By When the first accusation appeared in the ’50s that the museum was
being filled with fake works of art, Bardi answered by organizing a tour of the paintings,
starting with the Museum of the Orangerie in Paris. From there they went to Belgium,
Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and finally the Metropolitan in New York. They went back to
Brazil in 1957 legitimized by this foreign exposure.
Latin America’s most important art museum, the MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo) was
closed to the public on October 2 although the institution was showing one of its most
popular exhibits ever: Picasso: War Years 1937-1945. The reason for the closed
doors: MASP’s founder, Brazilian-naturalized Italian Pietro Maria Bardi, at 99, had died
the previous day in his sleep, after a seven-year fight against several diseases. He was
cremated according to his wishes.
The wake was in the museum’s auditorium and a Spanish Christ from the 15th century
looked over while Bardi’s body stood between Rafael’s The Resurrection of Christ and
Maestro del Bigallo’s Virgin in Majesty, both of them acquired by Bardi.
The Italian art dealer moved to Brazil with wife Lina Bo Bardi in 1946. It was during
an exhibit in Rio of Italian art that Bardi met media mogul Francisco de Assis
Chateaubriand and received the invitation to create a museum. The timing was perfect. With
the end of the World War II there were many works of art for sale but few people willing
to buy them. Chateaubriand seized the moment, assured a $4 million loan from Chase
Manhattan Bank and sent Bardi to Europe to haggle. He returned to Brazil with Rafael’s Resurrection,
Diego Velásquez’s Count-Duke of Olivares, and 73 bronze sculptures by Degas.
MASP was born in 1947. In the following decades Bardi would be responsible for
selecting much of the impressive museum collection, which comprises more than 5000 works
estimated to be worth $1 billion. Bardi would fill the museum’s walls with the likes of
Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Goya, Lucas Cranach, Modigliani, Picasso, Rafael, Renoir,
Ticiano, and Van Gogh. Bardi was able, for example, to acquire Van Gogh’s The Scholar for
mere $35,000. The painting is worth $30 million today. For a few million dollars Bardi and
Chateaubriand bought among other treasures 1 Rafael, 13 Renoirs and 73 sculptures by
Bardi used to say that he hadn’t done anything, that the museum was the work of
Chateaubriand. One of the stratagems of Chateaubriand to raise funds for the museum was to
promote parties in which unsuspecting guests were presented to everybody as donors.
Chateaubriand and Bardi bought many items on credit, waiting for money that sometimes
never materialized. After accumulating $4 million in debts, Chateaubriand, using the
paintings as collateral, was able to secure a loan from American financier David
Rockefeller. This debt, however, was never paid. The federal government ended up taking
over the loan, transferring it to Caixa Econômica Federal, a government savings
institution. Education minister Jarbas Passarinho, during general Médici’s administration
found a way to wipe out this debt: he used money from the Federal Lottery to pay the
remaining debt. Most of it had already been eroded by inflation.
MASP started in an exiguous borrowed space at the Diários Associados building downtown
São Paulo before moving in 1968 to its exclusive address at chic Avenida Paulista and
slick space designed in 1958 by architect Lina Bo Bardi, Pietro Maria’s wife. Britain’s
Queen Elizabeth II was present at the opening.
Since the beginning of MASP, Bardi was accused of filling the museum with fake works of
art. Among the museum’s works that have been considered forgery_there was never positive
proof to back this contention, however_are Rafael’s The Resurrection of Christ ,
Rembrandt’s Self-portrait, and Ticiano’s Portrait of Cardinal Cristoforo
Madruzzo. But nobody has cast any doubt on the authenticity of Van Gogh’s The
Scholar or Velasquez’s The Portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares or the five
Cézannes all brought by master haggler Bardi.
When the first accusation appeared in the ’50s, Bardi answered by organizing a tour of
the works starting with the Museum of the Orangerie in Paris. From there they went to
Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and finally the Metropolitan in New York. They went
back to Brazil in 1957 legitimized by this foreign exposure.
Bardi has been also criticized for conflict of interest since he continued to own an
art gallery and kept his hobby as art collector after becoming MASP’s director. His
response to the critics: "I never received a cent for being the museum’s director for
over 40 years." Quite the contrary, point his defenders. Bardi has sold pieces from
his private collection to help the museum, they say.
Bardi was born in La Spezia, on Italy’s Liguria region, on February 21,1900. According
to his own story, he had a sad childhood without friends and without fun and games. The
author of more than 30 books on art and philosophy was not particularly bright in
elementary school. In fact, he was so bad that after flunking third grade three times he
had to abandon school. Bardi stated that everything went better after he hit his head due
to a fall.
He taught himself philosophy and history, went to war at 17, wrote for newspaper Il
Giornale di Bergamo for eight years, and opened the Bardi Gallery in Milan in 1925. He
called himself a perfect example of a self-learner. He used to study by himself at the law
library of one of his father’s friends. He published his first book at 17. It was an essay
on colonialism. Bardi also used to paint, but very rarely would he show his paintings.
In 1929 he became director of Galleria di Roma, which was controlled by the fascist
government. Bardi was a close friend and admirer of Benito Mussolini but ended up being
expelled from the fascism movement after challenging the fascist aesthetics and inviting
Jews to write for the publications he edited. He considered a big mistake the fact that
Mussolini allied himself to Hitler.
All the Details
Until the end Bardi kept the title of MASP’s president of honor even though due to ill
health he had abandoned all functions in August of 1990. His last and emotional visit to
the house he founded happened on October 2, 1996. He went there to celebrate MASP’s 50th
anniversary. While Bardi’s legacy survives the building where the masters live has become
In the last three years he could hardly speak and in some days he was not able to
recognize his closest friends. His health deteriorated very rapidly after the death of his
wife, Lina Bo Bardi, in 1992. That year, while writing História do MASP, de 1946 a
1990 (MASP’s History, from 1946 to 1990), his 50th and last book, Pietro Maria Bardi
had an aorta rupture. Almost a dream come true. He had said that he dreamed to die while
Bardi was not only a connoisseur of fine art, he was also an expert provocateur. He
didn’t hide his connections with Mussolini and fascism and didn’t care about making
enemies when he attacked the internationally acclaimed Bienal de São Paulo as "a
mere copy of the old-hat Venice Biennial." And in 1982 he didn’t care about the
public reaction when he scribbled repeatedly on the museum’s walls: Merda, Merda, Merda
(Shit, Shit, Shit). As he explained, it was his way of protesting against the political
posters glued to the MASP’s façade. The theatrical gesture landed him in jail and he only
escaped serving a longer term because he was already over 70. His comment: "How nice.
I can keep on writing shit."
A stickler for details he used to visit the museum’s bathrooms to check if they had
been cleaned properly. More than once on the vernissage day he would take a broom and
sweep the exposition room. MASP’s director didn’t like parties and used to go to bed at 9
PM waking up almost invariably at 4 AM. He talked about growing old: "I’m not worried
about becoming old. I wait for death as something absolutely normal. It was fun to live, I
let things happen my way, except for natural explosions." He used to give the recipe
for his longevity: "I don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t know what a novela
(soap opera) is. My secret is to always work and to not pay attention to the envious, vero?"