ROMANO VIO – SCULPTOR

Paleari

His simplicity made him great. He hated events given in his honour. It is well-known how he shied away from any public tribute to his art and to his person.

Romano Vio was born on 11 February 1913 in Venice. His father was Domenico Giuseppe Vio who worked for Venice Water Magistracy and his mother was …….. Trevisan. The family surname was given the nickname “dei Zenevri” probably arising from the family’s possible Genevan origins. His father Giuseppe was an enthusiastic watchmaker, a fact which perhaps explains not only the origin but also the accuracy of his son Romano’s work and the reserved nature of his character.

Romano grew up in the Dorsoduro area of Venice in an environment that was mainly poor but dignified. Like all boys of that time in Venice the main pastimes were swimming and rowing; a recurring anecdote tells how the boy often returned home without his clothes. In fact, boys would leave their clothes on the edge of the canal and would race across the Giudecca Canal. The local police, well aware of the situation, would take away the clothes, perhaps with the aim of later giving out a fine, because it was against the law to swim across the Giudecca Canal. Very soon it appears that Romano was curious to see, and was attracted by the presence in that area of artists’ studios, first and foremost Bellotto (great-nephew of Guardi) and Baglioni. At the age of fourteen the young Romano, although not constantly diligent in his studies, was already attending the autopsy room in the SS Giovanni e Paolo Hospital in order to draw the bodies during post mortems to learn the secrets of the human body’s structure. This surely means that he also visited those artists’ studios and, having shown his drawing ability, had certainly reaped their advice and as a result was equal to attending the autopsy room. Everything came to a halt in 1932 with the first army call-up which, in alternate phases, basically lasted until 1945. During the periods when he was at home he managed to finish his studies, firstly at the Institute of Art and then at the Academy of Fine Arts. He also frequented the studio of Baglioni and also became his assistant inside the Academy of Fine Arts. He lived through the Fascist period without any particular political enthusiasm even though he remained fascinated by the regime’s propaganda which provided him with the inspiration for some sculptures such as the one for the Fadiga prize about the young Balilla. The continual call-ups wore him down and therefore, just to have some continuity in something, he offered himself voluntarily for the wars which the regime was waging in North Africa. His application, although accepted, had no follow up but he was later sent to the Yugoslavian front (during Germany’s annexation of Austria) where he earned the Military Cross. After the Yugoslavian front he was then stationed in Sardinia where he never again fired a single shot. In Sardinia he caught malaria which was to bother him from time to time for the rest of his life, but that island also provided him with the opportunity to do a lot of drawing which, on his return home, formed the basis for many works of sculpture depicting “Sardinian peasant life” and the subject of the goat and bull which repeatedly appeared in his works throughout his life. During one leave in February 1943 he married Jolanda Rigo. With the fall of the regime, the Italian troops stationed in southern Italy under the command of General Badoglio put themselves at the disposal of the allies and Romano was transferred to Naples, incorporated into the 8th American corps and sent to the front along the Gothic Line. In the meantime Germany also surrendered and finally in 1945 he was able to return home. He missed being at his dying father’s bedside by a few days but had the joy of finally meeting and holding his first son Giuseppe who had been born in 1943.

At last he could devote himself to his art but, with a family to support, he had to find a job. The opportunity presented itself after he renewed contacts with the Academy of Fine Arts where he met the sculptor Crocetti who offered Romano, thanks to his already acquired merits, the post of his Assistant. The year 1946 saw the birth of his second son Francesco who was then immortalised in a three-dimensional sculpture the following year. During the subsequent tranquil years his ability and artistic conviction grew considerably, so much so that he was called to exhibit at three Biennali.

Art initially manifested itself in Romano under the most clear-cut realism; later it turned towards idealistic romanticism, gaining ever greater richness and personality and reaching the highest level of lyrical expression accompanied by an excellent technique which was evident in every material: clay, plaster, plastic, stone, wood, embossment on copper, bronze and silver, not to mention an enormous number of pencil and charcoal drawings, watercolours and oil paintings some of which constituted personal research while others studied works by earlier painters. Clearly seen is his strong need for geometrical composition measured through relationships of equilibrium of masses and of chiaroscuro in a suffused aerial perspective which involves and dominates the continual impetus of an eruptive flow of heart-felt poetic vitality, the abandonment in such majestic synthesis, and poetic, intimate and subtle rhythms accompanied by considerable technical skill, as we have already said, with every kind of material. During this period art underwent great changes: the Cubist influence and the dematerialization of form began to impose themselves overwhelmingly. Pollock, Terragni and Picasso dictated aesthetics. Although attracted and tempted by this, Romano preferred to remain within the idealistic poetics linked to the tradition of art instead of struggling within and battling against the vehement arrogance of art’s disintegration and the avidity of corrupt critics capable of extolling a lavatory as a work of art: critics who showed themselves to be ignorant, thirsty for and availing themselves of easy money.

