A photograph by Nan Goldin of paperoles in  a private collection in Turin.

A photograph by Nan Goldin of paperoles in a private collection in Turin.

The super-elegant Italian industrialist and principal shareholder of the FIAT Motor Company, Giovanni Agnelli (1921-2003), better known as “Gianni,” and his widow Marella, were avid art patrons and collectors. He bequeathed their extraordinary collection of paintings to his birthplace, which is also the headquarters of FIAT: the city of Turin.

The Pinacoteca Giovanni e Mar­ella Agnelli opened in 2002, just months before “Gianni” died. The emphasis here is on quality rather than quantity. The 25 works of art from the Agnellis’ private collection on permanent display include four magnificent scenes of Venice by Canaletto (1697-1768); two splendid views of Dresden by Canaletto’s nephew, Bernardo Bellotto (1720-80); several works by Manet (1832-83), Renoir (1841-1919), Matisse (1869-1954), and Picasso (1881-1973); and fine examples of the work of Italian Futurist painters Balla (1871-1958) and Severini (1883-1966).

A late 17th-century Italian reliquary made of sculpted and gilt wood with a saint's bones lying on a silk cushion

A late 17th-century Italian reliquary made of sculpted and gilt wood with a saint’s bones lying on a silk cushion

The Pinacoteca, which also regularly hosts temporary exhibitions, is on the top floor of the Lingotto (Via Nizza 230, tel. 011-39-011-0062713), a former FIAT factory that was completely renovated between 1982 and 2002 by the world-renowned Genoese architect, Renzo Piano. In addition to the Pinacoteca, this multi-level complex houses a shopping mall, several movie theaters, restaurants, two hotels, and an auditorium.

“Quilling: Devotional Creations from Cloistered Orders” (open Tuesday-Sunday 10 AM-7 PM; entrance fee: 7 euros) on until September 2, continues the series of temporary shows devoted to the theme of collecting, this time presenting a selection of the most significant examples of paper scrollwork or quilling from private collections.

It gathers together for the first time ever between 120 and 150 incredibly intricate compositions, including several works from the private collection of the American photographer Nan Gol­din, who is also exhibiting some of her photographs taken especially for this event.

Made between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries for use in homes and convents, quilling reliquaries were traditionally created by cloistered nuns. The reliquaries were embellished with ornate, minutely detailed compositions in paper and other materials such as wax, ivory, glass, and crystals, designed to adorn the relics within.

Sometimes these reliquaries would contain highly significant souvenirs that pilgrims returning home from Rome or Jerusalem would entrust to the nuns to be placed in a box decorated with paperoles, the French term for quilling or scrollwork.

A French Provincial “Little Paradise” dedicated to St. John the Baptist, made of wax, terra cotta, paper, colored glass fragments, cotton wool, mica, mirror, fabric and shells in a wooden casket, and dating to the early 19th century

Other times these objects enabled the faithful who were unable to travel all the way to Rome, and cloistered nuns in particular, to undertake an inner pilgrimage by proxy. They were not made to be works of art, but as a sign of doing away with superfluity, of abnegation; they were devotionals.

Inspired by the goldsmithing technique of filigree, paper scrollwork was “constructed” by rolling up thin strips of gold or colored paper to form mostly floral motifs, which were then adorned with beads, shells, coral, tiny parchments, scraps of fabric, shards of glass and fragments of bones attributed to different saints.

These richly ornate decorations were highly symbolic, evoking images of fertility and life, while the imagery and layout bore precise theological and hagiographic references.

Scrollwork developed during the 1600s in almost all Catholic countries — France, Italy, Spain, and Austria in particular — and, as the veneration of saints and relics spread, it also became popular in domestic settings. These religious creations, expertly crafted by cloistered nuns, were also given to convent benefactors or offered to adorn chapels and altars. Their manufacture required a selection of tools that can still be found in some convents.

As Professor Bernard Berthod, consultant to the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, explains in his essay published in the show’s magnificently-illustrated catalog, bilingual in Italian and in English (49 euros), quilling reflected the spiritual climate of the Catholic Church following the Council of Trent, convened in 1545 by Pope Paul III Farnese (1534-49) as a response to the Protestant Reformation and lasting, in 25 sessions over three periods, until 1563.

The Council stressed the importance of the Eucharist, devotional practices including pilgrimages to Rome and to Jerusalem, the cult of saints, and monastic life.

paperoles in a private collection in Turin reproductions of 19th-century nuns’ cells.

A photograph by Nan Goldin of paperoles in a private collection in Turin. Note the reproductions of 19th-century nuns’ cells.

Quilling channeled the Baroque tastes of that time period, the center of production being located in the Catholic Alps — Swabia and Bav­aria, the Tyrol, Alto Adige and Trentino, and spreading out to Piedmont, eastern France, the Rhone Valley and Provence — and provided a historical record of a form of craftsmanship that was little known but widespread among the various female religious cloistered orders until the 20th century, especially the Sisters of the Annunciation, Poor Clares, Carmelites, Carthusians, Cistercians, Sacramentines, and Visitandines, but even some male monastic communities. The distinctive features of these artifacts — the time-consuming, labor-intensive craftsmanship involved, the idea of devotion to work as an act of prayer and the use of simple, “poor” materials — fittingly encapsulate the rules of these orders, picking up the old Benedictine adage: ora et labora (“pray and work”). Aesthetically speaking, the end result is comparable to the artistic value of these small masterpieces, yet because of their fragile materials they have remained so little known that they have never been studied or protected. They have always been regarded as mere bondieuseries and many have been destroyed.

An Italian 18th-century portable reliquary casket made of bone, paper, “paste of all saints,” colored glass fragments, and painting on parchment

a late 18th-century Italian devotional of Saint Agnes made of bone, paper, fabric, painted and engraved parchment in Flemish style in a gilt wooden frame

A late 18th-century Italian devotional of Saint Agnes made of bone, paper, fabric, painted and engraved parchment in Flemish style in a gilt wooden frame

“In the 20th century,” wrote Berthod, “reliquaries with paperoles (the manner of decorating images and reliquaries using colored or golden paper rolled or folded beforehand; glued along the edge, these papers could be made to form elegant arabesques, garlands and flowers) were still being made by nuns in Bavaria and in the Lake Constance region. These works are rarely signed, and the art market occasionally presents a few examples. This permanence from generation to generation makes dating these objects a difficult task.”

The Turin exhibit presents reliquaries of different kinds and from different periods, many of them from France: from the Agnus Dei sacramentals, made by melting consecrated paschal candles, to the altar-shaped reliquaries of the late 18th century; from colorful festive paper garlands to medallions made of “pasta di tutti i santi,” a mixture of cardboard and earth from the catacombs where martyrs were buried. On display are also miniature 19th-century reconstructions of nuns’ cells, showing nuns going about their daily manual duties in the convent.

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