With the death of Ezio Bassani at the age of 93 on August 4, 2018, the African art world has lost one of its major figures.
An anti-fascist Partisan in his youth in the closing years of World War II, a student of literature, then a businessman who traveled widely as manager of a paper-manufacturing company, it was not until his retirement in his fifties that he gave himself over entirely to what had become his ruling passion: the art of sub-Saharan Africa.
During business trips to London, Paris, Brussels, and New York, Bassani had already begun to acquire a small collection of African masks and figures. He also made contacts, which became friendships, with a number of museum curators and art dealers. However, his collecting activities took second place to what became an all-consuming impulse to learn more and write about the works of art he loved. His first book, Scultura africana nei musei italiani (1975), reviewed the African art collections of museums in his native Italy. His identification of African works of art in early Italian collections like those of the Medici in Florence introduced him to the Afro-Portuguese ivories carved by West African artists for Portuguese patrons in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and to material and documentary evidence of the early history of collecting African art and artifacts by European princes and savants. From the former came his book, jointly authored with William Fagg, Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory (1988), a ground-breaking study of the Afro-Portuguese ivories, still unsurpassed, that accompanied the exhibition of the ivories at the Center for African Art in New York. His research into the latter culminated in his magisterial survey African Art and Artefacts in European Collections 1400–1800, published by the British Museum Press in 2000.
His publications on African art stretched to over twenty books and exhibition catalogs, to say nothing of a continuous stream of journal articles and contributions to books and catalogs edited by others, all of them of the highest standard of scholarship. Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, editor of the journal Critica d'Arte, encouraged him in his initial research and published his early writings, later inviting him, albeit without his having any formal academic qualifications in art history, to give lectures on African art history at the Università Internazionale dell'Arte in Florence.
Central to Bassani's approach to African art was its direct appeal to the eye and his own immediate visceral response to the object. That response was backed up and made sense of by painstaking analysis, through a critical weighing up of a work's formal properties. It was a starting point and way of proceeding that set him apart from a later generation of African art scholars, many of whom cut their teeth intellectually in ethnographic fieldwork. Bassani never visited Africa, much less carried out fieldwork there, and, although freely acknowledging his debt to the firsthand reports and collecting data of others, was insistent that he was not an ethnographer.
In his view, an ethnographic approach didn't distinguish between the works of a master artist and those of a journeyman or artisan, and for Bassani it was the former, the works of unsung African Michelangelos and Donatellos, that he was particularly drawn to identify and celebrate. Hence his many catalogue entries and journal articles attributing a group of works to a specific master or workshop: ‘Il Maestro delle Capigliature a Cascata’ (1976); ‘Kongo Nail Fetishes from the Chiloango River Area’ (1977); ‘Una Bottega di Grandi Artisti Bambara’ (1978); and so on. He was not the first to make such attributions, and indeed his were often refinements to the work of others, and equally subject to further refinements and corrections in their turn, but they were a major element in his contribution to the study of African art. They helped prepare the way for the great artists of sub-Saharan Africa to be exhibited today alongside those of Europe, Asia and the Americas in the principal art museums and galleries of the world.
In 2000 he sold his collection of African art to the new Museo delle Culture in Milan, retaining only a few well-loved objects in his home in Varese.
As a man and scholar Bassani was without self-regard or inflated sense of his own importance, and sometimes expressed mild incomprehension at encountering it in others. He saw the study of African art as a collaborative enterprise involving the sharing of ideas and information. He often spoke of himself as proposing hypotheses and expected that in due course these would be challenged or modified in the light of new knowledge or deeper understanding. He freely acknowledged his intellectual debts to others, particularly to William Fagg, and in one of the last pieces he wrote, movingly recalled their first encounters and later friendship.
His energy was unflagging. Well into his nineties he was taking on new projects. He had within the last six months submitted to a publisher the text of an update to his 1988 book on the Afro-Portuguese ivories and was editing with Gigi Pezzoli a catalogue for a forthcoming exhibition in Bologna in 2019.
He was predeceased in February 2018 by his wife of more than seventy years and fellow Partisan Edmea Maggiolo and is survived by their daughters Chiara and Paola.