The Returns of the Economy of the Arts

Written by  Andrea Emiliani
The Sacrati Strozzi collection, complete once more, returns to its birthplace, in Ferrara.
In recent years we have tended to accept the business world's interest in art as a form of sponsorship or donation rather than a genuine productive activity in the economic sense. To understand this in concrete terms we must take a step back into the past. It used to be said that the objet d'art had value when created on commission but, as soon as it became part of a "closed" patrimony it became a species of economic fossil whose value was wholly symbolic.

About a hundred years ago it became clear that art had to be lifted out of the sphere of merely commercial transactions. Thus Savings Banks all over the world - and the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara was one of the first - began building up art collections, publishing books and catalogues listing the public artistic patrimony, and financing the restoration of classified buildings.

As a result the "historic centres" of many Italian towns today are the fruit of an extremely valuable programme of planned restoration. In this sense the historians of Italy's historic centres are also the historians of a Savings Bank and its traditions.
Museums represent the most suitable public structures for an intelligent exploitation of the potential of art collections and, in agreement with the Italian government, the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara deposited eighty or so masterpieces in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, housed within Palazzo dei Diamanti.
The Ferrara-based bank's latest coup was the completion of the great Sacrati Strozzi collection. The acquisition of the first 29 paintings, which included two authentic pearls of Italian art - the Muses Erato and Urania commissioned by Lionello d'Este in 1447 - was already enough to accord the Pinacoteca equal status with some of Europe's greatest museums.

Shortly afterwards, word arrived that Sotheby's was to auction off the remainder of the collection, 29 paintings that were not protected by the Italian government's restrictions. The Italian Minister of Culture, backed by the Cassa di Risparmio, immediately moved to block the expatriation of the pictures and the Bank was finally able to add the second half of the collection to the first.
The newly acquired paintings were no disappointment and debate was renewed surrounding the four beautiful but difficult Scenes from the Life of Christ, whose attribution to the young Theotocopoulos might provide a fundamental document regarding the cultural fusion that was the work of El Greco.

How to link all this to the economy of art? Culture and education are in themselves economically quantifiable factors, and if proof of this were required, one need only consider the rapidly swelling growing stream of new visitors to the economic "fossils" guarded within Palazzo dei Diamanti.