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Turin - London - Corfu
THE COLLECTION OF GIORGIO MARSAN AND UMBERTA NASI
By Giulia Marsan
My parents became collectors almost unintentionally. They grew up in Italy in a period encapsulated in the words of Elena Croce, a time in which: "At the height of the fascist regime the elite stood out in its liberal ivory tower: with tolerant morals and perfect manners, commitment to culture and a love of personality".
The fourth child of Tina Agnelli and Carlo Nasi, Mother grew up in an 18th-century Turin palazzo, which had belonged to the family of Massimo D'Azeglio, a painter, writer and Piedmontese Prime Minister. The richly decorated building had been bought in 1919 by Giovanni Agnelli, Mother's grandfather and founder of FIAT, for his daughter and her husband, and was furnished with opulent taste.
With her upbringing Mother took for granted that she would live in beautifully furnished grand houses, and Father, whose grandfather was the Secretary of the Accademia Albertina, grew up in a milieu which could not fail to educate his eye, delighted in making this a reality.
Mother had an affinity for French culture, but disliked its tendency to pomposity and rhetorical flourish; while Father had a greater empathy with English culture. They both liked neo-classical furniture and 19th-century painting. Father's enthusiasm and evolving taste were tempered by Mother's realism. Most proposed purchases were met with, "Where are you going to put it?" and countered with the ritual response, "I shall find some place". And they did, at Villa Silvio Pellico, a late 18th-century house in the hills of Moncalieri, overlooking the Po Valley.
During the Italian economic miracle, buying grand houses and decorating them with antiques was what the affluent did. At the heart of their collection, the Villa Silvio Pellico embodies my parents' unerring eye for quality, and their eclectic, cosmopolitan taste. Their cousins, Gianni and Marella Agnelli, had turned to Russell Page to create an unusual English garden at their Baroque retreat in Villar Perosa; and, in 1956 Mother and Father commissioned the renowned English garden designer to rearrange the gardens of their neo-classical villa. Page created a strongly designed garden with herringbone-pattern brick paths, echoing the English Arts & Crafts movement, and parterres of roses, box-hedges and cypress trees which pay homage to the architecture of classical Italian gardens. In the same way the interiors, in the style first of Tommaso Buzzi and later of Renzo Mongiardino, were decorated with bright trompe l'oeil, fine examples of neo-classical furniture, 19th Century paintings and topographical views by English artists.
What a French art expert said of Gianni Agnelli, whose collection was far grander, could equally be applied to Father: "Sa collection est dans la tradition des grands collectionneurs amateurs europíens, parfaitement íclectique, totalment instinctive, sans aucun systímatisme dans le choix des tableaux". Whereas Gianni's collection evolved in a public foundation, Mother and Father never had such a goal. Mother enjoyed 'fairly empty rooms'. Father never had difficulties in selling items to develop other areas of collecting.
Driven by their love of beauty and sense of style Mother and Father then bought unique properties in other spectacular locations, including a magnificent apartment in Cadogan Square, and an old Venetian fort on the northern shores of Corfu.
With their collection Mother and Father created elegant, graceful but not pretentious environments for a life of beauty and ease, reminiscent of the purposeful and leisured creativity portrayed in Goethe's Wahlverwandschaften.