VISITORS to Venice, the not-so-grand tourists de nos
jours, come to enjoy the wealth of Titians, Tintorettos, and
Veroneses in any number of churches and museums, as well as in the
Palazzo Ducale. Private mansions house the later collections of
Tiepolos, Longhis, and Piazzettas, often in buildings unchanged
since a riot of rococo overtook the interior designers. Since the
16th century, European travellers have collected such works
assiduously, as many country houses in the UK bear witness.
It might seem perverse, therefore, to go to Venice to see
paintings and works of art from other parts of the Italian
peninsula, but any member of the congregation leaving the English
Church comes out on to the Campo San Vio, named after the
long-demolished Church of Santi Vito e Modesto. Opposite, to the
west of the little bridge, stands the Palazzo Cini with one such
When I was locum Anglican Chaplain one winter, the palace across
the way was always shuttered; more recently, the collection, first
opened to the public in 1984 by Cini's heirs, has been closed for
rearrangement and restoration. It will now be open for at least six
months each year as part of the city's "Museum Mile", which leads
from the Accademia to the collections of Peggy Guggenheim and the
Seminary, and the contemporary gallery of the Punta della
Here one gets to see choice works attributed to Piero della
Francesca, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, and the Tuscan Mannerist
painter Pontormo. When I attended the opening, Pontormo's
outstanding double portrait of two friends was still on loan, one
of the highlights of the exhibition in the Palazzo Strozzi (Arts,
30 May). To these has been added a selection of works from Ferrara
which had been in storage since 1989; Cosmè Tura, Ercole de'
Roberti, Marco Zoppa, and some surprising compositions from
Ludovico Mazzolino (1480-1528).
The palace was formed in the 1920s, by knocking together two
former medieval homes for the industrialist Vittorio Cini, who was
born in Ferrara, and his wife, the silent-movie starlet Lyda
Borelli. Much later, in the mid-1950s, they employed the architect
Tomaso Buzzi to redesign the layout of the two houses.
A steep oval stairwell (1956-58) gracefully captures the spirit
of Andrea Palladio (the Venetian Church of Santa Maria della
Carità), Vignola (the palace at Caprarola), and Borromini, while a
discreetly enclosed oval dining-room in neo-rococo style replaced a
redundant staircase in the centre of the palace. It is lined with
275 pieces of soft-paste porcelain from the last years of the
Venetian Republic manufactured by Geminiano Cozzi's San Giobbe
factory (1785-95), which fired seven kilns until it was closed down
These white porcelain dishes, verrières and
jardinières, and the earlier enamelled copper dishes and
mirrors, constitute the only glimpses of Venetian art in this
priceless collection, which begins with early-medieval Christian
art and concludes with a flourish in the Renaissance.
Dominated by a mid-13th-century double-sided processional cross,
the first room holds later French and Sicilian ivory bas-reliefs
from portable altars and diptychs, their delicate incisive forms
alive with a world in miniature.
The painted cross itself, from the circle of Giunto Pisano,
shows the suffering Christ on one side and a Christ Triumphant on
the reverse. Both figures are sinuous and identical in all but the
angle at which the Saviour holds his head. The pathos of seeing
this pass in procession must have reminded the believer of the
ultimate cost of discipleship and the promise of risen life.
Among the so-called "Primitives" of the Gothic school that the
art-historians-cum-dealers Bernard Berenson and Federico Zeri
persuaded Cini to buy is a central-Italian Madonna
and Child in the type known as the Sedes
Sapientiae, in which the Mother of God is depicted on the
seat of Divine Wisdom. Her son, already with manly features, holds
the scroll of the Law in his left hand while offering a blessing
with his right.
In this room, formerly a dining-room with a large Murano glass
chandelier and clever contemporary lamp stands, are also several
masterpieces of Sienese work. These include a Maestà (by
the Master of Badia a Isola), in which the Virgin is seated with
her son and surrounded by four attentive angels, and an impassive
Madonna and Child by Niccolò di Segna
(active around 1331 to 1345), in which the inquisitive Christ Child
tugs at the Virgin's headscarf to encourage us to look upon her
face of compassion.
The largest room on this floor, which gives on to the oval
dining-room, is flooded by light from outside where the Anglican
church lies below, making it difficult to see the statuary standing
between the windows. The metre-and-a-half-tall Madonna
and Child is here credited to the circle of
Francesco di Valdambrino (died 1435), a sculptor from Siena whose
work tiptoes towards the springtime of the Florentine Renaissance
itself. He had worked for the Duomo in Florence. This pitying
Virgin, her right hand raised to signify phatic utterance, as if to
proclaim him whom she holds in her left arm, might have graced an
The largest works in the room are two polyptychs, one of St Paul
from the Church of St Catherine in Pisa, standing above a
chestnut-wood marriage chest inlaid with an idealised cityscape,
and, facing it, one dated 1404 of the Virgin and Child with Sts
Anthony Abbot, Laurence, Agatha, and John the Baptist.
Among the wealth of Renaissance pictures in the corner room are
works by Beato Angelico (a single panel from a broken-up polyptych
of St Thomas Aquinas, quill in hand, as he stands on a cloud
awaiting heavenly dictation), a roundel by the Florentine Domenico
Ghirlandaio, and Piero di Cosimo's extraordinary Madonna
and Child with Two Musician
Angels, a work Cini found in the antique markets of Florence
In it, the infant tries to tug away the bow from the adolescent
angel who is tuning his rebec, while, behind the group, another
angel is studying his music, and the whole is a joyful celebration
of the celestial harmony that Christ alone can bring. Piero
(1462-1521) painted this most probably in the second decade of the
16th century, no doubt influenced both by seeing paintings by Da
Vinci and engravings and woodcuts by Dürer.
But it is to another Piero that visitors will wish to turn. I
hope that communicants leaving divine service at St George's will
be the first among many to enter the new treasure house that the
Fondazione Cini has reopened to the city, as I can imagine no
better place to give thanks after making one's communion than in
the silence of the Villamarina Madonna.
Neither figure stands in our lifetime, nor in our world, and yet
both invite us to join them, and it is this "heaven-in-earth"
quality that encourages me to think that the attribution to Piero
is still likely. Berenson argued, against Zeri, that it was an
early work by Luca Signorelli, and the debate continues, but not so
noisily as to assault our ears or interrupt our prayers.
"Tuscan and Ferrarese Masterpieces from the Collection of
Vittorio Cini" is at Palazzo Cini, Dorsoduro 864, San Vio, Venice,
until 2 November.
Phone 00 39 041 241 1281.