meet Stefano Bardini, the Prince of the Antiquarians
How often do we dream about a time machine? Who wouldn’t enjoy a trip to the past to meet some of the greatest protagonists of the history? Well, I have good news for you! There is a place in Florence where you can truly meet a Florentine man, who during his life played an important role in the cultural life of the city. This place is the Bardini Museum, a collection gathered by the Prince of the Antiquarians, Stefano Bardini.
The Bardini Museum in Florence
You could ask, who Bardini was and why his collection is so interesting. In few words, Bardini was the most important art dealer active in Florence between the end of the 19th and the beginnings of the 20th century. Until today the artworks traded by him fill the collections of major museums of Renaissance art around the world, such as the Bode Museum in Berlin, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris.
We can say that Bardini shaped our understanding of Renaissance sculpture. His activity facilitated the circulation of Renaissance artworks around Europe and even beyond. In several cases, Bardini proved to be a real creator of fashions, a true “influencer”, who shaped the taste of his clients and guided them in their acquisitions. In particular, his contagious love for Renaissance sculpture attracted the attention of scholars and experts towards the art of Donatello, Antonio Rossellino and Desiderio da Settignano. At the same time, during the years of his professional activity, Bardini kept gathering his own collection of Medieval and Renaissance objects, a collection he was very proud of.
Bardini’s last will was that these precious objects became available to the public after his death. He donated the entire collection to the municipality of Florence and asked the authorities to organize a museum in his former studio. Unfortunately, Bardini’s achievements and his personality were not fully understood and appreciated in the early 1920s. The first civic museum created in Bardini’s show room did not respect the heterogeneous taste of its creator. Initially, in this museum inaugurated in 1925, three years after Bardini’s death, the municipal artistic deposits substituted Bardini’s own collection and it seemed that Florence wanted to forget about its greatest antiquarian.
Fortunately, after a vast restoration and reorganization, the Bardini Museum reopened in 2009 offering to the visitors the unique possibility of an emotional encounter with the Prince of the Antiquarians. Thanks to that thoughtful restoration, Bardini Museum re-aquired its original shape. During our visit to the museum we can walk through the rooms of Bardini’s former studio and admire artworks that fascinated their owner. We get to know Bardini through these objects. Let us discover the fascinating history of this collection!
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Stefano Bardini, a painter who becomes an art dealer
Stefano Bardini was born in 1836 in Pieve Santo Stefano, in the province of Arezzo. Bardini moved to Florence to start his studies at the Fine Arts Academy. At the Accademy he attended painting classes run by Giuseppe Bezzuoli, the leader of Romanticism in Florentine painting.
This early training introduced Bardini into the vibrant intellectual environment of Florence in this stormy period in Italian history. In fact, between 1848 and 1861 Italy was dealing with the difficult task of unification leading to the creation of a new state. The Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed on 17 March 1861 and Tuscany became one of the regions of this newly established county. The patriotic sentiment dominating in these turbulent times inflamed the artistic circle of young Florentine painters, who used to meet for heated discussions at the Caffè Michelangelo in via Larga (today’s via Cavour). Bardini became friend of these young men, Giovanni Fattori, Giuseppe Abbadi, Telemaco Signorini, who later became known as the Macchiaioli. He could join their group and continue his artistic career, but instead he decided to move in a different direction.
During the 19th century, not very differently from what happens today, the life of the artists wasn’t easy. It wasn’t comfortable or wealthy and many painters struggled with poverty. Stefano Bardini wasn’t ready for such heavy economic sacrifices and thus he decided to study art restoration and to engage in the commerce of antiquities.
Stefano Bardini and his clients
In few years Bardini became one of the most cunning art dealers active in Tuscany. His success was facilitated by new legal regulations introduced after the unification of Italy. In 1865, in fact, the state abolished the rule of fideicommissum which previously had obliged the first-born male decedent to keep all the family assets untouched for the following generations. With the abolition of this normative the aristocracy, strongly harmed by the crisis in agriculture, had the possibility to repair family finances through the sale of the artistic treasures inherited from the past.
Bardini established commercial contacts with the Florentine aristocracy on one hand, and with the wealthy collectors on the other. Considering that export of artistic treasures was limited by the Italian law only in 1902, Bardini’s activity faced no limitations for nearly forty years.
Around 1870 Bardini met Wilhelm von Bode, who at that time worked as assistant at the Royal Museums in Berlin. Bode, with Bardini’s help, started to build the collection of Renaissance art for the future Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, today named after Bode himself.
The relationship with Bode was only one of the many important professional connections established by Bardini during these years. Very soon he counted among his clients also Isabella Stewart Gardner, Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart, Johann II of Liechtenstein and his brother Franz I.
