previous arrow
next arrow

Hard times for antiques. In Paris, a quick look at the pages of Le Figaro in recent days reveals controversy regarding the Biennale des Antiquaires, once a late summer cosmopolitan affair in the French capital and go-to fair for big local dealers, and yet in terms of marketing and self-promotion we know that the French have always been trail beaters. The crisis is obvious. The number of aficionados of contemporary objects is growing, as is the inherent social circle. Less crowded and compact is the group of those who love the splendors of the past. Artefacts, furniture and paintings that call for silent meditation and knowledge, requiring a practiced eye and at least a sprinkling of history to be understood. They demand a vision that goes beyond immediate sensations. A reading of the zeitgeist that then, on closer inspection, is not quite as up to date and often consists in getting covers from the seventies out of the mothballs.

Not even the Gucci phenomenon, with its decor esthetic made up of superfluity and accumulation, half pop half Blenheim-style opulence, surrealist references and Chinese millennials, has managed to miraculously resurrect antiques. In Venice, starting with the opening of the Biennale at the beginning of May, which runs until November, the Parisian uberdecorator Chahan Minassian and the Colnaghi Art Gallery formed a consortium in the gothic location of the abbey of San Gregorio, composing a tale that brought together glassware from the twenties by Zecchin, metal furniture by Paul Evans, the sophisticated Brutalism of Ado Chale and the animal-inspired epic of Harumi Klossowska, together with views by Marieschi, Gothic and Renaissance sculptures, holy art by Jacopo Palma, Flemish Feuille de choux tapestries and the Mannerist storytelling of Parmigianino.

New imaginative formulas are also needed in the field of antiquities to ride the unpredictable market wave. This is what was proposed at the 31st edition of the Florence Biennial Antiques Fair, in Palazzo Corsini on the Lungarno from 22 to 29 September. Known as the BIAF or Florence International Biennial Antiques Fair since 2015, it is today celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. Tastes change, linguistic debate must shout and incite, culture gets chewed up and spat out in globalized references, and all the while living spaces are getting smaller. Collectors just aren’t what they used to be, the product of studies and centuries-old legacies, they have been replaced by investment funds and Asian or American entrepreneurs with deep pockets, owners of different, pragmatic codes. The General Secretary of the BIAF, Fabrizio Moretti is a young merchant with international contacts. An exhibition in Monte Carlo recently showed his personal collection of gilded backgrounds, Renaissance and Baroque works, up to the latest generations of international artists.

Moretti championed an inclusion of modernity that contradicts the very statute of this fair. Entering this seventeenth-century residence built by Don Lorenzo Corsini, nephew of Pope Clement XII, the ongoing New Deal is immediately evident, with the big-impact installation conceived by the Venetian director and design Matteo Corvino: visitors are welcomed by 4-meter high multicolor tapestries, produced in collaboration with youngsters from the San Patrignano workshop, in textile and wallpaper sections, using recycled materials, some even quite plain and waste objects, bags, breadrolls, pebbles, old textiles and plastic, with a texture that is somewhat reminiscent of the Ghanaian El Anatsui. They provide the backdrop to two gargantuan lamps from the fifties by Carlo Scarpa for Venini, from the former Florentine municipal theatre, which Corvino wanted reflected in a mirror with an alienating effect.

Seventy-seven merchants taking part in the exhibition, the biggest and oldest in Italy, with sixteen new entries, including the Londoners Dickinson and Finer, Nicholas Hall from NYC, Canesso and Sisman from Paris. Five thousand works selected after vetting by thirty art historians and specialists from all over the world. Plenty of partnerships too, like the one with the Frick Collection in New York. The Alcova, on the first floor of the palazzo, hosts the exhibition dedicated to Stefano Bardini (1836-1922), the ‘prince of the Florentine antique dealers’, entitled Universo Bardini, curated by David Lucidi, who analyses his role as a protagonist in the vicissitudes of collecting during the golden age in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when this merchant, stage designer and restorer became the linchpin in a weaving of relationships that involved museums such as the Bode and the Kaiser Friedrich in Berlin and the Louvre, and aficionados, like the couple Jacquemart-André in Paris, John Pierpont Morgan and Isabella Stewart Gardner in her fairy-tale home in Fenway Court, Boston.

