Florence, the undisputed birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, seems to have been bypassed by the surge of new Contemporary art spaces in Italy. However, Roberto Casamonti, founder of the Tornabuoni Art gallery, is hoping to change that with the opening of his museum next February. It will showcase the Casamonti Collection that is particulary well-endowed with Post-war Italian art.
As the undisputed birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence has more treasures per square foot than many of Europe’s other art capitals. From Michelangelo’s towering David to Botticelli’s luxuriant “Primavera” to the frescoes of Fra Angelico, the city has such a high masterpiece count that as many as 13 million visitors flock to it each year, according to city statistics. Yet when it comes to Modern and Contemporary art, Florence has much less to offer. The capital of Tuscany seems to have been bypassed by the surge of new Contemporary art spaces across Italy, such as the Prada Foundation in Milan, or the twin venues (Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana) operated by the French billionaire François Pinault in Venice.
Roberto Casamonti is hoping to change that. In February 2018, the 77-year-old Florentine collector and founder of the Tornabuoni Art gallery, one of Italy’s top art dealerships, is opening a private museum in the heart of the city. The Casamonti collection consists of roughly 1,000 works, and 150 to 200 of them are considered by independent art historians to be superior, if not museum quality. The collection is particularly well endowed with Post-war Italian art; Casamonti was a major lender to the 2012 Alighiero Boetti retrospective at Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art, and to the Lucio Fontana show at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 2014. Though markedly smaller than the Prada and Pinault operations, the Collezione Roberto Casamonti in Florence will present a rotating selection of its finest works. The first-year display (spanning the early 20th century to the 1960s) will feature paintings by Giorgio De Chirico (“Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto,” 1955) and Picasso (“Deux Pigeons,” 1960) to Léger (“L’insecte sur fond rouge,” 1954) and Lucio Fontana (several works including the 1956 “Concetto spaziale: L’Inferno.”) In the second year, post-1960s art by the likes of Keith Haring, Anish Kapoor and Jean-Michel Basquiat will go on display, as well as later Fontanas.
The space chosen for the private museum is a spectacle in itself: the Collezione Casamonti will occupy the first floor of the 16th-century Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni — one of Florence’s most important High Renaissance buildings, with an elegant arched courtyard covered in delicate grey-and-white period decorations (“grottesche”).
Paintings will hang in a suite of rooms with six-meter-high coffered ceilings, including one that overlooks Piazza Santa Trinita’ and Via de’ Tornabuoni, Florence’s most exclusive shopping street. Casamonti, who was seeking a vitrine for the gems that he had accumulated over more than five decades, convinced a member of the noble family that owns the palazzo to sell him the first floor. “There are paintings that I will never sell, that I absolutely want to keep, because I care for them like children,” he said in an interview at his vacation home on the Tuscan coast. “I believe the Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni is the right place for them.” Casamonti spends the summer months at a five-bedroom villa in Marina di Pietrasanta, an hour and a half’s drive from Florence. The elegant century-old house has a well-kept garden with palm trees, potted hortensias, and a swimming pool. Yet work is never far away.
Casamonti runs an art gallery in the nearby resort of Forte dei Marmi — one of seven Tornabuoni outposts in Italy and the rest of Europe — where he meets clients and buys and sells paintings, even when he’s on vacation.
Of his four adult children, the twins Michele and Ursula, 47, are the two who have followed in his footsteps. Michele runs the Tornabuoni galleries in Paris and in the Swiss mountain resort of Crans-Montana; Ursula, who opened and ran the Tornabuoni gallery in Portofino for a decade or so, now manages the new gallery in London’s Mayfair, opened in 2015.
As a collector, Roberto Casamonti has an unusual trajectory. His father Ezio had a home furnishings store in Florence that sold everything from carpets and curtains to sheets, pillows and mattresses. One day, a Florentine painter named Ottone Rosai walked into the store and picked out a few items for purchase. Ezio recognized him and asked that he pay not in cash, but in kind: with paintings. It was the start of a family collection.
