“Some aeroplanes started to fly above the city early in the morning and there was some shooting,” says Anna Maria, now 88, with a tone so nonchalant that she might have been describing an unmemorable, low-budget action film. As it happens, with the Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, out of the country that summer, the military rose up and seized control, ending more than two centuries of royal rule. Although it was alarming, the coup was relatively bloodless. Anna Maria half-smiles at the memory, shakes her head of bright white curls, then matter-of-factly sums up the dramatic turn of events: “One person fell in the river and drowned. That was that. The king never came back.”
For Anna Maria, who would go on to become an acclaimed gallerist, this was just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of remarkable days she spent as a rare witness to the startling transformation of the Middle East and Asia in the Seventies. Most summers, she would embark on ambitious road trips to the regions, sometimes driving as far as India, often with one or the other of her young children in tow. Many of the places she visited and loved have since been turned upside down by war or revolution, and some no longer exist. She doesn’t travel as widely as she used to, but Anna Maria remains something of a nomad, dividing her time between Turin and Hong Kong, where I meet her in Rossi & Rossi, the gallery she founded with her son, Fabio.
Anna Maria first went to the Middle East in 1970, when she drove from Turin to Iraq, taking her eldest child, Monica, who was then 14, along for the ride. The pair packed up the family car—“not a van, just a normal car”, Anna Maria stresses—drove to the Italian port town of Brindisi, caught a ferry to Greece, then wound their way through Turkey and Syria into Iraq.
“People say to me, ‘You were very brave, travelling like that,’” says Anna Maria. “It’s not true—travelling is not being brave. It’s just a question of making your decision and going.”
As she pushed further and further into the Middle East and Asia each year, visiting Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, she began to appreciate how the region was formed not only by its people, but also by its history—its culture, its religions, its wars. “I was in Afghanistan, in the middle of nowhere, and I started to see this art,” she says. She was particularly intrigued by sculptures, dating as far back as the 1st century AD, that featured a curious fusion of ancient Greek and local Buddhist styles. The Buddhas wore toga-like robes or were modelled in classical Grecian poses; some even had halos. These works are called Gandharan, referencing their origins in the Gandhara region, an area that lies on the present-day border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Gandhara was an ancient hub of Buddhist culture that was conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 BC, leading to one of the most unique blends of eastern and western aesthetics found in art. “At the time I did not know Alexander had reached that far east, so I was shocked,” says Anna Maria. “I was in Afghanistan saying, ‘This art is Greek!’”
Anna Maria, who had studied Greek and Latin at university and had always been interested in art, found herself becoming obsessed with Gandharan objects. She scoured markets for sculptures, as well as local handicrafts and furniture. Returning to Europe, she managed to sell some of these pieces to collectors, which encouraged her to make her treasure-hunting trips to Asia a more regular event. In 1974, she gave up teaching to devote herself fulltime to dealing Asian art from her home in Turin.
That same year, Anna Maria, who raised her children independently, took her 11-year-old son, Fabio, to Asia for the first time. The journey inspired him to follow in his mother’s footsteps and, eventually, led to them opening the first Rossi & Rossi gallery together in 1988 in London, where Anna Maria had moved in 1985 to be closer to collectors and fellow dealers. In 2013, they expanded to Hong Kong, opening a sprawling space in a former factory building in Wong Chuk Hang. This month they are opening a second gallery in the city, a smaller outpost in Central in which they plan to show ancient art alongside pieces by a handful of contemporary Asian artists they now represent.
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