Piacenza is as sleepy a city as you are likely to find in Northern Italy. Even on a hot day in the middle of the tourist season, there are few people in the cathedral square, and those present are overwhelmingly local. The city’s main attraction is on the north side of the old town—the Palazzo Farnese, a vast sixteenth-century block that houses all manner of treasures. But rarely visited on the southern side of town is the humble yet quite magnificent Galleria d’arte moderna Ricci Oddi. This institution might be a more modest affair than the Palazzo Farnese, but it is nonetheless a quiet gem that offers visitors an unforgettable artistic experience.

The gallery itself, purpose-built on the site of a seventeenth-century convent, may lack the grandeur of the Farnese—and it perhaps could do with some freshening up—but its design is near perfect, offering dramatic sightlines at every juncture of its one level of floor space. The gallery became a labor amoris for the Italian nobleman Giuseppe Ricci Oddi (1868–1937), who began collecting as a young man by searching out sculptures and paintings by his compatriots to furnish the bare walls of his palatial residence in Piacenza. He was no expert; he relied on friends to suggest pieces to him. But in middle age he grew serious in his pursuit, attending the Venice Biennale and visiting the studios of artists such as Giorgio Belloni in Milan, Giuseppe Sacheri in Genoa, Giuseppe Casciaro in Naples, and Giulo Aristide Sartorio in Rome. No, not exactly household names—but this is precisely what makes a visit to the gallery such a delight of discovery. Ricci Oddi became obsessed with acquiring artworks, his pursuit at times bordering on manic. His nascent but rapidly growing collection was informed not by his own limited expertise but by his exquisite, instinctive taste. He knew what he liked and was prepared to pay any price to obtain it.

With great art came great responsibility. That responsibility was heightened given the turbulent times and place in which he lived. He feared for his world and his collection, writing in 1920: “In these stormy days of unbridled demagogy, I am assailed by doubts that any moment the appalling revolutionary fire may flare up, and the thought that my beloved collection may run the risk of being destroyed or spoilt by an unworthy mob makes me sad and sorrowful.” So large became his collection, and so prolific had become his procuring habits, that Ricci Oddi commissioned architects to construct a gallery for the public, “the vision of my constant dream!” The new building interwove lovingly with the old convent and charming gardens; today, the simple structure retains its intended effect of harmony and tranquility. Ricci Oddi was right to be delighted with “the eurhythmy of my small museum.” It was opened in October 1931 by the prince and princess of Piedmont.

And what of the collection itself? It is almost exclusively Italian. In factual terms, the gallery houses over four hundred works arranged primarily, as has been the case from its origin, in regional rooms (Emilian, Tuscan, Lombard, etc.), with some sections dedicated to individual artists and two of the twenty-two rooms given over to Symbolism and foreign artists. The collection comprises mainly nineteenth- and early twentieth-century works. After encountering Monet’s work in Venice, Ricci Oddi declared: “This is what I would demand of an Italian gallery: the possibility to enjoy the greatest contemporary masterpieces without having to cross a frontier.” Indeed, his efforts have ensured a much-needed counterbalance to the artistic dominance of other European countries by shedding light on Italy’s own considerable contribution to modern art.

In aesthetic terms, the collection is a marvel. I make no pretense at having any worthwhile knowledge of nineteenth-century Italian art (surely the preserve of a few specialists), but that lack simply added to my unadulterated joy of encountering the exhibits for the first time: the exquisite beauty of not just a few paintings, but so very many of them, nearly all new to this eye, and the fine discernment of Ricci Oddi and his circle in recognizing them, created a truly joyous experience of wonderous discovery. I have rarely been so moved by a gallery. This is modern art with pulchritude retained.

The sheer consistency of artistic achievement on display in the collection makes it hard to choose a few highlights. Justifiably prominent is Amedeo Bocchi’s Morning Breakfast (1919). Three women, each of a different generation, sip their coffee alfresco in luminous sunlight, a bowl of flowers on the table contrasting with the whites of the tablecloth and the younger females’ dresses. Despite the idyllic scene, they are not content. The subjects are the painter’s family, but one can still ask: where are the men? The painting’s date provides a clue. The yellowish-green of Silvestro Lega’s late-summer Haystacks in the Sun (ca. 1890) came at a point when the Impressionist-inspired Macchiaioli movement was ceding its position to new styles; similarities and new contrasts can be made with Carlo Carrà’s even more interesting Haystacks from 1929. The sun is not always shining, however. Francesco Ghittoni brilliantly captures winter in minimalist, proto-cubist fashion with his lightly gray Landscape with Snow (ca. 1895) (how different in style from his earlier, realist work), while Giuseppe Sacheri’s deeply atmospheric Evening at Bogliasco (1906) captures a coastal town’s shorefront at night, the paint exploring crepuscular blues and mauves. Antonio Mancini has a room to himself where one can observe the remarkable effect of the weight of the paint plastered on to Woman at the Dressing Table (1907–08). The prolific Mario Cavaglieri is best represented by An Interior with a Red Rug (1921), in which dark reds and the harsh vertical and horizontal lines of the floor and walls lead the viewer to escape through an illuminated open doorway at the top left of the painting. I could go on and on in rapturous recollection.

And then, just before the exit, one encounters an unexpected—and certainly nationally incongruous—masterpiece: Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady (1916–17) arises to bid your farewell. Stunning. (There is quite a story to this Klimt, as Robert Erickson has limned.)

In Renaissance-rich Northern Italy it is heretical to talk of Madonna-and-Child fatigue induced by countless visits to the region’s museums and churches, impressive as they may be. The Ricci Oddi gallery offers something altogether different: a no less spiritual experience of modern work in a beautiful setting. It was astonishing to me that in the height of summer, there was only one other person perusing this spectacular collection. It was like having a private viewing. I cannot imagine traveling back to Northern Italy in the future without a return to Piacenza and this superb gallery.

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