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Luigi Nessi: A Tribute to a Great Collector and a Remarkable Collection

Updated: May 14, 2023


Excerpted from The Chronicle, Vol. 65 no. 4, December 2012

by John G. Wells

Luigi Nessi, a successful practicing architect and regional planner in Lugano, Switzerland, had always been curious to learn more about the beautiful preindustrial age utilitarian objects he saw. They excelled in aesthetic design and were works of the finest craftsmanship. His curiosities transferred to his wife, Janine, who began attending the weekend antique fairs of Switzerland and France on a regular basis and occasionally picking up items that interested her. It wasn’t long before Luigi Nessi joined her on these forays. He soon became intrigued by the variety of utilitarian objects they were able to find and of the superior design and high quality of the items. Why had they almost totally disappeared from our present culture? He wanted to learn more about the motivation that led the craftsmen who made these objects to take the same amount of care and time in making things for their own use that they devoted to making items for their customers.

To pursue this study further, Nessi knew he would have to widen his search, visit more markets, acquire more examples, and talk to more craftsmen, dealers, and collectors. He would also have to obtain all of the books, catalogs, trade cards, circulars, and other published material that he could on the objects he was interested in. Obtaining in-depth knowledge about the items he was collecting would require a thorough study of them: the name they were known by, the trade or profession that used them, their function, the method of manufacturing them, and the characteristics of the very best and rarest examples.

In the mid 1970s, he began to assemble a serious collection to accomplish these goals. To make the time available to do so, he would have to give up his successful architectural and land planning practice. It was a big sacrifice, but the temptation and challenge of a new endeavor was irresistible.

Figure 2. A pair of seventeenth-century, southern Ger-man, 12-inch wrought-iron dividers with horizontal left- and right-hand threaded-screw adjustment.

His design skills and esthetic sensitivity, learned as an architect, were a great advantage in this new adventure. In many cases, his esthetic sensitivity would influence the final decision on which items to acquire and which to pass up. He had to become very familiar with all of the important antique shows, auctions, and markets, as well as develop a close relationship with the best collectors, pickers, and dealers. Time spent with these contacts was both enjoyable, and in many cases, the key to tracking down that great find.

At first, he limited his collection to tools of the trades and simple domestic utilitarian objects made from the beginning of the Renaissance (1400) to the middle of the nineteenth century (1850). Later, he broadened its scope to include scientific instruments, medical instruments, personal grooming aids, and many other related items. He began to focus his acquisitions on the rarest pieces in the finest possible condition, including some from important private collections.

Nessi’s collection eventually grew to more than 15,000 items. His specialized library of research material contained 4,000 volumes, all on subjects related to the items in his collection. The mere cataloging of this collection became a staggering task; the time required to do the research and document his findings was overwhelming. With the help of his daughter, Daniela, he began to take advantage of the tools of the digital age, making effective use of a computer, a database, and the Internet.

Figure 3. A combination end nipper and tack puller made in Nuremberg or southern Germany in the first half of the seventeenth century.

In 2000, he had the opportunity to exhibit a small sampling of his collection in a show titled “The Tools of their Trades” at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan in collaboration with the Civiche Raccolte d’Art Applicata e Incisioni. (1) Then two years later, he had a second show at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. In 2005, he exhibited in a third show titled “Tools of Art: The Art of Tools—from the Renaissance to the Industrial Era,” held at the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum, in Athens, Greece. (2)

These exhibitions included a broad range of dazzling items. There were sundials, graphometers (a late-sixteenth-century mapping instrument), compasses, octants and other instruments used in navigation, as well as surgical instruments, chocolate grinders, meat hooks, anvils, book presses, personal grooming accessories, and shaped hot irons used for pleating and pressing. Examples were chosen from a broad range of trades and activities including: carpentry, cabinet and furniture making, coach building, smithing, gardening, cooking, surveying, astronomy, and personal correspondence. All of the pieces were the best examples available. They were beautifully made, and they all told of a life that made no compromises with quality or cost.

The “Tools of Their Trades” exhibition in Milan contained more than seven hundred items from the Nessi collection. Among the tools was a magnificent Armorer’s compendium (Figure 1), consisting of a hammer, end cutter, nail puller, tack puller and riveting anvil. (3) It was richly etched with arabesque decoration and was probably made in Nuremberg in the 1580s. It was one of the stars of the show.

Other items from the Nessi collection included a pair of 12-inch wrought-iron dividers (Figure 2) that had a horizontal left- and right-hand, threaded-screw adjustment. They were made in Southern Ger-many in the seventeenth century. (A magnificent photograph of them by Mauro Magliani was used on the cover of Nessi’s book, Antique Tools and Instruments from the Nessi Collection.)

The combination end nipper or pincers and tack puller (Figure 3) was made in Nuremberg or southern Germany in the first half of the seventeenth century. It had curved steel jaws, a claw for pulling tacks at the end of one of the handles and a rivet hole aligning tool at the end of the other handle.

