Art collector Luigi Magnani: “I am not friend with antique dealers, I don’t attend auctions, I don’t visit exhibitions”

Antonio Carnevale

The Family of the Infante Don Luis (1783-84), a core work in Goya’s production currently on show at the National Gallery in the exhibition Goya: the Portraits, was executed between 1783 and 1784 in Mosquera di Arenas de San Pedro’s palace, west of Madrid, home of the infant Luis de Borbón, younger brother of King Charles III. After various patrimonial passages, the work was acquired by Luigi Magnani in 1974, who somehow still owns it to this day. Magnani, whose approach to collecting doesn’t differ much from Cfa’s attitude, gathered together both fine and contemporary artworks. He never put any ideological boundaries between arts from different epochs and in his collection we can indeed spot old masters like Gentile da Fabriano, Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Vittore Carpaccio, Albrecht Durer, Tiziano, Rubens, Anton van Dyck, Rembrandt, Giambattista Tiepolo. Works by Goya are found side by side with pieces by Fussli and Antonio Canova, Lorenzo Bartolini and Jean-Auguste Dominique Inges. Drawings by Monet, next to oil paintings by Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir. Whereas the part dedicated to the 20th century sees artists like Henri Matisse, Gorge Braque, Giorgio De Chirico, Carlo Carrà, an entire fund by Giorgio Morandi, as well as Filippo de Pisis, Alberto Burri and Hans Hartung. What has driven such a rich research in various fields, albeit so different? We have asked Stefano Roffi, director of Fondazione Magnani Rocca, the institution created in Mamiano di Traversetolo, Parma, by the will of Luigi Magnani (1906-1984), which houses his entire collection. Here below an essay that Roffi wrote for Cfa.

In the collection of artworks by Luigi Magnani there seems to be missing any kind of link, being it thematic, of epochs or of any other sort. Far from that sumptuous wealth typical of overseas collections, and equally from the efficient precision of other European collectors, the artworks would land at the Villa in Mamiano led by that exclusive love for art so proudly démodé. Only artworks somehow unique. Each single masterpiece, brought to the foggy Po valley, nestled in like a “splinter out of time”, as poet Eugenio Montale would have said.

Magnani never wished to define himself as an art collector. The collection of artworks, albeit being his most concrete bequest, was to him part of a wider research and of a yearning for knowledge which has never favoured only one form of artistic expression. On the contrary, it has always looked with extreme care in any inspected and beloved piece (musical, figurative, poetical) for the author’s will and intellect, for his spiritual tension and his longing for transcendence.

Thus, provided that we can talk about the collection Magnani Rocca, we should take into account in any case the way the collection has been conceived by its “author”; Magnani surrounded himself with figurative artworks which were nonetheless part of a world that opened out onto synchronic and diachronic relationships with music, poetry and the broadest reality in which they were born, and in which, over time, they came to offer a coherent vision.

Luigi Magnani’s saturnine nature, the non-passive melancholy of the solitary intellectual, who eschewed the rhetoric “art for everybody” and hung out with artists, showing interest in their work and making it object of study, in an aura of high civilization, of elected spirituality. His doubting that to an increasing interest in an artwork followed a better understanding of the latter seems to correspond to the anti-hero attitude of his “San Giorgio” by Giacomo Manzù, to the refusal of that attention-seeking behaviour in favour of a form of monastic militancy, of a clamour’s strike, of the giving up of self-ostentation, after having fought with thoughtful dedication in order to conquer the pieces intended for his own Pantheon of art, patient, courageous and visionary like the wise Ulysses – a lithography is also in the collection – who didn’t let the Sirens lure him in, devoted to a bigger plan, conscious that this would have only been accomplished after his death.

So he used to explained his approach to collecting: “Contrary to the other collectors, I am not friend with antique dealers, I don’t attend auctions, I don’t visit exhibitions. I do indeed have my own imaginary museum, made up of those works mostly loved and admired over time, and of others that by a twist of fate, became real around me. However I don’t make any big difference between the two. To me they all are objects of equal love and worthy of the most devoted contemplation, they live in my mind as in my home and if by chance any of the latter ones turned out to be unsuitable for this ideal arrangement, they ended up in the garret while others which were passing through my sky, did silently place themselves on those empty spaces, as if they were angels”.

