The Medici bank, in Florence, was Europe’s biggest for most of the 15th century.
It’s what the Medici did with their money, however, that was their chief legacy – sponsoring some of the Renaissance’s greatest artistic achievements, by the likes of Botticelli, Donatello and Michelangelo. The family is often said to have created the template for today’s corporate art collections.
We shouldn’t, perhaps, draw too many parallels – the Medici used patronage of the arts to emphasise and legitimise the political supremacy that followed from their financial power. So what prompts business organisations in 2017 to amass expensive art collections?
The answer is hardly ever financial return, given the unpredictability of the art market. (One notable exception was the British Rail Pension Fund, which invested about £40 million in art in the 1970s, making an annual return of 13 per cent before it closed in 2000.)
Yet there is more to it than the chairman’s personal taste or a desire simply to fill the office walls and lobbies – although there is often a hope that art will give staff a colourful, hospitable working environment.
As noted in Charlotte Appleyard and James Salzmann’s Corporate Art Collections: A Handbook to Corporate Buying (Lund Humphries), many firms prize the new these days. Why? Because “contemporary art serves as a metaphor for creativity and innovation, characteristics that business organisations deem vital in an increasingly competitive market place”.
They add that art collections “perform a communications role”, because they are encountered regularly – in many cases, every day – by “workers, clients, suppliers and stakeholders”.
The danger with contemporary work, however, is that organisations buy from such a small pool of fashionable artists that all collections end up rather the same: a Damien Hirst “spot painting” here, a shiny Anish Kapoor sculpture there.
That’s why older collections – or at least those with older art – are often most engaging. They tell a different story. Take that of the largest Italian bank, Intesa Sanpaolo, which specialises in work from Italy.
According to Michele Coppola, its head of cultural activity, “our holdings cover a period from the ancient to the present; from Magna Grecian pottery from Ruvo di Puglia in the 4th century BC to important work by the stars of post-war Italian art: Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni”.
Alberto Burri (Città di Castello, Perugia 1915 – Nice 1995), Red Black, 1953; oil, enamel, canvas, pumice sand on canvas; 98.8cm x 85.2cm; Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia, Piazza Scala, Milan
Lucio Fontana (Rosario di Santa Fé 1899 – Comabbio, Varese 1968), Spatial Concept: Venice Moon, 1961; oil and glass on canvas; 150cm x 150cm, Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia, Piazza Scala, Milan
Lucio Fontana, Scultura Concetto Spaziale, 1967; Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia, Piazza Scala, Milan
Piero Manzoni (Soncino, Cremona 1933 – Milan 1963), Achrome, 1958; kaolin and creased canvas, 70cm ×100cm; Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia, Piazza Scala, Milan
The Intesa Sanpaolo collection – which contains some 20,000 works – is also strong in paintings from 18th century Venice, although its pièce de résistance is The Martyrdom of St Ursula (1610), thought to be Caravaggio’s last picture.
“In a collection so large, there are lots of smaller narratives,” says Coppola, “but the overarching one is the excellence of Italian art across the ages.”
“We’re celebrating the identity and history of Italy together” – Michele Coppola, Intesa Sanpaolo’s head of cultural activity
These cultural riches result from the merger over decades of 250 banking institutions into today’s Intesa Sanpaolo – rather than any collecting master plan. Blessed with such riches, however, Intesa Sanpaolo feels a responsibility to manage and use them assiduously.
“Our commitment isn’t only to contribute to the development of communities from an economic point of view,” Coppola says, ”but also to make a significant contribution to the cultural growth of those communities. This is something we aim to achieve by giving the art we own maximum exposure.”
"In a collection so large, there are lots of smaller narratives, but the overarching one is the excellence of Italian art across the ages”
So Intesa Sanpaolo has established Gallerie d’Italia, a network of galleries where the collection is on permanent view. These are in buildings owned by the bank in different Italian cities: the Gallerie di Palazzo Leoni Montanari opened in Vicenza in 1999; the Gallerie di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano in Naples in 2007; and the Gallerie di Piazza Scala in Milan in 2011, with another expected to open soon.
Intesa Sanpaolo stages regular temporary exhibitions in its galleries as well as loaning works around the world. Recently The Martyrdom of St Ursula headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in exchange for that institution’s own Caravaggio, The Musicians, which went on short-term display at the Naples gallery.
Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), (Milano 1571 – Porto Ercole 1610), The Martyrdom of St Ursula, 1610; oil on canvas; 143cm x 180cm, before restoration of 2003-2004; Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia, Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples
Fundamentally art collections reflect the values and world view of the company that created them. For Intesa Sanpaolo, that entails awareness of art’s importance in enhancing quality of life – along with a desire to reconnect the people the bank serves with the art of their forebears.
“We’re celebrating the identity and history of Italy together” says Coppola.
“Our commitment isn’t only to contribute to the development of communities from an economic point of view, but also to make a significant contribution to the cultural growth of those communities. This is something we aim to achieve by giving the art we own maximum exposure” – Michele Coppola
Scultura Concetto Spaziale (1967)
Galleria d’Arte Intesa Sanpaolo a Milano – Gallerie d’Italia
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