Alberto Martini, The “Maudit” of Italian Art

Those who live in dream are superior beings;
those who live in reality are unhappy slaves.
Alberto Martini, 1940

Alberto Giacomo Spiridione Martini (1876-1954) was one of the most extraordinary Italian artists of the first half of the twentieth century.
He was the author of a vast graphic production which includes engravings, lithographs, ex libris, watercolors, business cards, postcards, illustrations for books and novels of various kinds (from Dante to D’Annunzio, from Shakespeare to Victor Hugo, from Tassoni to Nerval).

Born in Oderzo, he studied drawing and painting under the guidance of his father Giorgio, a professor of design at the Technical Institute of Treviso. Initially influenced by the German sixteenth-century mannerism of Dürer and Baldung, he then moved towards an increasingly personal and refined symbolism, supported by his exceptional knowledge of iconography. At only 21 he exhibited for the first time at the Venice Biennale; from then on, his works will be featured there for 14 consecutive years.
The following year, 1898, while he was in Munich to collaborate with some magazines, he met the famous Neapolitan art critic Vittorio Pica who, impressed by his style, will forever be his most convinced supporter. Pica remembers him like this:

This man, barely past twenty, […] immediately came across as likable in his distinguished, albeit a bit cold, discretion […], in the subtle elegance of his person, in the paleness of his face, where the sensual freshness of his red lips contrasted with that strange look, both piercing and abstract, mocking and disdainful.

(in Alberto Martini: la vita e le opere 1876-1906, Oderzo Cultura)

After drawing 22 plates for the historical edition of the Divine Comedy printed in 1902 by the Alinari brothers in Florence, starting from 1905 he devoted himself to the cycle of Indian ink illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, which remains one of the peaks of his art.
In this series, Martini shows a strong visionary talent, moving away from the meticulous realistic observation of his first works, and at the same time developing a cruel and aesthetic vein reminiscent of Rops, Beardsley and Redon.

During the First World War he published five series of postcards entitled Danza Macabra Europea: these consist of 54 lithographs meant as satirical propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian empire, and were distributed among the allies. Once again Martini proves to possess a grotesque boundless fantasy, and it is also by virtue of these works that he is today considered a precursor of Surrealism.

Disheartened by how little consideration he was ebjoying in Italy, he moved to Paris in 1928. “They swore — he wrote in his autobiography — to remove me as a painter from the memory of Italians, preventing me from attending exhibitions and entering the Italian market […] I know very well that my original way of painting can annoy the myopic little draftsman and paltry critics“.
In Paris he met the Surrealist group and developed a series of “black” paintings, before moving on to a more intense use of color (what he called his “clear” manner) to grasp the ecstatic visions that possessed him.

The large window of my studio is open onto the night. In that black rectangle, I see my ghosts pass and with them I love to converse. They incite me to be strong, indomitable, heroic, and they tell me secrets and mysteries that I shall perhaps reveal you. Many will not believe and I am sorry for them, because those who have no imagination vegetate in their slippers: comfortable life, but not an artist’s life. Once upon a starless night, I saw myself in that black rectangle as in a mirror. I saw myself pale, impassive. It is my soul, I thought, that is now mirroring my face in the infinite and that once mirrored who knows what other appearance, because if the soul is eternal it has neither beginning nor end, and what we are now is nothing but one of its several episodes. And this revealing thought troubled me […]. As I was absorbed in these intricate thoughts, I started to feel a strange caress on the hand I had laid on a book open under a lamp. […] I turned my head and saw a large nocturnal butterfly sitting next to my hand, looking at me, flapping its wings. You too, I thought, are dreaming; and the spell of your dull eyes of dust sees me as a ghost. Yes, nocturnal and beautiful visitor, I am a dreamer who believes in immortality, or perhaps a phantom of the eternal dream that we call life.

(A. Martini, Vita d’artista, manoscritto, 1939-1940)

In economic hardship, Martini returned to Milan in 1934. He continued his incessant and multiform artistic work during the last twenty years of his life, without ever obtaining the desired success. He died on November 8, 1954. Today his remains lie together with those of his wife Maria Petringa in the cemetery of Oderzo.

