I n 1930, Gio Ponti received a commission from Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi to furnish and decorate a private reception room and gallery on the second floor of his newly acquired late 19th century Florentine palazzo. Contini Bonacossi was a Senator of the Kingdom of Italy, and officially inherited the family title while involved in the refurbishment of what was to be his primary residence.
The palazzo had three piani nobili, with the semi-public ground and first floor completely taken over by his immense collection of Roman antiquities as well as his many Renaissance paintings, now scattered across eight rooms within the Uffizi Gallery. The second, more private floor was designed to accommodate Contini’s large collection of early Italian Modern art that included works by Giorgio De Chirico, Mario Sironi, Carlo Carrà, Filippo De Pisis, and Giorgio Morandi amongst many others. It was also reserved for the apartments of Alessandro’s immediate family and reconfigured by Ponti.
Within Ponti’s design scheme, we can identify this pair of benches and its twin pair (nowadays separated between two private collections), as well as two elongated marble topped coffee tables, six low stools, four console tables and four pedestals. All pieces were executed by Angelo Magnoni, senior ebanista at Quarti, Milan's most prestigious furniture company. They were each sparingly distributed in a vast long gallery underneath the modern paintings.
These designs initially evolved with Ponti taking his cue from the Roman antiquities collection installed on the two lower floors of the palace. This would mark a departure from his Art Deco-inflected 1920s commissions for Milanese clients. Here in Florence Ponti also deliberately borrowed from Michelangelo, artist and architect of the High Renaissance, to devise a spirited hybrid of Ancient Roman archetypes and Renaissance mannerism filtered through a penchant for abstracted reductive forms. It is in these benches that Ponti’s talent for synthesis is the most evident. His technical drawings envision three distinct profiled forms; a shaped leg; a trapezoid; and a volute. The legs, which were cast in bronze, are essentially borrowed from the triclina or biclina that served as seats for three or two, but also as daybeds to recline on in Roman times. The trapezoid and volute motifs inevitably call to mind Michelangelo's tombs for the Medici at the nearby Basilica of San Lorenzo. With their elongated form and the bronze inserts that underline their structure, most significantly in the lateral scrolls, these benches, although understated, are impossible to ignore.
This exceptional commission demonstrates erudite codes of elegance tailored to a discerning clientele. Between the two World Wars the cultural climate in Italy and beyond was influenced by the groundbreaking metaphysical art of Giorgio De Chirico from which Ponti clearly drew, reconfiguring the artist’s fragmented memories of history into a solid, three-dimensional alternate reality that relies on merging disparate architectural elements.
Ponti's methods are trans-historical. His architectural and design language is at times antithetical to then emerging visions such as those of the Bauhaus or Le Corbusier. He may appear casual with his attitude towards Antiquity and the Renaissance but he instinctively took that which aligned to his sensibility at that time, giving new meaning to borrowed motifs.
Two years before the Florentine project, in his first editorial for Domus on La Casa all'italiana he wrote that "design doesn't stem solely from the material needs of life; this is not just a‘ machine à habiter’. In the Italian style home‘ comfort’ doesn't just mean responding to our basic living needs and comforts. The‘ comfort' here goes beyond that; it uses architecture as a measure for our own thoughts'' (Domus, Jan. 1928, p.7) Ponti systematically harnessed architectural culture into private interiors to stir visual delight by inviting the observer to recall the historical sources while enjoying the seductive synthesis he so cleverly engineered.