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Portrait of the mystery man behind Castello di Rivoli’s £450m art loan

Federico Cerruti was extraordinary in his extreme ordinariness and austerity

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Federico Cerruti is the man behind the £450m collection of art that has been vested in the Castello di Rivoli on long-term loan. Suddenly, this contemporary art museum in a former royal palace on the outskirts of Turin has great Medieval, Old Master and Modern paintings, among hundreds of other treasures, at its disposal and will be able to incorporate them temporarily in its displays (normally, it will reside in Cerruti’s 1960s villa, which is in walking distance of the castle).

In exchange, Rivoli will be the custodian of the collection, study it and make it known. The villa will open to the public in January 2019 after restructuring. The director of Rivoli, Carolyn Christov-Bagarkiev, says: “The Cerruti collection is extraordinary because it allows us to ‘collect a collector’ and thus illustrate a theme that is very present today.” She goes on to say that, by embracing this wide-ranging collection of older art, Rivoli is unique at a time when the great encyclopaedic museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York are expanding into the contemporary.

The agreement comes two years after the death on 15 July 2015 of Cerruti at the age of 93 and is the “coming out” at last of this near-secret collection assembled over 70 years, almost certainly the best to have been created in Italy in modern times, valued in 2015 by Sotheby’s at £450m (inflation adjusted).

Cerruti slept only one night in his house full of treasures 

Every Sunday, Federico Cerruti would drive his unremarkable car to his unremarkable villa near the Castello di Rivoli and sit down to lunch, served by his faithful housekeeper Marcellina, in a porticoed room full of orchids. He might have chosen to sit in his dining room with its ten Metaphysical De Chiricos, but he liked to be with the flowers. He loved beauty, and every room was rich in masterpieces that he had bought from auction catalogues and by just waiting for the art world to come to him. They were his family, his friends, his only raison d’être apart from his work. 

He was famous with dealers for taking weeks to decide, but although he would occasionally consult, it was his eye alone that governed his choices, for he had the gift of understanding great art. There were late Medieval gold-ground and early Renaissance paintings in the main bedroom—Paolo Veneziano, Sassetta, Bergognone, Gentile da Fabriano and others—all of the first quality and in outstanding condition. In the drawing room, there were the high Renaissance masters, Dosso Dossi, Pontormo, Paris Bordone; there were Tiepolos and grand allegorical Batonis from the 18th century. 

There was a dashing Boldini nude among the 19th-century works, and then Klee, Boccioni, Man Ray and Modigliani, through to Alberto Burri, Warhol, Bacon and Warhol. Among these was the first work Cerruti ever bought: a drawing by Kandinsky, which he said he knew was authentic because it carried the artist’s dedication to a friend. 

The tables were piled with the rarest books, such as Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior in 12 volumes, the greatest publishing project of the 17th century. There were the finest bindings the luxury trades could produce, such as an À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in an Art Deco sunburst binding by Pierre Legrain. Lying casually by the bed in the room with the ivory-inlaid sécretaire by Piffetti, the most refined cabinetmaker Italy ever produced, there was an exquisite small book with 17th-century French enamelled and bejewelled gold covers. 

Binding telephone directories paid for the art

For all this was paid for by books or, rather, bindings. On 1 January 1922, Federico Cerruti was born into a Genoese family that had a small industrial bindery. They moved to Turin and expanded. The factory was destroyed by bombing and Cerruti escaped death on 9 September 1943 by a fluke; he should have been on the battleship Roma, sunk that day by the Luftwaffe. 

He was brought up hard by his parents, with an obsessive work ethic. Typically, his studies were in accountancy, not the liberal arts. He rode and exploited Italy’s post-war economic boom and the bindery, Legatoria Industriale Torinese, grew to be one of the two largest in the country, with the contract to bind all the telephone directories. 

He had a pied-à-terre above his office and lived there, alone, all his life. In the villa that he had built for himself he slept only one night in half a century. Annalisa Ferrari, his right-hand woman for 30 years, remembers that he had said waking up to his art collection had afflicted him with “Stendhal’s syndrome”, a feeling of agitation and faintness brought on by too much aesthetic emotion. 

Christmas with the homeless and two parties a year

He gave two lavish parties a year in the villa, on his birthday and name day, almost as an obligation, for he had no friends. He would spend Christmas with the homeless, to whom he would give thoughtful and expensive presents. He was generous with his loans to exhibitions and, with Ferrari as gate-keeper, he would also allow small groups of art lovers to visit the collection, when he would receive them with a slightly disconcerting courtly humility.

One group was the Friends of the Fitzwilliam, which included the late Lord Leicester and the grandson of the Lord Ashburton who had sold the Piffetti in Cerruti’s collection. All were astonished by the beauty of what they saw, the more so because no one had heard of him. For he loathed publicity to the extent that there are almost no photographs of him, and he told Ferrari to organise his funeral before announcing his death because otherwise the usual “useless gossiping and socialising crowd” would turn up. He was to be laid in his coffin with an ivory crucifix, and photographs of his adored mother and Padre Pio. She carried out his instructions to the letter.

In the US or the UK, the museums would have made it their business to court him, invite him onto the board and offer him a congenial environment in which to share his passion. They might have made his life less solitary, as well as winning the collection for their institution. In Italy the gulf, the mutual suspicion, between the museums and private collectors is such that this was never likely to happen. 

In 2013, Cerruti created the Fondazione FC and vested the villa, collection and a capital sum in it,  but left no precise instructions as to what should happen next, so his executors have decided on this solution with nearby Rivoli, which will be holding an international conference in spring 2018, putting Cerruti in the context of other great collectors such as Henry Clay Frick, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Albert Barnes.