Alessandra di Castro is sitting on a plush, velvet couch in a curved, cozy recess in her Antiques Gallery at Number 4 Piazza di Spagna in Rome. She speaks rapidly in impeccable English declaring, “I have a very impatient personality.”
I pause in my frenetic note taking and look at her and say, “so do I.” In that moment I noticed that several ringlets in Alessandra’s curly, strawberry blonde hair, pulled loosely back behind her head, look as though they would like to spring off in various directions. “You see this is a very quick job, you have to be three different places at the same moment,” she adds.
I resume my note taking worried that I might miss something but I am wondering how she pulls it off appearing so sophisticated, cultured, glamorous, calm and in control of the situation.
“With deals and acquisitions you have to wait for things to be mature, you don’t have to insist, things have to come to you,” she explains.
Alessandro Di Castro is probably Rome’s most famous antiques dealer. She comes from what she calls an antique dealing “dynasty” – four generations of Di Castros dealing antiques in Rome. Over the course of several hours with Alessandra, I realized that in order to become the dynamic antiques dealer that she is, she has learned to be very patient in many different circumstances. A talent that she has perhaps inherited from a family whose vicissitudes would challenge the patience of anyone.
Alessandra rapidly gives me a summary of her family’s dramatic history.
She explains that in 1870 when the gates of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto were re-opened, the Jews already had a tradition in dealing with textiles; something more sought after and appreciated in that era. She described her ancestors as textile “connoisseurs” dealing in everything from cotton and linens to brocade and elaborate materials. These ancestors established relations with the Pope, members of the Papal court and aristocratic families in Rome. They expanded from textiles into silverware and furniture and began to supply the famous “palazzi” of the Eternal City.
The first family shop, opened by her great grandfather Leone, was near the Vatican, in the area that was destroyed by Mussolini to build Via della Conciliazione – the wide avenue that now runs from the Tiber River straight down to St. Peter’s Basilica. Then in 1944, to avoid being deported to concentration camps, Alessandra’s grandparents and their three children sought refuge in the Chiostro Dei Genovesi – the Genovese Cloister—in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.
Before writing this post, I paid a visit to the Genovesi Cloister in Trastevere with my friend, photographer Antonella Bucci (see website: www.antonellabucci.it ). In the Cloister, some of the brothers from the Confraternity of the Genovesi, showed me the plaque on the wall praising the courage of Monsignor Maurizio Raffa who hid the Di Castro family. One brother said the family was hidden in a small attic apartment above the courtyard, but the children could not stay locked up and sometimes came down to play among the orange trees in the rose garden.
Alessandra told me her father, a young boy at the time, would serve as an altar boy at the masses to make people believe that the family was Christian. But, she noted appreciatively, Monsignor Raffa never tried to convert them.
Italian families living around the cloister knew they were a Jewish family. At that time there was a bounty on the head of Jews in Rome, and if anyone had reported the Di Castro presence, they would have earned some money. Apparently both the Italian Fascists and German Nazi troops came to check the place, but never found the Di Castro family and no one uttered a word.
Alessandra Di Castro continues to be a prominent figure in the Jewish Community in Rome. Among her many activities, she is currently curator of Jewish Museum of Rome.
After the war, Alessandra said her grandfather had to start from scratch. He moved the family business to Via del Babuino 102, where Alessandra was born. She says her grandfather was strong, courageous and had fantastic taste. With his efforts he managed to make the business successful.
When Alessandra’s father Franco took over the business he expanded the categories of works and began dealing in paintings, hard-stones, colored marbles and ceramics.
Alessandra explained that Rome is a haven for art and antiques dealers because the city has attracted great artists throughout the centuries. She says that such artistic greats as Borromini, Bernini and Pietro Da Cortona – not only made sculptures and painted frescoes, but would design furniture for wealthy Roman nobility. It is these items that antique dealers seek. Then there are all the sculptures, vases, cameos and other works from antiquity. Part of Alessandra’s job is to find these precious works and negotiate a reasonable price for them.
Alessandra’s family lived in an apartment next to Piazza di Spagna and she said she grew up surrounded by art. Her father would involve her in his work, taking her on trips to art fairs and auctions around Europe. Her home was a gathering place for famous art historians including Federico Zeri, Giuliano Briganti and the head of the Vatican Museums Carlo Pietrangeli. She said as soon as she got her driver’s license her father sent her traipsing around Rome with photographs of works of art to get opinions from art experts.
Now she has inherited the family business and is running the show on her own. She said she tries to continue the distinctive Di Castro taste which is based on Rome-centered works of art. She describes her pieces as “strong objects, with something original that make them interesting.”
