12 March 2024

Our tributes to Mr Gianadda

by Eugénie Rousak


Léonard Gianadda: A visionary with a thousand lives and multiple legacies.

Journalist, photographer, engineer, property developer, builder, patron of the arts, entrepreneur, Officier des Arts et des Lettres, member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, husband, father, visionary – so many roles to describe this great man: Léonard Gianadda. “I’ve lived a thousand lives and I’ve been lucky enough to live them well,” he said in an interview with L’Illustré in 2019. Let’s start with the first.

From Italy to Switzerland

The family story begins in Italy with his paternal grandfather, Baptiste. Forced to leave his native Piedmont to seek a better life on the other side of the Simplon, he arrived in Switzerland on foot at the age of thirteen. It was a difficult decision, but one that enabled him to escape poverty. Showing an undeniable will to shape his own destiny, he passed on the value of hard work to his son Robert and his grandchildren Madeleine, Jean-Claude, Pierre and Léonard. These founding family principles were then put into practice in Léonard’s strict education, both at home and at the Collège de l’Abbaye de Saint-Maurice. The intelligence of the young Valaisan was quickly noticed by his teachers, one of whom wrote “He can and must make something great and beautiful of his life” … And he was right, even if this annotation would not be read until years later by the principal concerned. It was 1950 and a trip to Martigny was being prepared.

Visual heritage of a bygone era

Adeline Darbellay decides to take her two sons, Pierre and Léonard, to Italy! Their first exploration! While it was difficult to bear a name with Italian connotations during the Second World War, the end of the conflict marked the easing of tensions and the opening of borders! At the age of 15, the young Octodurian was to discover the beauty of his native country, with its Gothic architecture, archaeological heritage, works by the greatest artists and cultural heritage! It was a trip that laid the foundation for his love of art and discovering the world! It was also significant because it was in Italy that Leonardo met Ken Matthews, who introduced him to painting before inviting him to the USA the following year. New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, Chicago and even Cuba under Batista were all visited by the young teenager, who began to document his discoveries. It was the beginning of a passion that would undeniably guide the next few years of his life, even though he also enrolled in a course of study at EPUL, the former name of the EPFL. At the age of 22, he became the first Valais correspondent for TSR.

While he reported on local events, such as the first communal vote for women in Valais, he also ventured out to discover people and the world, with or without his press card. During this period, he met Georges Simenon, whose portraits he drew as he wandered through the narrow streets of Lausanne. As a small spoiler, it was while he was taking the photographs to the publisher that the young Valaisan met Annette Pavid. A few years later, she would join the Gianadda clan. But let’s stay with 1957. In August, the reporter-photographer travelled to the USSR to illustrate the World Youth Festival. He took more than 1,000 photos, a true record of Soviet youth! For the record, they were published in a book by the Pierre Gianadda Foundation and displayed at the Pushkin Museum years later. The world seemed to be smiling on the young man, and a turning point was about to occur. During this trip, he also painted a portrait of the Hungarian leader János Kádár with a Swiss flag on his chest. A real scandal erupted around this photograph in Switzerland, prompting the young Valaisan to turn away from press reporting. His journalistic days are over. Nevertheless, he retained his passion for photography. A veritable visual library of his time, bearing witness to his era, was thus assembled by the young Swiss photographer. So many moments, so many places, so many faces that have since been transformed, but immortalised forever on his film. He photographed his four months in a Volkswagen Beetle (yes, the one with the little Swiss flag on the back window) exploring the Mediterranean with Pierre, the 28 countries he crossed on his honeymoon with Annette – in short, a true time capsule!

Photographies by Leonard Gianadda
Photographies by Leonard Gianadda : Le Caire, 1956 | Souk, Tunis, 1957 © Fondation Pierre Gianadda; Martigny

The beginnings of the Foundation

It’s time to talk about the Foundation. On graduating, Léonard Gianadda went into partnership with his classmate Umberto Guglielmetti and opened an engineering office in Martigny. Thus began the chapter of the real estate empire, which was severely disrupted by a series of tragedies in Léonard’s life. In the 1970s, he lost both his parents. His father died of an embolism in 1972, and his mother in a train accident the following year. In 1976, Pierre succumbed to injuries sustained in a plane crash. “He was a friend, as well as a brother”, he said in a filmed interview.

