(Editor’s note: In October, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles opened a major new exhibition, “The Art of Bugatti,” featuring works by various members of the artistic family.)
At least four generations of the Bugatti family had their creative energy and Milanese work ethic carefully polished at the Accademia de Belle Arti di Brera, the city’s famous institution founded in 1776 by Maria Theresa, Austrian archduchess and Holy Roman Empress of the Habsburg Dynasty. Its charter was to “provide instruction in fine arts to craftsmen and private artists.”
Giovanni Luigi Bugatti (b. 1823) opens our narrative, though not our exhibit. He was a Milanese artisan from the first half of the 19th century, trained as an architect but best known for his fine masonry and as an accomplished sculptor. His avocation, though, was the challenge of creating a perpetual motion device with which to power the industrial age. That experimentation, though fruitless, we might imagine caused him to create the tools and the space where the young men in his life could learn to understand, respect and manipulate metals — and a devotion to fine craftsmanship.
Giovanni’s son, Carlo (1856-1940), was a singular creator of extraordinary things. He began his studies at the Brera Institute in his late teens, beginning in architecture, then in ornament before apprenticing with a furniture maker later in that decade. Almost concurrently he began his studies at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and moved between studio-residences in the two centers of creativity through the 1880s and ‘90s — finally, resettling his family in Paris between 1902 and 1904 — at which time his unique furniture designs were at their most mature — and desirable.
Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916) followed the family and his older brother, Ettore, into the Brera to study sculpture. He worked “en plein air,” the style of his contemporary impressionists, where a finely composed and colored sketch was the finished product — as it had been first seen.
Rembrandt would continue family tradition with study at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where some of his contemporaries were inspired to be courageous. With only a momentary impression, in three-dimensions, he would capture a brief movement of an animal — in non-hardening plasticine. His final bronzes appear to be unrefined, though the muscle and the balance of his subjects are as authentic as the work of an impressionist master.
Ettore Arco Isidoro Bugatti (1881-1947) shared time with his younger brother in their father’s Milan studio during the first decade of the 20th century and preceded him into the Brera. However, it was already clear he did not share his sibling’s gift for seeing and capturing form. He wrote about his life-changing dilemma:
“I also started to study sculpture at the Brera arts school in Milan… Unfortunately, I had a brother who was already a sculptor… There are two types of artists; those who are born artists — one day they create something and are “hooked.” My brother was one of them. The other type, to which I belong, are those who try and create art but are not gifted, so they have to make up for it by working hard. For that reason I left the world of fine art when I was 16 years old and joined the foundry (as well as bicycle and tricycle manufacturer) of Prinetti & Stucchi. It was during this time as an apprentice that I began to fall in love with all things mechanical.”
After being part of the team that installed a De Dion engine between the rear wheels of a Prinetti & Stucchi tricycle, even managing to install two of the ubiquitous little single-cylinder French engines on a trike — and winning his first race — Ettore began construction of his first automobile in 1900, winning the Grand Prix de Milan in the city’s International Sports Exhibition of 1901 — and immediate employment in the political dichotomy of Alsace-Lorraine, first as a German state, then again French after the armistice of 1918.
The 1909 Bugatti Type 10, recognized as his 10th automobile design, though the first to carry his name, went into production in his new factory in Molsheim, Alsace as the Type 13 and remained in production until 1914, with different wheelbases and produced as the T22 and T23.
The earliest car in “The Art of Bugatti” exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum is the iconic form known by all car enthusiasts around the world, the Type 35 grand prix car introduced at the French Grand Prix at Lyon in 1924. It is also important to note that since all grand prix cars in the years after WWI had chassis wide enough for two seats. Bugatti used that design to create very high performance sports cars from complete grand prix car chassis. Two of those are in the exhibit. The Type 43 roadster is the sohc Type 35 with a Jean Bugatti body design and the Type 55 roadster is the dohc Type 51 version with the best of Jean Bugatti design detail.
The Type 41 Bugatti, the 12.7-liter Royale, is simply a greatly scaled up sohc eight-cylinder Bugatti as the world’s most fabulous high-performance luxury automobile — no one seemed to care in 1930, they sold four of the six produced.
The solution was the Type 46 Petit Royale. One of those in a glorious orange is a high point in the exhibit. It is both luxurious and very fast with its 5.3-liter version of the Royale engine. Faster still is the Type 50 coupe on display with the dohc supercharged version of that engine; easily the first supercar for public roads, unsurpassed until the introduction of Ettore’s son, Jean’s, own complete design, the Type 57 with 3.3-liter dohc engine available with both a low sporting chassis and an optional supercharger.
Several versions of Jean Bugatti’s (1909-1939) “modern” Bugatti are in the exhibit. Two of the most important are the black Type 57 roadster Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Prince of Persia and future Shah of Iran, with its wind-down windshield and striking art deco coachwork by Carrosserie Vanvooren of Paris.
The other is arguably the most valuable automobile as sculpture in the world, the Type 57SC Atlantic coupe, the prototype of which was called the Aerolithe as it was made of Electron, a magnesium alloy, and had to be riveted together. The first of four aluminum “production” versions was commissioned by Victor Rothschild and is part of the Petersen exhibition. Rothschild required the car to look like the prototype with the riveted flanges and so it was.
The Bugatti story is thoughtfully illustrated at the Petersen as your are guided through the panels toward heart-stopping vehicles and fascinating collections of objet d’art. It is four generations of the creative family of the century — to the extent there has been two additional attempts to re-launch its historic name and examples of both leave the visitor on a memorable high.
Romano Arioli made his attempt in Italy with his fantastic four-turbo, four-wheel-drive Bugatti EB110, a celebration of Ettore Bugatti’s 110th birthday in 1991. It could not survive. Then, with all the international resources of the Volkswagen Group behind it, the four-turbo W16 Bugatti Veyron refused to fail with a top speed of over 250 mph and a price tag of a million dollars. The price rose to double that and its replacement, the Chiron, is also present in the exhibit. They are hard to find on the street, but this one you can walk up to and look inside.
Photos by Larry Crane