The fact that Martini never gained the recognition he deserved within Italian early-twentieth-century art can be perhaps attributed to his preference for grotesque themes and gloomy atmospheres (in our country, fantasy always had a bad reputation). The eclectic nature of his production, which wilfully avoided labels or easy categorization, did not help him either: his originality, which he rightly considered an asset, was paradoxically what forced him to remain “a peripheral and occult artist, doomed to roam, like a damned soul, the unexplored areas of art history” (Barbara Meletto, Alberto Martini: L’anima nera dell’arte).

Yet his figure is strongly emblematic of the cultural transition between nineteenth-century romantic decadentism and the new, darker urgencies which erupted with the First World War. Like his contemporary Alfred Kubin, with whom he shared the unreal imagery and the macabre trait, Martini gave voice to those existential tensions that would then lead to surrealism and metaphysical art.

An interpretation of some of the satirical allegories in the European Macabre Dance can be found here and here.
The Civic Art Gallery of Oderzo is dedicated to Alberto Martini and promotes the study of his work.

The Stone Pinacotheca

Article by guestblogger Stefano Cappello

I lived in Catania for several years, first as a student at the liberal-arts college, then on the account of my work. Art always fascinated me, and being ale to live and travel throughout Sicily allowed me to discover this place where the highest expressions of human creativity lived together for thousands of years, sometimes blending together with unique results.

Visiting one of Catania’s churches, I happened to notice how the marble on the altar formed curious shapes: through the veinings, one could almost grasp grotesque faces, animal masks, bizarre figures.

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The practice of putting two marble stones near each other in order to obtain a specular image is known as “macchia aperta” (book matched). Used for thousands of years, such a technique combines two consecutive slabs, which are cut and then put side by side, so that the veinings can form the image that up until then had been “sleeping” in the marble.

I started to visit other churches in town, only to find the phenomenon was quite widespread. The cutting of slabs and their arrangement were intentional, and these examples cannot be explained with pareidolia — the subconscious illusion that leads us to interpret artificial or natural visual stimuli as recognizable shapes.
Perhaps we should better think of these marble figures in relation to the concept of Gamahés, implying a sacred aspect of images and forms, which the Anima Mundi impresses within the stone in the shape of faces, animals, symbols or even whole landscapes, as in the case of the Paesina Stone. Through the same occult process, pictures could be ingrained in the marble by that very creative force, the natura naturans generating every aspect of reality, and they could be waiting for a sharp wit who, thanks to his sensitivity, will be able to bring them to light.

All these churches have in common the fact that they’ve been rebuilt from scratch after the devastating earthquake which on January 11, 1693, destroyed Catania. The city suffered huge losses, about 16.000 victims on a 20.000 citizen population.
A huge emergency project was set afoot to bring things back to normal in reasonable time. The reconstruction of the city shows how the catastrophe entailed a search for innovative architectural solutions of the highest quality. These innovations, which were applied in various degrees to all the villages struck by the earthquake in the Noto valley, were elaborated by what could be considered as a “unique experimental workshop of Baroque international models”.

In the particular case of Catania, the unity of this project can be seen on a structural level, as shock-absorbing materials were used in view of a possible new shake, and on a urban level. The city was completely re-planned, with broader streets and escape routes [1].
One of the marbles used in churches, the Libeccio Antico of Sicily, is also called Breccia Pontificia, because it was also used in the Vatican. This rare and precious marble, extracted from the Custonaci caves, is perfect for macchia aperta manufacturing, so that the internal veinings can emerge.

The fact that its figurative use was intentional is quite evident in the S. Agata la Vetere Church where, on the side altar that once contained the remains of the Martyr, these marbles can be found.

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It looks like this red jasper slab was meant to represent the outline of the Saint’s body laying in a sarcophage. If we rotate the image, the composition is even clearer.

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We can see the head, shoulders, the arms bent on her chest, her hips, legs, and her feet emerging from the garment.
Suggestion may go even further. On the silhouette’s chest, for example, one could almost see a Flaming Heart. A spherical shape is at the base of the figure, which is surrounded by a sort of aura.
The whole shape is consistent, in its proportions, with a female body.
The visual stimuli such a contour can suggest, if we consider it as standing on a globe, refer to the iconography of the Virgin Mary. This hypothetical “transfer” would be justified when applied to a female Saint, as in Christian tradition all female figures are in fact manifestations of the Sacred Feminine archetype.

