The word risorgimento translates into English as “resurgence” or “rebirth,” but in Italian, it is invariably written with a capital R and, as such, refers specifically to a series of historical events that radically transformed Italy—in its political, social, and economic identity—during the nineteenth century. In the long span of those decades, the various client states into which the peninsula had been divided were gradually swept away beginning with the reforms initiated under Napoleonic rule. These transformations culminated in three “wars of independence” (1848–49, 1859, and 1866) that were initially led by the Duchy of Savoy in an alliance with Napoleon III of France. These struggles effectively liberated most of Northern Italy and Venice from Habsburg rule. In due course, southern Italy shook off its Bourbon masters in mostly bloodless coups. National unity was finally proclaimed in 1861 under the banner of the “soldier-king” Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy and thanks to the diplomatic maneuverings of his brilliant first minister, Camillo Benso, Count di Cavour. One of Cavour’s canniest moves was to send the renowned Italian beauty Virginia, Countess di Castiglione, to warm the French emperor’s bed. It worked. Soon, legions of Torinese bureaucrats from the newly minted Kingdom of Italy set to work in every province, eagerly transforming what was still a predominantly agrarian, semi-feudal social construct into a modern administrative state.

There was never any doubt throughout the unification process that the new nation’s capital would have to be Rome, but, in 1861, the Eternal City and its surrounding provinces still constituted an independent, sovereign state ruled by the pontiff. No one could predict when, or even if, this would change. Meanwhile, Italy needed a capital. The court and the monarch in Turin settled on Florence as a convenient alternative; it was a decision that sounded the death knell for a city that had remained for centuries a veritable preserved-in-amber specimen of medieval and early modern urban topography. Within a few short years, down came the entire, still-intact, ring of sixteenth-century walls. Left in their place were broad, blank thoroughfares that became Haussmann-style boulevards, but without Parisian flair. In the same frenzy of renewal, the city center’s warren of narrow streets and alleys, including the ancient ghetto, was diligently obliterated, making way for a boring, rectilinear grid of classically inspired buildings opening on to a vast, open plaza, now even more forlorn after the removal in 1950 of a large equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II. Adding insult to injury, the “triumphal arch” spanning the principal access to the square bears the inscription: “L’Antico Centro della Città da Secolare Squallore a Vita Nuova Restituito” (“The Ancient Center of the City Restored from Age-Old Squalor to New Life”). The mindless vandalism continued into the 1880s, well after Rome had become the capital. That goal—grandly heralded as “Roma Capitale”—at last became a reality in 1870. Meanwhile, Florence, among Italy’s historic cities, may be the one whose appearance is most altered, something furthered by the destruction of areas surrounding the Ponte Vecchio through German dynamiting in 1944.

There was never any doubt throughout the unification process that the new nation’s capital would have to be Rome.

Until 1870, apart from a brief spell as the “Roman Republic” under Napoleon, the Eternal City had as its temporal monarch the reigning pontiff, then Pius IX (1792–1878). Essential to the Vatican state’s security and survival was the protection it enjoyed from France and its emperor, Napoleon III. When Napoleon III was deposed in 1870 following the disastrous French defeat at Sedan, Victor Emmanuel and Cavour quickly grasped the opportunity to send a battalion of elite, feather-hatted Bersaglieri (sharpshooters) to burst through the ancient Porta Pia in the northeast section of the city. It was nothing less than an act of naked, unprovoked aggression against a virtually defenseless victim. There was scant resistance and nary a casualty. Pope Pius quietly vacated the magnificent Quirinal Palace, the traditional papal residence, and retreated into self-imposed “captivity” within the confines of Vatican City. It was only now that the final unity of the Kingdom of Italy, as it had been dreamed of by generations of politicians, patriots, and martyrs, was achieved.

Among the diverse and profound changes these events wrought upon the social fabric of the land, the most lasting was the emergence of an enterprising middle class. This writer’s own family story is an emblematic example: my grandfather Luigi Grassi (1858–1937) was born in modest circumstances to a tailor and a notary’s daughter in a village of the Roman Campagna—the sticks by any measure. By dint of a talent for sketching, he enrolled in the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, eventually apprenticing as a painting restorer at the Uffizi in Florence. In the scheme of things at the time, restoration was still a humble craft, with equally humble financial prospects. Despite a commendable string of restoration projects still documented in the museum’s archive, the young restorer had, by 1890, already set out as an art dealer with his own gallery. The timing was remarkably fortunate, for the city had, since the 1870s, become a busy clearinghouse for the burgeoning worldwide interest in—and commerce of—all things Renaissance. The jump to a more profitable line of work could not, however, be accomplished without access to capital. The improvising but impecunious dealer courageously turned to the local moneylender; banks were never an option for someone without collateral. Dozens and dozens of Luigi’s paid and redeemed ious still exist and eloquently attest not only to my grandfather’s resourcefulness but also, above all, to the vigor of the Florentine art market at the beginning of the last century. The notes are for sizeable amounts and, mostly, payable within thirty or sixty days: a turnover of the gallery’s stock at a rate that today is imaginable only for the hottest of contemporary art. It all went so swimmingly that by the early 1920s “Luigi Grassi & Sons” had become solidly self-financed, with premises in a spacious nineteenth-century palace, from which flowed a steady stream of antique paintings and works of art to private and institutional clients, mostly in Germany and America. It was one of the countless happy stories begotten by the Risorgimento.

