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Creating a Renaissance for Italian Modernism

A scholar and collector transforms a New York loft into a center for the study of Futurism and beyond it

As the child of a Milanese art collector, Laura Mattioli grew up surrounded by masterpieces, many created by Italian artists she knew personally. But it wasn’t until Mattioli was confined to bed during a difficult pregnancy, immobilized for six months next to one of Giorgio Morandi’s most celebrated still lifes, that her love of art took a deeper turn.

Mattioli, 64, eventually inherited the art collection of her father, the cotton magnate Gianni Mattioli. Since 1997 she has placed 25 paintings, including the Morandi still life, Bottles and Fruit Bowl, on long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. In 2013 she founded the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) in New York to promote awareness of 20th-century Italian art among Americans as well as to encourage international scholarship and research.

CIMA opened in February with an inaugural exhibition of works by the Futurist artist and graphic designer Fortunato Depero, displayed in a freshly renovated, 4,400-square-foot SoHo loft that feels more like a pristine private residence than a gallery or museum.

“It’s a home for paintings, for artworks,” Mattioli said in an interview. Tours of the exhibition generally begin with an espresso served in the spacious kitchen, outfitted with sleek black Italian cabinetry. Gio Ponti tables and other comfortable modern furnishings reinforce the domestic sensibility.

CIMA plans to present a new installation each academic year; the next one, opening October 16, will be devoted to the sculptor Medardo Rosso, a contemporary of Rodin. His works were valued very highly by the Futurists. A Morandi exhibition planned for the following year will be drawn from Mattioli’s collection, which she describes as the largest group of Morandi paintings in private hands.

Medardo Rosso, Bambino Malato (Sick Child), ca. 1908. ©MUSEO MEDARDO ROSSO, BARZIO, ITALY

Medardo Rosso, Bambino Malato (Sick Child), ca. 1908.

©MUSEO MEDARDO ROSSO, BARZIO, ITALY

Mattioli taught art history for 15 years at the University of Milan and the Fine Arts Academy in Bergamo. She has continued to purchase works for her own collection, including pieces by Dan Flavin and the sculptor Richard Nonas. She began regularly visiting New York in 1994, traveling with fellow Italian collector Giuseppe Panza. While touring museums and meeting American artists, she became aware of how little known modern Italian art is in the United States.

She attributes this dearth of knowledge in part to the fascist political ties of many early 20th-century Italian artists. “The idea that people have about fascism and its relation to art isn’t realistic,” says Mattioli, whose father was a lifelong friend of Depero, Mario Sironi, and other artists who had fascist sympathies. “It’s not at all like Nazi art and degenerate art that the Nazis banned.”

Although esthetic policy under Mussolini was far more open to stylistic experimentation than under Hitler, the involvement of many Italian artists with fascist rule has resulted in their lack of exposure in American museums. This year’s Italian Futurism show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York was the first such comprehensive exhibition ever held in the United States; previous shows have avoided dealing with Futurist works created during the l930s.

“One doesn’t see the complexity of the situation,” says Mattioli. “It’s easier to put people in boxes and draw a line.” She adds that American art historians and the general public have also tended toward a Franco-centric understanding of modern art, focusing on Cubist and Surrealist works created in and around Paris and paying scant attention to early 20th-century artistic developments in Italy and elsewhere.

Mattioli recalls that when she brought several of her Depero drawings to be framed before the exhibition at CIMA, the Brooklyn framer initially declined to do the job because of Depero’s fascist past. Depero wrote poems extolling war and killing, and pledged “blind obedience” to Mussolini in a 1935 letter thanking Il Duce for an official commission.

“I don’t believe there’s much fascism in the works that I’ve displayed here,” Mattioli says of the CIMA Depero installation, which focused on his early theatrical set designs and other pieces he made before the rise of fascism. “If he made fascist works rather late in his career, in the 1930s, it was to survive.”

Fortunato Depero, Automi, Prospettiva dinamica figurata©2013 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/SIAE, ROME

Fortunato Depero, Automi, Prospettiva dinamica figurata (Dynamic Perspective and Figure), 1917, watercolor on paper.

©2013 ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/SIAE, ROME

Mattioli takes care to emphasize that her father declined to support Mussolini. “My father never had a black shirt,” she says, stressing that he was never a Fascist Party member and helped many Italian Jews cross the border into Switzerland, thereby sparing them from deportation to Nazi death camps in 1943. Among those she says her father personally saved was the influential art historian Lamberto Vitali, who carried with him a painting by Amedeo Modigliani as he fled to safety. Mattioli’s creation of CIMA, she says, is very much in line with her father’s postwar work to promote 20th–century Italian art throughout the world. He loaned works to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1949 exhibition “Twentieth-Century Italian Art” and sent his collection on an international tour between 1967 and 1972.

Although it is on a much smaller scale, Mattioli’s enterprise might be compared with Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which has boosted the visibility of early 20th–century Austrian and German art since its opening in 2001. But, unlike the Neue Galerie, CIMA is not a fully public museum; it is aimed primarily at scholars, while opening its doors to visitors by appointment and for special tours. For the coming academic year, the foundation has awarded five fellowships to Italian and American students of art history. Four will do research at the New York center and one will travel to Italy.

The foundation also holds academic conferences and plans to support translations of Italian art-history books into English. Vivien Greene, senior curator of 19th– and early 20th–century art at the Guggenheim in New York, and organizer of the recent Italian Futurism show, is a CIMA advisory board member.

“CIMA serves the role of educating about Italian art in a way that museums don’t,” she said. “We forget that it’s not just Renaissance and Baroque or classical.”

Carlos Basualdo, curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was also enthusiastic about the creation of CIMA.

“Laura is a committed scholar,” he said. “To have somebody like her open the field in a more comprehensive way is invaluable.”

Michael Z. Wise writes on culture and foreign affairs and is cofounder of New Vessel Press.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 58 under the title “Creating a Renaissance for Italian Modernism.”

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