Just like angels the works that Magnani chose had to have a soul, show integrity, purity, perfect shape, lack of anxiety, of empty philosophizing, of matter, inhabited by a silence opposed to shout, by a peace opposed to anguish, whose choices between IXX and XX so clearly declare. He looked for artworks, prompted by internal requests and external signs left by a destiny he believed in and by which he felt he was given charge, first of all privately, then publicly, to establish the Fondazione Magnani Rocca in memory of his father Giuseppe and mother Eugenia. The painting by Monet, a Soleil Levant – acquired in the last years of his life – becomes the symbol of a calm and serene content, almost the first world’s dawn, when the nature lights up in its virginal purity, in its still resistance to time, in its endless volatility, in its illusory stasis and hidden metamorphosis; a moment and an eternity are seized on the canvas, on it all is nature and all is spirit.

“I love that relationship with artworks which pertains exclusively to the form. A painting full of contents, even of beautiful tales, doesn’t interest me in the least. What matters to me is the formal aspect, else I remain indifferent”. That formal research drew him to collect Cézanne – aware of the lack of the artist’s works in public collections in Italy, thus willing to make up for it – particularly of watercolours, indeed so deep; the artist recreates in them the matter of things, the form’s structure, that sculptural quality so intrinsic in nature: a reconnaissance of existence which leads to a true pictorial re-enactment which goes beyond what the eye sees, with a decisive role in retrieving values of mass and form, hence overcoming the typical impressionist pattern.

It is then of no surprise to spot the so naturally classic Nature morte by Giorgio Morandi in the Magnani’s collection, amongst which some pieces stand out: the only painting the artist ever did on commission, the Strumenti musicali, grandiose in their simplicity, and a rare painting from his metaphysical painting phase, icon of an undefined time and space, as well as the Autoritratto (1925): a composed self-confidence, a determination untouched by needs, a lack of drama, so shine through the figure of the young painter, not hero, not artist, actually humble yet conscious, like an ancient artisan. The perfect ensemble – a wave of light that sprinkles onto half of his face, his arm melding with the palette, those burned whites beneath the iron-grey of his waistcoat – turns him into the protagonist of a present out of time.

The Danseuse by Gino Severini and the alienating Enigma della partenza by Giorgio De Chirico, are two works close in time yet so far away in content, the former so rich in movement, almost frenetic, at the same time so composed, like a Madonna amongst worshippers, the latter silent and restless, made of emptiness and waiting, like a big question about the existence of the reality itself: if you look closer, the two paintings seem to embody the two facets of modernity. Together with Morandi, Magnani’s other main passion is Filippo De Pisis, a nomadic soul versus the severe and more stable spirit of the Bolognese master. The collection includes some Nature Morte by De Pisis, as well as the Pan (1944), ever described between mythology and literature, between dream and carnality, the true modern deity.

Then came the postwar, and so did those adventures that seemingly Magnani would have had troubles approaching, and feeling well-suited for. Instead, the most remarkable surprises do concern indeed the artists from those years, specifically Nicolas De Staël, Alberto Burri, Leoncillo and Jean Fautrier. Of the former, Magnani gets hold of a view of Paris (1954), whose thick and fast layers of colours appear to erase, under firm brush strokes, the traditional beauty of the subject itself: it is the announcement of the informal, of the action painting, whereby the gesture as well as the emotional energy of the artist while painting are unveiled, giving up the worries to represent the visible world. Advised by Cesare Brandi, Magnani acquires one of the most significant pieces by Burri, where the painting and the materials taken from reality, shreds of jute sacks, come together into a stately, almost holy image. Possibly guided by Roberto Longhi, he approaches Leoncillo, and his terracotta, wisely polished and glazed. This may look like a late conversion of the collector, or perhaps a pursuit of some trends; yet Burri, De Staël, Leoncillo and Fautrier (whose Composition (1960) is part of the collection) can be considered some of the authors of an extreme version, possibly even more aware and conservative of the classics, of the primacy of intellect and form over sensuality and instinct.

Hence, a gathering which appears at a first glance eclectic, is revealed as a thoroughly consistent collection. The classical spirit overcoming the time and the eternal value of beauty – which can be found in his beloved Mozart and Beethoven’s, as in Goethe’s writing, or in each desired artwork – embody its identity.

Written by Stefano Roffi, director of Fondazione Magnani Rocca.

November 25, 2020