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Stefano Bardini’s show room
Bardini’s lucrative business allowed him to invest in his own collection of artworks. The antiquarian started to gather a vast typology of objects: sculptures, paintings, bas-reliefs, but also frames, the cassoni, armoury, leather wall panels, knockers, chandeliers, lamps and tapestries.
In 1880 Bardini decided to create a vast and attractive show room where he could display the objects on sale next to these belonging to his private collection. For this purpose the dealer bought the parcel in Piazza de’ Mozzi with the ancient convent of San Gregorio della Pace. The church was built here in 1273 to celebrate the peace between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs.
Bardini decided to transform this ancient sight into a temple of his eclectic taste. Between 1881 and 1883 architect Corinto Corinti built the new palazzo for Bardini. The result of this unprecedented intervention was a sort of architectonical patchwork. Corinti designed a neo-Renaissance façade for the palace. The sculptural show room on the ground floor, in the past hosting the monks’ garden, was illuminated from above through a skylight decorated with a coffer ceiling moved here from a Venetian palazzo.
The doors to the adjacent rooms were decorated with portals, often re-composed using the elements coming from different monuments, places and time periods, a true sculptural pastiche.
The walls of Bardini’s show room were coloured blue, which created a strong contrast with the gilded frames of the paintings and the pale white of the marble reliefs displayed in this unique gallery.
The show room became one of the most interesting, eclectic and, in some ways, eccentric art collections in Florence.
Bardini and the art of forgery
In order to attract his clients with high quality objects, Bardini run also a restoration workshop. Before a sale he would try to improve the material conditions of the antiquities, often interfering quite deeply into the historical tissue of these precious treasures. We would have to wait until the 1970s for a definition of modern standards of conservative restorations. During Bardini’s times, these “creative” conservative techniques were still very common.
Bardini is very often accused of voluntary forgery and of being responsible for selling fake Renaissance artworks to some of the less-expert collectors. The truth is that very often his clients themselves asked him for a copy of a known masterpiece they could not afford. Bardini did sell the copies, and we have the documents proving that, but he wasn’t a cheat. This practice was completely normal at the time as during the 19th century the copies of Italian artworks were considered valuable and precious by both the European and the American public.
The treasures of Bardini Museum
The Bardini Museum is designed for a slow visit. What you cannot miss, is the room dedicated to the reliefs with Madonna and child located at the top of the monumental staircase. Here, scenically displayed on the blue wall you can admire Bardini’s collection of the Madonnas. The Madonna reliefs were particularly popular during the 15th century. In the past, as objects used for private devotion, they decorated private rooms in the Florentine palaces. Made of terra cotta and often fruit of a serial production in moulds, they were cheap and accessible to a vast public. This is why three hundred years later Madonna reliefs were one of the most common Renaissance objects on sale. Stefano Bardini, having so many of these reliefs passing through his hands, created a true fashion among the European collectors, convincing them of the value of these little treasures. This scenic wall entirely covered with the Madonnas was a great demonstration of their decorative force and beauty. Today, in this room you can admire the two Madonna’s by Donatello, his Madonna dei Cordai and the Madonna della Mela.
In room 18 you will find a unique collection of wooden gilded frames decorating the entire wall. These objects that amaze us today were not valued in the past. Bardini’s idea to collect them and to display them creating geometrical compositions was truly innovative.
One of the most precious paintings from Bardini’s collection is Saint Michael Fighting against the Dragon by Antonio and Piero Pollaiolo. You can admire it in the room 16. On the painting you will see the saint in the pose of a Hercules who with his strength faces the dragon. Saint Michael’s armor decorated with gold and precious stones testifies Pollaioio’s interest in the art of the goldsmiths. The saint looks like a young Florentine wearing a fashionable ceremonial dress.
In the Bardini Museum you can also find many treasures from the Florentine deposits, which did not belong to Stefano Bardini. On the ground floor you will find the bronze statue of the Florentine wild boar, a copy of the Roman marble original from the Uffizi. This statue, created between 1620 and 1633 by Pietro Tacca, was made to glorify Medici’s hunting tradition. In 1639 it was placed at the Mercato Nuovo to decorate the fountain. In 1998 the precious bronze statue was substituted by a modern copy and after a restoration it was moved to the museum.
These are only few of the many treasures hidden in this unique Florentine museum. There are many other stories to be told… If you want to visit the Bardini Museum with me, contact me. I will be happy to organize your private visit.
Museo Stefano Bardini
via dei Renai 37
tel. 055 234 2427
opening hours (updated April 2021): Monday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday 11 am – 5 pm
On the weekends booking is compulsory!