Laura Mattioli is the Peggy Guggenheim of Soho
Think of her as Peggy Guggenheim in reverse. Laura Mattioli Rossi: an Italian, not an American, living in New York, not Venice, near Canal Street, not the Grand Canal. She created and directs a private foundation in New York, the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA), reminiscent of the private Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice.
Since 2013, Mattioli has exhibited Italian interwar and post-war art in the SoHo loft on Broome Street where she also lives. Guggenheim exhibited Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists of the same period at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, where she lived. The two heiresses, raised by nannies some 50 years apart, also shared lonely childhoods.
Her father’s extensive collection of Italian Futurist art began in 1949, a birthdate just before hers, 1950. “When the collection was born, I was born,” she said last month. “The collection was my bigger sister, more successful – famous and more beautiful, and more pleasing to my father.”
Over an espresso and chocolates in the large open kitchen of the CIMA gallery above her loft, she casually mentions: “My mother tried to kill me when I was six months old. She was unstable and thought, after a long postnatal depression, that I was causing her pain.
Until the age of 12, a hired aide protected her from her mother’s violent outbursts, as her father, Gianni Mattioli, a prosperous cotton merchant, traveled on business and emotionally escaped into the sanctuary. of his art collection, housed in a second apartment on Via Senato. In Milan. The family apartment was furnished with the antiques and historical paintings that his bourgeois business guests preferred. His daughter considered the collection as her “good sister” filled with “good objects”: “They gave me less trouble than people.
If Guggenheim, in her winged sunglasses and dangling Calder earrings, was flamboyant, Mattioli dresses quietly, like the academic she is. She wears wire-rimmed glasses and on a recent visit her only pop of color was a hand-knit scarf tucked under a cable-knit burgundy cardigan. With a master’s degree in art and a doctorate. on the history of collecting, she taught for 15 years, and still looks studious. When, at 23, she married Giovanni Rossi, an art restorer, she said: “I left with only the shirt on my back – my parents didn’t give me a penny.” (Mattioli and Rossi divorced in 2008.)
In 1983, she unexpectedly inherited the collection, promised to a fledgling museum in Brera. But the museum was never built and the futuristic collection, which grew when his father bought another famous collection in 1949, remained his property. He died in 1977 and his mother, in a surprising decision on her deathbed, bequeathed the entire collection to her daughter. Mattioli has become the bride of the collection.
The collection had its own biography. His father had left high school at 14 to support his destitute mother and work as a delivery boy in a cotton trading company. He found his own way in the 1920s, via the Milanese galleries, in an exciting world of avant-garde artists who wanted to change the world. The impoverished hobbyist, so malnourished that he developed rickets, could only afford a few works of art. It was only after he got into the business that the situation changed, especially when he married the daughter of the boss of a competing cotton trading company. The executive was aware of his daughter’s instability and arranged the marriage: “It was a deal I couldn’t refuse,” writes Gianni Mattioli to his brother. Angela Maria Boneschi adored her tall, handsome, caring husband.
According to Laura Mattioli, when her family fled the bombings of Milan to Lake Maggiore in 1943, her father witnessed the first Nazi massacre of Jews in Italy, left floating in the lake. Believing that art could help make man “less stupid”, he decided to collect art for its civilizing value. (After the massacre, she said her father smuggled the Jews into Switzerland safely.) He eventually opened his collection to the public on Via Senato, with his futuristic and metaphysical paintings, and a wall by Giorgio Morandis. In 1949, he lent many works to the “Italian Art of the 20th Century” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
“My father wanted to tell the story of Italian art in the first half of the century,” she said. “For me, he set an example by opening up his collection to the public and lending it to museums.”
Due to export restrictions on art over 50 years old and other legal measures, the Italian Futurist collection cannot leave Italy as a whole or be divided for sale. (She is permitted by law to export a limited number of works for the exhibition.) In 1997, Laura Mattioli managed to secure a long-term loan with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, freeing her to work as a researcher and independent curator.
