A visionary entrepreneur turned his dream into reality on the bank of Lake Como

A few enlightened Italian entrepreneurs have made Italy’s industrial and cultural history great. One of these distinguished Italians was certainly the late Antonio Ratti.

18th-century silks, Antonio Ratti Foundation Collection. Installation view “Antonio’s Dream: A Journey Through Art and Textile.” Agostino Osio

Adriano Olivetti, Achille Maramotti, Arnoldo Mondadori. A few enlightened Italian entrepreneurs have made Italy’s industrial and cultural history great. Exceptional visionaries who believed the arts were the lifeblood of their business culture and who have put humans at the center, before profit. One of these distinguished Italians was certainly the late Antonio Ratti.

Mr. Ratti, an entrepreneur and patron of the arts from Como who died in 2002 at the age of 87, was the founder of the world-famous silk fabrics company of the same name. He built his empire around research for innovation and constant attention to the social context and working environment, and he was one of the few tycoons who, after World War II, succeeded in rebuilding industrial Italy with a profound philanthropic and cultural vision.

Drawings by Antonio Ratti. Installation view “Antonio’s Dream: A Journey Through Art and Textile.” Photo by Agostino Osio.

A new exhibition in Como, titled “Antonio’s Dream: A Journey Through Art and Textile,” and produced by the foundation that bears his name and that he founded to show his collection of fabrics gathered in a lifetime of passion and research, celebrates his creative and entrepreneurial talent showcasing the fabrics he produced and collected, and his refined collaborations with some of the world’s most important contemporary artists.

Curated by Lorenzo Benedetti, Annie Ratti – the entrepreneur’s daughter – and Maddalena Terragni, the exhibition project explores Antonio Ratti’s vision in close dialogue with the places in the city where his idea of business culture developed, and where he left a precious legacy that is still very much alive today.

Paisley shawls, Fondazione Antonio Ratti Collection. Installation view. “Antonio’s Dream: A Journey Through Art and Textile.” Photo by Agostino Osio.

Interweaving ancient textile artifacts, contemporary works of art, and archive materials, the exhibition gives a glimpse of the life, and work of Mr. Ratti. During his lifetime, he was deeply involved with the training of his employees, the citizens of his community, and young people in general, inviting international artists to hold workshops in Como when traveling abroad wasn’t easy as it is today.

But Mr. Ratti also left the Foundation a textile museum with a vault full of hundreds of thousands of rare fabrics. His historical interest began with 17th and 18th century French and English silk factories, embroidery, and velvet, and then extended to China, India – his collection of shawls is unparalleled – and pre-Columbian Peru. He also managed to obtain a large number of ancient African Coptic fabrics from the 1st and 2nd centuries and set up the Textile Center and Reference Library at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which still bears his name.

Invernomuto, 4 studi sull’increspatura del mare, 2021. Installation view “Antonio’s Dream: A Journey Through Art and Textile.” Photo by Agostino Osio.

The exhibition is hosted in the rooms of Villa Olmo and Villa Sucota, in their wonderful parks, and other venues in the city, creating a network of focal points in the cultural fabric of the city of Como.

The heart of the exhibition is Villa Olmo, not far from the city center. Thanks to the layout designed by architect Philippe Rahm and the graphic design by Wolfe Hall, archive material and antique textiles dialogue with contemporary works of art, and the villa’s neoclassical and baroque rooms. Artists who have collaborated with the foundation over the years, such as John Armleder, Luigi Ontani, Giulio Paolini, Walid Raad, Yvonne Rainer, Julia Brown, Vincent Ceraudo, Zishi Han, Moira Ricci, and Oriol Vilanova, have created works specifically for these rooms.

The exhibition continues in the gardens and the Chilometro della Conoscenza – the public pathway linking the parks of the three Como villas – with works by artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Liliana Moro, Giulio Paolini, and Rä di Martino.

Giuseppe Gabellone, Verde Acido, 2012. Installation view “Antonio’s Dream: A Journey Through Art and Textile.” Photo by Agostino Osio.

The last stop of the exhibition’s itinerary is Villa Sucota, whose park houses permanent works by Gerry Bibby, Jimmie Durham, Matt Mullican, and Richard Nonas. For this occasion, works by artists who have participated in the CSAV – Artists’ Research Laboratory, the artist duo Invernomuto, Daniel Jablonski, and Oscar Santillan, have been included in the exhibition.

Inside the sumptuous building, on the shores of the lake, important pieces from the textile archive are on display together with works by artists who have been collaborating with the institution for years, from Jimmie Durham to Giuseppe Gabellone, from Mario Garcia Torres to Melanie Gilligan, as well as Joan Jonas, Christina Mackie, and Walid Raad, to name a few.

Jimmie Durham, Untitled (Apecar), 2021. Installation view “Antonio’s Dream: A Journey Through Art and Textile.” Photo by Agostino Osio.

The exhibition continues and expands throughout the city. Alfredo Jaar created a work on the facade of the Casa del Fascio, the infamous fascist building designed by Giuseppe Terragni in 1936 to stage the regime’s power, and a work by Hans Haacke has been installed on the facade of the Teatro Sociale, in front of the former Church of San Francesco, now the Antonio Ratti Cultural Space.

Just a stone’s throw from the lake, inside the idyllic landscape and architecture of this picturesque area of northern Italy, visitors can get closer to this extraordinary entrepreneur. The quality of his philanthropic commitment and culture is rare and his collection of textiles unique. Surrounded by art, culture, and the finest craftsmanship, the exhibition is a journey into a world of extreme beauty and intelligence, a dive into a charming world of colors, designs, and innovation. It feels like a dream, Antonio’s dream.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is Executive Editor of Milano Art Guide. He writes a column on photography for Exibart and previously he reported for Zero.eu from 2016 to 2020. He is the creator and co-curator of the best-selling “The Colouring Book” published by 24OreCultura in 2020.