by Roderick Conway Morris

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Decorative arts find a new home in Genoa


By Roderick Conway Morris
GENOA 10 January 2006

 

With their vast heritage of fine arts to conserve, Italian public collections have given scant attention to the applied and decorative arts, especially to those of more recent times.

But Genoa has just inaugurated a unique museum of its kind: the Wolfsoniana, which is endowed with a remarkable private collection of more than 20,000 pieces dating from between roughly 1880 and 1945, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, glass, ceramics, wrought iron, textiles, architectural projects (both built and not), graphic design, political and publicity posters and leaflets, books, periodicals and newspapers.

The collection was amassed over several decades by Mitchell (Micky) Wolfson Jr., who decided to divide his total holdings of some 100,000 objects from the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century between the Wolfsonian, the museum he founded in Miami (now a department of Florida International University), and the Wolfsoniana, which has been given the bulk of the pieces relating to Italy.

Genoa's Gallery of Modern Art already contains paintings and the furnishings of two historic interiors - one in the Art Nouveau style from around 1902 and another of a distinctively Italian take on Art Deco - previously donated by Wolfson. The gallery is housed in a villa dating back to the early 17th century, expanded and updated over the centuries, in a lovely, semi-tropical park at Nervi, on the rocky Ligurian coast east of the city center.

To accommodate the large new donation, a former school building in the park has been remodeled and refurbished.

Wolfson's association with Genoa goes back to 1968, when he was posted to the U.S. Consulate there, "one of the first to be opened after American independence," as Wolfson, who was at the opening of the new museum, pointed out. When he left the foreign service in 1972, Wolfson bought a house here and has spent part of his time in the city ever since. He is reputed to have something of a love-hate relationship with the city, but he has a profound affection for the local inhabitants. "The Genoese are a bit like the Japanese," he said, joking. "They're always very pleased to see you, but are not quite sure they want you to stay on."

Born in 1939, Wolfson began to collect at an early age. The first collectibles he spotted, he said, were room keys from the hotels where he stayed when he toured Europe with his family as a 12-year-old schoolboy. When he came to Italy in the mid 1950s, he felt a particular affinity for the country.

"I began to build up a personal archive of pieces because I came to believe in the language of the object. I was fascinated by the relationship between objects, cultures, the times and indeed the languages that created them," he said.

Some 30 years ago he started to concentrate on the late 19th century and the period encompassing the two world wars, partly, he said, because these years seemed to be neglected by other collections but also because those decades marked the transition between the old world and the new world, the worlds of artist-craftsmen and industrial design and mass production.

Visitors to the museum are greeted in the lobby by marble statues from the 1890s of Garibaldi, Mazzini, Count Cavour and Victor Emmanuel II, politically contrasting faces of four of the principal founders of unified Italy. At the same time, the statues are reminders that Italy was still a very young nation at the time that the Wolfsoniana collection commences its story.

Passing through the museum, admirably and bilingually presented by a talented trio of young Italian curators, visitors will be struck by how suggestive of the changing times, tastes, politics and everyday life this collection of all manner of fine arts, decorative and applied objects manages to be.

The display is divided into sections covering late 19th-century Exoticism, Art Nouveau, Futurism, Art Deco, Murals and so on. Some sections and pieces will be permanent while others will be rotated over time, to expose the full richness of the collection.

There are some astonishing pieces, such as the architect brothers Alberto and Fabio Fabbi's "Pyramid Bed," an elaborate, sumptuously detailed one-off designed for the fantasy bedroom of a palazzo near Mantua in around 1890. And the high quality of object after object leaves one in no doubt that Wolfson has managed to track down and acquire superb examples of design and craftsmanship potently redolent of their various epochs.

Individual artists and craftsmen, now little known outside specialist circles, are brought to life again. Among these is the Roman Duilio Cambellotti (1876-1960). Follower of the English Arts and Crafts movement and a painter, sculptor, potter, illustrator and designer of furniture, interiors, textiles, jewelry and stage sets, Cambellotti produced a distinctive form of Art Deco, paradoxically informed by rustic and folkloric themes. One of the most arresting objects in the museum is Cambellotti's 1925 cabinet, known as "La Notte" (The Night), inlaid with ivory and ebony decorations. They at first appear to be clouds floating above the Roman campagna at night but on closer inspection reveal themselves to contain finely carved animal motifs. Wolfson said he spent 20 years trying to persuade the owners of this gem to part with it, until he could finally allay their fears of its leaving Italy.

The room devoted to Exoticism evokes the fin-de-siècle era of decadently inclined smoking rooms, bedrooms and grand hotels and spas, with ancient Egypt, the Islamic Middle East and even Japan and Thailand drawn on to conjure up a kind of composite Mystic Orient, while later sections illustrate "Rationalist" art, architecture and design of the Fascist period of organized communal vacations and public gymnastics when furniture took a functional turn, as witnessed by the popular classic "S.5" tubular steel and plywood stacking chair.

The influence of politics on design is again illustrated on a grander scale by a model of the Fiat showcase, ultramodern Littorina train, the result of Mussolini's push to replace, with diesel and electric power, steam engines powered by coal, 95 percent of which had to be imported and was vulnerable to sanctions by coal-producing countries seeking to curb Italy's increasingly adventuristic foreign policy.

One of the final pieces is a 1949 model of the Vespa motor scooter, launched in 1946, symbol of postwar Italian design and herald of the peninsula's economic miracle that brought with it the promise, at least, of "la dolce vita."


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016