The Bargellesi Collection

Written by  Ranieri Varese
The life-work of a collector of drawings who was also a distinguished scholar.
The story of art collections in Ferrara is still to be written. Any study that can go to join the rare contributions made so far and is capable of widening our knowledge of the life of the city in the past should be assessed in a positive light.
One of the emblematic initiatives, in this sense, was the Mostra di opere d'arte antica delle raccolte private ferraresi, which testified to the existence of numerous collections with a wealth of paintings and other material. One collection did not feature in the exhibition, the collection that was put together by Giacomo Bargellesi (1892-1979) and kept in his Milan home.

Born into an old Ferrarese family, Bargellesi soon began to acquire pictures and drawings. But he had one quality that set him apart from most contemporary collectors: his interest in the culture of the Estes was not restricted merely to collecting for the sake of it, he was also interested in making a study of his subject. His work is required reading for all those interested in the Ferrara atelier and Roberto Longhi himself had to quote him and take his opinions into account.

It was Bargellesi who, in 1928, brought together the fragments, then divided between Milan and London, of Tura's panel San Gerolamo, at one time in the city's Charterhouse. After the 1933 exhibition he wrote a long series of essays, which were later published in the volume Notizie di opere d'arte ferraresi (1955). These essays are constructed in accordance with a precise design: to reconstruct the story of the dispersion of the artistic patrimony of the Este family.
This was why he always noted the various changes of ownership of the works, with a view to building up a complete record of the collections as they were put together and dispersed. His cousin Angelo Bargellesi Severi told us of a remark Bargellesi had made late in life: «If I were twenty years younger, I would plan a work with this title: What there was in Ferrara when the Este family left the city. It would leave people ecstatic, amazed, dumbfounded».

It was in those years that he purchased some paintings of the Scuola ferrarese, but he was mainly interested in drawings. Nor did he look exclusively for those that referred directly to the Este patrimony, as he had done with pictures, instead his intention was to document all the schools active above all in Italy between the 16th and the 17th centuries.
There was no shortage of Ferrarese talent: it should suffice to mention Garofalo, Bononi, Guercino, or the modern artist Previati. He also chose numerous lesser figures, selected not for economic convenience, but for their value as witnesses to the day to day business of making art.

Bargellesi adopted Vasari's dictum that drawing is «the father of our three arts» and that «proceeding from the intellect it extracts from many things a universal judgement similar to the form, that is to say the idea, of all things in nature». The drawing is the painter's blueprint and thus becomes the instrument that makes it possible to understand the painting
In order to explain his decision to devote himself above all to the collection of these drawings I think it may be useful to start with a quotation from Bargellesi himself.
«The drawing that fixes on the paper the essential lines of the composition in a few concise strokes at the very moment in which it takes shape in the artist's mind is always pregnant with suggestion. When the drawing is then linked to finished paintings that are still extant, its revelatory aspects assume a fascinating significance, capable of casting some light on that ever mysterious atmosphere that surrounds the creation of a work of art.

This is both because it fixes the artist's first idea, and because it allows us to discover the successive phases of elaboration as the artist works on the diverse variations and modifications that lead to the final work».
This critical conviction provided the impetus to collect well over a hundred drawings. Each of these is accompanied by a file that shows changes in ownership, the various attributions, the theme, and links with known works, while subsequent additions take account of fresh studies as these came along.

Ferrara does not possess important collections of drawings. That of Giacomo Bargellesi is the only major collection whose scope extends to the documentation of general situations with significant and valuable examples. It sprang from within the culture of Ferrara despite the fact that its owner put it together and kept it elsewhere.
One can hardly avoid expressing the hope that the entire collection will be carefully studied and that it shall finally be made accessible to the public, at least temporarily, by means of a catalogue or an exhibition.