A fresh look at Florence: the Modern marvels debuting in the Renaissance city

A fresh look at Florence: the Modern marvels debuting in the Renaissance city

Florence may be synonymous with the Renaissance, but its present-day cultural attributes are proving dynamic too. Last month, just weeks on from the unveiling of eight revamped rooms showing works by Caravaggio and his contemporaries at the Uffizi, saw the opening of a new not-for-profit public gallery, the first pledged to show only Modern and Contemporary work.

Located in the Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni on Piazza Santa Trinita, the Roberto Casamonti Collection showcases works from the 5,000-strong collection of the art dealer whose name it bears.

Casamonti’s artistic pedigree is well established: he is better known as the founder and owner of Tornabuoni Arte, which specialises in post-war Italian art and has galleries in Florence, Milan, Forte di Marmi, London, Paris and Crans Montana.

Yet this is not simply a survey of 20th-century Italian art and its key movements, says Casamonti, though many of the great names – from the Futurist Gino Severini to Jannis Kounellis, representing Arte Povera, by way of Alberto Burri, Enrico Castellani and Lucio Fontana, all prime exponents of Spazialismo – are included in the show.

“To be honest I don’t think we need yet more art spaces to celebrate [them].” Rather he believes “it’s more useful to talk honestly and sincerely about stories of a love of art.”

The Roberto Casamonti Collection

The space has been chosen because it is “close to my heart, for it was here, in 1981, that I opened my first gallery. The closing of the circle [Casamonti is 78, and the commercial gallery is now overseen his daughter, Ursula] perfectly encapsulates my human and professional journey from my earliest days to the present […] The collection,” he writes in the catalogue, “is the epilogue to my story.”

It is worth the trip for many reasons. For a start there is the building, one of the most beautiful, most perfectly proportioned palazzi in the city, designed in the 1520s by Baccio d’Agnolo.

It was built for the then superintendent of the Florentine Mint and is worth a look for the neoclassical sgraffito friezes in its inner courtyard by Andrea di Cosimo Feltrini, whose frescos can also be found in Santa Maria Novella church. Famously, the church’s friars went on to found the eponymous apothecary brand of scents, soaps and other elixirs.

An exhibition space at the Roberto Casamonti Collection

The Casamonti collection is on display on the palazzo’s piano nobile, an enfilade of five rooms with heavily ornamented 20ft ceilings, ancient polished terracotta tiles and, in one room, fragments of a frescoed frieze. In Casamonti’s words, it is the “perfect place” for his collection “for its ancient walls are well able to capture the silent conversation between history and the arts”.

And what a collection!

Quietly revelatory, the first wall to confront you is hung with a street scene by Giacomo Balla and a pastel of a mulberry tree by Umberto Boccioni – evidence that even Futurists started figuratively. Later there is a rare landscape by Giorgio Morandi.

While Florence will forever be associated with the Renaissance, change is afoot in this enduringly compelling city CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Turn right at the end of the first façade-length gallery, essentially a chronological survey of Italian painting from the first half of the last century, and suddenly the scope broadens: here are Picasso and Braque, Kandinsky and Ernst, Klee, Léger. Then Yves Klein, Wifredo Lam, an unusual collage by Le Corbusier, Louise Nevelson, even Andy Warhol.

By bringing in an external curator, Bruno Corà, president of the Alberto Burri Foundation, what might risk seeming too subjective a collection assumes a shape and objectivity. (Casamonti admits that his “decisions have almost always been guided by passion, leaving considerations about formats, prices and dates rather to one side”, but aren’t the most intriguing collections those that reflect the character of the collector?)

It comes as no surprise then to learn that half a dozen works in the current exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi, Dawn of a Nation, an exhilarating survey of politically driven Italian art from the 1950s and ’60s, have been loaned by Casamonti.

Renato Guttuso’s La battaglia di Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (The Battle of Ponte dell’Ammiraglio), 1955, appears in Dawn of a Nation at Palazzo Strozzi CREDIT: MINISTERO DEI BENI E LE ATTIVITA` CULTURALI E AMBIENTALI E DEL TURISMO. RENATO GUTTUSO BY SIAE 2018

With the interest surrounding the recent opening of the Gucci Garden on Piazza della Sigornia and the reopening this month of Rocco Forte Hotels’ Hotel Savoy following a six-month renovation and modernisation, it’s altogether a busy time for the city, and Palazzo Strozzi is also on a mission to show the world there is more to Florentine art than the Renaissance.

As Matteo del Fante, the Florence-born CEO of Poste Italiane and president of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation writes in the catalogue to this show, it too wants to project “a different image of Florence as a place of modern and contemporary culture, to save it being overwhelmed by the perennial Renaissance tourist image [that is] threatening to replace the rich feel of the present with a consumerist theme park.”

Hence the fact that from April 19 to August 26, its courtyard will be dominated by a giant 65ft-high tubular slide in the form of a double helix, the creation of the Belgian entomologist turned artist Carsten Höller. More than a mere ride, it is part of a project, The Florence Experiment, to explore the relationship between plants and humans.

In the words of Palazzo Strozzi’s director, Arturo Galansino, it will turn this “architectural masterpiece into a workshop of dialogue between art and science”: in essence a sort of metaphor for Renaissance Florence.

Collezione Roberto Casamonti, open Wednesday to Sunday, 11.30am to 7pm. Admission is free, but tickets must be booked by phone (00 39 055602030) or email prenotazioni@collezionerobertocasamonti.com at least 24 hours in advance. collezionerobertocasamonti.com