The two men became friends, and Rosai asked Ezio to pose for a portrait. Ezio took his son Roberto along to each of the dozen or so sittings. “I was only 12 years old, but I remember everything: Rosai’s studio, his whole way of being,” Casamonti recalled. “So I was introduced to the art world from childhood, and I began to love it. I began to understand art, to recognize works by different painters.”
By the age of 16, Roberto was working full time in his father’s home furnishings store, picking up the tricks of the trade. He also observed his father buying art and regularly mingling with artists. It was a world that appealed to him. When he was only 16 or 17, he visited the studio of a minor painter and bought seven paintings from him — making his first art acquisition. “They cost next to nothing,” he said. “I sold them, and the fact that I’d made a little money from paintings gave me satisfaction. It helped me supplement the wages that my father paid me.”
A decade later, tragedy struck: the city of Florence experienced one of the most horrendous floods in its history. As many as 100 people died, thousands were left homeless, and millions of precious artworks, books and documents were damaged or destroyed.
The Casamonti store was among the casualties. It was completely submerged, leaving Ezio in a state of despair. Roberto— by now a 26-year-old father of two —offered to become a minority shareholder and help rebuild the business. But his father refused, saying he would never partner with anyone. So Roberto signed a deal with his father to buy the store in installments, over 10 years, with his father-in-law guaranteeing the transaction.
The store was “covered with mud at the time,” said Roberto, recalling the frayed draperies, drenched mattresses and stained carpets. Working day and night with his team for 40 days, scrubbing and cleaning, he reopened on a chilly December morning. Outside were long lines of people keen to shop — and ready to buy even the stained and heavily discounted rugs. “There was a desperate need for those items in Florence at the time,” said Roberto, who sold everything within three or four days. Two years later, he opened a second store, and within six years, had five stores to his name.
With the profits, Roberto bought art — not by the early 20th-century Italian artists his father favored, but by Postwar ones. Why art? “I preferred to buy a painting than a Ferrari,” he said. “A highquality painting didn’t drop in value: it didn’t cost you anything to own, it didn’t weigh anything, you didn’t pay taxes on it.
It was a good investment.” “Besides, paintings gave me joy and satisfaction,” he added. “And I understood that if I sold one, I could maybe make money on it.” The year 1981 proved momentous in more ways than one. Roberto suffered a collapsed lung, and was admitted to the hospital for surgery. During the exact same period, his father Ezio passed away. Roberto was sadly unable to attend the funeral.
One day that same year, as he was leafing through the business pages of the local newspaper, Casamonti saw an ad announcing the sale of an art gallery on Via de’ Tornabuoni. He bought the gallery and gave up the home furnishings business, passing it on to his eldest son Leonardo, who now runs it. Art dealing was hard at first, Casamonti recounted. In the first year, he sold no more than three paintings. Then, in the second year, a German collector appeared, buying 13 artworks.
Casamonti sold him paintings by Fontana, the Argentine-born Italian painter who died in 1968 and became famous for perforating and slicing into his canvases (now known as “slash paintings”). Casamonti “had an intuition,” said his son Michele: “that Fontana represented a radically new language, something that went beyond painting. It was as if you’d been listening to Charles Aznavour all your life, and you suddenly saw the Beatles come along. Nothing in a Fontana painting recalled the paintings that were being done 10 years earlier.”
At the time, Fontana was far from being the art-market darling that he is today, when one of his works sold for $29 million at auction. More than a decade after his death, he was still highly affordable. Casamonti remembered that the very first Fontana he ever bought back in the early 1980s — a green slash painting — cost 3 million lire (the equivalent of 1,500 euros).
Casamonti’s tastes extended beyond Fontana, to the wave of talent that came immediately afterward. “The Italy of the 1960s produced an extraordinary generation of artists, one of the richest in the world,” Michele said. “It was a magical cultural moment in Italy.”
