VENICE — With his twinkling blue eyes and unmistakable mane of silvery hair, Luciano Benetton continues to speak of a united world.
His enduring passions for globe-trotting and art are at the heart of “Imago Mundi,” promoted by the Luciano Benetton Collection, an exhibition of more than 1,000 works unveiled in Venice on Tuesday in association with the 55th International Art Exhibition — la Biennale di Venezia at the Querini Stampalia Foundation, at the onset of the Venice Film Festival.
The traveling exhibition, which will run until Oct. 27 in Venice, introduces works by Aboriginal artists from Australia, and by their peers from India, Japan, South Korea and the U.S., free to express their sensibility with any material and technique. The only limitation was in size and format — a postcardlike blank structure measuring 4 by 5 inches.
“It all started in 2008, when one artist from Chile presented me with an improvised work in lieu of a business card — it was a small project without a clear shape, a theoretical concept of uniting races, religions and cultures,” said Benetton ahead of the opening, quickly zeroing in on his thoughts in a soft-spoken way. “ I continue to do the work I have always done in a new field. I did not have any expectations at first, but the concept has been well received and there is a general desire to collaborate on the potential of the project.”
The goal of “Imago Mundi,” which has no commercial intent, is to “unite the diversities of our world in the name of a common artistic experience” and to create a “map” of artists around the world, similar to Carl Linnaeus’ classification of plants in the 18th century, he said. “Now every plant has the same name everywhere,” said Benetton.
“Imago Mundi” also includes collections from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia, China and Mongolia for a total of 2,000 works of art commissioned and collected by the entrepreneur. Benetton is looking at adding works from, for example, Africa, Native American Indians, North Korea, the Middle East and the first-ever Inuit collection by around 140 artists in 2014.
“I am doing research on far-away countries, all the rest is quite well-known, easy to put together and to manage. I am aiming to regroup 10, 000 artists from 50 countries in 2016,” said Benetton, who shies away from placing any monetary value on the art, while indulging in his “curiosity of emerging artists, trying to understand them. They may have a more difficult life and they have to push hard to succeed.”
Art and traveling are two instruments of knowledge, he said. “I discovered Australian’s aboriginal art and philosophy a couple of years ago. They started painting on canvas in the Seventies what they used to paint on rocks and on the land. Here, there’s a work by Tommy Watson, who first saw a white man when he was 60,” said Benetton, for whom artists encompass a variety of individuals, such as expert calligraphers from Japan. At the same time, the “Imago Mundi” collection includes a number of established names such as film director Steven Soderbergh, musician David Byrne, musician and actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, and artist and writer Laurie Anderson.
The works are displayed by country on a high, chessboardlike structure designed by architect Tobia Scarpa, which allows the viewer to focus on each item, touch it, turn it around and discover fine mineral pigments, gold leaves or oil-on-silk treatments, for example. Benetton was also proud of the new interactive and dedicated Web site unveiled on Wednesday. “This is an absolute must today,” he underscored. Separately, the exhibit makes room for photos taken during Benetton’s boat trip around the world over the past five years, with images captured in localities spanning Mongolia to Micronesia.
“Imago Mundi” is part of the Benetton Foundation, created in 1987. The cofounder of the Italian clothing and textile manufacturer, who passed the chairman’s baton to his son Alessandro last year, noted that all of his time is now devoted to this project since he is free from daily management duties. “There is more focus, and from now on, I am allowed to dream. It was just an idea, a shapeless project, but now I understand more of it, it’s an ambitious project and I like the challenge.”
That said, the entrepreneur, who was born in 1935 and held the title of Italian senator for two years starting in 1992, remains a board member of Edizione Srl, the family holding company whose businesses range from highway catering and communications to real estate and agriculture. Benetton is one of Italy’s richest men, worth an estimated $2 billion, according to Forbes.
Asked to share his views on the world of fashion today, he admitted that “the world has changed quite a lot,” with Asian markets “consuming more than in Europe. There have been slowdowns in the past, but never in so many markets at the same time. However, luxury continues to fare well.”
To further support the foundation, Benetton is restructuring the 11th-century San Theonistus church in Treviso, which he bought about three years ago. Declining to provide the amount of the investment, he said the restoration is beginning now, the venue is expected to be ready within two years and it will become a location for the foundation.
The entrepreneur is also entering the wine business as he starts to distribute “Villa Minelli” bottles this fall. The wine is named after the sprawling 16th-century villa that houses the fashion company’s headquarters near Treviso, as the vineyards are located on the land surrounding that site. The wines will include merlot (“very important”), cabernet sauvignon and malvasia. “It’s a limited production, from local grapes, tested over the past few years but now we are ready to distribute it,” he explained.