These Art Collectors Restored an Historic Palazzo to its Original Italian Glory

Francesco Dolfo

How an art-collecting couple in Bologna returned their crumbling palazzo to its original mission: as a timeless showcase for Italian creativity.

The first Palazzo Bentivoglio built in Bologna was a mighty palace with golden columns that was torn down by an angry mob in one of those factional disputes that flared up like wildfires in Renaissance Italy. Its successor, built by the same family in the 1550s, may have forgone the gold, but it was a scarcely less modest affair, with no fewer than five inner courtyards. Still, palaces, like people, can fall on hard times. By the 1950s, after the death of the last direct heir, part of Palazzo Bentivoglio’s opulent ground floor had been rented out to a maker of musical-instrument cases and jewel boxes who used these rooms as his factory.

Related: 24 Hours in Bologna, Italy

Around 2000, when a couple of prominent Bolognese art collectors took possession of the apartment, it was, says the wife, “a real mess—the floors were covered in melted plastic.” Nine years of patient cleaning and restoration followed. In the process, the removal of layers of whitewash revealed wall and ceiling paintings buried underneath.

From left: In the bedroom, a painting by Antonio Basoli (2014) hangs above an Empire-style bed; the antique chairs were upholstered in 2019 with designs by Benni Bosetto; The bathroom mirror is by Philippe Starck. Francesco Dolfo

What makes the apartment so unique is what happened next. Anyone embarking on the challenge of restoring a damaged, timeworn historic property eventually finds themselves facing the question of how to deal with those elements that require major attention. Should you fill them in with cleverly made replicas—or embrace their ruined state?

In this case, the owners were dead set against the fakery of what the wife calls a “Visconti-like reconstruction,” referring to the lavish interiors in the period films of the legendary film director. At the same time, she continues, they wanted to “create an apartment that looks as though it has been untouched for centuries,” filling it with the kind of furniture and artworks that would have adorned a suite of rooms in one of Bologna’s palazzi senatori, those opulent townhouses built by the city’s senatorial class.

From left: In the Rocaille Room, a painting by Alex Katz hangs above ceramic Mini Totems by Ettore Sottsass; The frescoes in the dining room were created by Felice Giani and Gaetano Bertolani in 1810. Francesco Dolfo

Many of those older Bolognese families were passionate, cultured patrons of living artists, like the apartment’s current owners. Reflecting on this, the couple came up with a novel solution for those sections of the walls or ceiling where the original decoration was missing. “If there was a stucco frame where there had clearly once been a painting,” explains la signora, “we would call an artist and ask them to make a site-specific work for that space.”

From left: At left in the Octagonal Little Room, an acrylic on canvas by Genieve Figgis, James Joyce and Family (2017); at right, an oil painting by Renato Guttuso called Bassotto (1958); In the entryway, a glazed ceramic called Motivi Ossei by Sissi. Francesco Dolfo

The resulting dialogue between historical accuracy and often startling contemporaneity makes for a vibrant and intriguing mix. Getting the period authenticity right was the brief of art historian Tommaso Pasquali, who helped the Bolognese industrialist and his wife source artworks and furniture from the 15th to the 19th centuries. He sees the apartment as “a cultural Noah’s Ark” because the mission he and the owners have set themselves is to buy up works from Bologna and the Emilia-Romagna region that might otherwise have been dispersed across the global antiques market. Many acquisitions of both art and furniture—like a set of Flemish tapestries from Palazzo Aldrovandi—were made when the contents of other Bologna townhouses from the same era were being auctioned off. The fit, the wife reveals, is often uncanny: “People often ask me, ‘How did you find that?’ But it’s not that I’m particularly good at decorating. It’s just that all these houses followed the same rules of proportion.” Other Bolognese pieces were found on the international market and returned to the city, like the ornate surtout de table on the dining room table, which came from nearby Palazzo Sacchetti but was bought at a London auction.

The garden was designed by Filippo Marsili in 2014, with a glass-and-steel pavilion by Dan Graham. Francesco Dolfo

Presided over by adviser and curator Antonio Grulli, the site-specific contemporary strand also focuses on artists who have a strong connection with Bologna; the only exception so far is U.S. artist Dan Graham, who created a glass-and-steel pavilion for the private garden. Inside the apartment, flamboyant Italian artist Luigi Ontani made a pair of double-faced wooden masks for two ceiling medallions that had once borne paintings, long since lost or stolen, by neoclassical painter Felice Giani. But not all of the contemporary works on view in this remarkable suite of rooms are necessarily true to the palazzo’s heritage. Some are from the couple’s private collection—among them several relating to the wife’s special field of interest, the Radical Architecture movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

Related: How Entrepreneur Marco Credendino Brought the High-End Artistry of Italy to a Global Audience 

The couple have no plans to open their collection to the public, though they have shown it to visitors (including Martin Scorsese and Jane Campion) sent by friends. However, last year they opened the palazzo’s cellars for temporary exhibitions. “It’s a way of deepening our rapport with the artists we commission site-specific works from,” the wife says. Even the couple themselves have become visitors to an apartment that has turned into something of a museum. “We only stay there occasionally,” la signora says. “We have another house in Bologna that’s smaller and more comfortable.”