As successful as my grandfather had become in business, he was neither the first nor by any measure the most prosperous of his Florentine colleagues. That distinction unquestionably belongs to his predecessor Stefano Bardini (1836–1922), who may well rank as the greatest and most influential Italian art dealer of all time—“the prince of art dealers,” as he came to be known during his long and spectacularly fruitful career. Trained as a painter at the Florence Academy, Bardini soon gravitated to working on antique paintings, displaying a deft talent for “improving” the material by fanciful cutting and pasting, adding and subtracting, and, in general, playing fast and loose with the original works so as to enhance their value and desirability. Just as young Bardini’s income was improving by way of “restoration,” he realized the enormous potential of investing in the heaps of detritus and rubble created in the wake of Florence’s wanton “urban renewal” from the 1850s through the 1870s and ’80s. Mild-mannered and elegantly turned out, Bardini was continually in motion with his horse-drawn rig, stopping at every demolition site and buying, buying, buying: every discarded fragment, lintel, column, or capital. Nothing was overlooked or left behind as long as it was antique. These became the raw materials of Bardini’s trade. Just like the paintings he so skillfully “improved,” the bits and pieces of Florence’s architectural past served as the ingredients for fanciful embellishments or outright reconstructions in the medieval or Renaissance taste.

From the very beginning of his activity in the early 1870s, Bardini carefully cultivated the German market and, in particular, the influential connoisseur, state councilor, and museum director Wilhelm von Bode (1845–1929). Germany, like Italy, had recently achieved national unity and was flexing its muscles economically and militarily. Berlin, as the new capital, also required a great national museum that would put it on a par with London and its National Gallery and, of course, Paris’s Louvre. The recently founded Kaiser Friedrich Museum, with Bode at the helm, became the most acquisitive fine arts institution in the world and Bardini its foremost source. The Bardini archives in Florence preserve a fascinating record of the relationship between the dealer and the museum director that, over the years, became increasingly close and on occasion congenially personal. Often accompanying Bardini’s letters were photographs of exceedingly good quality and legibility. The dealer was a great fan of this relatively new technology, and there is virtually no object that passed through Bardini’s hands, or remained in his collection, of which there is not a complete photographic record. About ten years ago, Everett Fahy, the late American scholar, collected this wealth of images in a volume that now serves as a precious research tool for provenance and attribution.

Raphael, Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami, 1509, Oil on wood, Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, Boston.

The quality and quantity of Renaissance masterworks in all media—painting, sculpture, ceramic, and furniture—that flowed out of Florence towards Germany is astonishing. One encounters names such as Masaccio, Botticelli, Donatello, Verrocchio, and Fra Angelico, as well as supreme examples of the so-called “minor arts” by masters who have remained anonymous. Germanic bureaucratic procedures stalled what might have been Bardini’s greatest sale to the Kaiser Friedrich: Raphael’s Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami (1509). In 1876, an Inghirami descendant of the famous humanist from Volterra asked Bardini to act on his behalf in the sale of the precious portrait. It was one of the rare “misses” in the Bardini/Bode saga, a miss that had a happy ending for America, when, years later, the painting was acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner at Bernard Berenson’s urging. It is now one of the treasures at Fenway Court. The episode also points to the continuing upward evolution of the dealer’s sources. Now Bardini was being granted access to the private realms of the aristocracy and gaining the trust of their occupants. His client base was also expanding. By the end of the nineteenth century, the American market had emerged with its vast appetite and resources. The architect Stanford White not only designed the fantasy palaces of the “squillionaires” (a playful Berensonian sobriquet), he provided the appropriate furniture and decorations, becoming Bardini’s major conduit to America. A belated reward for New York came as a surprise when a small marble figure that White had installed in the hall of the Whitney mansion on Fifth Avenue was recognized as a youthful work by Michelangelo. It is now on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The quality and quantity of Renaissance masterworks in all media that flowed out of Florence towards Germany is astonishing.

In 1881, Bardini’s purse had sufficiently swollen to allow his purchase of the massive thirteenth-century Palazzo dei Mozzi that he had previously been renting. The property comprised several acres of olive groves extending up the hill of San Niccolò, topped by a handsome modern villa that the dealer made his residence. The palace in Piazza dei Mozzi was spacious enough to contain exhibition spaces as well as workshops where armies of craftsmen could ply their trade restoring, upgrading, and altering the tons of bits and pieces that served as Bardini’s raw materials. The secularization of religious orders that followed Italy’s national unification in 1861 made available countless choir stalls, rood screens, and all manner of church paraphernalia that could be transformed into furnishings and decorations for the drawing rooms of the emerging industrial elite. In that same year, 1881, Bardini embarked on his most ambitious project: the restructuring of the entire complex of ancient buildings, including an abandoned church, flanking the Palazzo dei Mozzi to the east. The result was a massive three-story palace with an arresting and unique façade whose five enormous piano nobile windows are framed by pietra serena tabernacles removed from the altars of a church in Pistoia. Like all of Bardini’s confections, it is a fanciful pastiche that is as light on historical accuracy as it is bountiful in its visual impact. It served the enterprising dealer as his principal showroom and became a municipal museum in the 1930s, displaying a number of notable works that had been in Bardini’s personal collection.