Another example of the intentionality of these marble depictions can be found in the Church of St. Micheal Archangel. Here, like in other churches in town, the representations often appear in couples, at the bottom of the columns near the side altars.

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These marbles show two stylized figures, of which we can make out the head, neck, stretched-out arms, chest and tunic. Behind these silhouettes are shapes that could be interpreted as wings, of which the veinings even seem to trace the plumage. The whole figure could refer to the Byzantine iconography of the Archangel.

In Catania’s churches, marbles take us on a trip through beasts, men, Saints and demons.

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The following mirrored marbles seem to represent several faces, each wearing a hat that resembles a wolf’s head. This depiction could refer to the iconography of  Hades, god of the Underworld, wearing the kunée, the Helm of Darkness.

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If we suppose that marble workers acted freely, without their ecclesial clients knowing, we can imagine that their craftmanship combined with a knowledge of treatises was used to explore this figurative expression, and it could testify the existence of a clandestine ideology. These marbles could offer an example of such underground symbolism.

Here are two grotesque faces, of which we can identify the eyes, nose, mouth, and what looks like a mitre.

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Here’s another curious image emerging from these slabs: a grinning creature, with what could be its hands (the veinings seem to outline the fingers) held before its chest, in a triangular shape.

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The peculiarity of this grotesque face is that it can be found behind an altar, hidden from direct view. Is this an example of the typical Baroque need to fill out every empty space, of the horror vacui?

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In the church of S. Francesco all’Immacolata we can find the following marbles, showing what looks like a donkey-headed seated figure. We can see its long ears, its snout, its nostrils. The hands, coherent in proportions, are in its lap and the symmetrical neinings on the slab’s sides give the perspective idea of a throne. What is interesting is that this figure has been created with an inlay work, using both the natural veinings and an artificial technique in order to obtain a specific figurative suggestion. This practice was already documented by Pliny, who in his Naturalis historia reported how, in his time, marble-cutters managed not only to cover with marble the walls of temples and public buildings, but even to carve them and insert small stones in shape of animals and other things. They actually began “painting with stone” (“coepimus et lapide pingere”, Nat. hist., Liber xxxv, 3).

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The composition of these marble slabs seem to copy the structure of a railing from Samothracia, an important place for Mystery (Orphic) Cults in the Greek world. Here we have veinings that take the form of two bucrania on each side, and in the middle — where in the Samothracian version there was an eight-petal flower — a greek cross with four additional rays, as if to remain faithful to the original symbology.

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We can imagine that such compositions sometimes referred to pre-existing models, and thus marble-makers were researching those exact shapes in the stone, while in other cases the veinings themselves suggested an image. These simulacra manifested themselves both with the firmness of symbols, archetypes, and the ever-changing uncertainty of the colored surface, the evanescent shape given by an immanent Nature.

The interesting aspect of this unsung chapter of Sicilian Baroque is that the Monstrous, the Grotesque, the Uneven which had not been adopted in religious or civil buildings, actually penetrated them in disguise. From three-dimensional sculpture to two-dimensional slabs, subtly flattened on the walls, decorating the altars right near those very paintings which were used to maintain the Church’s power in the form of Biblia pauperum, these marbles were a kind of parallel stone pinachoteca.

We do not know the ultimate goal of this figurative expression.

We can be sure it was intentional, and it was a thousand-year old decorative system which found its use in representing the bizarre and the grotesque, typical of Baroque culture and especially of the Sicilian Baroque. Probably known in the ecclesial environment at the time, at least in its highest levels, this art form was kept secret and not divulged to the masses.
The inherent ambiguity of these visual stimuli is similar to the lack of objectivity in the Rorschach inkblots, a projective test for which there are no correct answers but rather a subjective meaning.

One could ponder if clients and marble-workers considered the eventuality of the believers noticing these hidden compositions, only apparently chaotic. But even if someone became aware of it, he would had probably never mentioned it without risking the Inquisition, which was active on the island and only abolished in 1782.
Why then selecting rare and precious marbles to compose figures depicting grotesque masks? Was it a simple aesthetic pleasure for a selected few, or rather a specific apotropaic function, the monstrous image used as a spell to ward off the danger of a catastrophe similar to the one that destroyed the city?
The motivation behind such representations is still open to analysis. Several hypothesis could be put forward, just like many analogies can be found with the esoteric tradition — but we should not forget that “there is nothing an enchanted glare cannot recognize in shapes, spots, profiles within the stone” (Roger Caillois, La Scrittura delle Pietre).

