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Accademia Carrara. The House of Collectors

Interview to Maria C. Rodeschini
Director Accademia Carrara in Bergamo

Accademia Carrara was founded in 1796 at the wish of Giacomo Carrara, who wanted to establish a school of painting and open his art collection to enthusiasts and connoisseurs. Who was Giacomo Carrara and what was the genesis of the museum?

Giacomo Carrara was born in Bergamo in 1714. He belonged to a family that attained the title of nobility late, in the 18th century. His father, a landowner but also a merchant, wanted his sons Giacomo and Francesco to continue in his profession. An authoritarian father, as we learn from the letters that have been preserved, who did not leave his sons’ aspirations free. Giacomo pursued erudite studies, but at the same time developed a convinced passion for art, while his brother Francesco graduated in the legal discipline in Padua, and then embarked on an ecclesiastical career in Rome.
It was not until the death of his father in 1755 that Giacomo took some decisive steps in his education, which were those of a solid education in art – his father had a small art collection – and a longed-for trip to Italy that he was finally able to undertake, an occasion that gave him the opportunity to confront himself with the world of art and national culture, broadening his knowledge. He immediately started collecting, mainly graphics because they were commensurate with his economic potential, but very soon paintings, composing a collection of almost 2,000 paintings over the course of some 40 years. The museum’s graphic collection, consisting of around 3,000 drawings and 9,000 engravings, although there is no documentary evidence, is very likely to have originated from Giacomo Carrara’s collecting activities. His life was spent in the management of the family estate and was characterised by a very intense relationship with his brother Francesco – documented by a rich epistolary – in Rome, a city of reference for Italian culture.
The other component of Giacomo Carrara’s existence, little emphasised, is his marriage to his cousin Marianna Passi, to whom his father Carlo was firmly opposed given the degree of kinship. Marianna fully indulged her husband’s passions, and their life was distinguished by their shared interest in art. When Giacomo died in 1796, without an heir, he left behind a project of great interest, which destined the art collection to the city through the foundation of a museum and a painting school. Marianna became the pivotal figure who continued and brought this project to fruition and accompanied Carrara’s development until the end of her life. She will carry out her husband’s wishes and assist in the realisation of the cultural project he conceived, including the building of the historical seat of the Accademia Carrara.

Accademia Carrara is famous for preserving an artistic heritage consisting solely of private donations from enlightened collectors and patrons. Who are the personalities after Giacomo Carrara, who in over two centuries of history to date, have enriched the museum with their bequests and defined the collections?

