Home is Where the Art Is: Amazing Collections in Italian Homes

As everyone knows, there are many beautiful buildings in Italy. But there are also plenty of buildings that are hum-drum, ho-hum, just plain blah, or even ugly. Many fine buildings were bombed flat in WWII and, even if they hadn’t been, new ones have been built to accommodate the expanding population. Not every Italian architect is a genius, and Italy has its share of uninteresting architecture.

What’s interesting, often, is what’s inside. I’ve visited many homes where the building’s exterior, and even interior shared hallways, were bleak at best. Then you enter the private apartment and are surrounded by splendors that Americans don’t dare to dream of in ordinary homes. Persian carpets. Antique furniture. Real paintings. In Italy, antiques aren’t something you necessarily have to buy – the best stuff is not available for sale, but has been handed down in the family for generations.

I’ve written before about Setti Carraro, the first middle school that Ross attended in Milan. The school prides itself on a long history: some of the students’ mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers have attended before them. Setti Carraro is a slice of Milano perbene, a term used to describe the Milanese upper class which I cannot adequately translate. Perbene literally means “polite” or “respectable”, but it can also mean “snobby” or “pretentious”, depending who utters it. Suffice to say that Milano perbene has money, and isn’t afraid to display it.

Ross was invited to the birthday party of one of her classmates, whose mother dressed in Roberto Cavalli jeans, lacy tops, and high-heeled boots – somewhat alarming ensembles, considering that the lady is a dentist. Dentistry is a very lucrative profession in Italy, so I figured she could easily afford all that designer clothing.

When we arrived at their building to drop off Ross, I was surprised to find it unprepossessing on the outside, even ugly. Then we went inside. The first thing I noticed in the foyer of the family’s apartment was a life-size wooden statue of a saint. My eye was next drawn to a huge painting on the wall opposite the door, of a man in red and white ecclesiastical robes. The painting had a gold frame, and a museum-style plate at the bottom which said: “Portrait of Cardinal So-and-So, Tiziano” – Titian.

The salon connected to the foyer was dimly lit by 10-foot-tall glass fixtures shaped like palm trees, flanking the entrance. Its walls were completely covered in paintings. I read another tag: “Guido Reni.” Hmm. The place looked like a museum, and the paintings all seemed to be museum quality.

I mentioned this to Enrico when I returned to the car where he was waiting.

“Do you think those are originals?” I asked.

“No, they couldn’t possibly be. The family wouldn’t be allowed to keep them. By law, I think, they would have to be in a museum. They must be falsi d’autore.” (professionally-painted reproductions)

I’m no expert on art, but the reproductions explanation didn’t satisfy me. While Ross was at the party, I searched the Internet for any reference to this Titian portrait of a cardinal. I can’t remember the cardinal’s name now, but at the time I searched on that name and found nothing. Well, that’s logical – if the painting has been in the family for generations (maybe the cardinal was a relative, somewhere along the line?), it may never have been seen by the experts.

When we picked up Ross, I asked her to ask her classmate about the painting. “It could be original,” she said, and went on to explain her reasoning:

This party took place around Halloween, so the girls had decided to do a séance. To add to the atmosphere, they wanted to drape a sheet over a piece of sculpture, to represent a ghost. Ross didn’t think much of the sculpture: lacking a head or limbs, it looked like a dressmaker’s dummy (some sort of modern art). But her classmate thought it wise to ask her mother’s permission to play with it.

“Yes, you can use it, but be careful,” said the mother. “Vale due miliardi.” (“It’s worth two billion” – lire, that is. In dollars, about one million.)

She wasn’t joking. So I concluded that the paintings were probably also real, and really, really valuable.

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