The Rossi Legacy: An Italian Family in Bombay

The Rossi Legacy: An Italian Family in Bombay

Jehangir Sabavala’s 'The Hooded Day' is a highlight of Sotheby’s Boundless: India sale on 15 November in Mumbai. The work has been in the collection of Dr. Cesare and Fiammetta Rossi for over fifty years and is a legacy both of their close friendship with the artist and their love affair with India.
Jehangir Sabavala’s 'The Hooded Day' is a highlight of Sotheby’s Boundless: India sale on 15 November in Mumbai. The work has been in the collection of Dr. Cesare and Fiammetta Rossi for over fifty years and is a legacy both of their close friendship with the artist and their love affair with India.

D r. Cesare Rossi (1919-1993) and his wife, Fiammetta, moved to India in 1953. There, Rossi, an expert in man-made fibres and textiles, founded South India Viscose Ltd. and became director of several important engineering companies. He was the longstanding President of the Italian Chamber of Commerce for India and, in 1978, received the esteemed Ordine al Merito del Lavoro (‘Order of Merit for Labour’), granted to individuals for their exceptional contributions to agriculture, industry and commerce.

‘The opening of the window of our room facing the Indian Ocean in the Taj of 1953 was the beginning of a long dream: our stay in India.’
Interview with Mrs. Fiammetta Rossi, 2019

Rossi and his wife were very close family friends with Vittorio Cacceiandra. Cacceiandra’s grandfather was General Felice Bisleri, who developed and patented the herbal spirit, Ferro-china Bisleri which was sold around the world but a particular success in the United States during the time of Prohibition. The Bisleri plants in India were established in the 1920s and supplied many of the key ingredients in this herbal tonic. According to family history, Vittorio’s father, General Cacceiandra (Felice Bisleri’s son-in-law), was reviewing and reviving the factories worldwide after the disruption of World War 2. He saw Rossi in India shortly after they arrived in 1955 and asked him how water was imbibed (which was at the time through boiling). They then developed the idea of bottling water and Dr. Rossi was placed in charge of directing the process. Rossi also developed the industrial processes for soft drinks such as Dr. Peppino and Limca as a Director of the Parle Group after they acquired Bisleri in 1969.

Cesare Rossi with his 1966 Ferrari 275 GTB/C, Malabar Hill, Bombay, 1990s. Image courtesy Rossi Family.

Rossi was a flamboyant figure known across Bombay for his love of horses, cars and spirits, and is still nostalgically remembered as a larger than life part of high society. Rossi and his wife were also fascinated by India’s flourishing contemporary art scene and became close friends with the great modernist Jehangir Sabavala. Fiammetta recalls ‘… Sabavala was our friend, our great friend, together with his beautiful wife Shirin and their daughter Aafreed. We used to meet at least once a week. Through Jehangir we discovered unknown parts of India, while he enjoyed prolonging his love for Europe’. It was through this friendship that Dr. Rossi acquired one of the artist’s exquisite masterworks, The Hooded Day.

Jehangir Sabavala, The Hooded Day, 1970. Estimate ₹1,50,00,000–2,00,00,000.

Painted in 1970, this work demonstrates the pivotal shift Sabavala was undertaking at this point in his career. The mid-1960s had been dominated by his semi-Cubist abstractions, whilst the 1970s saw a spaciousness and loosening of formal order begin to feature within his works. The sea and sky became Sabavala’s primary subject matter and he started to focus on the luminosity of colour, the varied effects of multiple tones and the rendering of spatial dimensions through the gradation of light.

Cesare and Fiammetta Rossi and Vittorio Cacceiandra at a car racing awards ceremony, 1960s. Image courtesy Rossi Family.

Dilip Chitre notes ‘Subtleties of tonal transitions and colour relationships are [Sabavala’s] forte; and scale, not size, is his preoccupation... At once his images are clear and bare without being simple. The sweep and the scale of the structured whole subdues the richness of colour and the subtlety of tone. Take a painting like The Hooded Day. Its colour key constitutes its evocative power. The painting is dominated by greys, Naples-yellow and violet overlays which are in the background. But the foreground is a soft green-ochre, tender and of the earth. The colours of the background are unearthly and form strange complementary harmonies and contrasts with the foreground...’.

In The Hooded Day, the sea and sky are almost indecipherable. In fact, the sea itself is indiscernible from land but for the three ghostly sailing ships and the reflection of the moon on its surface. The moon hangs in the sky, partly obscured by a grey cloud, the angular form of which possesses an avian quality. The Hooded Day is marked by an ethereal stillness and is testament to Sabavala’s perspectival and tonal capacities to create tranquil spaces with remarkable depth. Having remained with the Rossi family for almost five decades, the work is now coming to auction for the first time.

Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

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