Martigny seems an unlikely location for a crowd-pulling cultural centre. Crouched in an Alpine crevasse in Switzerland, today it numbers just 16,000 residents, but its location at the gateway to the Alps once made it an important Roman settlement. The classical presence left the area rich in archeological remains, and the first seed of the Fondation Pierre Gianadda was sown when its creator, Léonard Gianadda, discovered the ruins of a Gallo-Roman temple while excavating a plot of land.
It was the mid-1970s and Gianadda, who was born in Martigny, was building a real estate empire. “I was trying to think what to do with the land that would pay respects to its history,” recalls Gianadda, as we talk over a dinner in honour of the French modernist painter Sam Szafran who was the subject of a retrospective at the foundation earlier this year.
While Gianadda pondered the problem, tragedy struck. Gianadda’s younger brother Pierre was killed in an air crash. “He went back in to save other passengers and died of the burns he sustained,” Gianadda recalls, adding that the two of them were “very close”.
To commemorate Pierre’s life, he decided to build a foundation that would honour the site’s ancient origins and also host art exhibitions and concerts. “I wanted it to be an animated place, not a dead museum,” he says. Gianadda designed the building himself. Behind its intriguing structure, a flat-topped pyramid, lies his ambition to create as much exhibition space as possible on the first level despite the presence of the Gallo-Roman temple on the ground floor. “The function created the form rather than the other way around.”
On the wide top floor within, the facets serve as niches for Roman-era artefacts ranging from an archaic horse goddess to a bronze Apollo. Exhibits such as maps, Roman milestones and coins highlight Martigny’s history as a trading culture forged out of the encounter between local and imperial societies.
On the floor below, a forum-style expanse centres on the sunken stone quadrangle that once served as a sanctuary and now functions as the auditorium. Around its perimeter runs a raised balcony used for temporary painting exhibitions. Beyond lies a sculpture garden where works by Rodin, Brancusi, Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, Eduardo Chillida and Henry Moore belie the understatement of Gianadda calling himself someone “who collects a little bit”.
“It’s 37 years since my brother’s death,” Gianadda softly growls, when I ask him about his original vision for an institution that this year will welcome its nine-millionth visitor. “I never imagined then that Cecilia Bartoli would be returning this September for her 20th concert here.”
The legendary mezzo-soprano is in good company: Yehudi Menuhin, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Yo-Yo Ma have all performed in front of the centuries-old stones. Meanwhile the raised balcony has hosted prestigious painting exhibitions including a cycle of outstanding post-Impressionist shows curated by British art historian Ronald Pickvance. “We got not one Van Gogh but five!” Gianadda says.
This month sees a show, in collaboration with the Pompidou Centre, devoted to Modigliani and the Paris School that brings together a clutch of works that are normally hidden in private Swiss collections. Next February sees the arrival of Body Beautiful, a touring show of classical figures by the British Museum that will unite its iconic “Discus Thrower” with two sculptures of Hermes and Apollo discovered at Martigny in 2011.
More than his fortune, Gianadda’s expansive character is what has won the foundation its reputation. Still head-turningly handsome at 77, he is leonine in every sense of the word. (Szafran describes him as a “wild cat ... one day someone will open the cage and let him do what he wants.”) So it’s not hard to see why Natasha Gelman said yes when Gianadda casually asked her if she would lend the magnificent collection of French Modernist paintings assembled with her husband Jacques, previously on show only at New York’s Metropolitan Museum – to which they were donated – and London’s Royal Academy.
His cool nerve was the key to his sponsorship of the restoration of murals painted by Chagall for the Moscow Jewish Theatre between 1920 and 1921. Hidden from view after Stalin declared them anti-Socialist, they were in woeful condition. “None of the big museums would take the risk,” Gianadda says. “We had to take everything with us to Moscow, the glue, the needles, the canvas, everything!” he recalls, still gleeful at securing the Chagalls for their first public viewing in nearly a century in a show at the foundation in 1991.
Today, a clutch of board memberships, including the Rodin Museum in Paris, and tributes that include the Légion d’Honneur, signal his presence at the heart of the European cultural elite. Yet Gianadda was not born into privilege. His grandfather was an economic migrant, barely literate, who walked across the Alps from Piedmont in Italy at the turn of the century in search of work. “He was hungry,” says Gianadda, bluntly. His father went to technical college, but still Gianadda had no silver spoon. When I ask him how he built his empire, he replies: “I just did one thing after another.”
After training as a civil engineer, he worked as a journalist for Swiss TV and newspapers before turning his attention to real estate. Today he is responsible for some 400 of the town’s apartments. He has also built all its roundabouts and installed sculptures by Swiss artists on every one. Little wonder that in the hotels and restaurants we enter as his guests, we are treated like royalty.
Gianadda’s default setting is command-and-control. “I don’t delegate. Not at all,” he says, sounding surprised that I could imagine he might consult an adviser when buying art. His commitment to turning the park into “a journey through 20th-century sculpture” is serious. At Christie’s New York last November, he bought a “Reclining Figure” (1969-83) by William de Kooning for $2,434,500, and this February, at Christie’s in London, he acquired one of Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” sculptures for £565,250.
“Each piece is a coup de coeur,” Gianadda declares – and I believe him, partly because he instantly qualifies his statement: “Apart from the de Kooning, which is incredible but, for the first time, I felt nothing. I bought it because it was necessary for the collection.”
Some pieces are more special. Bought from the Marlborough Gallery in London, the sumptuous, archetypal contours of the “Large Reclining Figure” (1982) by Henry Moore are “fabulous ... [because of their] strength, their charge”. Also beloved is the Chagall Courtyard designed by the Russian artist for the dining room of his friends Georges Kostelitz, the Paris-based collector, and his Russian wife Ira. Gianadda went to visit Kostelitz in the hope of borrowing a Modigliani painting for an exhibition at the foundation. Kostelitz was loath to risk the Modigliani leaving his premises unless Gianadda promised to drive it to Martigny and back himself. “I put it in my car and delivered it to him the night the exhibition closed. He was so amazed ... he lent me everything I asked for ever since!”
On Ira’s death, Kostelitz donated the courtyard to Gianadda, and the Swiss collector was deeply moved. “It is truly unique,” he says of the mosaic-walled sanctuary. Decorated with birds and flowers, it brings a sensual Mediterranean Arcadia to this rugged Alpine setting. Such a fusion could be a picture of the collector himself.
Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, Switzerland www.gianadda.ch