Antichita along with the majolica at Altomani. The prices for early examples of this Italian pottery say just how prized this specialty is. Then the Milan-based Visconteum di Carlo Montanaro has given pride of place to an 18th-century chinoiserie secretary. Compared to English examples, this Genovese one is pure exuberance with super gilt paw feet.

There are few jewelers, only four to be exact, and little 20th century arts. But Nicoletta e Barbara Lebole from Rome is featuring a highly stylized 1921 painted screen for $150,000. The designer Dany Lartique packs his Art Deco screen with towering foliage and a pair of brazen, semi-nude figures.

Overall, this Florentine Biennale is considerably more than a mere art fair. It is an excursion to some of the richest treasures of the arts. Clearly the Italian equivalent of the Paris Biennale, this event merits attendance by art enthusiasts worldwide.

BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.