“In one fell swoop, the Mattioli Collection made the Peggy Guggenheim Collection the number one museum of Italian Futurism,” said Philip Rylands, then director of the Guggenheim in Venice, and now director of the Society of the Four Arts. of Palm Beach, Florida.
Her father’s attitudes towards art and money helped shape hers. “He had a liberated attitude towards money and used it consciously for spiritual and cultural needs and for the common good,” she said. “His social empathy came from the stinging poverty of his childhood.” As part of its cultural influence, the CIMA finances researchers, mostly foreigners, for research stays in New York.
For Mattioli, CIMA is a corrective. Italian modernism has always been seen through a French lens, and his exhibitions in New York cast this perspective to better establish Italian avant-garde art as an independent rather than derivative movement. The first was Fortunato Depero, the futurist artist turned father figure to his father, followed by a show about Medardo Rosso, the sculptor and photographer.
“I am full of admiration for his campaign to raise the profile of 20th-century Italian art by emphasizing its originality, and to do so with such rigorous scholarship,” Rylands said, adding, “The Depero and Rosso have drawn attention to artists who are generally not sufficiently understood.
In SoHo, as in Milan, there are two apartments, his own and the large, open, minimalist loft gallery. On Fridays and Saturdays, public visit days, guests are welcomed with an espresso, as in a house; scholars guide visitors on Friday tours.
The current social realism exhibition, “Staging Injustice: Italian Art 1880-1917”, embodies his father’s notion of art with a social message. The face of “La Portinaia” (“The Concierge”), a sculpture by Rosso, a contemporary of Rodin, expresses the anguish of prolonged poverty. In “Il Minatore” (“The Miner”), Ambrogio Alciati painted a Caravaggio-esque deposition from the cross, the body of a miner mourned by a widow after an accident in the mine. He reinvents chiaroscuro with lively, vaporous and contemporary brushstrokes. A haunting and narrowly focused portrait, “Venditore di Cerini” (“Seller of Matches”) by Antonio Mancini, depicts a beggar boy peddling matches, with dabs of paint that John Singer Sargent is said to have applied to silk, giving here the effect of a melancholic sadness.
In his own downstairs loft, Mattioli collected the art of his time, like his father (and Peggy Guggenheim). Perfect visual height and boldness seem to be the legacy she has absorbed into the home. Two startling sculptures by New York sculptor Barry X Ball stand ten feet tall, one a ghostly distortion of Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà, carved from translucent onyx. Two faint and flimsy pencil and watercolor drawings by Cy Twombly on torn paper hang over the gas-fired fireplace. Six early Morandis – from what Mattioli calls his “pudding” period due to the thick oils applied – line a wall.
The furniture is modern Italian. Two Gio Ponti side tables stand next to the low, shaggy upholstered mid-century Lady Armchair by Marco Zanuso for Cassina. A Lombard-style inlaid desk and chest of drawers from the family’s Milan apartment line the entry hall.
Besides her taste and sense of social mission, the legacy she brought from her father’s collection was detachment. Since it was located outside of her home, she came to feel that the collection was something “I could live with, but also without”. In 2018, she gave the entire futuristic collection to her youngest son, Jacopo Rossi, a Roman Catholic priest. She gave the collection in Switzerland to her other son, Giovannibattista Rossi, a mountaineer who lives there.
“I don’t know what the future of futuristic collecting might be,” she said. “But my son has more energy, and he will lead it for the third generation.”
Under the auspices of the Italian Foreign Ministry, the futuristic collection was sent in a diplomatic pouch last year for display at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The movement had had a considerable impact on the Russian avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century. The collection returned to Italy just 10 days before the recent outbreak of war in Ukraine.
If she had still been in Russia after the start, “we don’t know what would have happened to the collection,” she said. He is now heading to Milan on a five-year loan to the Museo del Novecento (Museum of the 20th Century), next to the cathedral.
Staging Injustice: Italian Art 1880-1917
Until June 18 at the Center for Italian Modern Art, 421 Broome Street, 4th Floor, Manhattan. 646-370-3596; italianmodernart.org.