by Roderick Conway Morris

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Gianni Mattioli Collection/Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
Dynamism of a Cyclist by Umberto Boccioni, 1913

The Gianni Mattioli Collection at the Guggenheim in Venice

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 24 October 1998


By the end of her days here, Peggy Guggenheim, with her private gondola, bevy of exotic lap dogs, bizarre signature sunglasses and earrings that doubled up as wall hangings, had become a monstre sacré and herself one of the sights of the city.

But her oddball legacy as a private collector has assured her a place on the museum circuit that many a public institution might envy; the gallery at her former home, Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, attracted more than a quarter of a million visitors last year.

To mark the centenary of her birth, the recently opened exhibition space in the palazzo's gardens has been given over to 'Peggy Guggenheim: A Celebration,' an entertaining collection of photos, memorabilia and key works she acquired over the decades by Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Henry Moore, Piet Mondrian and others. The show continues until Jan. 10.

The anniversary has also been the occasion for a rehanging of the main part of the museum entitled 'Three Collectors: Solomon R. Guggenheim, Peggy Guggenheim and Gianni Mattioli' (until mid-February). Last year the Peggy Guggenheim Collection achieved a considerable coup when it was loaned, on a five-year renewable basis, the Mattioli collection of Italian 20th-century art. The intermingling of this with some 30 works from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York make this rehanging a substantial event, not least because of the thought-provoking opportunities it offers to juxtapose pictures - those of Fernand Leger and the lesser-known Italian Fortunato Depero, for example - from parallel periods.

The art historian Laura Mattioli Rossi, daughter of Gianni Mattioli and, since his death in 1977, the owner of his collection, was particularly gratified to see her father's Italian works shown in this context.

'Although Italian artists played a major role in the creation of Modernism, many of them are little known on the international scene. One of the main reasons for this is the isolation of Italy brought about by fascism,' said Mattioli Rossi in an interview at the Guggenheim opening. 'This is why my father was always keen to lend abroad - he sent his pictures all over Europe and to America and Japan - because he regarded it as his duty to improve the understanding of the distinctive Italian contribution to the development of Modern Art.'

Mattioli Rossi added that another reason why much Italian later-19th-century and 20th-century art was comparatively unknown outside Italy was because of the country's draconian laws relating to privately owned art works. Much of this art is still in private hands rather than in state galleries and museums.

Many owners, she said, have been reluctant to lend works abroad because they were required under a 1939 law to apply for a certificate of ownership. This process often opened them up to a series of bureaucratic complications and restrictions. Chief among them was the 'listing' of a work of art or even whole collections by the authorities.

For example, the Mattioli pictures now at the Guggenheim were listed as an indivisible entity after returning from abroad in 1972 and could only be sold in a single block within Italy - an unlikely eventuality since their total value has been put at nearly $50 million. Government permission was even required to move them from Milan to Venice.

The obstacles to the loan of privately owned works from Italy now appear to have dramatically increased. On Oct. 1, an amendment to the 1939 law came into effect. It requires that an owner wishing to export temporarily an art work over 50 years old deposit 110 percent of the work's value with the authorities, or take out a polizza fideiussoria, that is a bond guaranteeing the payment of this amount should the work fail to return to Italy.

This amendment nearly prevented the Guggenheim collection in Venice from loaning more than 30 works of art to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in exchange for those sent to Italy for the temporary hanging, and to the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

State museums are exempt from this provision, but private museums and art-holding institutions are not. At the last minute, the Guggenheim received an exemption from the Cultural Heritage Ministry in Rome and the pictures left for the United States.

Asked to comment on the implications of the amendment, Danny Berger, a manager of merchandizing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and an adviser to the former Cultural Heritage Minister Walter Veltroni said in a telephone interview, 'Obviously, there is a general historical difference between attitudes in America and Britain, where art is seen more as merchandise, and countries like Italy, Greece and Turkey, where cultural heritage is seen as something to be very jealously guarded. As far as I understand, there should be some fine-tuning to the law to extend the exemption already granted to state museums to private institutions as well. So only private people will in future be affected.'

But given that the value of single paintings and sculptures of the kind sought by loan exhibitions routinely run to millions of dollars, the cost of the bonds envisaged by the new legislation could well prove prohibitive. Both banks and insurance companies in Italy can arrange such guarantees, the bond price quoted by the Cassa di Risparmio bank in Venice was 2.5 percent of the estimated value of a work. A marginally lower cost might be obtained in London, according to David Scully, managing underwriter at Nordstern Art Insurance, specialists in the art field, but the guarantor would normally expect 100 percent collateral.

'By tradition it is the borrower, not the lender, that bears all the cost of lending,' said Philip Rylands, deputy director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, 'so this could have an enormous effect on foreign museums' ability to borrow from Italy. Exhibition organizers are already battling huge shipping and other costs on works they want to borrow, so to have a surcharge on any borrowing from a private collector would make them think twice about trying to do it.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023