Feature Article

A window on Italian history

The Corsini Collection in Florence travels from its home of 600 years for the first time - to the Art Gallery of WA, its exclusive venue in Australia.

A Window on Italy - The Corsini Collection: Masterpieces from Florence spans the fascinating history of one prominent Italian family over centuries - a history filled with drama, beauty and intrigue told, relived and remembered through the art of its times. Greeting visitors on entry to the exhibition is Saint Andrea Corsini, 1650, by the largely self-trained artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri - also known by his nickname Guercino (meaning cross-eyed), due to his squint. Two bullet holes still in the work are a reminder of how works in the collection were saved during the Second World War. In 1944, Princess Elena Corsini, fearing for the safety of the paintings when bridges in Florence were being systematically destroyed, spirited the collection to the family country villa. The paintings were hidden behind a false wall, with the portrait of Saint Andrea Corsini quickly hung in front to protect them. When German troops noticed the wet plaster of the false wall, and had little time to investigate further, they simply fired a couple of shots at the painting of Saint Andrea Corsini and left.

Corsini family members with Art Gallery of WA Director Stefano Carboni, Countess Livia Branca and her first cousin Countess Elisabetta Minutoli. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

The collection, still privately owned by the Corsini family, not only survived the ravages of war, but also the forces of nature. The grand Palazzo Corsini, set on the banks of the River Arno, suffered large-scale damage to the ground floor of the building, including frescoes, in the devastating flood of Florence in 1966, while the collection hung safely on its first-floor walls.

The exhibition marks the first time the collection has travelled outside Italy, and is on show exclusively in Perth after being exhibited at Auckland Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Included is a procession of portraits of family, or those who married into the family over hundreds of years, works by luminaries such as Botticelli, Tintoretto and Caravaggio, decorative objects, costumes and lavish dining furniture from the Palazzo - set for six.

Director of the Art Gallery of WA Stefano Carboni says the exhibition is not only about the great paintings in the collection, but also about the story of the family, the way they lived, and the palace. “They were initially silk traders, and became prominent in the region. They moved into banking, and were the first Italian family to open branches of banks in London. And then they had huge tracts of land in Tuscany. In Florence itself, obviously the Medici family took over in terms of political power, but the Corsini’s were always there, and very close to the Medici’s.”

Saint Andrea Corsini, 1630, oil on canvas, 75 x 65 cm, by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino (Cento 1591 - Bologna 1666). Galleria Corsini, Florence.

As well as a saint, the family boasts cardinals and a pope in its history. Pope Clement Xll (formerly Lorenzo Corsini), from the Roman branch of the family, was responsible for building the elaborate Baroque-style Trevi Fountain in Rome (completed in 1762, and made famous in films such as La Dolce Vita and Three Coins in a Fountain). He was also responsible for purchasing and developing many buildings, including the Rome-based Palazzo Corsini (later donated to the state of Italy by the family).

The Florentine Corsini Collection, though in private hands, is effectively treated as state property through a heritage law enacted after looting of artworks and artefacts during the Second War. David Gramazio, from the Italian organisation MondoMostre - who promote Italian art by facilitating loans and exhibitions, was in Perth for the opening of the show. He says the government vets any movement of important artworks. “There’s a complex vetting process which requires state conservators to review the pictures, work by work. For this show, it took about 18 months to get the ball rolling. We were fortunate to have widespread support from everyone involved. In Australia the support has been phenomenal, with a fantastic response from the Italian community, and the Art Gallery of WA has been a tremendous partner in every respect.”

He says the show is a major achievement, with the collection headed straight back to Florence following the Perth exhibition, to rehang on the Palazzo’s walls. “The collection has never been out in such numbers before. There are some works left at the Palazzo, but the works on show in Perth are really the cream of the crop.”

Also in Perth for the show was Corsini family members Contessa Livia Branca and her first cousin Contessa Elisabetta Minutoli. Contessa Branca, who resides at the Palazzo, says although she misses the painting of her grandmother Princess Elena Corsini, which usually hangs in her office, she believes art must be shown and shared. “We are really proud of what the gallery has done with the collection. We feel at home here. You can feel the palace, and you can feel the collection.”

The exterior of the Palazzo Corsini in Florence.

She says the collection, which was in the hands of their mother’s and two other sisters and their respective spouses, was transferred to them five years ago as delegates of the family. “I think all the women involved bring new life to the collection and the Palazzo.” Contessa Minutoli adds, “What we feel very strongly is a bond towards our family who handed it over to us, because it’s a wonderful inheritance. It’s a very close family. We may represent the collection and the Palazzo publicly, but there are many others in the family working in the background with absolute dedication,” she says emphatically.

A Window on Italy - The Corsini Collection: Masterpieces from Florence is on show at AGWA until 18 June.

A vibrant series of special events accompanies the exhibition including community singing classes with the West Australian Opera and a chance to see the exhibition after hours, a lecture series at the University of Western Australia, and an extensive guided tour program including a special Sunday Series, storytelling tours for families and a partnership with Propel Youth Arts offering a modern take on Corsini. Later in the season, Art Ball returns to AGWA on 26 May, WA’s most anticipated social event, which will be themed around the Corsini exhibition.

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