Alessia Antinori uses contemporary art to bridge the gap between her family’s 633-year winemaking tradition and its bright future.
By Nate Storey
Produced by Surface Studios
February 13, 2018
It was while evangelizing the Chinese to the virtues of Italian wine across the country in 2000 that Alessia Antinori became a convert herself. During a sales visit to a restaurant in Beijing, she wandered into the pioneering Courtyard Gallery and fell in love with a piece depicting ballerinas by two Chinese artist brothers, Guo Jin and Guo Wei. The work now lives in Alessia’s Tuscan home, the first in a collection that has grown to more than fifty. “I started collecting contemporary Chinese art before the boom started. Instead of having an hour of sleep in the afternoon or going to the gym or relaxing in the pool, I always went to see galleries,” she says of her stint living in Hong Kong and traveling to Shanghai and Beijing, recalling a time when her distributor didn’t know the difference between white and red wine.
Alessia, along with her two sisters, is the scion of the Marchesi Antinori winery, a label with vineyards in Chianti Classico and Bolgheri whose heritage spans more than 600 years. The family has always forged a close connection with the arts, from its Renaissance palace built by Italian architect Giuliano da Maiano to the Teatro della Cometa, an influential theater founded by Alessia’s great-grandmother in Rome in the 1920s that is still a fixture today. They are also owners of a prodigious art collection, composed of paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts.
Like most traditional wine producers, Antinori leans on the weight of its history, but five years ago, with Alessia and her two sisters at the helm, the winery began to shift its sights to the future of the brand. In 2012, they debuted a modern headquarters near the village of Bargino, just outside Florence. Designed by architect Marco Casamonti, it’s a low-lying, earthy-hued structure of terra-cotta bricks that blends into the surrounding Chianti Classico hills and vineyards—an outlier in an industry with a taste for Old World châteaux and rustic farmhouses. That same year, Alessia launched Antinori Art Project, an annual artist-in-residence program that selects young, emerging artists to produce site-specific works. Alessia’s advocacy of modern mediums—she’s the president of the Friends of MAXXI and serves on the board of the American Academy in Rome, and is involved in MoMA’s International Council—has required its own proselytizing within the family-run business, particularly to her father, who initially wanted to display the traditional fine art pieces from their collection inside the new winery. “I said [that] it’s important to show the history, but that we’re in a contemporary building and need to think of the future. We started with artists that believed in the project and were really fascinated by our history. They fall in love with the land, agriculture, and wine, but they really fall in love with [the concept of] time.”
The connection to the past is apparent in the works that have been produced over the years, none more so than Italian artist Stefano Arienti’s interpretation of a Renaissance masterpiece by Giovanni della Robbia. Titled “The Resurrection of Christ,” the original sculpture was a lunette of 46 jigsaw-like parts commissioned by Niccolò di Tommaso Antinori as an homage to his father more than 500 years ago and depicted fruits, Christ and his disciples, and one of Alessia’s ancestors. In 2016, with the help of the Antinori family, the piece was restored and displayed in an exhibition at the Boston Fine Art Museum, then the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It’s currently on loan at the Bargello National Museum in Florence (Nov. 9–April 8), where it’s joined by Arienti’s large-scale environmental re-creation, “Scena Fissa,” a series of solitary gold-ink traces of the characters in della Robbia’s original. “For me it’s an attempt to put into our time something that belonged in the past. It’s the way to understand, to learn something from those artists, to share my time with them, to be close to their art, and to be able to do new art. [It’s] a dialogue with someone who was living in the past,” says Arienti, who is known for portraying classical masterpieces from Monet and van Gogh through a contemporary lens.
A pared-down version will join the seven previous Antinori Art Project commissions at the vineyard, including the site-specific installation “Portal del Angel” by Jorge Peris—in which the family’s antique terra-cotta oil urns are arranged on Alberese stone sourced from the Tignanello hillside—and Rosa Barba’s “Sun Clock,” an optical sculpture that transforms one of the courtyards into a light-activated timepiece. The drama of the setting is not lost on Arienti. “The winery is beautiful and the quality of the wine high, but it’s not just about giving you some wine. It’s a larger experience, a cultural experience. The collection of art is very important.”
As for Alessia, she’s discovered a fondness for African art and photography of late. As her tastes continue to evolve, she hopes her family’s will, too. “Sometimes my father looks at me and doesn’t understand me—he says, ‘We should do something easier to understand,’” she says with a laugh, expressing hope that time and exposure will convert the holdouts. In fact, her efforts may have already paid off. “My older sister goes to the fairs and is starting to collect a bit. Her taste is not mine, but that’s okay because we share a love of art,” she says. “Wine is art. Our family has been involved in Florence since the Renaissance. The concept of the Antinori Art Project isn’t really to buy a piece of art and put it inside. The winery really looks ahead and will remain, I hope, for another six-hundred years. It’s done for that reason, for the future generations to see what’s happening with us now.”