Figure 4. An 1824 Holtzapffel pedal-driven, ornamental turning lathe.

The Holtzapffel, a pedal-driven, ornamental-turning lathe, (Figure 4) made in London in 1824, was furnished with a set of chucks for ornamental turning, a cross feed with ornamental turning attachments, division plates, a set of turning tools in a triptych cabinet, and all sorts of other accessories. It was all neatly housed in mahogany cabinets and boxes. Ornamental turning lathes were very popular with the nobility; this one would have been destined for that market. I would imagine that it was one of the most popular items exhibited at the show.

An exceptionally rare, eighteenth-century precision sundial (back cover) was made in southern Germany in the eighteenth century, and was marked “JPF,” possibly for J. P. Fischer. It had a thin, C-shaped, semi-circular steel carrier mounted on a two-tier ebony and cherry base. An engraved and gilded circular mechanical sundial was suspended from the top of the carrier; the point of attachment could be slid along the top of the circle. It had a meridian arc and a polar axis. The time in hours and minutes was displayed on a clock dial connected to the normal dial by three small cogwheels, which magnified the reading on that dial.

Figure 5. An ivory paper knife from the Nessi collection.

A spectacular ivory paper knife, another exciting piece (Figure 5) was carved in open work with a female bust, garlands of roses, and bouquets of acanthus leaves. It had a silver band in the shape of two acanthus leaves separating the carved ivory handle and the flat silver blade.

A wonderful Spanish seventeenth-century, wrought-iron anvil (Figure 6) was made with four molded ribs and four protruding piers. It was decorated all over with textures, patterns, and molded surfaces.

Figure 6 (left). This Spanish seventeenth-century, wrought-iron anvil from the Nessi Collection is decorated all over with textures, patterns, and molded surfaces.

An eighteenth-century Tyrolian broad ax (Figure 7) had a 14-inch-long steel edge. It was decorated with an etched image of a man surrounded by beautiful foliage. The handle dated from a later period.

The list of items in the collection goes on and on, but these few examples convey the quality level and rarity of the items in the collection.

In 2004, Nessi and his collection were the focus of an Early American Industries Association trip to Europe. Nessi was a very gracious host. He encouraged the visitors to pick up and inspect any of the items in his collection; that evening while they were enjoying a fabulous meal, he elaborated on the descriptions of items they were interested in and answered all of their questions. The visit was enthusiastically acclaimed a great success by all of those fortunate enough to attend.

Figure 7 (above). An eighteenth-century Tyrolian broad ax from the collection of the late Luigi Nessi.

In that same year Nessi wrote and published a terrific book, Antique Tools and Instruments: From the Nessi Collection. It was done in collaboration with five contributing specialists authors and features essays on “Objects of Use,” “Scientific Instruments, Surgical and Medical Instruments,” “Civilization and its Tools,” “Cooking and Fireplace Utensils,” and “Items for Personal Use.” It is beautifully illustrated with absolutely brilliant photographs by Mauro Magliani. Nessi was assisted in his research and in the documentation of his collection by his daughter Daniela Nessi. The book is so highly regarded by collectors, libraries, and museums that new and used copies in fine condition are selling for many times the original price.

Now that we have had a glimpse of Nessi’s collection, we should be able to answer the question: “What makes a great collection?” Suggestions are: a well planned scope, research, and documentation. It is clear that Nessi’s collection meets all of these criteria and more. Nessi’s collection documents the progress of mankind’s transition from the handcrafted product of the individual craftsman to the output of the mid-nineteenth century factory. His collection and its documentation set a standard by which all other collections can be measured.

Luigi Nessi passed away on October 15, 2009, at the age of 77. He established a level of quality for the items collected and knowledge of the items in his collection that is seldom equaled. He will be missed by friends everywhere.


1. Roderick Conway Morris, “Artisans and Objects d’Art in Milan: The Tool of Their Trades,” The New York Times, (March 18, 2000). 2. Stella Sevastopoulou, “Arts: The Tools of Art and the Art of Tools, From the Renaissance too the Industrial Age at the Benaki Museum, Pireos St., Athens, Greece,” Athens News (March 18, 2005). See also, Alexandra Koroxenidis and Kathimerini, “Rich Exhibition Showcases Bygone Tools for the Living in Style,” press release, Greek Embassy, March 28, 2005. 3. After Nessi’s death the collection was sold by Koller Auctions, Zurich, Switzerland on April 2, 2012. The items shown in the figures had the following lot numbers at the auction: Figure 1, Lot 573; Figure 2, Lot 593;Figure 3, Lot 572; Figure 4, Lot 710; Figure 5, Lot 449; Figure 6, Lot 894; Figure 7, Lot 691; and Figure 8, Lot 623.


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