Marilena Bonomo: International art dealer who defied the doubters by making a success of her gallery in southern Italy

So gentle was her manner, it disguised her laser-like ability to spot young talent

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The Independent Online

Nowadays the names of high-ranking international art dealers tend to be rather welded to their buying-power; but in the case of Marilena Bonomo, who has died aged 86, her pioneering passion for contemporary art was firmly rooted in and devoted to aesthetics. It took her to the top of her profession and created a Bonomo dynasty of art connoisseurs in the three daughters who follow her.

She was ahead of her time in her vision and juxtaposition of contrasting works with their situ that was daring and harmonious all at once. It was how she herself lived – and she purveyed pure style as an offering to the public. It almost looked effortless, but she worked harder than most in presenting works that somehow did or would come to do favours for those fortunate enough to buy in the wake of her vision. She had an eye for beauty and a talent for collaboration – essential gifts for an old-style gallerist. In addition, she was a philosopher.

In many places, these attributes might have been enough to ensure her great success, but the Italian gallery she launched in 1971 was in her native Bari, far down in Puglia – way off the grid of sensible art locations. Under her warrior spirit, amazingly, it flourished in partnership and under the ameliorating influence of Silvana Paparella and later, with the collaboration of her youngest daughter, Valentina.

In retrospect, her feat does not diminish. She gave much-needed encouragement to budding and established American artists and persuaded some of the greatest to exhibit. “But where is Bari?” surfaced like a puzzled afterthought in the minds of many who had already agreed to show with her. This became the title of a book illuminating the history of the gallery.

Marilena Macario was born in Bari in 1927 and studied philosophy at its university. In Bari she also met the future professor Lorenzo Bonomo, a gifted and genial medic who did so much to encourage her due to his interest in art, both classical and contemporary – a passion which they shared. Together they were art lovers who indulged in collecting. They preferred not to call themselves collectors in the systematic sense of more monied Americans.

From the 1950s the couple spent a lot of time in England and the US and broadened their artistic appetite. Marilena did an internship at the Dallas Museum of Art. Their collection formed, including such as Morandi, Schwitters, Ernst, Rothko, Hockney and Twombly. Later, they met Mel Bochner and Sol LeWitt and invited them to their medieval Franciscan hermitage clinging to the rock at Monteluco above Spoleto, an ancient town overlooking the beautiful verdure of central Italy. Each made wall drawings which renewed a tradition in art that others such as Richard Tuttle, Alighiero Boetti and David Tremlett added to later. The Bonomos enriched Spoleto’s annual festival, extending the blend of international and local visitors who made it famous.

The Bonomo daughters grew up in this environment. Alessandra started her own gallery in Rome, having witnessed the merging of her mother’s private and work lives in a manner that was totally natural. The middle daughter, Gogo, was seeped in, but not entrenched by, the practice of art dealing. Remaining in proximity to it, rather as her father had, she noted the obstinacy of the family passion for art that was maintained by Marilena, but started by Lorenzo, who was one of the first collectors of contemporary art in Italy.

From the age of 16, Valentina, the youngest daughter, followed in the footsteps of her mother and Aunt Silvana and the relationships they enjoyed with artists. These saw unusual depths of friendships formed. The necessary collaboration between dealer and artist – if you make art, then you have to accept that someone has to sell it – had its perfect exposition in the practises of Galleria Marilena Bonomo. Picasso called dealers “lice on the backs of artists” – but the opposite applied to Bonomo. Her artists were nurtured and encouraged, but not treated as commodities. The formula was perhaps one of the few old-fashioned things about her.

At home or at Basel or the Venice Biennale, Bonomo cut a graceful figure. She moved with elegance and a tendency to lead, sometimes with the likes of Adelina von Furstenberg or one of the Agnellis in her wake. Her gentle manner disguised the laser-like fire of her acuity to spot young talent. Her optimism – being an enthusiast for the Bloomsbury movement, she once checked into a grimy London hotel of that name, thinking that something might rub off – and her charm, lent delight to many social events at which she would gently shine in a class of her own.  

Marilena Macario, gallerist: born Bari, Italy 9 April 1927; married Lorenzo Bonomo (three daughters); died Bari 25 August 2014.