Artistically speaking Romano is perhaps the most brilliant person most people have never heard of. Modest to the point of near invisibility, he passed virtually the whole of his life within the confines of his house/studio and his teaching at the Academia. He didn’t bother to cultivate any relationships. He developed a totally independent mind but buried away were insights of the highest brilliance. He preferred to continue his artistic evolution in solitude and far from the national and international spotlight where, however, no critic or artist has ever had the courage to dispute Romano’s vision. For this reason he became the Forgotten Maestro who lived within his sensual poetic dream and became something mysterious in the world of art. At the beginning, in the words of artists of that time (Mazzacurato – Bellotto – Baglioni), he was considered a talented lad who already disdainfully kept himself apart from the masses. At the same time Romano did not categorically exclude any parts of the evolution of art and among the artists that he admired for their evolution and for whom he had a sincere admiration was the English sculptor Henry Moore, Austin O. Spare, etc.

His drawing is imbued with Renaissance harmony committed to a search for perspective where, however, the influence and contents of the XX century vision of art clearly and obviously stand out. At times he is defined by some critics as encyclopaedic, perhaps in bad faith and in a diminutive sense. In some ways he is, especially because of his enormous capacity for interpreting any theme in any material and in any size but his artistic mark is well defined and cannot be confused by an expert: his modelling was always fresh, his act of composition was instantaneous and the nature of composition was always relevant, sometimes dramatic, sometimes gentle, but always led by a strong lyric-poetic force guided by preliminary research, first within texts and then in drawings. The composition has flowing, clean and delicate lines with hints of the Pisano brothers and at times of mysterious Gothic-like traces tending towards Donatello’s Classicism. Probably his recipe was too strong to be understood; his compositions, always so poetic, sprang from a subconscious that can be seen as a continuation of a general surreal vision that self-induced him to isolating himself from external reality. Here he continued to evolve as an artist by following any direction that attracted him without the chains of comfort and of success; he continued to depict in form and in style what he believed to be elegant, poetic and dramatic “lateral realism”; his models were everyday life, the people, politics, religion, realistic studies transformed into dreams, sometimes gentle, sometimes dramatic, but nevertheless faithful to his character. Today his works are scattered a bit everywhere, in public and private galleries. Vio is largely a forgotten figure even though he has his status and is well-known higher up in cultural circles. His genius is equally accessible to all those who know how to appreciate fine arts. He was a pupil of Bellotto and Baglioni but his principal cultural source came from Michelangelo, Donatello, Ghiberti but above all the Pisanos. This can be seen in the ever noble transportation into his own time of the restlessness of the form of his sculptures which, through his interpretative ability, easily overcomes the tradition of spatial plastic equilibrium showing a strengthening of an increasingly more personal language. After the war the historical bond is loosened and gradually dissolves in favour of a freer means of composition and vigour which now denote freedom from any remainder of previous influences. Vio’s harmony of line was born. Without any hesitation he is capable of monumentally composing and clearly depicting complex stories loaded with meaning. His classically harmonious compositions, however, do not hide a subtle tendency towards sorrowfulness and dramaticism of line, based upon modern restlessness. Already in the Fifties he was being noted for his religious depictions, a very important chapter in his work. Clearly to be seen is his search for new passionate expressions which translate themselves into a new dramatic timbre of expression towards the end of his life and which, despite his exterior serenity, denote the upheaval he must have been experiencing in his inner self. In his search he rediscovered archaism, the relationship between form and space where, in short, the principle of perspective vision is maintained, subordinating the background to the foreground.

Nevertheless, in the light of the professed poetics of his later works, we can believe that Vio soon began to find his poetics of the early fifties far too linked to the natural             fact and to the suggestions of very human grace inherent in the subject-matter and therefore set out to search for linguistic means capable of a greater degree of distance and, in a certain sense, of abstraction. Vio’s natural sculptural quality, reserved, proud and culturally linked to and on a par with Pisano’s school, helped him to better isolate the malleable forms as pure image, over and above a too immediate evoking of natural forms.