In and around the BIAF, a whirl of roundtables, book presentations, awards, with the debut of a prize for design and the decorative arts, made possible by sponsorship from Ronald S. Lauder, concerts and conferences. Florence Art Week has also been introduced, seven days of events, exhibitions, encounters and performances that involve the city’s galleries, of old and contemporary items alike.

“A movement,” says Fabrizio Moretti, General Secretary at BIAF, “that is based on the Biennial and that turns the whole city into a participant and accomplice, together with its museums, shops in Via Maggio and Via de Fossi, the autochthonous antiques district, artisan businesses and shopping streets, speaking to a very diverse, eclectic target.” As far as the treasures on display are concerned, there is something for every pocket, desire and palate, from small objets de vertu that start at 10,000 euros and covering a wide range of eras, geographic areas and materials.

Marco Voena from Robilant+Voena, in Milan and London, brought to Florence a sculpture by Antonio Canova and a Saint Jerome by Orazio Gentileschi in enamel colors. Orazio, a Caraveggesque artist from Pisa who traveled through seventeenth-century Europe and ended his career in London in 1639, was the father of Artemisia Gentileschi. “This exhibition,” stresses Marco Voena, “is a museum of Italian art offering more than just a visit: it is the only one where you can also make purchases. The quality is always very high, also in terms of the rarefaction of the items at this level and their origins and exemplary checks. This is the formula of the international BIAF recognition.”

Naturalistic cabinet painting for the octagonal parchment dating back to 1657, depicting a group of birds: Owl, red woodpecker, blue tit and nightingale on plum branches, by the specialist from Ascoli Piceno Antonio Porcelli, from Alessandra Di Castro. Alessandra amazes with refined, mediumistic objects, jewelry, painted stones, relief work, classic fragments and cameos. She also brought Lamentation over the Body of Christ in gold on a sheet of lapis lazuli, 1585-87, to a drawing by Guglielmo Della Porta, with a Baroque frame crowned and embellished with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. A Roman piece from the last years of the seventeenth century. In 1609, it was stored in the secret chambers in Palazzetto Farnese in Rome, in the collection belonging to Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, the bucolic Love Games, Altomani & Sons, a canvas illuminated by a clear cobalt blue sky that then reappeared in the Farnese Palace in Parma, seventy-one years later. Altomani won the BIAF sculpture prize with Saint John the Baptist ‘Rospigliosi’, in terracotta by Benedetto da Rovezzano, an artist who lived between 1474 and 1554. There are countless stories, heraldic memories and secrets, a feuilleton of marriage alliances and controversial inheritances, pages of real poetry, dreams and love, inspiration, avarice and battles, behind these objects of desire.

Perhaps the most memorable painting of the entire exhibition is displayed by Benappi & Mehringer, on the first floor. La Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist and Saint Barbara, circa 1548, a masterpiece by Daniele Ricciarelli, called Daniele da Volterra. A very well-known oil on panel with restrictions, for centuries the proud possession of a patrician collection in Siena. It will definitely end up in the rooms of a museum, this dizzy Mannerist composition, a solemn Michelangelesque composition featuring surreal sharp colors reminiscent of Rosso and Pontormo, but even bolder, more alive and fluorescent.

Michele Gargiulo, from Naples, embraces Neapolitan Baroque with a monumental oil by Massimo Stanzione. He also has a pair of Fontana Arte mirrors from 1954, produced to order, engraved, gleaming with gold and silver and painted with figures from the comedy of art that suggest direct collaboration by Max Ingrand or perhaps even Gio Ponti in person. A Neapolitan landscape, this time of the eighteenth-century Bourbon capital, a must-visit on Grand Tours, even for Roberto Campobasso, with The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, immortalized in 1771by the French painter Pierre Jacques Volaire. Neapolitan piqué, a virtuoso technique that mixed tortoiseshell, gold and mother-of-pearl, paid homage to just last year by the Galerie Kugel in Paris with an epochal exhibition, for a group of minute boxes from Piva & Co, alongside a pair of graceful cabinets by Maggiolini. As the Republic declined, the Serenissima still reverberated in Canaletto’s The church of the Redentore on the Giudecca, tourmaline-colored waters and the white cupola designed by Palladio, proposed by Dickinson.

