Notes on the Collection

Giulio Alessandri
Art historian, Brera Fine Arts Academy, Milan

Francesco Carraro despised the intellectual chatter of academics, historians, critics and philosophers (although he was an avid reader of the best of them), instead preferring the figure of the connoisseur ‒ to be clearer, the scholar, antiquarian and collector, who had seen everything ‒ or the figure of the rich, cosmopolitan, educated, refined and powerful merchant.

He preferred the evident materiality of the object and its self-sufficient beauty, he preferred possession and its arbitrary exercise, he preferred the luxury of physical contact with things, he preferred the ceremony of bargaining.

His home was inhabited by his works of art, which tended to exclude any human presence, with the exception of the collector himself, whose will, caprices and desire for power were feared by the collection. In fact, the works feared being sold, ending up in a storeroom, being replaced by others deemed to be better, being transferred to less prestigious areas of the home, being swapped or even simply forgotten. Things, rather than superfluous human presence, were what really experienced this quintessential material reality, living a silent, mineral life, where, despite themselves, people – like invasive presences – disturbed the silent dialogue between things, images, materials, colours and transparencies.

Francesco, subject and object of a collection in his turn, because of his meticulous attention to dress, loved living among his peers, grouped and arranged into families in which to exchange colours, visions and postures, luminous glances and gleams, in that separate world, in that magical circle, in that protected hortus conclusus of and by the collection.

His home was inhabited by his works of art, which tended to exclude any human presence, with the exception of the collector himself.

This is another reason why the Fondazione Carraro has asked for his collection to remain united, not to be dispersed and diluted in the great rooms of Ca’ Pesaro, so as to uphold the sense of familiarity, almost of affection and confidence that the house ensured the objects, united patiently over years and years of dedicated collecting. The passage to the museum, from the private dimension to the public one, would otherwise be too traumatic for them. What is more, by maintaining the dialogue within the collection it is mantained, at least in part, the network of relationships that the collector had identified as an acquisition criterion.

As well as the musical and literary cultural sphere that he frequented assiduously ever since his years in Rome from the 1950s to the 1970s, Francesco also exercised the tireless practice of the gaze: an omnivorous, tireless, insatiable gaze accompanied by erudite interpretations, directed everywhere – whether at churches, museums, private homes, palaces, archaeological sites, antiques shops and collections – in Italy, Europe and America, which he visited regularly. With his sharp, insistent and repeated gaze he was always ready, not once, but a thousand times, to see and re-examine places, objects, sites, artworks, sculptures and paintings, especially antique ones, of which he never tired. He was always searching: both for discovery and confirmation, as well as for simple recognition in the pleasure of viewing a masterpiece, but also some marginal and intriguing rarity.

He knew European and American museums room by room, painting by painting, work by work and, when he was forced to travel less in his old age, he blindly reminisced over the places he frequented incessantly in an infinite reverberation of memories, as in Giulio Camillo’s memory theatres. This same meticulous, sharp and tireless gaze, this same enthusiasm, were dedicated to an even greater extent – astonishingly – to his activity as a collector and dealer. All the auctions, antiquarians, dealers, courtiers, merchants and galleries owners, in short the entire art establishment, were scoured thoroughly and in depth as regards his areas of interest.

Daily, using the telephone as his only technological aid, he wove his networks of national and international relationships. With his trusted driver Antonello and his secretary-cum-factotum Antonietta, he arrived everywhere and placed no limits of any kind on his collecting fury. With a composite and fragmented language all of his own, made up of Italian, French, German, English and Paduan dialect all mixed together, he made himself understood by everyone.

All the auctions, antiquarians, dealers, courtiers, merchants and galleries owners, in short the entire art establishment, were scoured thoroughly and in depth.

Like a skilled alchemist, he managed to perfectly dose all the classic impulses that drive collectors, thus finding fulfilment and satisfaction on various levels. In fact, the collection magnificently satisfied an interior design purpose until achieving, as I have already mentioned, an almost self-sufficient functionality. It perfectly satisfied his quest for investment, a safe haven and financial speculation. Indeed it was unbeatable on this level. However, it also perfectly satisfied social motivations such as prestige, self-affirmation and status, in which more symbolic components and a showy, narcissistic reverberation prevail.

He loved all his things indistinctly and this is why the Fondazione Carraro intends to take into account the principal passions of the collection, displayed in an overall vision able to safeguard, where possible, the type of gaze that held them together. The Carraro collection can be described as a “collection of collections”. At least three different threads cross one another in the rooms of the Fondazione: Venetian glassware from the 1920s to the 1950s, twentieth-century Italian painting and sculpture, and early twentieth-century furnishings. The most important collection from a historic viewpoint, and also the most comprehensive, is that of Venetian glassware. The Fondazione wanted to offer Ca’ Pesaro a selection of the highest possible quality from the collection to emphasize his extreme expertise in this field. Francesco loved the purity, design, colour, transparency and style of glass. These were the objects that he was particularly passionate about, loving them for their intrinsic qualities and even more so for their potential to be combined and recombined endlessly, like the bottles that populate the paintings of Morandi, also featured in the collection. Venetian glassware brings a function to the collection that I would like to emphasize here: a function of harmonious connection. In fact, the glassware is the real musical link within the collection, defining the body of its spatial architecture almost like tailored stitches: the shelves, the boards, the cabinets and the shelf units in the style of Scarpa, designed by the architect Gilda D’Agaro, act as the musical staff on which these glassy notes are deposited. Moreover, it is variously known that Francesco, by inclination, training and education, was primarily a musician. Being acquainted with some of his scores, it is interesting to note that they were colourful and rich notations of those harmonious links replicated or at least recalled by the glassware collection.

