Ajaccio and Bastia : Corsica’s museums get a facelift

1. Palais Fesch
Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Ajaccio
Photo : Didier Rykner

Anyone familiar with the Musée Fesch – rebaptized Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Ajaccio (ill. 1) – already knows that it houses one of France’s most important art collections, second only to the Louvre for its Italian paintings. The recent renovation, lasting barely two years, totaled 7 million euros which was financed by the European Union, the French government, the Communauté Territoriale de Corse, the Conseil Général de Corse-du-Sud and the city of Ajaccio. A modern storage facility was created under the courtyard, the building was entirely refurbished and an air conditioning system was installed. The collection also underwent a thorough re-examination resulting in several significant discoveries of unpublished paintings and benefited from a major restoration campaign for a total of 456.000 € [1]. This rehabilitation is now over with the official reopening of what is now definitely one of France’s first museums.

2. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
Virgin with Child ans an Angel
Tempera on wood - 115.2 x 70 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée d’Ajaccio

3. Mattia Preti (1613-1699)
Saint Veronica
Oil on canvas - 92 x 72 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon’s uncle, had assembled no less than 16.000 paintings, thus constituting no doubt the biggest collection in art history. This massive quantity in no way excluded the finest quality since he owned for example Leonardo’s Saint Jerome, today at the Vatican, Raphael’s Crucifixion which now resides at the National Gallery in London and The Dance of Human Life by Poussin held at the Wallace Collection. When he died, Joseph Bonaparte, Count of Survilliers, contested the cardinal’s bequest to Ajaccio of part of this collection. The city came to a settlement with Joseph and managed to obtain a donation of over 800 paintings, art objects, the cardinal’s library (minus the engravings) and various pieces of furniture. About 300 more paintings were also turned over to other Corsican cities, including a hundred or so to Bastia.
This donation, now known as the “Survilliers donation”, was made up mostly of works then considered as being the least valuable that is, a great number of Primitives and 17th and 18th century Baroque paintings. The museum therefore owns many small masters which are often of high quality and fascinating to study as well as paintings by famous figures, with mistaken attributions handed out in the 19th century but since corrected by art critics. Moreover, several deposits have rounded out the original holdings. Visitors to the Ajaccio museum will find works by Sandro Botticelli (ill. 2), Perugino, Cosmè Tura, Bernardino Luini, Lorenzo di Credi, Titian, Veronese, Fra Bartolomeo, Giovanni Lanfranco, Carlo Saraceni, Pietro da Cortona, Carlo Maratta, Pier Francesco Mola, Luca Giordano, Salvator Rosa, Mattia Preti (ill. 3), Francesco Solimena, Baciccio, Corrado Giaquinto, Giovanni Paolo Pannini, etc.

4. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Midas at the Pactole River
Oil on canvas - 58 x 82 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

5. François Gérard (1613-1699)
Caroline Bonaparte, Queen of Naples
Oil on canvas - 63 x 52 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts

However, although Italian painting makes up the largest part of the collection, it is not the only one. Fesch in fact assembled pieces from all the schools as his goal was “to follow the history of painting, from its renaissance to its flourishing, without leaving his gallery”. The museum displays French painters who worked in Italy, such as Simon Vouet and Subleyras, as well as a Poussin (ill. 4) which undoubtedly was included in the donation because it had not been identified as such [2] and some Northern Europeans. The extensive number of 17th century still-lifes represents another of the collection’s highlights.
The museum is made up of three departments beginning with that of old masters. The second corresponds to the Napoleonic collections, mostly the Survilliers donation with additions from other bequests and gifts. It includes several works by Jacques Sablet [3], large portraits of the imperial family by François Gérard (ill. 5) and François-Xavier Fabre, as well as by Italians such as Pietro Benvenuti and Giuseppe Bezzuoli, marble busts by Bosio, Chaudet, Bartolini and many art objects along with some textiles. The Second Empire is also represented, notably with Alexandre Cabanel, Horace Vernet and Isidore Pils.

6. Jean-Luc Multedo (1812-1894)
The Forest at Valdoniello, 1866
Oil on canvas - 114 x 104 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Art/
JF Paccosi

The third department presents Corsican art, an understandable interest for the museum but the quality is clearly inferior to the rest as Corsica is not necessarily a nation of painters despite its historical ties to Italy. However, a few canvases are worthy of note, such as a beautiful landscape by Jean-Luc Multedo (ill. 6) acquired at the Salon in 1876 by the government to be placed on deposit at Ajaccio, the first painting to start this collection.

