Vittorio Cini with Bernard Berenson Federico Zeri succinctly described the figure of the 'true art collector' as an enthusiastic and sagacious individual belonging to the upper middle class, someone who was cultured but respectful of other's expertise, who worked only with qualified dealers and almost always with the help of an expert. The collections Zeri found most interesting, from the point of view of both collectors and scholars, were those containing works by both famous and lesser known artists, the latter of which were intriguing for reasons of attribution or iconography. Along with Angelo Costa's collection in Genoa and Luigi Magnani's in Parma, he always cited that of Vittorio Cini among the few real collections formed in Italy between 1950 and 1970, after a somewhat 'lame' period in collecting.
Zeri's testimony might not be altogether impartial given that he succeeded Nino Barbantini and Bernard Berenson as Cini's primary advisor during the last twenty years of his life. But the opinion of such an insightful and key intellectual figure is nonetheless convincing. And so it is possible to glimpse Vittorio Cini's most prominent traits: his vast and varied knowledge of culture, his sure taste, his curiosity about all forms of beauty, and the regal generosity with which he shared his appreciation for beautiful objects. To fully grasp the breadth of his personality, however, one needs to understand the collector and patron within the context of his life and his propensity to apply enterpreneurial skills to his passion for art.
His innate artistic sensitivity and prediliction for beauty first surfaced between 1910 and 1915, when he was in his twenties. In his residence in Ferrara, he began to collect a group of paintings exemplifying the artistic culture that had developed in the Este capital from the Renaissance on, including contemporary works by Giovanni Boldini.
In the decades that followed his interest grew, expanding to include the minor and applied arts, with careful consideration for the quality of each work and its potential insertion into real living spaces.
Vittorio Cini with Nino Barbantini in Monselice By not succumbing to passing fads or following archeo-historical methods, the collection retained a distinct 'domestic' flavour. This is reflected in the harmony and simplicity with which the works are displayed in the Castle of Monselice, at San Vio and on the Island of San Giorgio in Venice, grouped to evidence their origin. (Many of these works have been catalogued and are now part of Italy's artistic heritage.)
The relationship formed between a collector and an expert is very important. In this case the expert was the art critic Nino Barbantini, whom Cini met in 1934 in Ferrara, their common hometown. It was the year of the legendary exhibition on fifteenth-century art of the Este, organised by the scholar at the end of a long period of theoretical reflection and active defense of his city's historical and artistic heritage. Perhaps Cini and Barbantini actually met through their efforts to recover and call attention to Ferrara's culture of figurative art.
This 'nostalgia' was modelled on the ideal of the Renaissance of the Este. Barbantini worked on the idea of the past as a 'living' present in two ways. The first was theoretical, through the critical formulation of a painting school of Ferrara centred on the art of the humanistic court from Cosmè Tura to Dosso Dossi (in 1941 Cini began putting together the panels of the Renaissance masters of Ferrara, which is perhaps the most important group in his collection). The second was the practical issue of reviving a monument with the awareness of its importance as a 'fragment of a symbolic landscape' and something more than merely an historical testimony to be conserved according to scientific criteria.
Room of Palazzo Cini in San Vio When Vittorio Cini entrusted Barbantini with the restoration and layout of the Castle of Monselice in 1935 he was most certainly aware of his friend and advisor's focus. Barbantini had by now become Venice's director of fine arts as well as an important museologist and active cultural organiser, overseeing the Gallery of Modern Art at Ca' Pesaro in 1907 and collaborating with Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Ateneo Veneto and the Venice Biennale. This was his first chance (the second 'calling' was in 1952 for the renovation of San Giorgio) to do a restoration that would conserve the monument's structures in the order in which they had been layered, from the Romanesque era to the eighteenth century, and to create an ambience that would reflect the varied history of a building that had been in turn a medieval and Renaissance abode, passing from military to residential use.
The monumental interiors, so animated by scenographic effects, were the perfect setting for an armoury, for objects of great art historic interest and those of simple day-to-day life and customs. The furniture and numerous objets d'art were selected and purchased from the most famous Italian dealers (Contini Bonacossi, Accorsi, Sangiorgi, Jandolo, Barsanti, Barozzi, Carrer) based on their chronological and stylistic affinity. The exquisite taste with which they were arranged recreated the atmosphere of an authentic, lived-in and welcoming historical dwelling. At times the pieces of furniture, Renaissance chests from Tuscany and the Veneto, sculptures, paintings and Flemish tapestries were taken from early Venetian collections. At others a great deal of research went into seeking out individual pieces to form typologically homogeneous groups exemplifying the quality of the art of the Veneto (the Renaissance maiolicas) or reflecting the history of the monument and its commissioners.
Interior of Palazzo Cini in San VioThe same process was repeated on the Island of San Giorgio where, upon completion of the restoration, the spaces had to be furnished to meet both functional and aesthetic requirements. The halls of the Foundation were refurbished with hundreds of tables, chairs, book cases, wardrobes, chests and chandeliers, many of which were genuine antiques, several coming from the Castle of Monselice.
The same careful positioning of splendid objects for everyday living can also be found in the Venetian residence Cini created when he united Palazzo Caldagno Valmarana with Palazzo Loredan, which once belonged to the Prince of Bourbon and was purchased in 1917. It was here that he arranged his personal collections. Every room contains Tuscan and Veronese chests, Tuscan sixteenth-century furniture, eighteenth-century lacquered works, tapestries, bronzes, silver, porcelain and medals that maintain a harmonious functionality and reveal the taste of the zealous collector. But it is especially in the collection of early paintings, which Zeri so often mentioned, that one grasps Cini's voracious, wide-ranging enthusiasm and independently cultivated knowledge enlivened by encounters with famous people and important scholars of his time.
Some of these collections are visible today thanks to the donation of Palazzo Cini at San Vio by Cini's daughter Yana, and his other daughter Ylda's willingness to exhibit the Ferrarese masterworks