Interview of Fabrizio Lemme

A major collector of 17th and 18th century Italian painting, particularly Roman artists, Fabrizio Lemme is also a generous donor. After offering several works to the Louvre and to the Galleria Nazionale at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, he has made a very important donation of 128 paintings to the Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia. He granted us this interview which we are publishing at the same time as that of Francesco Petrucci, director of the Palazzo Chigi, along with several articles devoted to the Roman Baroque.(see article)

Why do you collect art and why the 17th and 18th centuries in Rome ?

The choice was no accident. It’s because of my friendship with Italo Faldi. At first, when I started buying paintings, in 1966, it was in a haphazard way : landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, historical paintings. There was no connection between any of them.

They were already only Italian paintings, from all centuries ?

Only Italian paintings, but always Baroque, because this is the period which interests me most. I’m interested in art history regardless of the period. I also really like painters from the Transavantgarde. In my lawyer’s office I have small things by Marcel Duchamp, Gino di Dominici, Luca Patella, Mario Merz, painters who were even more avant-garde than today’s, but my interest in the Baroque is what is deepest in me. I made this choice because I think that the Baroque hasn’t been discovered yet. For dozens of years, the Romantics’ negative opinion weighed heavily on the Baroque. It was practically considered a period where history was only looking to the past. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Some of the events which took place in the 18th century are the basis of our current history, such as the Thirty Years’ War, which marked the beginning of the German, French and Dutch nations. These events explain why nations were formed, thus their consequences reach beyond their age. Another reason for my interest in the Baroque, but as a lay person, is the Catholic Counter Reformation and its rhetoric. This movement was studied by Marc Fumaroli who wrote some really remarkable pages on this event.

This love for the Baroque precedes even my love for painting, although I like Caravaggio and the Baroque painters so much. Among my favourite painters, there are two in the 17th century : Poussin on the one hand and Guido Reni on the other. That is the reason I collected in this field, but I started, as I said, in a very disorderly manner. Roman, Neapolitan, Genovese, Lombard painters… After four years of buying things which were not related in any way, in 1970, as I said, I met a great art historian, the first one to become a friend. His name is, because he’s still alive even if he is very old, Italo Faldi. At the time he was deputy superintendent in Rome and he was a great connoisseur of the period. I asked him how I could build up a beautiful collection. He answered by saying that I should buy inexpensive paintings. He would say : “frankly, anyone can buy important paintings with lots of money. But buying important paintings with just a little, this is what characterizes a man of taste”. Second of all : he advised me to choose a period which was not sought after. This allowed me to buy at a low price and assemble a very important collection, a complement to major public collections.

I applied what Italo Faldi told me, and from than moment on, I chose Roman Baroque. I practically wrote out a mental list of all the painters I should buy to set up a complete collection and I looked for these painters in a remarkably obstinate and committed way. I say it frankly, without pretending to be modest, but it’s true. After doing this for twenty years, the first time I was quoted by an official critic, was for the Pierre Subleyras exhibition in Paris and Rome. In the introduction to the catalogue, Pierre Rosenberg wrote that my collection was a veritable museum of Roman painting in the 18th century. This was the first official recognition of my work as a collector. Ten years later, there was the exhibition at the Louvre which consecrated me as a major collector and expert.

The Louvre, to whom you made your first donation. Why donate to the Louvre, to Rome and today to Ariccia ?

Yes, I have made many donations. Why ? First of all because I think that private property of cultural works should be recognized but especially as it relates to the public interest. Public interest is the final purpose of any private collection. On a practical level, a collector who only collects what he likes is only reflecting his own choices and will be doing something with no social impact, it does not go beyond a personal manifestation. I have no problem saying openly that I have always been a leftist. I’ve never been anything else ever in my life. But not an old style leftist, not a Christian leftist who preaches poverty. A leftist who works and who lives off of his work, who saves and, with his savings, collects. This is legitimate, but the ultimate goal of the collector is to give back what he took to society.

And that is why I made three donations. And also so that people could learn about the Roman Baroque school which was not highly considered, except by specialists. The first donation is the one I like most, to the Louvre, because behind my gesture is my great, extraordinary friendship with Pierre Rosenberg. The second one, the 28 paintings to the Galleria nazionale d’arte antica in Rome and the third, last year’s donation of 128 paintings to Ariccia, which concluded my career as a collector. After this donation, I haven’t bought any other paintings, since it is hard to find good works, especially at modest prices. My collection is finished.

You don’t buy any more ?

No, I almost don’t buy any more. It’s over. Every once in a while I see a painting and so I may acquire it, but it’s rather unpredictable. Normally, my collection is now complete.

But in your home, you still have a lot of paintings. Your apartment walls are covered with them.

