B orn to a Florentine family with a rich legacy as collectors and dealers, Marco Grassi was perhaps destined for a novel-worthy life in the arts. Today an esteemed collector, dealer, and world-class Old Master restorer, Grassi grew up between Italy and the United States. Trained as a fine arts conservator at the Uffizi, his passion and talent for conservation would take him to cities and collections scattered across continents and pull him into friendships with some of the most esteemed collectors of the twentieth century.
Now, Grassi has published a dazzling new anthology, In the Kitchen of Art: Selected Essays and Criticism, 2003–20, which brings together some of his best essays published in The New Criterion over some twenty years along with new cinematically detailed recollections of his most indelible encounters with both Old Masters and their collectors.
Recently Sotheby’s Christopher Apostle spoke with Grassi on the occasion of the publication and the two delved into a wide-ranging conversation that touched on Grassi’s Florentine childhood, his forays into art dealing, and a tumultuous dinner party with two of the great collectors of the twentieth century.
It's a great pleasure to sit down with you today and talk about your new book. Now, for those of our readers who are meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I was born in Florence, which is a very extraordinary and lucky place to be born. I was doubly privileged because I was also born to a family that was fully emblematic of the Italian Risorgimento — the nineteenth-century rebirth of national life that occurred after unification. My grandfather, Luigi Grassi, was a member of the emerging middle class of that era.
He came from a very modest background near Rome; his father was a tailor, but he had a natural talent for drawing and was accepted into the Accademia di San Luca. From there, he worked at the Uffizi as a restorer for many, many years. At some point, my grandfather must have realized that if he was going to remain a restorer, he would probably starve to death. Luigi was an ambitious man and he soon changed course, connecting with an uncle, a man called Costantini, who was an early exponent of the mercantile art-dealing class in Florence. Costantini has not been remembered brilliantly in the annals of the trade, but my grandfather picked up the mechanics of the business very quickly, and very soon he set off on his own.
Over time, my grandfather became quite the figure in Florence and even nationally — he became the president of the Italian Art Dealers Association. He was, by all accounts, of great success. By the time he died in 1937, both my father and uncle were art dealers. Neither of them was particularly good at business, but they both knew how to have a good time as part of the generation that grew up in the 1920s with lots of drinking and smoking.
One of the parts that I most love about the book is the preface, where you talk about your childhood in Florence. What do you remember from the war years as an eleven- or twelve-year-old?
I must say I remember every second because it felt exciting. There was no sense of fear for myself, because a twelve-year-old kid doesn't think that bodily harm can come to them.
I remember when Florence was liberated. My mother was American, and at our home we’d entertained General Clark and his staff. Clark was from Indiana, like my mother, so they got on very well. As a kid, I used to see all of these good-looking American generals coming in, and my parents would give them dinner and drinks. The dinner and drinks were provided by the army because there was nothing to eat at the time. This was still 1945 Italy, so there was only the black market. The army truck would come into the garden and unload stuff that we hadn’t seen — Hershey bars, whiskey, and cigarettes.
In your book, you detail your relationships with some of the greatest people in Italian art history and twentieth-century collecting — Bernard Berenson, the famed Italian art historian Roberto Longhi, the quintessential American collector Norton Simon, and then of course Baron Thyssen. All were very different people, but there must have been something that drew them to art. Can you tell us about any special encounters you had?
In 1964, Thyssen walked into my studio in Florence and right away we struck up a friendship. I was a visiting conservator at his fantastic collection in Lugano for many years after that. This was a pivotal career break that put me to be in touch with a fantastic group of paintings that stretched from the Italian primitives to German Expressionists. It was a formative experience that also afforded the extra pleasure of having a friend in Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen. He was a man of exceptional human quality, and though his faults and his failings were significant, he was probably the greatest collector of the mid-twentieth century.
“These cultures also produced works of high-level artistic quality by artists whose names are not easily recognizable today. Take a beautiful portrait by Innocenzo da Imola—glorious. This man knew Raphael. He was a great painter, but not everyone takes time to learn his name.”
Like Thyssen, Norton Simon had a very broad appreciation for epochs of art, but I think it is fair to say, Simon was a very avid, even ruthless collector. Can you tell us about the infamous dinner you organized between Simon and Thyssen in the 1970s?
I was very privileged to have been close to both collectors and have observed them and their habits at close range, but I cannot think of two more different people. Thyssen was the Renaissance prince, a grand seigneur. Simon, on the other hand, was all business every minute of the day. At some point, Simon had called me to say that he was in Milan with his wife, Jennifer. I decided I would try to be at the fulcrum of the art world and told Heinrich, who organized a dinner with his wife, Denise. I thought was such a brilliant move on my part, but it turned out to be a disaster.
The Simons turned up on the dot, of course, and Heinrich was there as a perfect gentleman. One of the first rooms in the gallery was a small room with Dutch seventeenth-century landscapes, mostly Ruysdael. There must have been five or six in that room, all quite small, and only one of exceptional quality. Simon, because he knew what he was looking at, said, “Baron, what are you doing keeping these pictures? You should sell them. This is a good one, but these others...” That was Simon’s philosophy—only first-class things. Heinrich had inherited them, of course. It all went downhill from there.
Unlike Thyssen, who dealers often took advantage of, Simon kept people at a sort of distance, didn’t he?
Simon’s approach was that he was exploiting us, meaning he was taking advantage of the people he did business with. I would get calls from Simon in the middle of the night, and he would extract as much information as he could. At first, I thought: here’s one of the great collectors in the world was calling me from Los Angeles, and he wants to know my opinion. That made me feel pretty important, until I realized that he had just called fifteen other people and had asked them the same questions. That was his talent. He would take information from all of these different sources and homogenize them in a very intelligent way.
Highlights from Masters Week
Today, the collecting field of Old Masters is very different from what it was in the 1970s. What advice can you give to collectors today? What can they take away from this book?
Among the Old Masters, many visual cultures existed within Italy, Germany, England, France, and Spain, and each of these cultures lasted for about three or four hundred years. While, of course, there is a lot of junk out there, these cultures also produced works of high-level artistic quality by artists whose names are not easily recognizable today. Take a beautiful portrait by Innocenzo da Imola—glorious. This man knew Raphael. He was a great painter, but not everyone takes time to learn his name.
Yes, Old Masters are about quality and condition, not just a famous name, which is one quality I find very rewarding about the field. Another great aspect of our field is that I’ve often found that our best collectors are people who you can learn from as much as they’re learning from you.
Thank goodness for that. Art gives us pleasure, both intellectual and aesthetic. What could be better? It’s the ornament of daily life. Old Masters entail a learning process that should give some sort of satisfaction.