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Members' Research Report Archive

Stefano Bardini: Forming the Canon of Fifteenth-Century Italian Sculpture

Lynn Catterson, New York City
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, January 5 – February 28, 2015

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“Mr. Samuel Henry Kress,” entry dated September 24, 1927, Diario Ugo Bardini, vol. 53: 1925 09 18 – 1928 10 25 con suppl. Archivio Storico Eredità Bardini, Florence; reproduced by permission of the Soprintendente Polo Museale Toscano (See transcription below)

Henry Kress, with his “Mrs” [sic] and a certain “Sig. Girard,” paid a visit to the Florentine dealer Ugo Bardini, who had very recently taken over the business of his father, Stefano Bardini (1836 – 1 922). The group spent four hours looking at the hundreds of objects of fine and decorative art, furniture, and rugs on display in Bardini’s gallery showrooms. They also toured the dealer’s vast storage facilities, located across the street in Palazzo Mozzi. Among the things Kress purchased and eventually shipped across the Atlantic were two green chairs bearing the coat of arms of the Piccolomini family and two red velvet chairs with gilt decoration. Kress also selected six small coats of arms bearing pictograms of a bridge, a crossed escutcheon, roses on a band, nine balls, and lions. He chose four more coats of arms, in marble, one from the Castellani family, from storage rooms in the basement.

Stefano Bardini’s sizable fortune meant that Ugo had spent his youth in good schools, training as an artist and earnestly investing in his equestrian skills. When Kress visited, Ugo was thirty-five years old and still relatively new to the actual transactional aspects of art dealing, since he had probably just begun to learn the business when his father died. Until his own death in 1965, Ugo kept diaries recording the visits of scores of foreigners and Italians who came to shop for art and decorative arts, either for their own collections or for resale. To prepare for return visits, Ugo wrote detailed remarks about each shopper’s taste, noting who accompanied the visitor (either in the role of advisor or as someone acting on commission to bring clients in to visit). Ugo animated his entries by sketching little portrait caricatures of his (largely male) buyers, his pen expressing their faces as well as details of their hats, cravats, eyeglasses, cigars, and other accessories.

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Transcription of reproduction above, “Mr. Samuel Henry Kress,” entry dated September 24, 1927, Diario Ugo Bardini, vol. 53: 1925 09 18 – 1928 10 25 con suppl. Archivio Storico Eredità Bardini, Soprintendente Polo Museale Toscano, Florence

Indeed, at the top of the entry describing Kress’s visit is a little portrait of him drawn in profile. Very different from the other portraits in the diaries, that of Kress directly confronts his name, and the face is completely filled in with black ink. At the bottom of the page, Ugo provides a clue to explain his graphic comment. Though the Samuel H. Kress Foundation would be established in 1929, here is tangible evidence that already in 1927 Kress was planning for his legacy. Thus, while shopping primarily for heraldic devices, he also bought the materials for his mausoleum, today in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. To this line in the diary entry Ugo parenthetically added “auguri,” a superstitious gesture to protect himself from the evil eye, and blackened Kress’s portrait as a further repellant.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, desire among wealthy American and European collectors for Italian Renaissance art was exorbitant. Operating out of Florence, the dealer Stefano Bardini succeeded in matching that demand by stocking collections with ample quantities of supply. Moreover, Bardini deftly cultivated a taste for certain kinds of objects that have since moved into public view in museums around the world. These objects represent the Italian Renaissance for much of Europe and America, and, figuratively speaking, Bardini built the bridge upon which this culture crossed the Alps as well as the Atlantic. The Kress vignette is but one of thousands that have emerged within my larger project concerning Stefano and Ugo Bardini, whose archive I have recently processed. During my residency at CASVA I accomplished the goal of uniting unpublished Bardini archival material (photographic and documentary) with individual objects in the National Gallery of Art, especially the Samuel H. Kress Collection, and, in doing so, contributing updated provenance information. In addition, my immensely fruitful collaboration with members of CASVA and Gallery staff indicates there is more relevant material to be synthesized. This in turn confirms the overall goal, a digital project mounted on a collaborative research platform.

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