The 'Casa Minerbi' in Ferrara

Written by  Paolo Ravenna
Still awaiting its memorial plaque
On 8 May 1960 Giorgio Bassani wrote to his friend Beppe Minerbi, who replied with a long and detailed letter, an extract from which is reproduced here, discussing plans for a memorial plaque. The correspondence was prompted by the completion of restoration of the Del Sale house at 15 Via Giuoco del Pallone, which Minerbi, the then owner, had started three years earlier.

Casa Minerbi stands in the heart of mediaeval Ferrara. Between the XIV and XV centuries it was the home of the Del Sale family, wealthy merchants close to the Este dukes. Bankers, ambassadors and artists from all over Europe flocked to the house, which was dominated by a huge hall covered in Giottesque frescoes by the painter who later became known as the Master of Casa Minerbi.

This bold cycle of paintings, which covered a good seventy square metres, depicted the allegorical figures of the Virtues and Vices. Previously virtually unknown, the cycle became famous when, along with the house, it was restored by the extraordinary vision and determination of Beppe Minerbi, becoming one of the most important examples of fourteenth century figurative paintings in private ownership, a genuine national treasure.

Guiseppe Minerbi (1903-1991) was a reserved man of pragmatic intelligence, an agronomist who administered and ran the vast family estates. For almost thirty years, between 1945 and 1973, he was an advisor and co-ordinator of cultural initiatives for the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara. In 1961, at the insistence of his friend Bassani, he became first president of Italia Nostra in Ferrara.

As a child Beppe discovered the frescoes in the old family home, and dreamed of restoring them one day. When the Minerbi family reorganised their estate, it was here that he focused all his interests and energies. He thus obtained the house for himself and his children, intending to resurrect it through the wonderful frescoes on its crumbling masonry, among the secret arcaded courtyards and ancient walls.

Everything needed to be brought back to life so that it could be fully appreciated once again. Such was Beppe's wish. But how? The new owner believed that the most natural way to achieve this goal would be to make it his own home.

The presence of art all around would help maintain His and his family's day-to-day lives would give the works of art a fresh lease of life. The ancient must co-exist with the modern and the functional. But his main aim, his obsession, was to restore to public knowledge a hitherto lost artistic heritage. And he did it alone, using his all own resources. Between 1956 and 1959 15 Via Giuoco del Pallone was a hive of activity.

Beppe oversaw the day-to-day work of builders, restorers and designers. The heir of the Del Sale family was like Ercole d'Este, a man who surrounded himself with the best men who recognised him as sure guide. The results were spectacular.

The frescoes re-emerged in all their glory, skilfully transformed by expert hands, without any obvious signs of restoration or repair, as Beppe would proudly boast. New rooms for the family to live in were created within the existing spaces; new, comfortable spaces equipped with modern conveniences (every bedroom would have its own bathroom!), with fine furnishings and furniture which Piero Bottoni designed along with the architecture. It was an exercise in skill and imagination, in which antique and modern materials and objects were combined in a harmonious and refined way, always inspired by the frescoes all around.

Everything was brilliantly and carefully planned and restored: from the attics to the humble toilet facilities, and the stairs connecting the rooms in a logical way. It was a wonderful fusion of the "domestic" soul of the private family home, and a showcase for the treasures which had been created there. Over the next forty years the most authoritative scholars and art lovers would pass through the house.

The last years of Beppe and Olga were overshadowed by fears that the frescoes were deteriorating. Beppe Minerbi died on 15th October 1991, followed soon afterwards by his wife Olga. Casa Minerbi, as we knew it, was closed. The building was acquired by the municipality in 1995. After almost a decade, we still do not know what will be done with Minerbi complex.

The magical house created by Beppe and Olga, briefly described here, lasted for 40 years. It survives only in the memory of a few people. Today the frescoes are waiting to see the light of day again without further delay, and for the memorial plaque planned by Beppe and Giorgio to be fixed in place.