15 Minutes With a Price Database Power User: Art Historian Laura Mattioli on Growing Up With Giants of Italian Modernism

The founder of the Center for Italian Modern Art tells us about her favorite work by Morandi and more.

Laura Mattioli.

There is only one tool trusted by art-world insiders to buy, sell, and research art: the Artnet Price Database. Its users across industries—from auction houses to museums, galleries, and government institutions—represent the art world’s most important players. We’re taking 15 minutes to chat with some of the Artnet Price Database’s power users to get their take on the current state of the market and how they’re keeping up with the latest trends.

For art historian Laura Mattioli, a career in anything other than art was always out of the question. Although she was originally interested in physics, her father, Gianni Mattioli, was one of the most influential 20th-century collectors of Italian modern art. As a result, Laura was trained in art history by a family friend. 

She’s since gone on to steward her family’s remarkable collection, which includes works by Amedeo Modigliani and Giorgio Morandi, and to establish the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York. Unlike a conventional museum, CIMA invites visitors to have a personal encounter with the works in the more informal setting of a SoHo loft. “It is, in some ways, the artworks’ house, where the visitors can go as guests,” Laura explains. 

We had a chat with Mattioli about growing up with a world-renowned collection and how she has seen the art market change in recent years.

Tell us a little bit about your early experiences with art. Your father, Gianni Mattioli, was one of the most influential collectors of Italian avant-garde art. How did that influence your decision to become an art historian?

I was born at the same time as my father’s collection. My father needed more than 10 years to build his collection, but he purchased one of the most famous Italian collections of that time in May, 1949—the Pietro Feroldi collection—and July 8, 1950, he opened an apartment as a space to display his artworks to the general public. I was born May 28, 1950. It was normal for me to see artists, art historians, writers, journalists, dealers, theater actors, opera singers, directors come to our house as friends. 

Our house was traditionally furnished with antique art paintings because my father often hosted his business clients, who criticized modern art. His modern art was in a separate apartment, where he was going every Sunday with some friends to explain, in person, the art that he loved to the people coming to visit. As a child, I was not going often to this “modern space,” and my father never took me to visit a museum or exhibition until I was fifteen years old. Only at that time did he take me to visit the most important Italian cities of art, as in the traditional “Grand Tour,” and the following year to the Netherlands, Belgium and Paris. Sadly, at that time he was already very ill, having had heart problems since I was 12. 

Mario Schifano, Compagni, compagni (1968). Courtesy of the Mayor Gallery.

Since 1983, you have managed your family’s collection, loaning works to museums around the world including the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. What is it like working with a historic collection that you have a personal history with?

I did a long term loan of our collection that was [at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice] for about 20 years, from 1997. It was a very important experience for me to work with such an important international foundation that has museums in different countries. This long-term loan gave me also more freedom to work as an independent scholar and curator, and not be focused only on the daily management of the legacy I received. Before, I met so often with different, important institutions and curators who taught me a lot. To see the same artworks displayed in different contexts and spaces pushed me to look at them every time in a new way, changing my experience of them. Because when I was a child my father’s collection was located not in our home, but in a different apartment, I felt these works were not related to my everyday life, but as something that I could live with, but also without.

In 2013, you founded the Center for Italian Modern Art, a non-profit exhibition and research center in New York dedicated to the study of Italian art. What precipitated the organization’s founding?

From 1994, I began to travel every year in the US with my family and the important Italian contemporary art collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo to see museums, galleries and artists. In the following years, I realized more and more how Italian modern art was not known and misunderstood in the US and, in general, in the international art world. Modern art came to the US through France, and also for teachers and curators, 20th-century Italian art was simply a “derivation” from French avant-garde. 

Italy has had a rich and strong tradition of art for millennia, and this is something that Italian artists have to face every day. The problem they had during the 20th-century was to make an art speaking to our contemporary and new culture, that has also to deal with the Italian tradition and identity. I think that this is a problem that all the artists around the world have to face today, and for this reason the Italian experience needs to be better known and studied in an international context.

Tell us about one of your favorite pieces in your family collection. What makes it unique? Why is it significant to you?

It is a still life by Giorgio Morandi painted in 1916. I had this painting in front of me when I spent about six months in bed, pregnant with my first child. It was a very difficult pregnancy, not only because I risked losing the baby, but also because I had a disease (toxoplasmosis, quite widespread in Italy) that can give serious malformations to the unborn child. So, the risk of giving birth to a child with congenital malformations was very high. Fortunately, the baby was born healthy and is now a very sporty 40-year-old man. The months I spent in front of this Morandi painting allowed me to understand his art in a completely new way, and made me a scholar of him.

How have you seen the market for Italian modern art change over the course of your career?

The main change is the growing interest in contemporary art and the loss of interest in Modern art, that is, less and less known and appreciated. Now, Italian collectors are looking more to young or not established artists and also to women artists who were discriminated against for a long time. Modern masters are no longer considered a safe investment, and the young artists look like a possible strong increase of invested capital. 

Who are some Italian modern artists to watch for at auction in the next few years? 

At the moment, I am not so updated about Italian contemporary art because I left the country seven years ago and I work mostly for CIMA. But I collect works by Flavio Favelli and Andrea Mastrovito, and I think they are strong artists, producing serious artworks that could be interesting not only in the Italian context, but also abroad.

What is the last thing you searched for in the Artnet Price Database?

The price of Josef Albers paintings that I love very much!

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