The glassware is the real musical link within the collection: the shelves, the boards, the cabinets and the shelf units act as the musical staff on which these glassy notes are deposited.

The musicality of the collection acted both as a selection criterion for the works and as a primary tool for creating a harmonizing vision in which each work, a soloist per se, was called upon by the orchestral conductor to produce a choral and harmonious effect, even in the harshest contrasts.

Like an orchestra conductor, the collector knew how to make each piece sing the score of the collection interpreted as a whole. The collection follows at least two registers: the first, dark and tragic, with Wagnerian tones, played by a series of instruments in the style of Adolfo Wildt, which finally rejoin the wider family of works already present at Ca’ Pesaro. His Parsifal (o Il Puro Folle) [Percival (or The Pure Fool)] of 1930 sings a silent air with its mouth wide open and empty; with a tenor voice and a theatrical air, it accompanies the gloomy, piercing coldness of the Maria dà luce ai pargoli cristiani [Mary Gives Light to the Little Christian Children], dating to 1918. Vir temporis acti (o Uomo antico) [Vir Temporis Acti (or The Ancient Man)] of 1911 freezes next to the calm, sensual and warm gestures of Martini in Il bevitore [The Drinker] dating to 1926‒28 and in La Pisana [The Pisan Woman], conceived from 1928‒30.

Alongside the dark melodrama, countering it, is the lighter, more experimental, jangly, airy, allegro ma non troppo, register of the Venetian glass arranged around the collection, all set within highly attractive  decorative and scenic surroundings. Here we find the interior design episodes of Quarti, Bugatti and Tofanari, inscribed in that collecting taste that sees the home and its functions as the natural approach to decor. Finally, this arrangement can also be associated with the great Severini of the Polittico Garagnani [Garagnani Polyptych] of 1957, originally a fresco displayed in a Roman car dealership and saved by Francesco from destruction or loss in the best-case scenario. This important work, totally unprecedented and never before seen in public, partly because of its huge dimensions of 380×915 cm, offers a masterful connection between the theme of decorative arts and paintings.

In fact, the paintings finally line the wall to demonstrate the collection’s great passion for twentieth-century Italian art. They are all beautiful, and we would even go so far as saying they are all masterpieces: de Chirico’s La notte di Pericle [The Night of Pericles] (1926) brilliantly illustrates the perspective drift of a mature metaphysical art that rises up to support improbable classicism.

The paintings line the wall to demonstrate the collection’s great passion for twentieth-century Italian art. They are all beautiful, and we would even go so far as saying they are all masterpieces.

The three works by Donghi will enjoy the company of the Donna al caffè [Woman at the Café] (1931), already present in the Ca’ Pesaro collections, seeming to await them there: Cocottina [Coquette] (1927), Gli amanti alla stazione [Lovers at the Station] (1933) and Le villeggianti [The Vacationers] (1934) cultivate the dream of immortality, where the objects and subjects become eternal, defeating all finiteness, all impermanence. It is surprising how this dream of immortality is also shared by the small painting Io a Roma [Myself in Rome] (1986) by Gino De Dominicis, where an autobiographical shadow wanders near the obelisk in Piazza del Popolo, a place so dear to the artist that it became almost a seal. On several occasions, Laura Cherubini, one of the most authoritative experts on De Dominicis, assured me of the absolute importance of the painting as one of the first works (perhaps the first) to testify to the artist’s return to painting after what we could describe as his “conceptual” period of the 1960s and 1970s, using a term that both De Dominicis and Francesco detested.

Art also offered De Dominicis a promise of eternity and, as taught by the myth of Gilgamesh, which inspired much of his work, it is not only a case of the immortality of the soul but also that of the body, an immortality yearned for since the remote times of the Sumerian civilization and, in other ways, by the Egyptian and ancient Chinese civilizations. The personification of time Chronos/Saturn, devourer of his own children, is defeated and the defeat of death certainly provides inspiration for a collector who is, in his own way immortal, was still negotiating a few days before his death, acquiring works for his collection during a desperate situation, apparently immune to a death foretold.

However, the still lifes by Morandi of 1943 and 1957 are, in a certain sense, the most organic paintings in the collection, since, as we mentioned previously, the artist’s work largely consists of tireless activity of giving shape to his collection of jugs, bottles and glasses – albeit minor – on the infinite plane of painting and within the genre of natura morta. The simple act of aligning objects on a plane was an activity that Francesco knew very well with his glassware, as he had thorough knowledge about and direct experience of the Morandi’s effect in its infinite compositional possibilities.

To conclude, Francesco, like Albert Barnes 1, would warn us against an explained, reasoned approach to his collection, against a didactic approach, instead preferring empathy (his own), shared taste (with the limited few) and the pleasure of eccentricity that does not require any explanation. Lastly, the Carraro collection does not require a system or particular order, but only asks to be experienced with passion, just as it was conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk, where the collection can become a work of art in its own right.

Giulio Alessandri

1. Albert Barnes (1872‒1951), an American collector who loved displaying his collection in an unsystematic manner, directly to the public, without any comments or critical accompaniment.