The Accademia Carrara’s holdings consist of 98% private bequests. Since its foundation, there have been more than 260 donors, with an admirable adherence to Giacomo Carrara’s project that has continued for more than two hundred years, and that has led to the identification of the Carrara with the “museum of collecting”.
Among the leading figures after its founder is Guglielmo Lochis, a man of the Restoration who played a role in the city’s politics – becoming its Podestà from 1842 to 1848 – and in the museum’s management bodies. He built up such a large and important art collection that he built a villa in Mozzo, on the outskirts of Bergamo, to be able to properly preserve and display it. Lochis came to compose a collection of 500 paintings of great value. With him, after Giacomo Carrara, the quality of the museum’s collections, the result of the competence of those who chose the works, became more and more apparent. Such was the importance of his art collection that the United Kingdom sent Charles Eastlake, the first director of the National Gallery in London, to visit it with the intention of acquiring some of its masterpieces. But Lochis refused the proposal, wanting to keep his collection intact. Upon his death, he arranged for the entire art heritage to go to the city of Bergamo, so that everyone could share the passion he had nurtured for art. This is a clear message in continuity with that of Giacomo Carrara, which had the ability to spread steadily over time. The Lochis collection includes Raphael’s Saint Sebastian, works by Giovanni Bellini, Crivelli, Carpaccio, Titian, Lotto, the Venetian Vedutists and Fra’ Galgario.
Among the great donors, after Guglielmo Lochis another important figure stands out, Giovanni Morelli, a graduate in medicine, a fine connoisseur of art, a man of the Risorgimento, a senator of the Kingdom of Italy. As an art historian, he began by acquiring works that interested him as a scholar, but over the years, thanks to his expertise and connections, the collection grew. He was helped by his cousin Giovanni Melli, for whom he acquired works by Botticelli, among others: upon Melli’s death, the paintings came to him through inheritance and eventually to the Carrara. Morelli also played an important role at a precise moment in the history of the museum, when, after the death of Guglielmo Lochis in 1859, the City of Bergamo inherited his important collection from the Crocette di Mozzo. The Municipality, not wishing to bear the financial burden of a second museum in addition to the Carrara, agreed with the heirs that at least part of it should go to the city museum. After a long negotiation, the parties agreed in 1866 that 240 of the 550 paintings in the collection should go to the Carrara. Camozzi Vertova, the first mayor of Bergamo, then called Giovanni Morelli, whom he had met during the epic deeds of the Risorgimento, so that as a great connoisseur and expert, he would select the best of the collection; the rest remained in the hands of the heirs and only recently has a study reconstructed its dispersion.
Among the Carrara’s patrons in the 19th century is also the figure of Carlo Marenzi, who donated a small number of paintings to the museum, among which Andrea Mantegna’s Madonna and Child, a masterpiece of the Paduan master’s maturity, painted in tempera on a very thin linen canvas, which has remained intact without varnish. Entire structured collections, but also wonderful individual donations that maintain the high quality of the museum’s offerings, which even today continue to be a distinctive element of Carrara.
Another interesting personality is that of Gustavo Frizzoni, whose palace donated by his family to the city of Bergamo today houses the City Hall. Frizzoni, an art historian and collector, friend and pupil of Giovanni Morelli whose bequest he ordered, starting in the 1910s began to disperse his art collection, some of which landed in the United States through Bernard Berenson.
Significant at the end of the last century was the bequest of Federico Zeri, a fine connoisseur and collector himself, who donated his sculpture collection to Carrara, thus opening up a new source of cultural interest for the Bergamo museum.
Mario Scaglia is the last of Carrara’s great donors, who left his important collection of Renaissance and Baroque medals and plaques to the museum in 2022. It is a donation that enriches the collections with a new type of work, of the highest quality, which is also suited to artistic dialogues with the museum’s paintings and sculptures.
In addition to this collection, which is one of the most important in the world, Scaglia donated a painting: the Ragazzo con canestra di pane e dolciumi (Boy with a bread basket and sweets) by Evaristo Baschenis, a work that completes the series of still-lives with a musical subject that Carrara has. Scaglia’s idea that donations can complete a given museum collection, emphasising its special characteristics, seems to me not only laudable, but also capable of identifying a criterion to be fully shared.

What did the 1835 dispersion lead to?

One of the first people involved in this dispersion was Guglielmo Lochis, who approved with the Carrara Council, of which he was a member, the sale of several works from the collection, a black page in the history of Carrara: the taste of the time weighed on the choice of works to be alienated, oriented towards a positive evaluation of Renaissance art and less interesting 17th and 18th century authors.
There is one painting in the story that tells a very interesting upside-down story: the Portrait of Francesco Maria Bruntino by Fra’ Galgario. Bruntino was an antiquarian who lived at the time of Carrara and from whom the collector bought. With great artistic sensitivity he had commissioned his image from Fra’ Galgario, the best portrait painter of the time. When Bruntino died, Giacomo Carrara bought the portrait, and as if to emphasise this finesse and taste for art that had united them, he wrote: “Bruntino was a man without letters, but exceedingly wonderful”. At auction, the portrait was bought by Guglielmo Lochis, together with other works belonging to Carrara, becoming part of his collection. Lochis bequeathed his collection to the city of Bergamo and thus the painting returned to the Carrara’s custody.

What are the fundamental steps in the history of Carrara between the 19th and 20th centuries?

After these prestigious donations that enriched Carrara in the 19th century, the museum needed a major reorganisation. The beginning of the new century saw the entry of some men of culture who also had responsibilities in state institutions. With Corrado Ricci, for example, a reorganisation of the museum rooms began according to a chronological order and by regional schools of painting and no longer by collection nuclei. This criterion is the one we still adhere to today, although it seemed right to create a narrative environment at the entrance to the museum that would tell the story of Carrara as a collection, to be identified as an important identifying character of the institution. Today, for anyone who visits the museum, the passage through the rooms is certainly clearer and more logical, according to an arrangement of the works in chronological order and by geographical areas.

The Carrara holds 1793 paintings, more than 300 of which are on permanent display. They tell the story of art from the Renaissance to the 19th century, and significantly of art from Lombardy and the Veneto region, but not only. Through which artists, nuclei of works and masterpieces does the Art Gallery stand out?