Luckily, peers had not yet discovered the extraordinary market potential of artists such as Alberto Burri, Enrico Castellani, and Boetti. So the prices of those artists were also reasonable. They formed the core of Casamonti’s collection, and have gone on to make the fortune of the Tornabuoni gallery. Today, the gallery is no longer an exclusively Italian affair. Besides having footholds in France, Britain and Switzerland, Tornabuoni is present at every major international art fair. Its global profile has been greatly bolstered by the efforts of Ursula and Michele.
Ursula studied art history at Siena University and learned the ropes working with her father in the Florence gallery. Joining the family business straight after university was “pretty traumatizing at first,” she said. “One minute I was studying the harmony and composition of a painting, or the drapery of a Donatello sculpture, and the next minute, I was commodifying art.”
She quickly developed a passion for it, and discovered its many challenges. “Selling art is not like selling bread,” she said. “Every painting has a story behind it. There are forgeries, there are restorations, there are so many things to be aware of and to look into.” In 2000, by then a young mother, Ursula opened a Tornabuoni satellite in the fashionable resort of Portofino. She spent the months of May to September there every year, working from 5 p.m. to midnight. Visitors to the store included Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who once walked in and complimented Ursula on the caliber of the paintings (though he never bought any).
Portofino is where Ursula made her first big sale: to the fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbano. In a single transaction, she sold them between 3 and 4 million euros worth of paintings by Jean Michel Basquiat, Fontana, Mario Schifano and others. The pair became repeat customers. The Portofino gallery was closed in 2015, the year that Ursula, with her father’s backing, opened London: a split-level space on Albemarle Street, a few streets away from the Royal Academy of Arts. Like virtually every other Tornabuoni gallery, it opened with an exhibition of Fontana, the family mascot. Since then, exhibitions co-curated by Ursula and independent art historians have been put on that aim to transcend commercial imperatives and advance the scholarship.
These have included “Recto Verso” — a study of the backs of postwar Italian paintings, which are usually kept hidden — and the current De Chirico exhibition, which highlights the painter’s relationship with writing (it runs until mid-January). Michele — who has a Ph.D. in philosophy of science from the University of Florence and previously studied in Geneva — started his art-dealing career in 1993, when he opened the family gallery in Crans-Montana, a chic mountain resort favored in both winter and summer by wealthy vacationers from Italy, Germany, Britain and France. “We opened a gallery in a place where people actually had time to look at art,” Michele said.
Crans helped Michele establish a reputation as a gallerist in his own right. “In our business, the complicated thing is the transition from one generation to another,” he noted. “If you’re a collector, you don’t necessarily want to buy a 1 million-euro painting from the gallerist’s son; you’d rather deal with the gallerist himself.
Being in Switzerland, far from my father, gave me the opportunity to have my own clients.” It quickly became obvious to Michele and Ursula that the market was turning into a completely different beast than the one their father was familiar with. “We sensed that the art world was changing, with the multiplication of fairs and auctions, and that the relationship with collectors was changing. Collectors weren’t necessarily going to be stopping by the gallery anymore. They’d be going to an art fair to see 150 galleries under one roof.”
So the Casamontis made sure that they were no longer confined to the Italian peninsula. Their first foreign outpost was Paris, inaugurated in 2009 with a well-attended Fontana exhibition. Earlier this year, the gallery moved from its base on Avenue Matignon (near the Champs-Elysees) to a large space in the Marais, where a museum-quality show of Boetti took place. Over the years, there have been Tornabuoni gallery openings in many a glamorous setting. But it would be difficult for any setting to measure up to the majestic Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni, where the private museum is set to be inaugurated.
“My father has nearly 60 years of art collecting behind him,” said Michele. “He has decided that he no longer wants his paintings to be in storage, and that they should be seen, democratically, by everybody.”
This article appears in the October 2017 edition of Art+Auction.