When thinking about collectors of antiques and old pieces of art, the picture of people of a vintage age – probably sitting around a wooden table in a garden discussing their latest additions to their collections while drinking tea from Victorian ceramic cups – may come to mind.
Azzopardi’s 1820s Florentine cigarette holder is also an amusing contraption – even guilty pleasures can be flaunted after all
But Daniel Azzopardi, who is all of 30 years old, began his collection of antiques at the young age of 23. Azzopardi gives me a tour of his collection of antiques and paintings with a rare kind of youthful passion.
Azzopardi inherited his passion from his father, who is a silversmith – this relationship is reflected in the collection itself as a large part of it is antique silverware. But Azzopardi’s interest in antiques is eclectic and to date Azzopardi has managed to collect anything of high value from paintings to clocks.
The first object Azzopardi shows me is a silver model on a base of brass depicting the baptism of Christ: this is a Biblical scene made popular by a painting of Andrea del Verrocchio and his pupil, Leonardo da Vinci in 1475. Azzopardi claims that his model is a copy of a sculpture by Alessandro Algardi, one of the greatest baroque Italian sculptors of the 17th century. In Italian this type of reduced-scale copy is called a bozzetto and the same type of iconography of this model can be found in a marble sculpture behind the altar of St John’s Co-Cathedral.
Azzopardi claims that his model is a rare bozzetto because the other copies are mostly found in bronze or other material. The model is undated and Azzopardi claims that this is so is because it was probably commissioned by the Vatican, which imposed no obligation on manufacturers to date their products. After making several scientific tests on the model and studying the way it was produced, Azzopardi concluded that it dates back to the 1680s.
The next object he shows me is probably his greatest and most valued treasure: a portrait of Antonio Bosio by an anonymous painter. Bosio was a famous Italian scholar and should not be confused with Giacomo Bosio, who was the historiographer of the Knights of Malta and probably more popular in Malta than the former.
Antonio Bosio was born in Malta in 1575 but left for Rome at the age of 18, where he spent most of his time studying the Roman catacombs. His study was eventually published posthumously in 1632. At the time it was the most extensive and in-depth study on the Roman catacombs. Azzopardi happened to be at Palazzo Bosio in Balzan before it was sold a couple of years ago and found the portrait lying in a derelict state. He bought it for the sum of Lm7,000 and restored it. The original frame has also been kept.
A rather more interesting part of Azzopardi’s collection is a curio cabinet in which he stores small items and apparel used in the everyday life of nobles and people of high-status. The cabinet includes Maltese and British items of all sort from the 19th Century – from filigree jewellery, silver cutlery, theatre spectacles and cigarette holders to a gentleman’s pipe, pocket watches, chamber candlesticks, and even theatre binoculars. Most of these items of an ostentatious nature had a trivial use back then. For example, the 14-carat gold theatre spectacles with wobbly earpieces were never intended to aid people with poor eyesight but were rather used as a fashion accessory.
One of the most conspicuous fashion accessories of Azzopardi’s collection is a hand-woven female purse made of small silver rings looped together. Back then the status of the higher classes was flaunted through the use of such items. Azzopardi’s 1820s Florentine cigarette holder is also an amusing contraption – even guilty pleasures can be flaunted after all. The cigarette holder was meant to keep noblemen’s precious fingers away from the dirty cigarette end. Around 10 centimetres in length, it adorns a decorative spiral engraving, which was made by attaching a sort of stencil on the holder on which acid was then poured to literally eat into the metal and create the design.
Azzopardi’s interests in antiques extend even to furniture. Azzopardi’s favourite piece of furniture is a valuable table dating back to the 1820s and which was owned by nobles. Its style is a mixture of Sorrento and Maltese. The Maltese style is reflected in its top which is made of chequered boxes creating an image similar to that of a chessboard while the Sorrento style is reflected in the base. Azzopardi presumes that the table arrived in Malta as a plain top and the chequered boxes were added later by a Maltese carpenter.
Part of Azzopardi’s collection is a table with a top which can be opened to uncover a set of supposedly secret drawers. It seems to have been fashionable back then to have secret drawers in tables and other furniture even though it’s easy to notice them and hence, weren’t secret at all.
Azzopardi shows me other items such as antique jewellery and probably the interview could have lasted a whole day if we scrutinised every item. But eventually we draw to a close with an oriental twist – a coconut adorned with silver.
This coconut silver bowl was used to store sugar and was used by nobles in Malta during the late 18th century. Well, it doesn’t sound as crazy as it seems, because coconut shells are so hard that they actually make better containers than our plastic contraptions.
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