A few weeks ago, I found myself by chance in Spoleto, where I hadn’t been back to for too many years, at the invitation of friends who were organizing a conference dedicated to baroque sculpture between Florence and Rome: artists who wouldn’t be considered first class. It was on that occasion that I met the patron of the event, a unique person who is worth getting to know and who I would like to have the pleasure of introducing to you here, with this short interview.
A cosmopolitan polyglot who had studied in America, with an ancient family behind you, a house in London and exhibitions organized halfway around the world… Duccio K. Marignoli, why did you decide to stop in Spoleto? Maybe because, as an old song goes, “I have traveled and I know all the world, but this enchanted sky is only here”?
I always say that I returned to Spoleto, but in fact I never lived in Spoleto before 2000. And this move from London also happened almost imperceptibly, little by little, without a specific intention. I had inherited half of Palazzo Marignoli from my father. He also had inherited it, empty, but my father was an artist and was not particularly interested in restoration or in living in palaces. But he was generous with me. He redid the roof, thinking that maybe one day I would want the house. It was therefore the house that brought me to Umbria, and eventually to my life project, a family foundation for the study of the History of Art.
You are a man of paradoxes. A father from Perugia, mother from Honolulu and an uncompromisingly Sienese name: Duccio.
Our family comes from Tuscany, from which they were exiled and then expelled to a very small place on the mountain above Norcia with the perfect name for an exile: Legogne. From there the Marignolis went down to Spoleto and then also arrived in Rome. Duccio associates a rather faint Tuscan memory (a family name was thought of) with my father’s homage to the Sienese painter.
What is that “K” in your last name?
K is for Kaumualii, my Hawaiian name. I wanted to include it, but I couldn’t inflict the penalty of knowing how to write it on people in Italy, so I added only the initial. Furthermore, in Hawaiian misspelling is considered quite serious because the names are links to our ancestors (and are not shared with other families, for example), have specific meanings and therefore should not be altered. Mine can be translated as Sacred King, perhaps a somewhat optimistic choice on the part of my parents.
Hawaii. Some people go there every now and then, but as tourists, and this is certainly not your case. How is it now?
Tourism is obviously everywhere, and not always with positive effects. It has turned the place upside down. As a child I walked around Honolulu with my mother or other people like her sister, and for them it was as if they lived in two overlapping cities, one that no longer existed and the other, modern-day Honolulu. They told of walls, apparently normal, but which for them were the place where Queen Emma rested when she went to visit her son’s tomb; or a tree in the middle of the Waikiki towers, all that was left of the garden of Ainahau, the residence of Princess Kaiulani. It was like living in the contemporary world but at the same time in a kind of dramatic fairy tale. As an indigenous Hawaiian, I’m at least happy that young people are starting to study their culture again. It’s a shame, though, that so much has been lost.
Today Palazzo Marignoli is one of the wonders of Spoleto, but when you inherited it in 1972 it was perfectly empty; perhaps it looked like the castle in Captain Fracassa, the novel by Théophile Gautier. Tell us something about the restoration: above all, what was the most difficult moment, the inevitable one when you think about giving it all up.
This adventure was born, like many events in my life, randomly, without – at least at the beginning – a real intention. The empty and unlived-in house was rather depressing and so I said to myself that maybe some small jobs were needed, like putting the shutters back in place. From that moment on I found myself sliding into a project that seems to never end! Good thing I only inherited half the house – the other half belongs to my cousins – because this already seems infinite.
The art gallery. What criteria did you follow to recreate it from scratch?
At the beginning everything was clearer. I had studied seventeenth and eighteenth-century painting, especially Roman painting, at Columbia University in New York, and to some extent this is still the largest part of the collection. You collect what you know. Over the years, however, something clicked in my mind: the collection was in some way my biography. From that moment – sometimes with a profound interest, sometimes only episodically – other strands have entered. For example, lately I’ve been studying painting volcano eruptions in Hawaii. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a group of artists formed that specialized in these views. A few small examples then entered the collection. Even if they are unknown in Italy, they are highly sought after there and so there is a lot of competition. Generally, however, I try to reconstruct knowledge that comes from my life.
Painting is in your blood; your father, the Marquis Filippo Marignoli, was not an artist to be forgotten.
Absolutely, his example inevitably left its mark on me. As a young man he took part in the Spoleto Group, a group of young artists who embraced the Informal, and he had a certain following. Then he joined the L’Attico Gallery in Rome as an artist. After that he traveled a lot and in the 1970s he began to develop his own very particular style with landscapes made up of simple, very clear strokes. During this period, he joined the group of the Denise René Gallery in Paris, where he was the only not completely abstract artist that they exhibited. From my father I inherited, in addition to an interest in painting in general, a tendency to see all art as contemporary and part of life, as well as a restlessness that led me to travel continuously for many years. I inherited another very important thing from him: in the Spoleto Group of the 1950s there was another very young painter who then chose another path, Bruno Toscano, the celebrated art historian. When I arrived in Spoleto, this ‘inherited’ bond gave me, although at an age when I was no longer a boy, a mentor as well as a friend. He has greatly influenced me in my personal research choices: I hope I have lived up to his lessons.
And when you decided to be an art historian, did your father’s figure influence your choice of field of study? Because your interest lies above all in painting, in particular from the Baroque to the nineteenth century.
To tell the truth, my father really wanted me to continue to be interested in the History of Art after Columbia University, and perhaps because he pushed me, I convinced myself that I wanted to do something else. After studying in New York, I ended up in London to study cinema and was just introduced to the world of directing. I have to say that the biggest lesson I learned was that I didn’t want to make films. With the passing of my father, I returned to the History of Art: this is something I wish I could have done, confess to him that he was ultimately right. The years in London, almost twenty, were nevertheless wonderful, and then there I learned to go to auctions, to libraries, in short, research.
To close our conversation, I ask if you would tell us about your most ambitious and complex creation: The Marignoli di Montecorona Foundation.
The Foundation – it has an English name because it is an American foundation and not as an affectation – was started by my mother and me precisely to give continuity to our interests, especially the maintenance of the house and its collection. We both thought that perhaps a small and perhaps limited personal museum was not needed, but that an Art History study center was instead more interesting. In addition to the collection, the Foundation is also organizing a rather large library for this period; we have more than 48,000 titles, not open to the general public (we don’t have the organization for this) but to those who will collaborate with our projects. We are a very small team of four people: myself, Massimo Roberto, Michele Drascek and Claudia Grisanti, and we have given ourselves titles, but in fact everyone has to do whatever is needed. I would be the president, but I’m also the librarian, the translator or whatever. In addition to Bruno Toscano, we also have a group of Art Historians (and friends) who help us on an ongoing basis and without whom we would be lost, such as Sir Timothy Clifford, Susan Sayre Baton, Giovanna Sapori, Simonetta Prosperi, Valenti Rodinò and Steffi Roettgen; others like Luciano Arcangeli, Stefania Petrillo and Andrea Bacchi work on particular (although increasingly frequent) initiatives. Furthermore, there are young people who give us hope that they will soon be ready to take over. My idea will have truly succeeded if and when I am no longer part of it and if – I hope – the Foundation continues to live, perhaps in ways that I cannot even imagine now.
Rome, December 2023
The photographs in the article set in Spoleto are by Marcello Fedeli. The portrait in the opening image is by Simone Settimo.
Translation by Paul Rosenberg
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