As a major survey of Italian Futurism opens at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, we tell the story of a remarkable private collection.
The Guardian of the Tower’. It sounds like a character from Lord of the Rings, and in fact the Torre di Fornillo, popularly known as ‘La Torre di Clavel’ wouldn’t look out of place on the coastline of Middle Earth. But this stone fortress perched on a rocky promontory above the Fornillo beach is eminently positanese, as is the man who has devoted most of his life to looking after it.
Daniele Esposito began doing odd jobs for the owners of the sea-girt estate properly known as ‘Castello Clavel’ in 1981, when he was just 13. From a humble Positano family, he came into contact with the world of Italian high society thanks to the former owner of the estate, Princess Santa Borghese Hercolani, who had purchased the tower and surrounding buildings in 1954 from the brother of celebrated Swiss bohemian and patron of the arts Gilbert Clavel.
La principessa took Daniele under her wing, and inspired him with a love of art, history and culture that has never abandoned him. One of his passions became the history of the estate itself, and the figure of Clavel, the man who had done so much to put it on the international avant-garde map in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Together with Borghese Hercolani, Daniele began to bring some semblance of order to the chaotic archive left behind by the Swiss polymath.
This included some original drawings and works on paper by a friend and protégé of Clavel’s, Fortunato Depero, the Italian Futurist whose reputation has come on in leaps and bounds since his death in 1960. Shortly before her death at the age of 100 in 1997, la principessa bequeathed these works to Daniele in recognition of his dedication to the project. Unsure exactly how important the sketches were, Daniele sent them to the Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto (Mart) in Rovereto, the birthplace of Depero, which holds an important collection of the artist’s works.
His letter sat on a desk in the museum’s administrative department for several weeks: they were so used to receiving fake or dubious ‘original Deperos’ that these drawings sent in by a caretaker on the Amalfi Coast were viewed with some suspicion. Daniele asked an art historian acquaintance to intercede for him, and finally Belli was persuaded to take a proper look at the sketches. That same day, Daniele received a phone call. “Mr Esposito? Gabriella Belli calling. Can you be in Rovereto tomorrow? You’ve just sent me the most important collection of Depero works to come to light since the artist’s death”.
Today, the ‘Collezione Esposito’, as it is known, has been catalogued and studied by Depero experts the world over, and some of the drawings grace the walls of the Casa d’Arte Futurista Depero, the branch of the Mart dedicated to the eclectic artist’s life and works.
But Daniele hasn’t let his new-found status as an important collector of Futurist art go to his head. He still lives in a small apartment in Castello Clavel, where he dedicates his time to restoring the original furniture and fittings designed by Clavel for his wave-battered refuge, corresponding with Clavel scholars from Germany to Japan, studying local history, and campaigning for the protection of Positano’s unique architectural and environmental heritage.
Meanwhile, Futurism and Depero will be all over New York this month. On 21 February, the first comprehensive overview of Italian Futurism to be presented in the United States opens at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. ‘Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe’ runs through until 1 September. Meanwhile across town in SoHo, starting on 22 February and running through to June 28, curator and art historian Laura Mattioli’s new Centre for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) presents an exhibition of 50 rarely seen works by Fortunato Depero in a variety of media, from the collection of her father, Gianni Mattioli.
Depero and Clavel in Positano, 1916