The Art Gallery has a very strong ‘Venetian soul’, since for over three centuries, until 1797, Bergamo and its territories were part of the Venetian Republic. This attitude of the place to live and breathe that culture is certainly one of its distinguishing features. The Renaissance heritage is the fruit of the interest of the museum’s patron collectors, who were able to intercept very important works both by Venetian artists – Giovanni Bellini, for example – and from Central Italy thanks to the formidable expertise of Giovanni Morelli, whose bequest enriched the Carrara with no less than three works by Botticelli.
The current layout of the museum, which will open at the beginning of 2023 in the year of Bergamo Brescia Italian Capital of Culture, well expresses the Renaissance heart of the collection, while at the same time enhancing the focus on the culture of northern Italy, Lombardy and Veneto. Bergamo was home to a refined art collector since the 16th century. Marcantonio Michiel, who frequented the city in the 1920s, bears witness to this characteristic of the city, which was also able to host great authors: Lorenzo Lotto lived here for thirteen years, dotting the city and province with works of art; and again, Evaristo Baschenis with his original still lifes of musical subjects, and the great portrait painter Fra’ Galgario; both painters were religious.
An interesting aspect is the School of Painting established by Giacomo Carrara at the end of the 18th century, which in the following century began to produce excellent results. With this in mind, the current exhibition itinerary in the three rooms dedicated to the 19th century gives an account of the training activities of the School, which had masters such as Giuseppe Diotti and Cesare Tallone, and pupils such as Giovanni Carnovali known as il Piccio, Giacomo Trécourt and Francesco Coghetti, who carried on the teachings of the masters in an original way.
The itinerary closes with a coup de théâtre: the painting Ricordo di un dolore, a masterpiece by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo from 1889, who here took lessons from the barely 30-year-old Cesare Tallone, at the head of the School of Painting after Enrico Scuri’s 40-year teaching career. The young and intemperate Pellizza, who without finding peace wandered through schools throughout Italy – from the Brera Academy in Milan to that in Rome, then to Florence where Giovanni Fattori taught – finally landed in Bergamo. Here he stayed for two years, leaving as evidence of his stay the intense and extraordinarily modern painting donated by the artist to the School.

The paintings, which form the most significant part of the museum’s collections, are joined by other valuable collections, such as those of sculpture, drawings and prints, and decorative arts. What are the most representative works?

The sculpture collections have been conspicuously enriched by the donation of Federico Zeri in 1998, who frequented Carrara as a place of study and attribution exercise since his youth, interested in paintings whose author was unknown but of extraordinary quality. Zeri attributed anonymous paintings to specific personalities, leading to very interesting discoveries. In the mid-1980s, when the catalogue dedicated to Giovanni Morelli’s collection was compiled, the scholar’s interest in the great history of Carrara was strengthened, and through a sort of identification with the illustrious connoisseur, Zeri donated his own collection of sculpture to the museum at the end of his life. There are forty-six examples, including works by Pietro Bernini, father of Gian Lorenzo – a recent rediscovery of sculpture between the 16th and 17th centuries, of which we have two very important examples – as well as a significant representation of 17th-century Roman sculptors, including Domenico Guidi. As Zeri was keen to emphasise, it was a collection made up of works that intrigued him, not a collection built according to a priori established criteria.
Among these is a curious, and magnificent, herm in porcelain biscuit by Giovanni Volpato, a skilled 18th-century Venetian engraver, as well as a plastic artist and collector, who spent his life in Rome. Volpato participated as a financier in the great season of archaeological discoveries and excavations and founded an important manufactory, setting up a production system of small models of antique sculptures that he mass-produced for the Grand Tour. The highly original one-of-a-kind herm in one piece reproduces two heads joined at the nape of the neck, with portraits of Anton Raphael Mengs and his friend and protector Josè Nicolàs de Azara, Spanish ambassador to Rome. Azara supported the entire literary production of Mengs, whose edition he financed. An extraordinary invention that translates the elective affinities of the two portraits, passing through antiquity and giving us a contemporary image.
As far as graphics are concerned, we preserve 3,000 drawings and 9,000 engravings. Among the drawings, we have extraordinary examples, with works by Pontormo, sixteenth-century Lombard artists, some still to be identified, such as the author of a series of fascinating portraits, probably from the Leonardo area, which have always been considered among the most valuable pieces. Also among the drawings, we find a nucleus of seventeenth-century sheets yet to be studied – drawing is a difficult area that very often does not have precise references. Added to this ancient nucleus are the works of teachers and students of the School of Painting such as Piccio, Giacomo Trécourt and Francesco Coghetti. The recently studied and published group of architectural drawings by Giacomo Quarenghi is extremely interesting. Prints also include works by very famous artists such as Mantegna, Dürer, Canaletto, other Venetian vedutisti, and Piranesi.
The Carrara collections are rich in paintings, sculpture and graphics, but also in furniture, furnishings and objets d’art, with exceptional specimens such as the two 16th-century wooden Parade Wheels – similar ones can be found in the Louvre and the United States – painted on recto and verso in the manner of Giulio Romano. They were recently taken out of storage and exhibited for the first time, arousing great interest among the public and specialists. They will soon be restored by an important research institute.
Among the curiosities are also the fans from the Sottocasa collection, donated to Carrara in the 1980s. Not simple fans but small works of art, in sixty specimens, some of them with refined cases, made between the late 18th and early 20th century by European, especially English and French, and oriental manufactures, especially Cantonese.
These special and curious objects that the Carrara is endowed with will attract the public’s attention and will be displayed in rotation on the first floor of the museum, which is also reserved for the enhancement of the collection, as well as hosting temporary exhibition projects.

