La dolce vita

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 46

La dolce vita

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 46

An Italian  walnut scrittoio

La dolce vita

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 46

The late Count and Countess Martignone loved arts and antiques. Lucinda Bredin is given a tour of this couple's Milanese apartment, home to their treasured collection

From the outside, the apartment belonging to the late Count and Countess Martignone doesn't give away any clues – in that characteristically formal Milanese fashion. But when the door opens, a parallel world comes into view. One filled with tapestries, chandeliers, gilded cherubs, Renaissance paintings, walls of icons, cases of silver and carved furniture. It is so visually overwhelming, my first thought is where to look. Mariella Battaglia, the niece of Countess Martignone and her namesake, is giving me a guided tour. "It was the fashion of their time to have as much in a room as possible. I loved coming to see my aunt and uncle. And when I was a child, I thought it was like a trip to a palace. My eyes would always find something new that they had added to their collection."

For Mariella, these past months have been a wrench. Sorting through the possessions of her aunt and uncle – to whom she was very close – is hard. Every item evokes a forgotten world that this glamorous pair inhabited. On the polished sideboards, there are silver framed photographs that show the Count and Countess with Umberto II of Savoy, the last king of Italy; at gala performances at La Scala; on the slopes in the Dolomites; entertaining at their seaside villa on the Ligurian coast, and with Mariella herself.

"The photographs tell only a fraction of the story," says Mariella. "If you really want to see how they lived, come here. This will give you some idea." We walk pass a wall of Russian icons in the paneled library and into a room (the size of a good double bedroom) which functions as a walk-in wardrobe. For shoes. On the racks, there are pairs and pairs – many of which are identical but dyed precisely the right shade to go with each of the Countess's many gowns, the beading of which alone must have kept afloat a whole industry. These hang in an adjoining room.

The family dates back to the 13th century and was ennobled by the Archbishop of Milan in 1255. One ancestor ruled Alexandria in the 14th century. But Mariella's uncle, Count Ettore, was a hero in his own right. He was a highly-regarded doctor who served in the Red Cross during the Second World War. His wife, Countess Mariella, was one of Italy's most influential businesswomen, single-handedly creating a successful chemicals company, Vampa.

The Martignones were married for 54 years. They didn't have any children – but they did have the young Mariella, the daughter of the Countess's sister – and they had their art collection.

The couple divided their time between their Milanese apartment and their villa on the Ligurian coast. Both were filled to bursting with antiques and furniture – there are more than 500 works which will be offered at Bonhams New Bond Street for the single-owner sale dedicated to the Martignone collection. In Milan, the entrance hall sets the scene with a four-panel screen, a group of nine fête galantes in the style of Lancret, and a group of cherubs holding candelabra.

The drawing room is similarly exuberant, with a fine French bonheur du jour flanked by two paintings – a portrait of Francesco Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, and a 16th-century Madonna and Child attributed to Giovanni Battista Bertucci. Many of the works have a sacred theme – the Countess had a particular love of religious images and artifacts. According to Mariella, "After the war, many churches sold beautiful pieces in silver and gold, and my aunt bought them because she was devout – and at the same time, she wanted to help the church by giving money."

One of their joint collections was of silver objects, and this was clearly a passion, given the display cases filled with silverware – spoons, goblets, plates ... As Mariella says, "They started acquiring from antique shops in Milan, before moving onto auctions. When they had bought all the silver they needed for the table, they moved onto silver birds ... then fishes." They must have been a very close couple. "Yes, they were. They were a world apart. Because they didn't have any children, it was as if their collections became their family.

"Everything took so long to place in the right position ... I remember my auntie saying, 'Please, Dino, more on the right side ... please, Dino, let's change it.' For example, this silver figure [she points to a squirrel], this one had been terrible. It's so small, but they changed its place 100 times before they decided to put it there."

Entertaining on a large scale took place in Genoa. In their villa, there are huge rooms with panoramic views of the sea – and Mariella says that the Martignones thought nothing of having a banquet for 70 guests. "Members of the government, ministers, politicians and generals ... and people from abroad. They traveled a great deal – including to China where they bought some wonderful antiquities. When they visited the US, they were received by President Kennedy."

Now that their collection is being dispersed, the carved angels, the porphyry vases, the commodes and the marquetry card tables will find new homes. And in this way, the legacy of the Martignones will live on.

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

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