Florentine painter after Francesco Rosselli (Florence 1445 - before 1513), The Execution of Savonarola and Two Companions at Piazza della Signoria 16th-17th century, Galleria Corsini, Florence
There are many reasons to visit the latest exhibition at the Art Gallery of WA, A Window on Italy, The Corsini Collection: Masterpieces from Florence. You could go to see the priceless Renaissance and Baroque pieces by the likes of Botticelli, Tintoretto, and Caravaggio that survived World War II and the great flood of Florence. You could go because this is the first time the significant collection has toured out of Italy. You could go because this a private collection and this will be its only showing in Australia. You could go to get an understanding of life in Florence at that time.
Or maybe, like me, you’ve heard the fascinating story of family bravery behind the Collection. Little did I know how much of an impact the exhibition would have on me.
When the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA) began discussions with exhibition partner Mondo Mostre five years ago, not only did they have to seek permission from one of Florence’s most renowned families, the Corsini family, they also had to gain support from the Italian government to allow a collection of such immense heritage to leave the country.
How truly fortunate we are in Perth. I’m sure gallery director Stefano Carboni played an integral part in this opportunity, as he has done with all the other phenomenal exhibitions we’ve recently been privy to in Perth.
'It’s a privilege to share these Italian works with WA and introduce the Corsini family to Western Australian audiences. This exhibition presents an exquisite and absorbing window into Italian art and history. Through their patronage of the arts over hundreds of years, the Corsini family has acquired and safe-kept a magnificent collection of works, rarely seen outside of Florence. The works not only tell the story of Florence and Italian art over the centuries but also reveal the history of an extraordinary Florentine family,' said Carboni.
Corsini Palace; supplied
So what does this Collection present to viewers?
The first glimpse into the gallery showcases the Corsini family tree extending fully across one wall. Fans of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ would be happy to end the tour here, marvelling at a lineage that includes a Saint and a Pope. On the opposite wall is a treat for architectural fans, a rendition of the lavish Palazzo Corsini,
Rounding the corner I came face-to-face with a painting of Saint Andrea Corsini who, along with Princess Elena Corsini, ensured the Collection survived the war. I was extremely fortunate to hear the story firsthand from visiting family members, the gracious Countessa Livia Sanminiatelli Branca and Countessa Elisabetta Minutoli Tegrimi Piegaja. The story went something like this …
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri known as Guercino, Saint Andrea Corsini 1630, oil on canvas, Galleria Corsini, Florence; supplied
As the German troops gathered Princess Elena talked to her husband’s uncle about hiding the collection from looters. The decision was made to store the artworks in three hiding places. Some pieces were stowed in a church, others hidden elsewhere. Thirty of the ‘smaller’ pieces were placed in a lorry to be driven to the family villa outside of Florence.
However when the driver got scared and reneged Princess Elena took over. On arrival she stacked the paintings one behind the other in a room, with the painting of Saint Andrea Corsini at the front, the Princess declaring ‘I’ve done my best it’s up to you’. The door to the room was plastered over and the family set about distracting the soldiers with food. Just as the soldiers were about to move out one officer noticed the fresh plaster. When he saw the painting of Saint Andrea he picked up his gun and fired twice, once through the Saints head execution style, then left.
Miraculously when the family examined the paintings they found all the rest of the stack hadn’t been damaged. ‘It was a mystical one, as if he was saying he was looking after our family … still.’ explained Contessa Elisabetta. If not for Princess Elena’s actions the pieces would surely have been lost. Such bravery.
Fast forward to 1996 and the spirit of Saint Andrea was watching over the collection once more when the pieces were nearly lost during the Florence Flood.
This personal collection includes mythological and religious paintings, portraits, human figures, landscapes, costumes, fascinating decorative objects and furniture from the Palazzo Corsini. The lavish dining table setting provides a hint of Corsini family life at the Palazzo Corsini.
The glass pieces are luxurious and surprising in how they have maintained their rich colours. Even the glitter trim on the champagne glass sparkles. How many modern day products could boast that?
It was intriguing to read that prior to the eighteenth century people used portraits to help them choose a partner from another country. An oil based Tinder, who knew … swipe right.
Equally interesting was the widow who famously ate her husband, well his ashes at least.
After looking at just half of the exhibition one word came to mind, responsibility.
Imagine being responsible for such an important collection, a family collection what’s more. When I asked Contessa Livia about this she simply replied ‘it’s something we have to do, like taking care or your wallet.’ I don’t know about you, but the contents of my wallet could never be described as ‘priceless’ nor require government permission to travel.
Perhaps you can imagine my delight when the Contessa Elisabetta asked if I wanted to meet their grandmother, Princess Elena? One on either side of me, they ushered me around the gallery passed bewildered security guards to the portrait of the Princess. How wonderful to look into her eyes. Countessa Elisabetta noticed that the red scarf in the painting matched the one Contessa Livia was wearing that morning.
Contessa Livia smiled then explained how this particular painting usually sits in her office and she says hello to her every morning. Can you imagine giving up such a treasure to a small city on the other side of the world? This trust is testament to the relationship the Art Gallery of WA is capable of, again no doubt due in part to the director. Or perhaps she knows Saint Andrea will be just around the corner.
Countessa Livia Sanminiatelli Branca and Countessa Elisabetta Minutoli Tegrimi Piegaja. The granddaughters in Perth for the unveiling of their family collection; Photo Glennys Marsdon, ©️glennysmarsdon
I had no idea this exhibition would have such a huge impact on me. Unbeknown to the Contessas the photo of the two of them beside their grandmother now sits on the pinup board in my office. Every day it serves as a reminder of their generosity, warmth, pride and sheer delight in seeing the joy in our faces, as they regale stories of their family’s bravery.
“I am very pleased to share this Collection with Perth. It will be wonderful for Western Australians to see the prized artworks my family has collected and cared for over the centuries. I look forward to sharing not only my culture, but also the history of my family, with a wider audience,” explained Contessa Lucrezia Corsini Miari Fulcis
If the Collection can survive war, flood and plague surely Perth residents can make the effort to see it. I know you won’t be disappointed and you don’t have to be an art critique to come away mesmerised by the story.
Aside of the Collection, make sure you watch the video which shows images of the pieces in situ at the palace. It’s overwhelming to see how they are arranged at home. Make sure you also check out the special exhibition related events being put on by AGWA. These include a partnership with the West Australian Opera to bring the public into the Gallery for community singing classes and a chance to see the exhibition after hours. Other highlights include a lecture series at the University of Western Australia; a special Sunday Series; storytelling tours for families; and a partnership with Propel Youth Arts offering a modern take on Corsini.
Rating: 5 out of 5
A Window on Italy, The Corsini Collection: Masterpieces from Florence
Art Gallery of WA, Perth
24 February - 18 June
This is a ticketed exhibition