7. One of the rooms on the second floor
In the background, Botticelli’s painting
Photo : Didier Rykner

8. Gallery on the first floor
Photo : Didier Rykner

The renovation is obviously a resounding success. The building was restored while still fully respecting its palatial architecture, the paintings have been hung in a coherent manner with the chronological visit starting on the second floor, from the Primitives (ill. 7) to the 17th century, then continuing on the first with the 18th century, the Napoleonic on the courtyard level in the exhibition rooms and the Corsican paintings on the lower floor (sea level). The second floor gallery which runs through the centre of the building from one end to the other, houses the large still-life collection, whereas the same one on the first floor displays other paintings with a variety of schools, dates and subjects, close together in the style of the hangs of traditional princely collections in old Italian palaces (ill. 8) such as those seen today in Rome (Galleria Spada, Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Galleria Colonna…) or Florence (Palazzo Pitti…). The larger altarpieces have been assembled in a suitable room on the second floor (in the same place as before).

9. Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)
Saint John the Baptist
Oil on canvas - 146 x 110 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

10. Emilia, XVIIth century
Holy Family with Anthony of Padua and Saint Clare
Oil on canvas - 145 x 120 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

Two collection catalogues have been published for the inauguration, that of the Corsican paintings and one for liturgical ornaments of Cardinal Fesch. Three others will follow, 14th to 16th century paintings which should appear soon, 17th and 18th century paintings should appear before the end of the year and, finally, in 2011, a catalogue of the 19th century. We will discuss these publications in detail as they appear, notably the many discoveries made in the course of this refurbishment. We would however like to point out now very little known, at times previously unpublished works, retrieved from storage and exhibited for the first time in many, many years.

11. Niccolò Pomarancio
(1516-after 1596)
Angel of the Annunciation
Oil on panel - 56 x 39 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

12. Niccolò Pomarancio
(1516-after 1596)
Virgin of the Annunciation
Oil on panel - 56 x 39 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

13. Santi di Tito (1567-1603)
Holy Family
Oil on panel - 125 x 99 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

Among these, visitors will enjoy a very beautiful Saint John the Baptist by Ludovico Carracci (ill. 9). Although it is cautiously identified as “attributed to”, the latest specialists to have expressed their opinion about this painting have confirmed its authenticity and it will be published as such in the forthcoming catalogue. From the same Emilian school, we cannot resist the pleasure of publishing a Holy Family which is still anonymous (ill. 10). Other superb discoveries include an Annunciation painted on two separate panels by Niccolo Pomarancio (ill. 11 and 12), a Florentine Holy Family by Santi di Tito (ill. 13) and, for the 18th century, a large altarpiece by Domenico Corvi (ill. 14).

14. Domenico Corvi (1721-1803)
Assomption of the Virgin
Oil on canvas - 307 x 159 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

15. Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian (1485/88-1576)
Portrait of the Man with the Glove
Oil on canvas - 87 x 73 cm
Ajaccio, Musée Fesch
Photo : RMN/Gérard Blot

Three temporary exhibitions are currently taking place. The first is a special-study exhibition on Titian, placed on deposit by the Louvre in 1956. This Man with a Glove (ill. 15), which was recently restored hangs next to several other portraits by the artist, including the other Man with a Glove, from the Louvre, dated the same year, 1520. Visitors will also see there a painting which was discovered at a small auction in England and which we had immediately pointed out (see news item of 21/7/07) ; the quality of this portrait leaves no room for doubt and is a valuable addition to the catalogue of the artist’s authenticated works.
The second temporary exhibition is a repeat of the one presented last year at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Le dessin à Florence au temps de Michel-Ange, (Drawing in Florence at the Time of Michelangelo). We therefore refer our readers to our news item of 24/2/09.

16. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
Study for the Portrait of Lucien Bonaparte, c. 1808
Oil on canvas - 45 x 37.5 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : Montpellier, Musée Fabre

17. Master of the Crucifix
Bartholomew, James the Less, Simon,
Laurent, Catherine of Alexandria abd Agnès

Tempera on panel - 120 x 58 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts

The third and most ambitious show highlights the figure of Lucien Bonaparte (ill. 16), the only one of Napoleon’s brothers to have refused a kingdom, and who answered the Emperor by saying : “ Leave me my obscurity. I prefer it to your crowns as I am free”.
We cannot provide a full review of this exhibition which we saw much too quickly, just as we did not have the time to read the imposing catalogue which is divided in a very balanced way between essays and entries. However, we can attest to the fine quality of the presentation and the importance of some of the works (some of them are from Lucien’s private collection).

Now that the Fesch museum benefits from excellent display conditions, that it pursues a policy of exhibition and publication of its collections corresponding to that of a great museum, we hope that the city and the region will be able to afford an ambitious acquisitions policy as well. The only significant purchase since the beginning of this century was in 2001 of a panel by the Master of the Crucifix on a silver background (ill. 17). This work was from Cardinal Fesch’s collection and the museum already owned two other panels from the same group.