Vio dabbled in languages where form stops on the threshold of space and the function of boundary is taken up by the line in its subtle and sensitive vibration. The vigour of the line becomes exact perspective and exalts the values of dramatic sculptural quality of the foreground figures; one can see how Vio fully expressed his poetics on which the poetry of his masterpieces was to flourish from then onwards. In fact those lines define the body structure of the image in the very act of spiritualising it, of making it the bearer of a deep and subtle spiritual restlessness. And the spark of poetry is kindled at the point where the synthesis of the two ideals is born: the transfiguration of the truth into image, or platonically, beauty and, conversely, the discovery of the beauty of a moral content. Vio was to closely examine the experience of his language, committing himself to purifying the “functional linear style” of all functionality with respect to the values of modelling and of movement. Everywhere the language becomes more precise and more fitting to express fanciful visions which lift a subtle and almost sorrowful restlessness of mind to a tone of high contemplation, so that that moment of pausing and turning lasts indefinitely, outside of time: movement comes to a standstill, action becomes a memory. History and action are transformed in Romano’s fantasy into the contemplation of the myth. Vio’s humanistic approach enabled him to contemplate the image in the mirror of Polycletus               “pondering”, the memory of which can be clearly distinguished in his figures in the contrast of the straight leg and the bent leg, in the lowering of the shoulder on the supporting leg side, in the opposite turning of the head. Of course this allusion to the ancient figurative world projects the image in a suggestive distance of a poetic memory and of musical rhythm which always seems to increasingly disappear in everyday art that is unable to recognise itself in its history. Therefore, the accent differs in the various phases of the artist’s career but expression remains uniform in its essence, coherent in its poetic world: coherence which is mirrored in the constant development of language, based on a line which includes and summarises, in more discreet or in more open allusions, the values of volume and space. Romano Vio’s inspiration was always kindled at the point where movement turns into pose, at the point where life becomes contemplated memory, where reality becomes an image and symbol, and history becomes set in the crystal of myth. Twenty years after his death, on re-examining his life and his work, we have to admire on one hand his courage in rejecting the prevailing critics and on the other in succeeding in devising a cultural growth unhindered by commerce and succeeding in developing that religious field so often snubbed and humiliated by the all present art critics/dealers. As I have tried to pinpoint in my analysis, the cultural legacy of Vio’s work, considerable even from the methodological point of view because it draws away from “visible” purism, shows how much content of thought can be found in the language of a figurative artist who has followed a different concept of art from the commonly accepted one, so as to place him among the greatest artists and sculptors of the XX century. Romano died in Venice on 24 August 1984 leaving many works unfinished, including some human-size sculptures, one in wood, others modelled in clay for subsequent casting in bronze ready for the Rome Quadriennale. There is no record of where many works ended up: many others are owned by his heirs. They are works which are awaiting rediscovery and a final resting place. There is also a considerable collection of drawings and pictures which would deserve to be permanently on display in some museum and to be viewed by a far wider public, obviously with the consent of the heirs who are, perhaps quite rightly, very particular about preserving such works.

 

 

A CONTRIBUTION TO UNDERSTANDING A XX CENTURY SCULPTOR:

ROMANO VIO 1913 – 1984

ERMANNO DI PALEARI

 

During the second half of the XX century Italian sculpture hit an exceptional level of richness of meaning, reaching out across Europe with Martini, Melotti and Marini. Given the differences among the individual protagonists, it is not an easy task to determine the main line of sculpturing during the last forty years; nevertheless anthropomorphic requirements continually balanced between past and present, between Etruscan or Greek influences and deformations inherent in decadentism, point to an aesthetic picture abounding in dialectic controversies.(1) The very fact that the individual and nature make way for spatial abstraction and to conceptual tendencies is a symptom of harsh debate within creativity.

 

Romano Vio in Posagno, 1970, modelling George Washington (copy of the

work by Canova). Made in marble for the State Capitol of Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

 

These brief notes show how, within contemporary art, there stirs a liberating spirit capable of brushing away all expressive rhetoric and the conventionalities of traditional works: the will to experiment new languages and to deconstruct consolidated figurative expressions has provided some decisive turning-points in our time. The work of Romano Vio (1913-1984) fits in, with full entitlement, with contemporary developments even if it distances itself from all international experimentalism because the need for a strongly interiorised religious creed must be the sculptor’s primary reason. With this perspective that entrusts its own perceptions to the secret pull towards the absolute, a modern artist risks going against the tide in a negative, almost reactionary sense if the interpretation is superficial.