Formerly, my collection was spread out between two apartments, both full of paintings, from floor to ceiling. Today, I only have one apartment with 160 paintings, thus giving the impression that the collection is still there. These paintings will go to my six grand-children, each one will get 25 paintings. I hope that some of them will pursue my work and that they will keep the paintings. But they’ll do as they like.

Some of them were acquired since your donations to the Louvre and to the Barberini gallery ?

In the almost ten years since I made those donations, I’ve bought at least eighty paintings.

Including a portion which you gave to Ariccia ?

In fact, the paintings I donated to Ariccia are the ones I had asked to be declared a collection of historical interest and cannot be broken up. Since this declaration happened a year after the donation to the Louvre, almost all of the paintings donated to Ariccia are works I owned previously. Among the paintings which I still have at home, half were bought before the donation to the Louvre, the other half afterwards.

You talked about your friendship with Pierre Rosenberg, but your donation to the Louvre, is due only to this friendship or also because of a particular fondness for France ?

In my early childhood, through my mother, I learned to love France. She loved it more than Italy and she communicated her love for France to me. In the words of the ambassador who pinned the legion of honour on me : "you drank the love of France in your mother’s milk". This is really true. So I really like France, and both things happened at once, on the one hand the great affection and high esteem I feel for Pierre Rosenberg and on the other this love for your country. If for instance, he was from Lebanon, I wouldn’t have made a donation to Lebanon.

I think that at the time you wanted to give more paintings to the Louvre but the Italian government was against it ?

I was aware of the fact that in order to have the Italian government’s approval for the donation to the Louvre, which was not easy, I had to present a series of proposals to the Minister of Cultural Affairs. I also wanted to respect my ties to my country as I was born in Italy. In fact, it was my idea to do this combination : a donation to the Louvre with the consent of the Italian government on the one hand ; a donation of twenty-eight paintings, all related to Rome, to the Gallery of classical painting at the Palazzo Barberini, on the other. Then to dispel any suspicions, very understandable unfortunately, that I had made this donation to boost the value of my collection, I suggested that the other works be notified, that is barred for export from Italy and kept together as a whole. The Ministry accepted this arrangement after battling for two years. I wrote so many letters I could put together a book. The most complicated part was obtaining the Italian government’s approval for the definitive donation to France.

Having said that, Italy also came away with a lot.

Yes, on the one hand twenty paintings were lost to Italian heritage, but on the other it gained twenty-eight paintings which are far from being of minor importance. Perhaps they are even more important for Rome on a historical level as these are studies of paintings for Roman churches. I donated the entire cycle of studies for the frescoes at Saint Clement to the Palazzo Barberini. I had bought these paintings directly from the descendants of Pope Clement XI and that, that’s totally unique in Italian collections. This includes practically the whole group of studies which Clement XI ordered for the Basilica of Saint Clement. He had been elected on the feast day of this saint and was particularly devoted to him. The first act of his pontificate was to commission a cycle of frescoes on his life from the best artists of the time. All of the studies were given to the pope’s family and remained in their hands until 1990, when I bought them. It all happened in half a day. The prince was negotiating with a dealer who would have sold them separately. When I heard the really low price the prince was asking, I managed to find the money by taking out a loan, I’m not ashamed to say, and I immediately sent the money to the seller.

Why did you choose Ariccia ?

This is a remarkable donation, 128 paintings, that’s a lot. I wanted all of the paintings to be displayed. I got in touch with the Galleria nazionale d’arte antica, which has 2000 paintings but only exhibits 500. There’s no room. They told me : “we can exhibit about twenty more, but not all”. The Roman museum in the Palazzo Braschi is in even worse condition since it has 10,000 paintings and only exhibits 300. It was impossible to ask them to present my entire collection. The only one who could do it was the museum of Roman Baroque in Ariccia, because it has the space and it’s a new museum, which was just created and which still has to set up a library and a collection. There is an excellent director, Francesco Petrucci, who is young and who trusts me totally. Everything went very well and I saw that the display of my collection in Ariccia was truly marvellous. We came to a cordial agreement on everything. The rest of the museum, is first of all the former collections from the Palazzo Chigi. Then the 48 paintings donated by Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco, my paintings, a few isolated donations and then Mr. Laschena’s donation, former president of the State Council, a very, very dear friend. He passed away and asked his widow to choose a public collection to which he could offer the works. She trusts me and I suggested the Palazzo Chigi. This is very recent. The catalogue was presented on November 9th.

You know about the opening of a Louvre satellite in Abou Dhabi. Personally, would it bother you if the paintings from your collection were sent there on a long term basis ?

If it is a temporary exhibition, let’s say one or two years, not at all since I’m interested in having people learn about Roman Baroque. About the rest, it’s not up to me to say if Abou Dhabi is a valid choice or not, it’s up to the French to do so. My personal opinion, on the subject, is that there’s nothing scandalous about it : it’s a decision in keeping with the reality of globalization.

Interview by Didier Rykner

, mercredi 3 décembre 2008

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