18. View of the Governors’ Palace, Bastia
(on the right the modern part)
Photo : C+D

19. Façade of the Governors’ Palace, Bastia
Photo : Didier Rykner

At the same time as Ajaccio, Bastia reopened its own museum, under the sponsorship also of the Collectivité territoriale de Corse which is in fact very active in maintaining its heritage. Housed in the Palais des Gouverneurs, a 16th century fortress which overlooks the city, the Musée de Bastia, devoted to Corsican ethnography, was closed for ten years. When the Musée d’Anthropologie was created in Corte in 1997, the one in Bastia was transformed into an establishment focused on the city’s history. The plans also included rebuilding the section of the palace which had been destroyed during WWII. Although the use of modern materials is debatable, the results are satisfactory as this new construction with its massive forms reproducing the previous volumes is well integrated into the old building (ill. 18). The most reprehensible part of this restoration is in fact the historical façade facing the city (ill. 19) which has been covered with a particularly thick coat of plaster which we can only hope will take on a certain patina with time.

20. Musée de Bastia
View of a room
Photo : Didier Rykner

21. Anonyme, XVIIIth-XIXth century
Golden wood, silver, silk
Bastia, Musée
Photo : Didier Rykner

The museum was determined to open on schedule but the hang was not totally finished. The display cases especially, with objects from the Carlini collection donated in 1973, were still not set up when we were there, many of the signs were still missing and some paintings had not yet been framed. What we saw however was very nice although the rooms, with their original volumes, still seem a bit empty. Their austerity will benefit from a museological arrangement (ill. 20). As this is a history museum, not Fine Arts, the objects are very diverse, some corresponding to ethnology or folk art, others being veritable art objects.
Thus the Musée de Bastia holds about fifty paintings from the Fesch collection (as mentioned above one hundred or so had been donated to the city by Joseph, some of which are in churches). A few (less than ten) are exhibited in a room (ill. 22) where three studies by Corrado Giaquinto (ill. 23) stand out ; these are part of an ensemble whose other pieces are at the Musée Fesch. The paintings will be exhibited on a rotating basis, a regrettable decision in our opinion. There is plenty of room in this palace to hang the best quality works (about thirty we were told) and there is no reason for not having them out permanently even if it means placing some higher up in double file.

22. Room of the Italian paintings
We can see three studies by Corrado Giaquinto
Musée de Bastia
Photo : Didier Rykner

23. Corrado Giaquinto (1703-1765)
Saints and saintes
Oil on canvas - 135.5 x 98.7 cm
Bastia, Musée
Photo : Didier Rykner

For those traveling to Corsica this summer, the Musée de Corte is presenting an exhibition on religious communities which seems interesting but which we saw in the preparation stage with only one-fourth of the works already there. It proves however, along with the reopening of the museums in Bastia and Ajaccio that the museum offerings in Corsica are of a high level and one more attraction to anyone who has not yet been fortunate enough to discover its magnificent landscapes and rich architectural heritage.

Under the supervision of Maria Teresa Caracciolo, in collaboration with Isabelle Mayer-Michallon, Lucien Bonaparte (1775-1840). Un homme libre, Editions Silvana Editoriale, 2010, 348 p., 35€. ISBN : 2913043291.

Collective work, Titien, l’étrange homme au gant, Editions Silvana Editoriale, 2010, 136 p., 22€. ISBN : 2913043291.

Visitor information : Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts, 50-52 rue du Cardinal Fesch, 20000 Ajaccio. Tél : +33 (0)4 95 21 48 17. From May 1st to September 30th : Monday, Wednesay and Saturday from 10.30 to 18 ; Thursday and Sunday from 12 to 18 ; Friday from 12 to 18, to 20.30 in July and August ; closed on Tuesday. From October 1st to April 30th : Monday, Wednesday and Saturday 10 to 17 ; Thursday and Friday from 12 to 17 ; on the third weekend of the month, Sunday from 12 to 17.
Website for the Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Musée, Place du Donjou, La Citadelle, 20200 Bastia. Tél : +33(0)4 95 31 09 12. From April 1st to June 30th and from September 15th to October 30th : Tuesday to Sunday, 10-18 ; from July 1st to September 15th : Tuesday to Sunday 10-19.30 ; from November 1st to March 31st : Tuesday to Sunday 9-12 and 14-17.30.

Didier Rykner, dimanche 25 juillet 2010


[1] Part of this was funded by a traveling exhibition to Japan. This was a paying exhibition as are the others currently organized by Orsay, a regrettable move but which is taking place during the museum’s closure without depriving visitors from viewing the works.

[2] The attribution was correctly made only in the late 1950’s and it was exhibited for the first time by Michel Laclotte in 1958.

[3] We point out here that the fundraising drive for the acquisition of The Tarentella by this painter (see news item of 18/11/2007) did not achieve its goal, alas.

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