The Accademia Carrara reopened in January 2023 after a short period of closure and a major general redefinition of the museum, both externally with the opening of the gardens, and internally with the Pinacoteca and the exhibition route. What does the new Carrara look like and what aspects prevailed in the museum rethink?

After we had restructured the museum and reorganised the permanent collection in 2015, the activities of the Accademia Carrara foundation kicked off with major exhibitions, such as Raffaello e l’eco del mito  (Raphael and the Echo of Myth) in 2018. However, in 2020, the tragic events we all know happened, and the pandemic also put cultural institutions in a severe crisis, triggering a process of rethinking the role of the museum and inviting a reconsideration, a reappraisal, of what the aftermath would look like. Accademia Carrara, without wasting any time, set up a discussion table on this issue, and as early as the autumn of 2020 began a thoughtful reflection that had as its premise the question of whether the museum, as it was conceived in 2015, still had the prerogatives of fruition that it had originally had. If a cultural institution such as a museum does not immediately grasp and experience the reality of the place in which it was born, in which it grows, in which it dialogues with its public, it misses a fundamental objective, and the very serious tragedy that struck us, and Bergamo as everyone knows even more shockingly, was at the root of the process of revising the routes, the functional distribution of spaces within the historical venue. Of course, the experience gained in the five years following the 2015 renovation until March 2020 played its part. At the beginning of that year, the whole of Italy came to a standstill due to the pandemic, and we soon questioned ourselves about one essential fact: will the public use the museum spaces in the same way? Will they enjoy the quality of the collections in the same way?
These questions were studied for a year and a half by an international scientific commission in charge of reviewing the museum. Starting with the exhibition routes, we dedicated the second floor to the permanent collection, reserving the first for temporary exhibition projects and the enhancement of the collection through the rotation of works.
For the permanent collection, we organised a clear itinerary in sixteen rooms divided into two sequences, which would make the specificities of the collection stand out. The first, characterised in its layout by the red colour of the walls graduated from dark to light, was dedicated to Italian art between the Gothic and Renaissance periods, with an emphasis on the rich heritage of the 15th century in the Po Valley and Veneto, as well as presenting a very precious and selected nucleus of works, which remain an exceptionality of the museum, from the Tuscan Renaissance. The second sequence of rooms, chromatically resolved in the degrading tones of blue from dark to light, draws, on the other hand, an in-depth study of the culture of Lombardy, in particular Bergamo of extraordinary quality, and of the Venetian dominions of the mainland. The last three rooms, dedicated to the 19th century, narrate, finally, the experience of the School of Painting that characterises the identity of the institution. The School, founded by Giacomo Carrara even before the museum, is still attended by about a hundred students.
The last nine rooms, however, had a distribution anomaly that forced visitors, when they reached the end of the exhibition route with the 19th century and the life of the School, to retrace their steps to the exit, retracing their steps backwards through the museum rooms. The architect Antonio Ravalli, who assisted the work of the scientific commission from the very beginning and initiated the renovation project, had the intuition to exploit the presence of a large, unused, terraced garden – the museum is framed by 3,000 square metres of greenery – to create an external connection between the floors of the historic building (on which work is currently in progress) and, at the same time, enjoy an open-air space.
I believe that, taking into account the bad experiences of the last few years, the current design of the museum adheres to new needs and has opened up a prospect of ductility of space, which clearly improves the usability of the museum for the public.