Convinced, evidently, that nothing would ever slow the pace of his trade, the dealer embarked on a real-estate buying campaign. By the outbreak of the Great War, Bardini had added the Villa Ridolfi at Marignolle and the “Torre del Gallo” in Arcetri to his already impressive portfolio. Both properties were thereupon transformed into neo-medieval “castles,” crenellations and all. No accurate record survives of what these undertakings cost, but their effect must have weighed heavily on Bardini’s cash reserves, so much so that he was obliged to turn to the banks. Luigi Grassi had by then emerged as a “player” and even been elected head of the Italian art dealers’ association. In this capacity, he was asked to verify his older colleague’s credit-worthiness. The inquiry posed a delicate and awkward task for the younger and less prominent colleague. Apparently, Luigi Grassi dutifully visited Bardini and rendered a stellar report, knowing perfectly well that collateral was not a problem for his colleague. Despite this minor bump in the road, Bardini eventually left a huge and unencumbered estate, mostly to the city, in the form of a museum and its contents. The rest of his fortune went to his two children Emma (1883–1962) and Ugo (1892–1965), both legitimized, as their father had never married.

Soon after initiating a private painting conservation practice in Florence in 1961, I was fortunate to meet Ugo Bardini. He was notoriously shy and withdrawn, living the life of a bachelor and gentleman of leisure after a youthful military upbringing. Tall, distinguished, and ever impeccably attired in chalk-stripe suits, Ugo was particularly skittish about “the trade” and seemed always to want to distance himself from the mercantile pursuits of his father. He lived the life of a solitary prince. Perhaps recalling my grandfather Luigi’s good word with the banks, Ugo at one point extended a rare invitation for me to visit the enchanted Bardini realm. It was a privilege to hear viva voce accounts and anecdotes of a world that had begun to disappear even before I was born. It seemed yet a greater thrill to be asked on several occasions to join him at his table in the villa at the top of the hill. I found him invariably alone. Ugo never failed, with an air of solemnity, to point to the olive oil cruet in front of us, assuring me that its contents were the only such delicacy to come from within the city walls: manifest evidence of true Florentine entitlement. Yet there was something slightly melancholy about the son’s taking pride in his olive oil while never mentioning the father’s incredible accomplishments.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo, St. Michael the Archangel, ca. 1460–70, Bardini Museum, Florence.

The 1950s saw a dramatic decrease in interest by collectors, scholars, and museum professionals in the Florentine Renaissance. Baroque art moved to center stage with Caravaggio as its primissima donna. The eclipse was due as much to a change in taste as it was to the scarcity of first-rate material. Also, Renaissance-style interiors were perceived as dark, formal, and uncomfortable: the look associated with a previous generation. In due course, Bardini’s name was all but forgotten, and the museum he bequeathed to his city languished, seldom visited and poorly managed, for more than seventy years; it was never perceived as playing anything more than third or fourth fiddle to Florence’s celebrated Uffizi and Bargello—this despite displaying, among other treasures, the great Carità (Charity, ca. 1320–24) by the late-Romanesque Tino da Camaino and the impeccably preserved panel of St. Michael the Archangel (ca. 1460–70) by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, whose works are supremely rare. The so-called “minor arts” are also prominent among the museum’s holdings: a unique collection of Renaissance musical instruments, the finest of early walnut furniture, and an extensive sampling of period frames and tabernacles.

The new millennium has brought hope that, after the long eclipse, the sun will shine again on the art that Bardini and his clients loved. Last year, the museum reopened its doors after a radical refurbishing and reinstallation campaign that began in the year 2002. The change that will appear most striking to those familiar with the old Bardini are the wall colors: subtle variations of the intense, warm blue (“Bardini Blue”) that the dealer himself had formulated, but which had long ago disappeared under several layers of whitewash. Also last year, the city completed a separate initiative to refurbish and open to the public Bardini’s hilltop villa, now suitably equipped for mounting small exhibitions.

These are all recent manifestations of a keen scholarly interest in the art trade and its practitioners at the turn of the last century. Inevitably, Bardini’s central role in that story needed a more thorough investigation; this has now been accomplished by two American scholars: a biography by Anita Fiderer Moskowitz, published in 2015, and a number of papers published by Lynn Catterson, the most recent of which appeared in 2017. Both undertakings are works in progress and are due to be expanded as research continues. With these studies, the great art dealer’s legacy has been reclaimed and assured for future generations; it is a story as much about art as it is of Italy and the Risorgimento.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 10, on page 38
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