On the contrary, the problem must be tackled from different angles: Vio’s technique does not repeat the forms of the past out of necessity, it lives in the “contingentia mundi” and this is sufficient to register it in the present-day climate without preclusions.

Despite such incontrovertible assertion of worth, the Venetian sculptor’s succession of styles has been completely scorned by the critics. (2) The reasons for such negligence are twofold: firstly his voluntary distancing himself from gallery spheres has contributed to being debarred from the market and to being tied to a scarcely enlightened clientele; secondly a far-reaching output with oscillations and falls in timbre has sometimes hidden the true masterpieces.

Therefore this is why it is difficult, in a short and rigorous synthesis, to understand Vio’s artistic path; one is working without a qualified critical repertoire on a catalogue so wide that it demands a weighty monographic work. Within the restricted space of an article, the task will be to pick out the fundamental stages by examining the cultural formation and the relationship between the various creative periods.

The technique is never improvised and brings together a continual phenomenological meditation aimed at unifying interior experiences with the objectivity of the materials; that very act of continual coherence manages to structure a criterion of persuasive valuation because, even when the proposed theme is reduced to technical ability, the demands of content still do not completely disappear.

Given these basic considerations and seeing that no critical recognition can do without a schematic and rational biography, we must place the beginnings of an artist so modest and isolated in the cultural climate of the 30’s and within the historical events that defined those years without, of course, loosing sight of the preciseness of language.

Romano Vio was born in Venice in February 1913 and during those years political and cultural events were to occur that would condition the future of a nation. At the beginning of the century Italy witnessed the political turning-point of Giolitti with his astute transformations and the birth of a socialist working-class movement still lacerated by internal strife and divided between the partial acceptance of middle-class freedoms and the aggressive but faint-hearted demands on the part of extremists.(3)

However, immediately after 1913, the warning signs of the crisis of the liberal state irreversibly led towards a conflict which was to change the consciences of many intellectuals and politicians: the dilemma of war as a liberating evocation of the Risorgimento or, on the other hand, as a tragic race towards authoritarian madness, characterised the debate of public opinion.

Within such a complex historical scenario, between 1908 and 1913 the lagoon city lived through an artistic period suited to the discovery of important new talents: in fact, in 1908 the exhibitions of the Bevilacqua Foundation began at Cά Pesaro; in 1910 Cά Pesaro was also the venue for an exhibition by Umberto Boccioni; finally in 1913 Gino Rossi and Arturo Martini made their mark.

The aforesaid exhibitions established important connections with Klimt’s Vienna Secession or with the French Nabis, all factors that provoked within the Biennale fierce polemics set off by the followers of the Scarpigliatura movement or by the floral weaknesses of a Bistolfi.(4)

Far away from any theoretical controversy, Vio grew up within the Academy environment and began to work during the twenty-year period under Mussolini.

His attitude is that of an old artisan, paying attention to minute detail and to the personal re-evocation of a millennium of art from the Etruscans to Verrocchio, from Donatello to the intense illuminated atmospheres of Titian, from the Scarpigliatura movement of Trubetskoj to Giuseppe Grandi to the three-dimensional liberties of Arturo Martini.(5)

Indeed, there are several affinities with Martini: both possess a high awareness of the “quod apparitur”, both are committed to freely re-evoking the artistic form from its ancestral recesses to bring it secretly alive thanks to tactile contact. On this point it is useful to quote a phrase by the great man from Treviso to which Vio would have subscribed: “Art cannot bear theories, genres or style. It is a spontaneous discourse, mysterious but pre-destined like birth from a mother’s womb, a natural eternal faculty that amazes in its simplicity in repeating itself throughout time like a blade of grass”.(6)

It is precisely the repetition of forms with secret participation that removes Vio from the rhetorical nonsense that could have imprisoned him inside a sterile art of the regime at the beginning of his career. Certainly our artist does not have European experience behind him and an impossibility of this kind makes him take a road that is culturally less complex than that of Manzù or Marino Marini.

