Written by Mikaela Hewett, communications intern
AGWA’s next international exhibition, A Window on Italy – The Corsini Collection: Masterpieces from Florence, arrives in Perth, next February for an exclusive Australian season. Featuring a diverse selection of artwork from the Renaissance and Baroque era, this show is a must-see for lovers of Italian art and the period. I sat down with curator Melissa Harpley to gain some insight into the Collection and the experience it offers.
Thanks for taking the time to meet, Melissa. We’re here to talk about the Corsini Collection. Can you tell us what it is, and what people can expect when it arrives in Perth next February?
The Corsini Collection is a remarkable collection of artworks that are owned by an individual Florentine family. It is beautifully unified by that family connection, and the fact it has been built over centuries. Some of the works are by the great names of the Italian Renaissance – Botticelli, del Sarto, Pontormo – and Caravaggio, a name many people will be familiar with. The collection also tells an engaging story of the Corsini family themselves, so the exhibition will include a range of portraits of family members and artefacts from their home in the Palazzo Corsini. I think for audiences it will be a beautiful insight into the family, Florence, and Italy.
That sounds exciting. Can you tell me a little more about the Corsini family?
They are a family who came into prominence in the thirteenth century and occupied a range of professions in Florence, Italy – though there were also members of the family who worked in England – an important source of wealth for many Italian families during the Renaissance. One of the Corsinis was the Pope Clement XII. Another early member of the Corsini family was canonised, so they have their own saint as well, Saint Andrea Corsini.
And what styles of art did they collect?
A lot of the art is from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, so those works reflect the popular subjects of the time. There are certainly religious paintings, such as the fabulous Madonna with Child and Six Angels by Botticelli, but also some beautiful portraits. Classical mythology was of intellectual interest in the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Italy, so there are a number of paintings of scenes from mythology, and some landscapes too.
What do you feel are some of the stand out pieces in the Corsini Collection?
The Botticelli is an absolute knock-out. However, the Caravaggio portrait of Maffeo Barberini is also a very powerful painting. The four little Giovanni Santi paintings of Apollo and the Muses are beautiful early Renaissance panel paintings, and the portrait of the family’s saint with the bullet holes in it is a very moving and powerful work because of the backstory. There is such a diverse selection of art that I’m sure everyone will be able to find something they love while visiting the Collection.
What is the story behind the family saint?
Well, towards the end of the Second World War the German army was retreating through Italy. The Corsini family were aware that the German army had been looting artworks along the way, so Princess Elena Corsini worked with some of her staff to hide as much of the collection as they could to try and preserve it. Some of it was hidden in a crypt in a church in Florence, and other pieces were loaded onto a truck, which was driven out to one of their country properties. Princess Elena Corsini instructed that a false wall was built to hide the artworks so that if the Germans passed through they wouldn’t find any paintings. The family story goes that when the artworks were put behind the wall, Donna Elena said to the portrait of the saint, “I’ve done my bit, now it’s up to you.”
The Germans did arrive, noticed the false wall, and one of the officers – possibly thinking there were people behind it – shot at the wall a number of times. Luckily, the only work damaged was the painting of Saint Andrea Corsini, so perhaps he did protect the rest of the collection! The family decided not to have the work conserved, so you can still see the bullet holes in it.
When the Corsini Collection arrives in February, what would you say to people thinking of visiting?
It’s a great opportunity to spend some time with works from a period and place that you don’t often experience in Perth. Plus, there’s the fascinating story of the Corsini family and the city of Florence to bring many of the works to life. They’re fabulous paintings, and I think people will have a great experience since there are so many beautiful works of art to enjoy.
Thank you, Melissa. Tickets to A Window on Italy – The Corsini Collection: Masterpieces from Florence are now on sale here.