Vittorio Sgarbi, a refined collector

Vittorio Sgarbi is an eclectic and multifaceted man of lively and flexible culture, capable of great vision, and armed with a sophisticated and relentless cultural curiosity for artistic beauty. Penetrating and precise, he is a refined scholar able to  reach people’s hearts because he is a master of subject.

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Nicolò dell’Arca (1435-1490) San Domenico

 With a degree in philosophy, he is an art historian, an internationallyrenowned critic, university professor, television presenter, member of the Italian parliament multiple times andhas served on various city governments. Finally, Vittorio Sgarbi is also a fine collector. This is how he describes his passion: “The story of a collection is a story of events, encounters, and discoveries, as they intersect with curiosity, research, and study. It manifests as an adventure, a hunt, a form of play, and even of chance. Then it shifts, to a challenge, a courtship, a conquest. “It wasn’t in my character, save perhaps in the specific case nearest to a scholar’s needs and resources: as a collector, or more aptly, a gatherer, of books. I inherited my passion from my father, who started as a middle-class professional in the Fifties with the unpretentious yet magnificent collection of the classics of literature with the BUR, the Rizzoli Universal Library series. “Only in the early Seventies, upon meeting Francesco Arcangeli at university, the oldest student of Roberto Longhi, did my main interests shift to art literature, resulting in a new focus for the series, when it was still possible to dominate the world of publishing, staying current on all the new releases, essays, and art catalogs from publishing houses in the sector.

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Carlo Bonomi (1569-1632) Sibilla

“The desire to have everything in a limited genre then seemed possible to me. I became a collector through eight years of studying rare and unique books, from 1976 to 1983, as meticulously recorded by Julius Von Schlosser. After some marvelous ‘book hunts’, I eventually had 2,800 titles of the 3,500 he had listed. Exactly thirty years ago, the flash of inspiration came, and the decision, after having studied the psychology of a perfect master-collector, ranging through books, sculptures, and paintings: Mario Lanfranchi. “He was the first of the many collectors, large and small, whom I met after emerging from the university dogma who made me see works of art as spiritually universal yet materially unavailable assets, reflecting an idealist vision. “Until that meeting, works of art had seemed to me to be ideas, thoughts, but not things. The artistic culture of those years tended to mythologize collectors of contemporary art as patrons and traveling companions, often associated with the works themselves and considered the perfect accomplices to the artists, as in Peggy Guggenheim’s unattainable model. In that view, inspired and supported by Giulio Carlo Argan and other militant critics, contrary to collectors of contemporary art, collectors of ancient art were barely more than receivers of stolen goods, egoists who kept assets belong to everyone for themselves.”

“Which collectors of ancient art inspired your decision?”

“At the time there were no rigorous, methodical collectors, focused on a glorious destiny that tied their name to those works, like Magani and Lia; instead, there were eccentric, curious, and privateering personalities, on the edge of Dandyism and pure fun, like Mario Lanfranchi, Luciano Maranzi, or men of letters who were hedonistic yet incredibly sophisticated, like Pietro Bigongiari and Giovanni Testori.“My interest in collecting comes from these models, from this realm of the possible, from this enjoyment of discovery and research.”

“So, what is collecting to you?”

“The enjoyment and the mystery of collecting is an interest in what’s not there.”

“You’ve been collecting works of art for thirty years now…”

“Yes, thirty years ago I stepped into a vast sea, a story of endless encounters, of infinite citations following the impulse of a collecting Don Juanism.”

“How many works have you collected?”

“Approximately four thousand, counting paintings and sculptures.”

“Where can they be viewed?”

“A fairly limited portion of the collection was shown recently in Burgos, Spain. In many ways it’s a secret garden that has marked spiritual understandings and appearances of unknown works by desired and sought-after artists.”

“What was the first piece in your collection?”

“After having seen it for the first time ten years earlier in the ‘Compianto’ in Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna, only a miracle could have led me to come across Niccolò dell’Arca with the incredibly powerful image of San Domenico (Saint Dominic). An original piece, a first, initiatory. This sculpture also marked the beginning of type of my rhapsodic and original collecting that strives for exclusive relationships with the works, just like living people.”

“Can you tell us the story of one of your most important acquisitions?”

“It was a huge hunt that began in 1984. It’s the rediscovery of the great canvas with the Sibyl by Carlo Bononi from Ferrara. To see her, crouching down with that deep and melancholy gaze and her ‘maiden’ assistants buzzing around her bearing slabs ready to be written with new prophecies – it made an enormous impression on me. In its sheer size, the piece dominated the office-den of a cultured and elegant Venetian merchant who is today, as he was in life, a legend: Ettore Viancini. “With dark eyes and impeccable taste, he was always able to interpret not only the artwork but also its source. Profoundly melancholy, yet always ready with his ironic smile, Ettore was a constant source of surprise with his thirst for knowledge and his incredible, everpresent insight, whether traveling or studying.You could visit him any day and be certain to find something new, rare and valuable, in the very best taste, always at the right price. I had seen and studied a great deal. But that day I had entered into a new phase, that of possession, rather than simply searching and then reporting back to demanding and sophisticated collectors. That Sibyl was there for me. She had to come home with me, she was peering into me so I would peer into her. Some time earlier, I had developed a close collaboration with the publisher Franco Maria Ricci for the magazine FMR, and so I was finally able to depend on a more generous monthly salary than the meager one I had had as an official at Belle Arti. But on that day I had no money, and what I needed I’d certainly spent. So what I did, in complete bad faith, was to write a check I couldn’t cover, for the amount he asked, and like a greedy child I loaded the coveted Sibyl onto the roof of my car to take her home, where she has dominated the short section of the hall for thirty years. I delved deeper, beyond what I had learned from Viancini, and found more on the history of the painting, tracing it back to the Oratorio della Scala in Ferrara. Brisighella talks about it, recalling it with admiration as a ‘prestigious birth’ above a Nativity also by Bononi, and flanked by canvases from other Emilian artists, including Ludovico Caracci, undoubtedly the most similar to Bononi in vision and abstraction. I remember, on that late sunny morning in Venice, the emotion of meeting the Sibyl. Every collector knows the history of every painting they have purchased. Some of them are more intense and memorable – an almost affectionate bond is created with certain pieces more than others, because of the surprise of an unexpected find or of desires more thoroughly satisfied. That also happens when particular artists you’re especially fond of fall into your path again and again, almost as if there were a sort of kinship, an exclusive affinity.”

“One can infer that the role of the collector is crucial to the world of art…”

“Absolutely. Art continues to thrive through the passionate searching of collectors who don’t want the past to be squandered.”

“Someday might there be a museum dedicated entirely to the Sgarbi collection?”

“We are working on it… surely it won’t be too far off…”