Vio’s first great work, The Boxer, dates from 1938 and can be compared with similar works by Messina and Arturo Martini. The theme of the athlete at rest was a theme dear to the exaltation of Fascist virility but, of the three, only Messina, thanks to his “classical conventionality” isolates “the image from the impulse that can bring it alive, animate it and save it from frigidity” (De Micheli).(7) In the art of the Venetian master there radiates the dignified sense of the muscular masses as seen in the bronze by Apollonio of Athens; at the same time we can note a calibrated harmony of proportions of the articulations together with a realist accent recalled in the hands protected by bandages. However, the real new factor lies in the rough, coarse face, with popular roots not subject to noble acculturations by incontrovertible choice.

From this an important factor can be induced: the strong, harsh vitality of this bronze shows no complex of inferiority when compared with the culture and with the ancient literary patrimony such as the same Arturo Martini, an artist of decidedly proletariat extraction, could have had.(8)

Another noteworthy result from the 30’s, similar in style and intent, is Passo Romano (1939), winner of the prestigious “D. Fadiga” prize.

 

Passo Romano, 1939, owned by Venice City Council

 

For a work that is so implicit in the political logic of the dictatorship the words of Prof. Argan can be useful: “there was Fascist art. Only because of middle-class prejudice and because of the diffidence with which reactionary regimes honour culture, Fascism was hostile to advanced artistic research without, however, getting to the point of condemning and outlawing it as was the case in Germany”.(9)

Although the aforesaid comment denies a Fascist aestheticism, an important consideration emerges regarding the exploitation of currents, whether avant-garde or conservative: opposition by artists was too implicit to impose itself dialectically. Even the attempt to collaborate, by following a perception that Argan rather severely judges to be “mediocre”, must not be understood as passive subordination to the dictates of Mussolini; “Passo Romano” shows this as a certainty. The image of the boy advancing with a military step, holding the rifle shoulder arms, shows a precise ideological understanding but the review by Garofalo in the Gazzettino newspaper was cautious and perhaps circumspect: “today when we tend to deform the model in order to recreate it according to the interior image which the artist has formed and the result is successful in such a way as to lose all its communicative qualities and beauty (certain personal hysterics, even if translated into plaster or marble, are of no interest to anyone), this faith of a young lad, and moreover of a university Fascist, deserves to be encouraged and is quite significant”.(10)

As it can be clearly seen these are observations which stigmatise the experiences of the avant-garde as defeatist but which do not succeed, on the other hand, in consecrating Vio, the apparent traditionalist, within the spheres of officialdom. The young lad shows an unassuming nudity, devoid of cultural hyperbole, almost as if to retrieve a classic spirit sheltered from classicisms. The work must be viewed in profile and not frontally so that it acquires a balanced chiasm of the articulations on a par with pre-Phidian Hellenism but, in contrast, the mellow delicate head vibrates with subtle chiaroscuro effects, similar to the art of Desiderio da Settignano or of Mino, on that slender body bereft of any authoritative rules of proportion. Therefore it is in certain discordances that we can pick up a fitting modern sensitivity with the study of a Rodin or of the post-Scarpigliatura movement.

On a technical level the skill of the modeller appears in the finished bronze. By leaving no sharp edges and no unsolved planes and by carefully smoothing the modelled figure, we have the exact notion of maturity of expression in an artist of barely twenty-five. All things considered this youthful example links up with the anxieties of a generation that wanted to attract the general attention by means of the only valid instrument they had to be accepted: the ideological filter. In fact Vio owed his access to Academy teaching, to the very Biennale and to these openings towards the cultural commissions for the regime.

The interlude of the war led him to change course, just as suddenly as coherently, for about a thirty-year period (1948-1980). His work followed two courses: a more limited one regarding private portraiture and small intimate bronzes, the other centring on a consistent Christian path. Both courses, but especially the second one, show an assiduous and wearying research, at times abounding in mental anguish in order to communicate a religious feeling in a period that was indifferent to metaphysical explorations if we make an exception for the universal importance of Melotti and the iconic heterodoxy of Manzù. (11)

His association with Venanzo Crocetti and his teaching activity enabled the sculptor to be relatively tranquil from an economic point of view and to refine technical methods, even if the post-war period forced him into a slow marginalisation; new and updated artists were by then alternating in exhibitions and national expositions. A dignified silence was all that remained.

The head of his son Francesco (1948) indicates a yielding to family affections, dear to late XIX century tastes. This small head, only 20 cm. high, hides a passionate recognition of infantile subject-matter with the help of Hellenist statuary (12) and of the excellent putto with dolphin by Andrea Del Verrocchio. The natural factor acquires psychological force by exploring the ample furrow of the lips and of the cheeks that are animated by surprising sprinklings of chiaroscuro. Also significant is the untidy, almost Impressionist head of hair, giving three-dimensional leaps and animated lines to the indistinct roundness of the top of the skull.