The Carrara inaugurated its 2023 exhibition programme with an exhibition dedicated to Cecco del Caravaggio, which stands out for its cultured choice of an original artist, unknown to the general public, which deserves full appreciation. In the museum’s philosophy, what is the function of temporary exhibitions?

Temporary exhibitions play a very important role in the contemporary museum: they produce research projects – the museum must never suspend the study of its collections -, they propose new topics for the public to explore, inducing a return to the museum premises that may be taken for granted; they dynamise the educational factor with regard to the new generations invited to visit us assiduously – this is our intention -, stimulated by the use of new technologies that help modernise the narration of scientific content. The museum’s unavoidable commitments remain those of conservation, because in order to hand down one must first and foremost preserve well, and that of study, because a museum without investigation is a research centre without perspective.
2023 is a special year for us with Bergamo twinned with Brescia for the title of Italian Capital of Culture; a turning point both in the renewal and function of the museum, and in the exhibition proposal. At the end of January, we inaugurated the exhibition Cecco del Caravaggio. L’Allievo Modello (The Model Pupil), which is justified by the Bergamasque origins of the Boneri family to which Francesco known as Cecco belonged, but above all because we knew little about his original historical and artistic story. However, the in-depth studies over thirty years by Gianni Papi, curator with me of the exhibition in Carrara, have finally shed new light on this magnificent artist with the reconstruction of his pictorial catalogue that now includes around 28 paintings, 19 of which are on display in the exhibition in Bergamo. This is the first exhibition in the world dedicated to the painter, which, due to the novelty of the studies and the quantity of originals visible in Carrara, is attracting attention throughout Europe and beyond. A public restitution that we somehow owed to this artist, who is only partly known to the world of scholars and who today finally earns his place in the history of European art.
The second exhibition of this rich exhibition season will be dedicated to the mountains: Vette di Luce (Peaks of Light), which will open at the end of June and close in September. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century painters have trodden, painted and loved the mountain landscape. A selection of works documenting the Orobian Alps will introduce the subject. A second section of the exhibition will continue with the photographic work of a Japanese mountaineer, Naoki Ishikawa, who conducted two campaigns in the Orobie Alps. We thought it would be interesting to look at the mountains in our area with a new gaze. Ishikawa photographed the wonderful, untouched mountain scenery of the Orobie Alps, but also the communities that live there. The exhibition will therefore bring these contemporary images into dialogue with beautiful traditional painting, declaring a focus on the Bergamo area, which we want to be involved in these celebrations of the Italian Capital of Culture.
The exhibition programme will conclude in autumn with the exhibition: Tutta in voi la mia luce (All in you my light), a project dedicated to the genre of history painting and melodrama, which spread in the 19th century with Romanticism, attracting a wide audience. One of the greatest interpreters and exponents of melodrama was the Bergamo-born Gaetano Donizzetti. The focus will be on the historical period between 1820 and early Verdi, where music and literature will be in dialogue with painting through eminent personalities such as Francesco Hayez, Michelangelo Grigoletti, Pompeo Molmenti, Francesco Coghetti, Domenico Induno and Giovanni Boldini. We will exhibit portraits of the protagonists and large paintings with scenes from history, because this is a time when the arts contaminated each other, with painters often anticipating the themes that would later be developed in opera librettos: a cultural crossroads that made Italian culture known throughout the world through melodrama. The last section, assembled by opera titles, will be dedicated to Donizetti’s Il diluvio universale (The Universal Deluge), which the exhibition will illustrate in paintings, while the Fondazione Teatro Donizetti will include in the festival dedicated to the musician in 2023. A section of the exhibition dedicated to nineteenth- and twentieth-century musical caricature, which was widespread in magazines of the time, especially French ones, is also being studied with the Angelo Mai Civic Library.
Turning over a new leaf, in 2024, the first floor of the historic Carrara building will become the place for the enhancement of artistic heritage, with very interesting projects.

What significance does the designation of Bergamo Brescia as the Italian Capital of Culture have for Carrara?

The city believed a lot in this designation, and so did our museum. It represents a sort of relaunch after the dark years we went through. I believe that this experience shared with our friends from Brescia will remain and will be meaningful if it succeeds in having a lasting impact over time. Accademia Carrara’s great investment through new ideas, projects studied and then realised that constitute an articulate and forward-looking proposal goes precisely in this direction.