How the state let a masterpiece by Parmigianino slip under its nose

The state missed the opportunity to purchase, at a derisory price, the most important masterpiece by Parmigianino that remained in private hands, which went to auction last July 8 and was eventually bought by a private individual.

The opportunity was one that rarely happens: the most important work in private hands by one of the greatest artists in Italian art history put on the market at a more than affordable price. Last July 8, at Christie’s Old Masters Evening Sale, Parmigianino’s Saturn and Filira, a work with a rare iconography, illustrious history (it is found mentioned as early as 1561 in the inventory of the estate of Cavalier Francesco Baiardi, a friend of the artist), and well known to critics, was going up for auction. The estimate was ¬£400,000-600,000, and from many quarters invitations were made to the state to buy the work(including from these columns). In the end, the panel was hammered out at 500,000 pounds (587,770 euros), and it was won by a private individual, according to confirmation from the auction house itself, which, however, maintains confidentiality about the client’s identity and nationality. A sum that the state could easily have paid to have Parmigianino’s work become public property.

An opportunity that unfortunately was woefully missed, despite the fact that an appeal had been launched, signed also by Nobel Prize winner Mario Capecchi and several art historians (including Gigetta Dalli Regoli, Augusto Gentili, Marco Tanzi, Lucia Tomasi Tongiorgi, Alessandro Zuccari), and by many cultural figures, and despite the fact that solicitations had come from many quarters. Nothing to be done, and it is sad that there was not the will, the stubbornness, the intention to bring the panel back to Italy, or that there was a lack of resources, to bring to an Italian public museum a painting that would have significantly enriched the heritage of all. Nor can it be said that the state does not acquire important works or that it does not know how to move in the market: in the last two years alone it spent 800,000 euros on a rare painting by Guido Reni, the Danza campestre that enriched the collection of the Galleria Borghese, and then again 450,000 euros for a sculpture by Pierre-√?tienne Monnot bought by exercising the right of first refusal directly from the Odescalchi family, purchased for the Palazzo Barberini, and again 400 thousand euros for Juan de Borgo√Īa’s Dispute on the Immaculate Conception, which is now in Capodimonte, not to mention the many purchases for the Uffizi, starting with two such extraordinary masterpieces as the Pannocchieschi d’Elci paintings by Daniele da Volterra (to secure them, the state spent a total of almost three million euros). It is therefore unclear why Parmigianino’s Saturn and Filira could not also make it to the public collections: what prevented the purchase? We await an answer.

Parmigianino, Saturno e Filira (olio su tavola, 75,6 x 64,1 cm)
Parmigianino, Saturn and Filira (oil on panel, 75.6 x 64.1 cm)

There is then on the sidelines a further question to be investigated: from the columns of theHuffington Post, historian Dario Pasquini launches an invective against Tomaso Montanari, guilty of not having supported the appeal for the purchase of the Parmigianino. Pasquini reports that he contacted Montanari, but the professor, in his capacity as president of the technical-scientific committee for fine arts (appointed by decree on Oct. 23, 2018), allegedly responded by saying that he did not want to sign the appeal for the Parmigianino because in his opinion “this could conflict with his role in the body deputed to provide the Ministry with the opinion for a possible public purchase.” The scholar therefore reproaches Montanari for having urged the State, a few days later, to exercise ex lege the right of pre-emption on the paintings by Giandomenico Tiepolo that were the subject of a transaction between the Franco family and Alessandro Benetton (and, incidentally, Montanari tried to justify the possibility of a failure to purchase with the “lack of money” that would afflict the state coffers: perhaps this is therefore the reason why the State failed to secure the Parmigianino painting?). The difference between the two cases lies in the fact that Tiepolo’s works were bound in 1989, so Montanari merely advocated the purchase of a group of works on which the state had already expressed its opinion in the past, officially recognizing their exceptional value.

Rather, two cases that seem entirely analogous to those of Parmigianino should be noted: Montanari, in July 2019, suggested to the state the purchase of the portrait of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphili by Diego Vel√°zquez (“If Minister Alberto Bonisoli would like to link his name to some feat worth remembering, I would warmly advise him to try to bring back to Italy the Portrait of Donna Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphili by Diego Vel√°zquez.”) which was going up for auction in London at Sotheby’s with an estimate of between 2.3 and 3.5 million euros (later sold for just over two and a half million), and a few months later, in November, he again spurred the state to grab the portrait of Mozart attributed to Giambettino Cignaroli (“it would be a nice signal [....] if the Italian State [...] would buy and bring back to Italy the most important portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on the market today”), which went to auction at Christie’s in Paris with an estimate of between 800,000 and 1.2 million euros (later sold for 4 million). In that case, too, these were two works sold on the international market, and Montanari at that time was already president of the cts for fine arts: so I take advantage of this space to ask Tomaso Montanari (regardless of what he thinks of Parmigianino, since it would seem to be a mere matter of form) for what reasons, at the time, he did not see any conflict situations between his office and his advice. Perhaps there is some detail we are missing.

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