"Decorative art can often tell us the spirit of an era better than a painting or sculpture," says Alessandra Di Castro. The acclaimed Rome-based antique dealer tells Sara Pierdonà about two extraordinary pieces of decorative art: her greatest find and the piece she'll keep forever. 



Alessandra Di Castro's whimsical showroom in Rome © Luca Cepparo 


My Greatest Find: Table top by Fra Damiano Zambelli

"It is impossible to choose my greatest find, but I can [reveal] the object I most like to talk about at the moment - it has an incredibly evocative history. Until my early forties, I was very much anchored in the formal description of the object as taught in the academies, valuing its dating and its scientific elements.

Then I started working at the Jewish Museum and the sentimental, human side started to interest me more and more. This is why I am so proud of the table I am taking to TEFAF Maastricht (actually, only the top is preserved). Its symbolism transports us to one of the most beautiful periods in Italian history. It was commissioned in the 16th century by a humanist who used it as a desk, and it was made by the master cabinetmaker, Fra Damiano Zambelli, who also made the choir of the Basilica of Bologna and a table for Baldassarre Castiglioni’s brother.


Alessandra's 'greatest find': an exceptional engraved table top, c.1500 by master cabinet maker, Fra Damiano Zambelli © Luca Cepparo 


It was probably used for dining too, because there are four Latin inscriptions in the inlays, one of which warns the guests not to gossip otherwise the table 'will not be set for them'. So we can imagine the patron was a scholar, but also a sociable man ready for a joke. Another inscription warns not to cover the table with a tablecloth - unless it is 'embroidered in gold' - so as not to hide the beauty of its decoration.

In this case, it is Fra Damiano Zambelli's pride that speaks. And he has reason to boast! The inlay is composed of different woods, except for the black parts which are a kind of scagliola normally used for the decoration of armour. The ornamentation is arabesque in taste ('damascening' in the technical lexicon) and bears witness to the maker's stay in Venice, where similar motifs spread thanks to trade contacts with the East.

Decorative art can often tell us the spirit of an era better than a painting or sculpture. Here, I see the story of men who were great thinkers, ingenious, dedicated to study, but also witty, curious in a playful sense, and appreciators of beauty.

The piece I'll keep forever: Portrait of Giovan Pietro Bellori by Carlo Maratta

The second object is a 17th-century painting, which I keep in my bedroom. It holds a piece of my family history. It belonged to Giuliano Briganti, who when I was a child was one of the most important art historians in the country. He was the one my father, an antiquarian himself, would call when he needed a particularly delicate opinion; Giuliano, like us, lived in Piazza di Spagna, the building where Bernini was born.

When there was something to be delivered to him, I always volunteered: I loved entering the house of that gentle man, so extraordinarily cultured, who could quote Ariosto by heart and recognise any work of art at a glance. He was always surrounded by young students who hung on his every word and whom, over the years, I ran into again in museum management or as head of the superintendency.

The house had an incredible library, which was later given to the University of Siena. There were relatively few paintings, however, because Giuliano was not only erudite but also had good taste and knew how to select, to stay on the essential.


The piece Alessandra will keep forever: a 17th century painting of Giovan Pietro Bellori by Carlo Maratta © Andrea Jemolo


The painting I now have, he kept above his desk. It is a portrait of Giovan Pietro Bellori, one of the most important biographers of the 17th century, painted by Carlo Maratta, his friend and at the time a very famous painter (later fallen into oblivion).

There are various details that make the painting delightful: the halo of light behind the head to give a sense of space, the hand (a piece of skill by the author), the pensive dark circles because the man portrayed is a scholar.

But what I like most is that the painting recounts a friendship, the friendship between the painter and the portrait subject: in the midst of the Baroque, the two backed each other up because both, as lovers of classicism, were in complete opposition, but they understood each other perfectly.


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TEFAF Maastricht

Alessandra di Castro will be exhibiting at TEFAF (The European Fine Art Foundation), which runs 9-14 March in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

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