Beatrice Bulgari — from film-costume designer to video-art patron

Beatrice Bulgari and her husband Nicola have two art collections. One is spread between their multiple homes — in New York, Rome, Paris and Sicily — and ranges from Bellotto to Cy Twombly, Michelangelo Pistoletto and William Kentridge.

The other, created by Beatrice alone, “is about this size”, she laughs, spreading her hands wide apart. And that is because it consists of around 180 films which she has commissioned from artists and which she has put into a new non-profit foundation. “I am so excited, we are holding our first show of selected videos during the Venice Biennale,” she says.

Bulgari, who is in London on a trip to work with the foundation’s artistic director, Alessandro Rabottini, is eager to talk about the creative process — she was herself a costume designer for films, including the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso (1988) — and the reasons she created the Fondazione In Between Art Film. The unwieldy name gives the game away: it’s for artists to create works that fall between those two forms.

“Even as a child, I was very artistic,” she says. “I was brought up in Syracuse, in Sicily, and my mother was a writer, my father an antique dealer. I was always artistic — at nine years old, I used to steal sheets of paper from my mother’s typewriter for my watercolours.”

Seeing her interest, her mother sent her every afternoon to work with a local artist. “I was very shy, rather melancholic as a child,” she says, although now she seems outgoing and friendly. “All my family went to traditional schools where they learnt Latin and Greek, but I was thought of as the black sheep of the family . . . Very early on I decided to study scenography and specialise in costume design. I wanted experience and so off I went to Rome.”

She fell into the worlds of cinema and theatre and worked on costumes for a wide range of films, including Stanno Tutti Bene (Everybody’s Fine, 1990) with Marcello Mastroianni, Una Pura Formalità (A Pure Formality, 1994) and L’Uomo delle Stelle (The Star Maker, 1995). It was while working on Cinema Paradiso that she met Nicola Bulgari — grandson of the luxury brand’s founder — during his first marriage. Bulgari was sold to conglomerate LVMH in 2011 for $5.2bn and Nicola remains vice-chair of the company.

“Nicola had given me jewellery, but I didn’t know what to give back. We had travelled together for a year and I had a collection of matchboxes which we had bought together, and during a dinner with the artist Alighiero Boetti he offered to turn them into a work of art.” Boetti photocopied them and created a collage with their names. “Like many collectors,” Bulgari says, “each artwork connects with a moment in your life. But I only started to feel I was a collector after my marriage to Nicola; art created a bond and is part of our life together.”

Her husband was already a collector, notably of vintage cars, but also of art and antiques, so when Bulgari designed the costumes for a 2009 production of Euripides’ play Medea in Syracuse and was inspired by Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s depictions of antiquity, Nicola bought her the artist’s Balneatrix. He also bought older works such as Bellotto’s Piazza del Popolo, Rome and contemporary pieces such as Damien Hirst’s Emperor Maximilian (2007). “Initially I wasn’t so sure about the Hirst, but it is of a diamond — and of course [Nicola] is in love with precious stones,” she says.

Because of her work in cinema, it was video art she fell in love with. In 2012 she set up a production company, In Between Art Film, which partnered with Tate in London, Maxxi in Rome and documenta 14 in Kassel, then became the separate foundation. “This is my special vision, it’s very personal,” she says. “I met the Italian artistic duo Masbedo and we began to think that it would be a great adventure to make a feature-length film.

“The idea was not to make them become directors, but to use the language of cinema, letting them remain artists. At that moment, without really realising, I was commissioning the films.” One result was The Lack (2014), which portrays six women in Iceland’s apocalyptic landscapes. But she adds: “When you commission, you are trusting the artist, but you don’t know how it will turn out until it is finished.”

Has she had any disappointments? “Yes,” she says. “Once, I read a script, it was excellent, magnificent, but when I saw the finished work, I was disappointed, and I even suggested some changes, but the artist refused, and I said, ‘OK, you’re the artist.’ But I never worked with her again. Everyone else liked it, though, it even got some awards. Which just shows that it’s a very personal thing.”

Each video is produced in six editions, with one going to the Fondazione; the others remain with the artist. Some are co-produced, when the costs exceed the initial €10,000 she puts into each project. “I don’t possess these videos, I don’t need to possess them — they stay in the foundation, which is based in Rome, where we have a team of seven to run it.” She also has a scientific programme recording and archiving the artwork: “I plan for it to continue on, after my own lifetime.”

The Venice show is entitled Penumbra and will show eight new video works by artists including the Afghanistani Aziz Hazara, China’s He Xiangyu and the Brazilians Ana Vaz and Jonathas De Andrade. “The films are about visibility and opacity, truth and fiction, memory and history and the title, Penumbra, shows how these can become blurred.

“They were commissioned before the horrible situation in Ukraine, this terrible moment of instability, but they are so relevant today. Our artists come from around the world and it is important to show their different gazes, the way that gaze can be a filter for reality.”

And as the interview ends, she issues a collectors’ mantra: “Always follow your heart — never think of the market value of the works you acquire or commission!”

‘Penumbra’ runs April 20-November 27 in Venice,