Times have changed dramatically since her grandfather and father’s days and she says unlike her father who spent probably 80 percent of his time hunting for objects, she divides her time 50-50 between looking and selling. And both looking and selling require a lot of patience. Alessandra is aware of a lot of art; she knows of works that her grandfather or her father sold that she thinks she might want to buy back some day, and she knows of items belonging to families which she hopes they might some day want to sell. In these cases she cannot push, she must wait.
She explains that she buys with conviction, she trusts her artistic judgment, but there are items that are sometimes not yet “fashionable” or simply not appreciated. Alessandra says there are “empty spaces” in art history “dark areas” that have not yet been explored. An example, she explains is Caravaggio, who was never much appreciated until art historian Roberto Longhi started writing about him.
She says that often dealers arrive first – they see the beauty or value of an art object and then have to wait patiently until there is a market. Another example, Alessandra explains is fascist-era art. Fascist-era art and architecture was disregarded and disliked in the post-war period, but eventually art historians came around to seeing its value.
So who does she sell to? Alessandra said 80 percent of her clients are non-Italian, mostly European and American. She has never made a sale to a Chinese or Russian client. This statement surprised me because the luxury shops in and around Piazza di Spagna have been full in recent years with wealthy Russians and Chinese eager to spend on Italian fashion. Alessandra explained she thinks it is simply a question of culture and communications. Europeans and Americans are more familiar with the culture of western civilization, the source of her objects.
Alessandra’s greatest “fear” is forgeries. She says a big part of her job is detecting forgeries – again, something that requires patience. Before buying a work of art she has to study it, get expert help, and use the Internet. “Technology is moving very fast,” she explains, “every day the forgers are investing in new ways to reproduce objects made in the past.” She also notes that there are plenty of instruments to help discover a forgery, but the most important thing is to never rush. “I haven’t made many mistakes,” Alessandra notes, “if I am not 100 percent certain, I do not buy.”
Another part of the job is working with a client to restore an object to its original splendor. Alessandra says she is lucky to work in Rome where there are an incredible number of restorers who can help return objects to their original state. She reels off the list of some of the more obscure restoring talents available in Rome, “tortoise-shell restorers, mother-of-pearl restorers…”
After our interview, Alessandra takes me for a stroll around the shop. It is hard not to notice the fabulous “Cleopatra” painting by Leonardo Grazia, also known as Il Pistoia. He lived from 1502 to 1548, was born in Tuscany and died in Naples. Alessandra explained to me, “he understood the appeal of semi-naked women so he used sensual figures from antiquity, such as Cleopatra. It was basically just an excuse to show bare breasts.” Alessandra bought this work at the end of 2014. She said it was dirty and yellow and restorers carefully cleaned it. She has not sold it yet, but has had some interest.
There is a walnut chest of drawers with a collection of small marble squares in a variety of colors and patterns. Alessandra opens a drawer and pulls out a small square “pink onion” marble and a “malachite” square. She then shows me the old paper with the numbers and lists of each marble square.
There are pastille boxes from the 15th century with what Alessandra explains are scenes from medieval literary sources such as Boccaccio. The boxes, she tells me, were used for perfumes and balms. Alessandra said she recently acquired these and noted, “it is an old-fashioned taste and the challenge is to bring back to fashion things that contemporary sensibilities do not appreciate.”
She then stops before a spectacular painting of the “Madonna with Baby Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome” by Matteo di Giovanni, also known as Matteo di Siena. The gold around the Madonna’s head glitters under the lights in the gallery. I am amazed at the apparently perfect condition of the painting. Alessandra says this is due to the excellent quality of the wood the artist chose to paint on. She says this item was in a private gallery in Rome and her father already had his eye on it, she managed to acquire it last year – always employing the patience she says she does not have.
At the entrance to the gallery Alessandra shows me another new acquisition. It is “View of St. Mark’s Basin in Venice Under the Snow” by Ippolito Caffi. Half of the painting is the sky above the city. She explains, “he was a painter of atmosphere, he covered the war in Crimea like a reporter but demonstrates changes in atmosphere in the cities he loved most.” Alessandra goes on “there is a silence in that painting that is very touching.”
As we walk around the gallery she points out a sculptured head of Trajan, a column of porphyry with a pinkish glow, and a group of carved ivory cameos.
She knows the history of each one, the details of the artists lives, and the materials that were used to make them. She is patiently dedicating time to me and the phone is ringing and several people are waiting to see her so I gather up my notes, say goodbye and slip out into Piazza di Spagna. I turn down Via Babuino, my mind swimming with all the spectacular objects, paintings and works of art and by this impatient and captivating woman who knows everything about them.
If anyone is interested in seeing some of the works of art from Alessandra Di Castro’s gallery you can visit it at Piazza di Spagna No. 4 in Rome or she will be participating in two upcoming fairs:
Masterpiece London 2015 from June 25 to July 1 masterpiecefair.com
International Biennale of Antiques in Florence from September 26 to October 4th