To complete our visit to the Stone Pinachoteca, the slab which best represents the beginning and the end of this Voyage is one we can call “The Jester”.

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Its vibrant eyes, sardonic smile, cap and bells. It reminds us of The Fool, the tarot card whose value is 0, the great multiplier. It is the archetype of everything beyond comprehension, the pilgrim on its Way, emerging from the stone to shout his warning: “Open your eyes!

 


[1] Giuseppe Lanza Duke Camastra, who was nominated general vicar, and architect Giovan Battista Vaccarini were the two personalities mainly remembered for the reconstruction of Catania, while the documents from the Historic Archive and other sources do not report specific information about the workers, who remained anonymous.
Of the few names mentioned in the first years of re-building after the earthquake, a notable one is architect Salvatore De Amico, who is sometimes called Caput Magister, and was born in Aci S. Antonio, a feud belonging to the bishop of Catania. De Amico for five years acted as a bridge between the bishop’s curia and the construction sites: he himself managed funds, hired, coordinated and directed workers, evaluated and bought the materials and the necessary plots of land (Le maestranze acesi nella fase iniziale di ricostruzione di Catania, S. Condorelli).
The architect also designed the new map, and directed works, for the epicopal Palace and five other churches in the city.
The Episcopal curia was the direct client for these works and it is very likely that some religious personalities, among which the bishop Andrea Riggio (son of luigi Riggio Branciforte prince of Campofiorito, renowned aristocrat and diplomat), visited the building sites during construction, and were therefore aware of the decor that would adorn the interiors.

Speciale: Fotografare la morte – I

Tutte le fotografie sono dei memento mori.

Scattare una foto significa partecipare alla

mortalità, vulnerabilità e mutevolezza

di un’altra persona.

(Susan Sontag)

Abbiamo deciso di proporre cinque domande, sempre le stesse, ad alcuni fra i più grandi fotografi che durante la loro carriera hanno affrontato direttamente il tema della morte e del cadavere. Alcuni hanno gentilmente declinato l’invito, come ad esempio Jeffrey Silverthorne, che già negli anni ’70 aveva rifiutato di comparire nel fondamentale saggio The Grotesque in Photography di A. D. Coleman. Altri, invece, ci hanno generosamente concesso questa breve intervista in esclusiva.

ANDRES SERRANO

Nato a New York nel 1950, figlio unico di padre honduregno e madre afro-cubana, Andres Serrano ha passato gran parte della giovinezza a Brooklyn. La rigida educazione cattolica ricevuta da ragazzo giocherà un ruolo fondamentale nella sua ricerca artistica; affascinato dai pittori del Rinascimento, da Rembrandt così come dai surrealisti, Serrano esplora fin da subito le connessioni nascoste ed estatiche fra l’iconografia religiosa e la concretezza del corpo. Il sangue, archetipo mistico e simbolo di vita e morte al tempo stesso, diviene uno degli elementi fondamentali dei suoi lavori. Più tardi comincerà ad utilizzare altri fluidi corporei, come urina, latte e sperma, rendendoli non semplici oggetti delle sue fotografie, ma veri e propri mezzi espressivi.

Le sue due serie Body Fluids e Immersions (1985-90) fecero scoppiare una furibonda polemica che colse di sorpresa l’autore stesso. Una fotografia, in particolare, si rivelò di una forza provocatoria destinata a rimanere immutata nei decenni successivi: si tratta di Piss Christ, e mostra un crocefisso immerso nell’urina. Considerata blasfema e offensiva, nel 1989 fu oggetto di un acceso dibattito al Senato degli Stati uniti; vandalizzata in Australia e presa di mira da un gruppo di naziskin in Svezia nel 2007, nel 2011 venne distrutta da un gruppo cattolico ad Avignone. Nelle intenzioni dell’artista, la serie Immersions si prefiggeva di visualizzare la dicotomia fra la condizione umana, corporale, terrena, e la tensione mistica: Piss Christ e le altre fotografie della serie sembrano affermare che è possibile trovare la divinità perfino nella fisicità umana, nei fluidi e nella carne, perché in fondo il nostro corpo è santo in tutte le sue manifestazioni.


