Obituary for Carla Panicali

Art dealer who forged a successful business in Italy and New York from the 1950s.


Carla Panicali, an Italian dealer of international renown who was active in the art world from 1954, has died in Rome at the age of 87. Over the course of her life she managed her own galleries, Il Segno and L’Isola, as well as Marlborough Fine Art in Rome, and later Panicali Fine Art and Art for Architecture in New York. During her career Panicali represented a roster of Italian artists including Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, Ettore Colla and the brothers Giò and Arnaldo Pomodoro. She also represented a number of foreign artists in Italy, such as Mark Rothko, Henry Moore, Robert Motherwell, David Smith and Kurt Schwitters, as well as handling the Italian print market for Joan Miró, Marc Chagall and Picasso.

Her first marriage, when she was 18, was to a wealthy Turinese engineer, Silvio Rava, with whom she moved to Turin, and had two sons, Corrado and Alberto. She mixed with the Turinese upper class and soon found that her real passions lay in the art world. She divorced Rava in the early 1950s, and moved to Rome to forge a career for herself.

She made a brief foray into the world of interiors by selling avant-garde Scandinavian furniture and design at her first shop, simply called “Home”. Soon after she met another Turinese escapee in Rome, Bruno Herlitzka, with whom she opened her print gallery Il Segno in 1954. The scarcity of print galleries in Italy at the time almost automatically secured them the rights to sell prints by Picasso, Miró and Chagall, and Panicali rapidly began making a name for herself.

An encounter with Frank Lloyd, the co-founder of Marlborough Fine Art in London, led Lloyd to suggest they open a gallery together in Italy. He wanted to set up in Milan but she refused to leave Rome, so Lloyd changed his plans and set up shop there. Panicali also insisted that her business partner Herlitzka be included in the project.

Marlborough opened its Italian branch in Rome in 1960, and Panicali sold her old gallery to the daughter of Alberto Savinio, the brother of Giorgio De Chirico.

For Panicali, the 1960s were a golden age. Through Marlborough’s clout and her famous charm and passion for art, the gallery attracted many of the big international names: Pollock, Miró, Matisse, Magritte, Bacon. At the same time Panicali nurtured the careers of some of Italy’s most successful artists, including Fontana, Burri and Pomodoro. After a trip to New York to oversee the latest Marlborough venture, she came back to Italy, where she introduced the nation’s art lovers to the works of the American Abstract Expressionists such as Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. She even convinced Rothko to join Marlborough, despite his dislike for Lloyd, whom he saw as a shark.

Lloyd closed Marlborough in Rome after a well-publicised lawsuit against his gallery by Rothko’s heirs, which he lost. Panicali later took over the space and renamed it “L’Isola” in 1980. She worked there until 1996 and opened two further galleries in New York: Panicali Fine Art and Art for Architecture.

Panicali married the Italian artist Carlo Battaglia in 1972 and their residence in Rome, which was featured in many Italian interior design magazines, became a haven for artists and intellectuals.

“She was always friends with the artists,” recalls her son Corrado Rava, who grew up in the middle of this glittering art world. She once opened the front door of her house to a weeping Mark Rothko. He had been taking a walk through the neighbouring streets in Rome’s old Jewish ghetto (he had been staying at her house with his family for two months) and was moved to tears because someone on the street had recognised him as Jewish and had come up to him and greeted him with “shalom”.

Battaglia remembers how Panicali once took the collector Joseph Hirshhorn to Ad Reinhardt’s studio so he could buy some of his work, but the stubborn artist would follow Hirshhorn around the studio, putting all the works Hirshhorn had chosen back in their place. In the end she managed to convince him to part with two works. Her love for the arts was infectious, and her style and charm could sway even the most stubborn artists and collectors.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Carla Panicali'