Remembering Francesco

António Homem
Sonnabend Collection Foundation

Venice was always a special place for Michael and Ileana. Michael had lived there as a young man in the twenties learning Italian so that he could read Dante in the original and Ileana had childhood memories of summers at the Lido with her parents.

When Robert Rauschenberg won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964, Ileana almost as a game, visited apartments in Venice without being sure she wanted to rent one. She saw one in the calle off Campo San Maurizio in the Palazzo Da Ponte and she liked it also because she liked the link with Lorenzo Da Ponte, friend of Casanova, who wrote libretti for Mozart before ending his life in New York. The apartment was going to be renovated and the owners, the Assicurazioni Generali took note of Ileana's suggestions for the renovation. When, one year later she saw the apartment ready to be inhabited she could not resist it and rented it. We used to spend all the holidays there, Christmas, Easter and Summer. We spent lazy lives there like in a village and would spend a great part of the day sitting outdoors at the café Paolin at Campo Santo Stefano watching people pass by and children play, reading the newspapers and talking. It was our home away from the gallery and we loved its mixture of monotony and cosmopolitism, often meeting friends from all around the world.

We spent lazy lives there like in a village and would spend a great part of the day sitting outdoors at the café Paolin at Campo Santo Stefano watching people pass by and children play, reading the newspapers and talking.

Our only friends in Venice were Gabriella and Attilio Codognato who shared many of our interests. With time we met friends of theirs like Barbara and Tonci Foscari – who gave an unforgettable party for the opening of Rauschenberg's show at Ca' Pesaro in 1975 at their Palladio Villa, the Malcontenta, one of the most perfect places in the world – and, later on, Chiara and Francesco Carraro. We used to see Francesco at Paolin's, he was difficult to miss. Tall and massive he appeared monumental like a condottiero on horseback. He looked very much like the portrait by Mantegna of the Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga at the Capodimonte. In the summer he wore white linen suits and extravagantly coloured socks and ties. He looked arrogant and we were not sure we found him “simpatico”. As we got to know him better we found out that this appearance was just a coat of armour such as a condottiero would wear. He was extremely intelligent and cultivated and had a wonderful sense of humor. It was very apparent that he loved women very much and felt a great tenderness to them, young and old. Towards Ileana he had the attentions and the flirty attitude a preferred nephew would have for his older aunt.

We all had an immediate deep liking for him and it was clear to us that we spoke the same language. His life was shaped by his passion for art and he would take a trip just to see one exhibition or even just one single work. On a trip to New York he spent his days at the Met looking only at greek vases.

His musical interests were just as strong. He had been responsible for the contemporary music productions of the Venice Biennale and had great friendship and admiration for Robert Craft who reciprocated. In the late seventies we introduced to him a flamboyant young American artist and musician flamboyantly named Charlemagne Palestine who wrote a composition to be performed by the Venetian church bells. Francesco made it possible for it to be performed. He was very knowledgeable in the decorative arts, in old masters, in contemporary art and he looked at them all in a very personal way.

Like us he collected without having a space where to live with his collections. His mind was the stage where he displayed them. It was only in the nineties that he took an apartment in the Palazzo Gritti at Campo Sant'Angelo where his possessions started getting together like the pieces of a mosaic. He commissioned showcases for his collection and soon, paintings, sculptures, photographs, objects, books, furniture formed around him a nest that was a prolongation of himself, a portrait of his thoughts, of his pleasures, of his passions.

Curzio Malaparte called his house in Capri "casa come me", Mario Praz called his home the "casa della vita", Francesco's was both – selfportrait and autobiography. One morning at Paolin's we had a long conversation early in the morning. Francesco spoke of the Romaninos at the cathedral of Cremona, of the frescoes of the church in Galatina. After he left, one of two old ladies sitting next to us in the esplanade said to me "What an interesting conversation you were having, your friend and you! We enjoyed it very much!”. It is wonderful that now, after Francesco's death, every visitor of Ca' Pesaro can overhear his conversation that goes on uninterrupted.

António Homem