Like the cars of rollercoasters, art and antiques fairs are either climbing upwards or plunging down. If they pause and rest on their laurels, the precipice awaits. Fortunately, the Biennale Internazionale dell’Antiquariato di Firenze (23 September–1 October) – now abbreviated to BIAF – is most definitely on the up. Its most recent edition, two years ago, saw the appointment of a new and outward-looking secretary general, Fabrizio Moretti, a dealer with galleries in Florence, London and Monaco, and business interests which extend from trecento gold-ground paintings to contemporary art. The fair – and Florence itself – is ringing the changes.
The event has the huge advantage of offering exhibitors and visitors alike one of the most beautiful cities in the world and arguably the grandest of all fair venues. Nowhere rivals the 17th-century Palazzo Corsini, or the breathtaking view from its great terrace which overlooks the Arno and offers refreshments to visitors at the half-way point in their meander through the fair’s 80 or so stands. The fair could be nowhere else but in Italy and, despite its growing internationalism, is still focused primarily on Italian or Italianate art.
To mark the 30th edition, the Palazzo will be transformed by the Venetian interior and event designer Matteo Corvino. ‘It will be a cleaner, more modern design,’ Moretti has said, ‘and Corvino is the right person to take over.’ Perhaps less noticeable, but significant, is the extension of the timeline from 1979 to 1989, allowing for more contemporary exhibits. ‘This is a choice that reflects the trend we are seeing at all the major sector events around the world and which intends to favour a type of collecting that has shown a clear preference for mixing works of different eras.
Two years ago, Moretti masterminded the display of Jeff Koons’ more than three-metre-high Pluto and Proserpina on a specially erected plinth outside the Palazzo Vecchio, with an exhibition of additional sculptures by Koons inside. This year, Swiss-born Urs Fischer – another artist whose work pays more than a passing nod to the Old Masters – takes over the Piazza della Signoria. He is also working on a second collateral project, according to Moretti – details of which remain a secret at the time of writing. This contemporary art initiative may be seen to reflect the desire on the part of the city’s administration and stakeholders to propel this conservative city into the 21st century.
As well as working hard to raise the quality of exhibitors, the fair organisers have improved the level of vetting by strengthening their international vetting committee to reassure and encourage buyers. They have also moved modestly forward with the Soprintendenza, which has promised a speedier response to decisions over export licences. Among the new exhibitors is London’s Agnews. According to its director Anthony Crichton-Stuart: ‘We really like the direction in which Fabrizio Moretti has been taking the fair and the seriousness of the exhibitors, which is reflected both in the visitor numbers and the increasing number of sales.’ And, as Alessandro Galli of Robilant + Voena in Milan explains: ‘Our hope here is that these international exhibitors will bring more Italian clients to the fair. Things have got better since 2010–15 when the Italian market just disappeared, apart from those at the very top able to spend over €1m. All of us are finding a few more collectors at the mid to high range now.’
Like most major Italian exhibitors, the firm is offering works of art that already have export licences, many of which are in the country as temporary imports, and those that are ‘notified’ as being of national cultural importance. Such works are unable to leave the country, and their value is invariably less than it would be on the international market. Among Robilant + Voena’s offering is a dreamy, Giorgionesque painting thought to be An Allegory of Love, executed by Bernardino Licinio (c. 1520).
What else can one expect this year? Walter Padovani, also from Milan, brings an unpublished Lombard Renaissance sculpture – an early 16th-century marble prophet by Cristoforo Solari, the architect and sculptor best known for his tomb of Ludovico il Moro and Beatrice d’Este in the Certosa di Pavia. Also unveiled for the first time, at the stand of Rome-based Antichità Alberto di Castro, is a group of preparatory sketches for the decoration of the 10-ton bronze bell of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which Pope Pius VI commissioned from the Roman goldsmith Luigi Valadier but which was completed by his son.
Prize for the most unexpected object is destined for Galleria W. Apolloni, which presents an extraordinary slab of Verona marble with a late 17th or early 18th-century epigraph. This reveals that the gaping mouth of the head of the marble’s mask decoration was a ‘letterbox’ for posting anonymous denunciations of grain and flour smugglers.
There is no doubting the identity of the sitter, or the manufacturer, of the bust on show at Altomani & Sons. This white porcelain portrait of Count Carlo Ginori was modelled by Gaspare Bruschi in around 1737–45 for the eponymous porcelain manufactory that Ginori founded in Doccia in 1737. Of great interest, too, is Pietro Paolini’s portrait of Tiberio Fiorilli in the Role of Scaramouche, a commedia dell’arte role in which this 17th-century actor excelled (Galerie Michel Descours). Finally, a no less compelling conversation piece, La Lettera of 1925, comes courtesy of the ‘rediscovered’ Magic Realist painter known as Cagnaccio di San Pietro, on show at Antonacci Lapiccirella Fine Art.
The Biennale Internazionale dell’Antiquariato di Firenze is at the Palazzo Corsini, Florence, from 23 September to 1 October.
From the September 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.