Nell’immaginario popolare da quel momento Serrano è divenuto un artista “maledetto”, estremo e provocatore. La sua visione non ha mai deviato a causa delle polemiche, ed egli ha sempre rifiutato di censurare le sue fotografie, anche quelle più scabrose contenute nella serie A History of Sex; ma ridurre la sua opera a pietra dello scandalo significherebbe dimenticare le sue abilità di ritrattista mostrate in Nomads (1990), Klan series (1990, che ritrae membri del KKK) o in Budapest Series (1992).

Ma le fotografie che ci interessano qui sono ovviamente quelle contenute nella celebre The Morgue (1992). Serrano ha dichiarato: “credo che sia necessario cercare la bellezza anche nei luoghi meno convenzionali o nei candidati più insospettabili. Se non incontro la bellezza non sono capace di scattare alcuna fotografia”.

In The Morgue, l’obbiettivo del fotografo si concentra sui corpi arrivati all’obitorio, talvolta ancora quasi perfetti, talvolta decomposti, mutilati, dilaniati. Ritratti in composizioni rigorose, veri e propri tableaux dall’illuminazione caravaggesca e dai colori accesi, i morti sembrano in bilico fra la reificazione ultima e una sorta di postuma soggettività.

L’intrusione della macchina di Serrano in questo luogo nascosto, il suo indugiare su questi cadaveri vulnerabili e indifesi è una violazione dell’intimità, o un commosso omaggio? Il suo occhio cede alla seduzione morbosa del macabro, oppure è alla ricerca di qualche segreto dettaglio che dia significato alla morte stessa? Impossibile, e forse inutile, risolvere questa ambiguità. La potenza delle immagini di Andres Serrano sta proprio in questa capacità di estetizzare ciò che viene normalmente reputato osceno, e nella testarda convinzione di poter mostrare la meraviglia anche nel più triste e quotidiano degli orrori.


Ecco quindi la nostra intervista ad Andres Serrano.

1. Perché hai deciso che era importante raffigurare la morte nei tuoi lavori fotografici?

La morte è una parte della vita. Esserne incuriositi è naturale. Io fotografo la morte come un’investigazione, allo stesso tempo spirituale ed estetica. È una ricerca sulla vita alla fine del suo corso.


2. Quale credi che sia lo scopo, se ce n’è uno, delle tue fotografie post-mortem? Stai soltanto fotografando i corpi, o sei alla ricerca di qualcos’altro?

Lo scopo del mio lavoro sui morti è lo stesso del mio lavoro sui vivi: creare opere d’arte potenti e avvincenti.


3. Come succede per tutto ciò che mette alla prova il nostro rifiuto della morte, il tono macabro e sconvolgente delle tue fotografie potrebbe essere visto da alcuni come osceno e irrispettoso. Ti interessa scioccare il pubblico, e come ti poni nei riguardi della carica di tabù presente nei tuoi soggetti?

Lavorando nell’obitorio, a fianco di dottori e assistenti clinici, mi sono sentito parte di un gruppo di professionisti che hanno scelto di lavorare con i cadaveri. Non c’è nulla di disgustoso o irrispettoso nel lavorare con i morti, o nel volere mostrare la bellezza che è nella morte. Non considero il mio lavoro scioccante, né tabù.


4. È stato difficile approcciare i cadaveri, a livello personale? C’è qualche aneddoto particolare o interessante riguardo le circostanze di una tua foto?

Non è mai difficile fare il lavoro che vuoi fare e che ti senti spinto a intraprendere. Non saprei dire se è successo qualcosa che potrei definire aneddotico; l’unica cosa che mi ha sorpreso è che davvero poche persone erano morte di morte naturale. La maggior parte di quei cadaveri erano morti inaspettatamente e prematuramente.


5. Riguardo alle foto post-mortem, ti piacerebbe che te ne venisse scattata una dopo che sei morto? Come ti immagini una simile foto?

Preferirei scattarmela da solo, perché nessun altro saprebbe farla come me.

Ecco un interessante saggio (PDF in inglese) su The Morgue, e il sito ufficiale di Andres Serrano.