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Meet the man who wants to open a Hirst chapel in Rome

The Italian collector Carlo Bilotti has commissioned Damien Hirst to create four paintings of the Evangelists which he wants to display in a deconsecrated church

London

The Italian, US-based collector Carlo Bilotti is in discussions with Rome City Council to convert a former chapel in the north of the city into a centre for contemporary art which will display works by Damien Hirst and other artists from his collection. Mr Bilotti hopes to show Hirst’s series of paintings The Four Evangelists, on view this month at the Gagosian gallery in Britannia Street, London (3 February-26 March), in the chapel of Il Divino Amore at Villa Ada which was deconsecrated years ago and has lain abandoned ever since.

Speaking to the Art Newspaper, Alberta Campitelli, a city official in Rome, said that Mr Bilotti is scheduled to meet the Mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, next month to discuss the project. Mr Bilotti told The Art Newspaper that he “has the full support” of Mr Veltroni and that he expects the project to proceed. If all goes according to plan, Rome City Council will give Mr Bilotti a long-term lease of 70 to 80 years on the building. Because the discussions are at an advanced stage, Damien Hirst recently travelled to Rome to see the chapel but was unable to get inside because it was closed.

Mr Bilotti says he aims to create a “modern meditative environment” in the chapel which will be modelled on the Rothko chapel in Houston, Texas.

The collector initially contacted Hirst via the artist’s New York dealer Larry Gagosian. His original intention was to commission Hirst to produce the Four Evangelists for a new pavilion-like structure he is having built behind his home in Palm Beach, Florida. But when Hirst visited the house last year, he felt that the proposed venue would be “too fancy”, says Mr Bilotti.

The eight by six feet paintings include several found elements: butterflies, pages from the Bible and pens stuck to the canvases, a dead-pan reference to the Evangelists as writers of the Gospels.

Since Mr Bilotti sold his cosmetics company, Jacqueline Cochran Inc,. in 1987, he has spent his time and money on enlarging his art collection. His interest in art goes back decades. Throughout the 70s and 80s, he developed personal relationships with artists such as Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí. His collection consists mainly of 20th-century works by Matisse, Picasso, and Roy Lichtenstein among others.

One of Warhol’s few double portraits, Mother and daughter, Tina and Lisa Bilotti (1981) shows Mr Bilotti’s wife and his late daughter. In the 70s, Warhol also produced a series of paintings based on works by the Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico in Mr Bilotti’s collection. These include The disquieting muses (1982).

Although Mr Bilotti is an active member of the art community in Florida (he is a trustee of the Salvador Dalí museum in St Petersburg and a governor of the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art), his most generous acts of philanthropy have been in his native Italy.

Mr Bilotti recently offered 20 De Chirico paintings worth E13 million ($17.3 million) to Rome City Council on three conditions: the works be housed in the Villa Borghese Orangery, Rome; the building be re-named the Museo Carlo Bilotti; and that it open by March 2006. The council has agreed to these conditions and will fund the renovation of the Orangery which is scheduled to re-open in the spring of 2006, at a cost of around E1.6 million ($2.1 million).

The Museo Carlo Bilotti will also house 30 paintings by De Chirico from the Giorgio and Isa de Chirico Foundation in Rome. It will host annual exhibitions of contemporary artists on the ground floor.

Mr Bilotti is also lending 40 works from his collection for the inaugural exhibition at the Museo di Sant’Agostino in his home town of Cosenza, southern Italy, which opens this month. The two-year project to convert the former 14th-century convent has been funded by the town council and through government grants. Mr Bilotti has also donated two bronze sculptures by the 20th-century French artist Emilio Greco to Cosenza. These will soon go on public display.