Moretti presents the portrait of Cardinal Giulio Mazzarino as young man, painted in Rome at the end of the 1650s by Pietro da Cortona, who perfectly captures certain Dumas-style literary descriptions and seems to reveal the limitless ambitions entertained by this prelate. Sliding through the centuries, the Romantic self-portrait of the Lombard Giovani Carnovali, called Piccio, 1846, by Sperone Westwater, reflects in that of Giorgio de Chirico among the clouds, a highlight by Tornabuoni. Copetti Antiquari in Udine, follows his meticulous journey into twentieth-century sculpture with the bronze relief Death on Earth by Giacomo Manzù, 1963, the Totem in wood from 1961 by Mirko Basaldella, also the author of the Stele II in bronze, 1957-59.

The Fall of Icarus by Luciano Ceschia from 1961 is striking, glazed terracotta with telluric energy. We finally reach the modern day with the evocative installation L’alto in basso by Michelangelo Pistoletto, Galleria Continua, San Gimignano and Beijing, and the Arte Povera of Zorio, proposed by Poggiali, in Florence and Milan, which has doubled its premises in Florence. Amazing rare pieces and focus on Ottoman rugs, on the stand of Mirco Cattai from Milan. A museum display with pictorial echoes, where a sixteenth-century Tintoretto of Anatolian production can be admired, a contemporary Ushak Lotto and a double-niche Transilvania.

Sculpture is the main player at the BIAF. Mention must be made of the Renaissance tondo in Carrara marble by Benedetto da Maiano, previously unseen, presented by Longari and the Saint Carlo Borromeo dating back to the mid-seventeenth century, from Bacarelli-Botticelli, Florentines who specialize in sculpture. It was sculpted by Ercole Ferrata, an artist born in Pellio d’Intelvi in 1610, who reached his peak in Rome in 1647, where he bridged the classicism of Algardi and the expressive disturbed mastery of Bernini, of whom he became one of the most important collaborators. Rome, his city of adoption, was where Ferrata died in 1686. The Galleria Bacarelli in Via de’Fossi, in association with Botticelli Antichità and Galleria Continua, debuting at BIAF, has organized a show that combines Renaissance and Neoclassic sculpture with contemporary works by Anish Kapoor, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Daniel Buren, an artist with whom it announces a project for Frieze in London. “Much more than other high-end fairs,” observes Matteo Corvino, “BIAF enhances the work of art, lends it value, reads it like a piece of a whole story. There is a thread running through all of it, which connects each single tile in this mosaic.”

The stands go from rare pieces from today and seventies’ quotations, to grand decor pieces like that of Gianfranco Iotti e Figlio, in Reggio Emilia, suspended between Neoclassic gilding, ivory white, sepia and shades of eighteenth-century blacks and amber, or the display with its Bardini feel imagined by the Florentine Sandro Morelli. A return to the rooms that housed it for many generations, whence it emigrated after the auction in 1994, the bronze bust of Pope Urban VIII Barberini, a direct ancestor of the Corsini Princes, who still today own the palace, cast in Rome by the sixty-year-old Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1658. An outstanding piece by Carlo Orsi. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a Tuscan-Neapolitan with a novel-esque character, powerful and quick to get in a fight, the main metteur en scene in Baroque Rome under an impressive series of popes. A powerful sculpture rich with introspection that involved some members of the Corsini family—56 priors and 13 standard bearers of the Florentine Republic, a saint and a pope to their name—with Lady Sabina in the fore, who immediately ran to see it, as soon as its crate was opened.