It was also during this period that the builder came up with a rather crazy project for the region, the Belvedere Tower. Seventy-two flats spread over sixteen levels! Sounds grand, doesn’t it? But as fate would have it, archaeological digs uncovered a Gallo-Roman temple three metres underground! And even though the Canton granted planning permission, it was unimaginable for this archaeology enthusiast to build on it. The decision was made: the building project would become a museum to preserve Martigny’s heritage and perpetuate the memory of his brother in a tangible way. This was the beginning of the Pierre Gianadda Foundation, which opened on 19 November 1978, Pierre’s 40th birthday.

Léoguide 07 : Léonard Gianadda introducing the Foundation

The little town on the European art map

Although the Foundation was initially dedicated to bronze relics, the visionary Leonardo was perhaps thinking of organising art exhibitions or music concerts one day. On the plans, he had even turned the staircases upside down to adapt the building to this potential use. “The idea was to build a Gallo-Roman museum with the sole aim of bringing some life to the town. I never imagined that things would get this big. Even in my wildest dreams,” he explained in an interview with L’Illustré. But the first exhibition did take place in 1978. The ambitious title, Cinq siècles de peinture, didn’t prevent it from being a flop… a real flop… a real flop. “Half the works were fakes and the other half were scabs,” announced an article in 24 heures. Stop the exhibitions? Close the Foundation? Beat up the art critic, even if he’s objectively right? Absolutely not! Léonard Gianadda persevered, provoking fate. What’s more, he invited this art critic to accompany him on this new visual and artistic adventure. What self-doubt, modesty and determination! The result? 10 million visitors in 40 years and the city on the bend of the Rhône on the European art map! Treasures from the world’s museums and pearls that almost never leave private collections have graced the walls of the Foundation. Le Déjeuner des canotiers in 2004, the statue of Discobole, the record thrower, in 2014, Impression, soleil levant in 2017, Le Pont de l’Europe in 2021, to name but a few. At the same time, there will be a music season to take advantage of the building’s acoustics, the Musée de l’Automobile and a collection of large-scale works scattered around the peaceful adjacent park. Art has also gone beyond the walls of the Foundation, spreading out across the city of Martigny, covering some twenty roundabouts.

While much of Léonard Gianadda’s time and energy was devoted to the Foundation, the entrepreneur was also at the head of two other institutions, the Annette and Léonard Gianadda Social Foundation, created with his wife in 2009, and the Léonard Gianadda Foundation – Patronage, which has been promoting support initiatives since 2019 and now manages all his assets. Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

Léonard Gianadda
Léonard Gianadda and the model of the building in 1977 ©Keystone | Annette and Léonard, Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 2003 ©André Morain

Farewell to Léonard Gianadda

But on 3 December 2023, these three foundations, along with an entire city, became orphans. Symbolically, on a Sunday. Although unavoidable following the news of his cancer, this departure was abrupt and sudden. But as was his wont, the visionary had planned everything: the funeral home in Octodure (which he built himself!), the vigil at the Foundation, the recording of his own voice broadcast during the funeral in the church in Martigny-Bourg and finally eternal rest at Annette’s side in the garden of remembrance, a private part of the sculpture garden. To the question “Can the Fondation Gianadda have the same international aura without Léonard Gianadda?”, Léonard Gianadda replied “No”, but he has nevertheless prepared the exhibitions up to 2027. As usual.

According to the current trend, new generations will change jobs around ten times in the course of their lives. In the end, Léonard Gianadda was a trailblazer.

Fondation Gianadda
The Foundation is also a park with magnificent sculptures and a major museum of classic cars ©Fondation Gianadda, Martigny, 2023