Was this unknown man Italy’s greatest collector?

Federico Cerruti died with a treasure-filled house in which he had slept only one night

by Anna Somers Cocks  |  7 September 2015
Was this unknown man Italy’s greatest collector?
One of the few photographs of Cerruti, who loathed publicity
Every Sunday, an unremarkable-looking man, in his usual dark-blue suit and white shirt, drove an unremarkable car to an unremarkable house in the outskirts of Turin and sat down to lunch, served by his faithful housekeeper Marcellina, in a porticoed room full of orchids. He might have chosen to sit in his dining room with its ten Metaphysical De Chiricos, but he liked to be with the flowers.

He loved beauty, and every room was rich in masterpieces he had bought over nearly 70 years from auction catalogues and by just waiting for the art world to come to him. They were his family, his friends, his only raison d’être apart from his work.

Giorgio de Chirico’s The Departure of the Argonauts (1921) was one of ten works by the artist to hang in the dining room

Federico Cerruti, who died aged 93 on 15 July, was famous with dealers for taking weeks to decide, but although he would occasionally consult, it was his eye alone that governed his choices, for he had the gift of understanding great art. There were late Medieval gold-ground and early Renaissance paintings in the main bedroom—Paolo Veneziano, Sassetta, Bergognone and others—all of the first quality and in outstanding condition. In the drawing room, there were the high Renaissance masters, Dosso Dossi, Pontormo, Paris Bordone; there were Tiepolos and grand allegorical Batonis from the 18th century.

There was a dashing Boldini nude among the 19th-century works, and then Klee, Boccioni and Modigliani, through to Alberto Burri and the Moderns. Among these was the first work Cerruti ever bought: a drawing by Kandinsky, which he said he knew was authentic because it carried the artist’s dedication to a friend.

The tables were piled with the rarest books, such as Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior in 12 volumes, the greatest publishing project of the 17th century. There were the finest bindings the luxury trades could produce, such as an À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in an Art Deco sunburst binding by Pierre Legrain. Lying casually by the bed in the room with the ivory-inlaid sécretaire by Piffetti, the most refined cabinetmaker Italy ever produced, there was an exquisite small book with 17th-century French enamelled and bejewelled gold covers.

For all this was paid for by books or, rather, bindings. On 1 January 1922, Federico Cerruti was born into a Genoese family that had a small industrial bindery. They moved to Turin and expanded. The factory was destroyed by bombing and Cerruti escaped death on 9 September 1943 by a fluke; he should have been on the battleship Roma, sunk that day by the Luftwaffe.

He was brought up hard by his parents, with an obsessive work ethic. Typically, his studies were in accountancy, not the liberal arts. He rode and exploited Italy’s post-war economic boom and the bindery, Legatoria Industriale Torinese, grew to be one of the two largest in the country, with the contract to bind all the telephone directories.

He had a pied-à-terre above his office and lived there, alone, all his life. In the villa that he had built for himself he slept only one night in half a century. Annalisa Ferrari, his right-hand woman for 30 years, remembers that he had said waking up to his art collection had afflicted him with Stendhal’s syndrome, a feeling of agitation and faintness brought on by too much aesthetic emotion.

He gave two lavish parties a year in the villa, on his birthday and name day, almost as an obligation, for he had no friends. He would spend Christmas with the homeless, to whom he would give thoughtful and expensive presents. He was generous with his loans to exhibitions and, with Ferrari as gate-keeper, he would also allow small groups of art lovers to visit the collection, when he would receive them with a slightly disconcerting courtly humility. One group was the Friends of the Fitzwilliam, which included the late Lord Leicester and the grandson of the Lord Ashburton who had sold the Piffetti in Cerruti’s collection. All were astonished by the beauty of what they saw, the more so because no one had heard of him. For he loathed publicity to the extent that there are almost no photographs of him, and he told Ferrari to organise his funeral before announcing his death because otherwise the usual “useless gossiping and socialising crowd” would turn up. He was to be laid in his coffin with an ivory crucifix, and photographs of his adored mother and Padre Pio. She carried out his instructions to the letter.

In the US or the UK, the museums would have made it their business to court him, invite him onto the board and offer him a congenial environment in which to share his passion. They might have made his life less solitary as well as winning the collection for their institution. In Italy the gulf, the mutual suspicion, between the museums and private collectors is such that this could not happen.

There was an attempt by the culture department of the city of Turin to woo him, which failed because they went public on it too soon, to the rage of Cerruti, who was subject to violent fits of temper. Another project that got a little further was the offer by the Compagnia di San Paolo, a bank-based foundation, to take on the running of the collection after his death, but they wanted to move it out of the villa into a building in the centre of town, so Cerruti rejected it. Various other projects came to nothing, so two years ago he created the Fondazione FC and vested the villa, collection and a capital sum in it.

At the time of writing, his will had not yet been read, but it is expected that his sister will be his heir, and it will be for her to decide whether Fondo Ambiente Italiano, the Italian equivalent of the National Trust, will be given the house and its treasures to run, to be visited on appointment by small groups. Typically for a man who seemed to have let so much of life slip through his fingers, he kept putting off the signing of the necessary document until it was too late.

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