The rebirth of Florence's Villa Stibbert

Director Cristina Aschengreen-Piacenti has pioneered the project, refusing to allow the residence of a great Anglo-Florentine collector to fade from memory



“Just imagine: when I arrived, there were not even any loos for the guards”, says director Cristina Aschengreen-Piacenti, who was appointed two years ago to bring back to life the Villa Stibbert, one of Florence’s sleeping beauties. An eminently practical, Courtauld-educated, Dane, she knows how important the creature comforts are to the pursuit of culture, and she also understands the intricacies of Italian cultural and political life after a twenty-five year career at the Palazzo Pitti. Now, not only do her guards have their loos, but the building is almost completely restored; a new wing has opened; the hedges in the five-acre park are cut, the paths weeded, the Hellenistic temple restored. There is an efficient bar—indispensable in Italy—and visitor numbers have increased 75% to 20,000 in 1998, with 40,000 expected this year.

There is no doubt that the Villa deserves to be seen by many more. It is a rich collection of arms and armour, costume, decorative arts and paintings, from the Middle East and India as well as the West. Its Japanese swords and armour are the most important outside Japan, “but at present I can only show them to scholars, such as the Zen master, who came dressed in white from Milan”, sighs Dr Aschengreen, “as that floor infringes security regulations”.

The Villa itself is richly decorated, with vivid stained glass and polychromed walls. The collections are displayed as in the days of their collector, in Moorish decorated rooms for the Middle Eastern armour; with a great cavalcade of knights beneath a life-size St George and the dragon for the Western armour. This is a romantic treasure house, which still communicates the eccentricity and passion of Frederick Stibbert.

Stibbert was born in 1838, rich beyond measure from an East India Company family. He was educated in England, but also fought in Garibaldi’s army. With such a martial background, little wonder that military dress was at the heart of his collecting passion. Restlessly travelling the world, collecting wherever he went, particularly in London, Paris, and Florence, Stibbert filled thousands of pages with notes and sketches (still unstudied) recalling his encounters with international dealers, connoisseurs, antiquarians, museum curators and fellow collectors.

Stibbert masterminded the transformation of his family home, Villa Montughi, into a house/museum between 1879 and 1900. When he died in 1906, he had endowed a foundation to run his museum with a sum roughly equivalent to that of the Getty Museum today, but this was wiped-out by a post-World War I devaluation of the Italian lira.

The board of trustees, as stipulated in his will, still reflects the hierarchies of turn-of the century Florence: it includes the British consul, a member of the noble Pandolfini family (into which his sister had married), the head of the Academy of Fine Arts, the mayor, and the Superintendent of Fine Arts. These had not been successful over the decades in extracting more than meagre funding out of the town council of Florence; hence the state in which Dr Aschengreen found the Villa when she was appointed.

Now, however, there is a growing awareness of what a wonderful attraction the Villa can be and the town council, the Tuscan regional government and the local bank, the Cassa di Risparmio of Florence, are all putting in money. Dr Aschengreen has raised funds from the Florentine Women’s Club for the restoration of a suit of clothing belonging to an eighteenth-century maharajah and from the Florentine Consular Corps for a sixteenth-century statue of Buddha. Verde Pubblico, the municipal gardening service, is supplying gardeners to tend to the grounds, but there is still much to do.

Exhibitions and entertaining are the classic ways of increasing one’s following, says Dr Aschengreen. She opened the new wing with a show called, “Dress for the Body, the Body for Dress”, documenting contrasting design philosophies in European and Islamic apparel through exhibits from the vast collections of antique clothing, accessories, cloth, embroidery and lace, much of it never before seen by the public. This got the newspapers talking about the Villa Stibbert and an exhibition of Japanese armour follows this October. As for parties, the Villa and its gardens are beginning to become a fashionable place for wedding receptions and cocktails. The first group of elegant Americans has just been for a tour, cocktails and dinner (“I can manage up to seventy-two at a time”, says Dr Aschengreen invitingly).

Who knows what Frederick Stibbert, who lived alone here with his mother, would have thought of this? But there is no doubt that Dr Aschengreen is doing everything in the right spirit. Across from her desk, she keeps the suit of made-to-measure armour that Stibbert wore to the inauguration of Florence cathedral’s westwork in 1887, to remind herself that she is only a caretaker of his legacy. Clearly at one with him, she is committed to reviving this house/museum, along with all its intimacy and personality, a combination of belle epoque charm and a certain venerable mustiness—perhaps the lingering, paranormal scent of the great collector’s last cigar.

Dr Aschengreen recently had the satisfaction of welcoming back into the collection a very valuable, jewel-set Indian dagger which had been among the hundreds of items stolen from the Stibbert in 1976. It appeared for sale in June last year at Christie’s London, who returned it as soon as they discovered its origin. Luck rewards those who make their own luck.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A knight and his rooms with a view'