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Berlusconi’s art collection may soon be bunga-bunga’d into the bin

20 October 2023

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Silvio Berlusconi was never shy of a saucy scandal, nor it seems of an erotic artwork. When he died in June at the age of 86, the former Italian prime minister left behind – along with a football club, several mansions and a number of yachts – an enormous collection of 25,000 paintings, many of which, unsurprisingly, are of nude women. That’s not what’s troubling his heirs, but rather claims that it is largely ‘worthless’, or in the choice words of the art historian Vittorio Sgarbi, the paintings are merely croste (‘crusts’).

Presumably this is in reference to the pieces Berlusconi picked up from late-night telesales programmes, rather than to the Titians and Rembrandts that hang in Villa San Martino, the former prime minister’s primary abode (and the site of many an infamous ‘bunga bunga’ party). Nevertheless, there is something rather admirable in Berlusconi’s eschewing not only trends, but taste itself – Rakewell is thinking here of, say, the canvas depicting the Mona Lisa with her breasts exposed that is reported to be in his holdings. Unlike many a collector, he bought what he liked regardless of the price tag (each painting is worth on average €800) and had a habit of gifting his purchases to friends. What greater expression of love can there be than a mediocre cityscape of Milan or a bargain-bin Madonna?

However, Berlusconi’s impulsive collecting habits of have become somewhat of a burden to his five offspring, who apparently aren’t best pleased about footing the €800,000 annual bill to maintain the huge warehouse where the works are stored. Rakewell would have thought such a sum was small fry to the Berlusconi brood, who inherited between them most of their father’s wealth (not least Mediaset, Italy’s largest commercial broadcaster, reportedly worth more than €6bn). Perhaps it is more a matter of pride.

In any case, the collection is said to be half-eaten by woodworm and there have been sightings of smoke rising from the warehouse. With the cost of exterminating the pests exceeding the value of many of the paintings, perhaps a bonfire may well be the Berlusconis’ best bet.

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