Patron Saints

    30 November 2014

    The Spanish Steps; the Trevi fountain; the old Cinecittà studios on the outskirts of Rome; 12 galleries of the Uffizi; Tintoretto frescoes in San Rocco in Venice; the BFI’s collection of almost a million films. What do they have in common?

    Not much, you might think, until you look at how the huge bills for their restoration and preservation are being settled. All are recipients of the largesse of luxury brands falling over themselves to be associated with cultural achievement. The fountain is taken care of by Fendi, and Bulgari are funding a project preserving the Spanish Steps, one of the most beautiful views in any city in the world. Ferragamo bankrolled 12 galleries of the Uffizi.

    In Venice, the city’s film festival has for the past ten years been sponsored by Jaeger-LeCoultre who are now also involved not just in the festival but in the city itself, recently launching a three-year collaboration with San Rocco, home of the most awe-inspiring collection of Tintoretto frescoes in the world.

    With its astonishing frescoes of scenes from the Old and New Testament, it might be known as the ‘Sistine Chapel of Venice’ but it’s incredibly hard to see them. Over three years, they will be lit in a totally new way. The restoration programme will install an innovative system of LEDs inside the original 1937 Mariano Fortuny spotlights. The technology is the work of the Pasetti Studio. When I was there in September, I saw the first room to be completed: the Albergo room, which contains Tintoretto’s Crucifixion. The LEDs are controlled by a remote and different parts of the paintings can be spotlight. It’s not overstating it to say that the technology is revelatory.

    Whether it’s watches and jewellery or handbags, luxury brands constantly vie for attention on the red carpets of the film industry and jostle for position but it’s hard not to welcome this kind of spending, whether it’s Tintoretto frescoes or a piece of 20th-century cinematic history. In Rome, the restoration of Cinecittà is currently being paid for by Chopard — it’s easy to see why any brand that likes to dress film stars would want to be associated with the studio that the setting for the making of classic Fellini films.

    As Charles Handy pointed out in The Hungry Spirit, writing about the bombing of Florence in 1993, ‘In Italy, three years ago, the workers throughout Tuscany went on strike for a day — in protest at the bomb which destroyed a part of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It is hard to imagine the people of London doing the same, but to the people of Tuscany their art is their heritage, it enriches their everyday life.’ A sense of civic responsibility to public art or works of great beauty runs deep and it’s easy to see Italy as a place where this kind of brand-led sponsorship finds favour.

    In America the arts philanthropist is a familiar and legendary figure going back to the time of the Guggenheims. In Europe a patron is now more likely to come in the form of a brand than an individual. In France, there’s long been a relation-ship between high art and luxury: Karl Lagerfeld’s shows are nothing short of a theatrical production and Cartier’s Foundation has been on the map of Parisian contemporary art since 1984. So what about here in Britain?

    Here many museums and cultural institutions exist in a kind of financial limbo — with some government or lottery funding, we don’t have the American tradition of total dependence on the individual. Some of the most prominent sponsors of the arts in the past decade have been big banks, but even they have found less money to spend on artful positioning, and perhaps that’s where the luxury brands may well start to become more of a feature of the landscape in this country too.

    The BFI recently celebrated the start of a new three-year relationship with Swiss watchmakers IWC. The common ground between them, they maintain, is the painstaking and very precise nature of the work demanded in watch-making and the preservation of the BFI’s National Film archive. Housed in Warwickshire and established in 1935 it contains almost a million films. It’s one of the most important collections in the world — as much for social history as for the history of film itself. Work on the digitisation of this wealth of material means that from their laptop or iPad, anyone can search the archive online — both the preservation and digitisation are both now being sponsored by a Swiss watchmaker.

    While cynics might balk at watch or jewellery brands who talk about their wish to be allied with examples of ‘precision’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘cultural achievement’ — whether it’s the film restoration or the Tintoretto frescoes — even they would have to acknowledge that this enthusiasm makes for a far more cheering message than that, which, for example, you might hear if you tune into some of the wisdom that emanates, for example, from the Education Secretary, who recently enraged people with her comments about the limitations of the arts.

    The desire of big name and big business luxury brands to be associated with the creative industries is an interesting development — if the power of the creative industries sometimes seems to pass politicians by, at least somebody has been taking note.