Getting Old Masters' sexy back: Colnaghi to take over Venetian abbey for Biennale show

London-based gallery will team up with interior designer Chahan to create "home of a 21st-century Grand Tourist" in the medieval Abbazia di San Gregorio

The Abbazia di San Gregorio on Venice's Grand Canal was originally built in the 9th century as a Benedictine Abbey Courtesy of Colnaghi

The Abbazia di San Gregorio on Venice's Grand Canal was originally built in the 9th century as a Benedictine Abbey Courtesy of Colnaghi

Old Master dealers rarely get in on the contemporary art frenzy that is the Venice Biennale.

But, continuing his ceaseless quest to get Old Masters' sexy back, Jorge Coll of the London-based gallery Colnaghi is taking over the Abbazia di San Gregorio on the Grand Canal for six months to create “the home of a 21st century traveller” with the help of the Paris-based interior designer Chahan Minassian.

The exhibition at the abbey—which was, apparently, given to Cary Grant by Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, after their wedding—will open on 11 May to coincide with La Biennale di Venezia, and remain open by appointment until 24 November. Keeping it open full time would have proven prohibitively expensive due to staffing and insurance, but the public are encouraged to make appointments to visit.

The exhibition will mix Old Master drawings, paintings and sculpture with glass, works of art and contemporary design, aiming to encapsulate “the spirit of the Grand Tourist in a contemporary setting”. Details of exactly what will be included are yet to be announced, but a highlight will be a pair of 18th century portraits by Pompeo Batoni of Thomas and Mary Taylour, the viscount and viscountess of Headfort.

In true Grand Tour tradition, (wealthy) visitors will be able to take the look home—everything will be for sale, priced from around €1,000 to over €5m.

Colnaghi and the Paris-based interior designer Chahan will mix Old Master paintings with contemporary design in the 9th century abbey Courtesy of Colnaghi

“We want to show that a collection is not just a pool of assets: its real value lies in its connection with the life of a collector and is built from memories, experiences, friendships and discoveries,” Coll says of the show.

To accompany the exhibition, the non-profit Colnaghi Foundation, which promotes historic art to a 21st century audience, has created a microsite which acts as a Venice travel guide, including itineraries drawn from the diaries of famous Venice lovers such as Lord Byron, Effie Gray, Helen Frick, Peggy Guggenheim and William Beckford.

“The art world is eager to find new paths and this is what we aim to give you: an experience which may set you on the same journey as Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry Clay Frick and the 18th century grand tourists,” Coll says. Nothing like aiming high.