Another small important sculpture can also be assigned to the intimist theme: Bella signora (1956). The repertoire again links up with the Tuscan Renaissance of Verrocchio with his “Dama con mazzolino” but can also be compared to the female figures in the great scenario of S. Rocco painted in the late XVI century by Tintoretto. The synthesis between environment and figure widens the geometrical planes by founding the vision on a full relief open to atmospheric qualities: we find ourselves in the three-dimensional scale of Medardo Rosso, imbued with light and with delicately shaded transitions even if the solidity of modelling is not completely lost in the figure’s outline. The dignified image of a woman bent over her sewing, silent and elegant in her large mass of hair, vibrates with an interior movement stamped on her hands. These simple findings show an extremely modest and domestic concept of the female gender, far removed from Expressionist concepts and from the neo-Cubist image doubling; this is a Vio who is a painstaking modulator of microstructures, who gives up debating with society. This appears to be a constant danger in the Venetian master: by not accepting ongoing research in the various currents, he would have confined himself to being a probable anachronism if he had not been supported on one hand by highly poetical formal solutions and on the other by a deeply-felt ponderation.

The religious theme, which evolved until his death through at least three exemplifying stages belonging to different decades, deserves far more complex words: the Death of St. Benedict (1950), Our Standard (1969) and the wonderful series of the Via Crucis (1979/80). The intent seems truly arduous in the aforementioned works: to succeed in capturing the absolute need of the Christian spirit by virtue of a basic language or, even better, of a metalanguage. To accentuate the most innermost threads of the Catholic Word two suggestions spring naturally to mind: the free quoting from the Gothic-Humanist past (Nicola Pisano – Donatello) re-established in a sensitivity, at times severe, at times tormenting, or the call to the written word with the tactile material by making one an exact respondent of the other.

If a philosophical parameter implied in these aesthetics were practicable, it could be put into effect through the thoughts of Maurice Blondel who did consider will to be the epicentre of action but the power of will only finds necessary completion in divine revelation.(13)

The Death of St. Benedict, presented at the International Exposition of Sacred Art in Rome (1950) and later in other prestigious competitions, has not been accorded its rightful place by the critics because of the theoretical misunderstandings stated previously. The few lines by Italo Furlan in Il Gazzettino (14) and by M.L. Daniele in L’Avenire d’Italia do not explain the expressive root of the work. And yet the terse words of Vio himself ought to put us on the right path: “old oak after lengthy toiling – ora et labora – bows the head in the serenity of death”. (15)

In just a few words, in keeping with the conciseness of artists, he succeeds in expressing two interpretative values: one focused on death as the annihilation of human sentiment, the other converging towards the metaphysical destiny of sanctity, which spreads out from God.

The figure, pressed onto the background almost as if resembling a tombstone, delves with insight into the mighty high-reliefs produced in Venice between 1200 and 1500 and, because of its restrained dynamism, it must be observed from a central view-point, in accordance with Humanism’s perspective practices. The lean head emerges from the imposing mass of the habit with the rigidity of a funereal mask and yet it reveals a final naturalistic breath comparable to works by Nicola Pisano. However, the modelling conserves a traditional manner and moves along wide planes and, with the solemn rhythm of the folds, the drapery offers a taste of dignified Classicism. These elements of contradiction indicate how much the artist’s effort is subject to visual or stylistic inequalities.

More enlightened results appear when the process of synthesis of forms joins with the concept of a divinity that is a vivifier of art itself. In relief work the road often appears too deaf to contemporary languages and yet heedful of the solutions of late Gothic wooden triptychs as in the case of S. Clare Driving out the Saracens (1958) and the Sermons of St. Anthony of Padua (1963).

After such disappointing experiences, “Our New Standard” with its succinct conciseness appears to be extraordinary: the comparison between Christ and modern ethics is played out in a dialectical game that is subtle and hazardous but not iconoclastic.

The base invites us to ascend the moments of the drama by means of spiral torsion, generating rapid changes of viewpoint. The figures appearing in the scene at the feet of Jesus represent the ethical evils of a capitalist society, experienced with Franciscan simplicity but also with the classical power of a Lorenzo Milani. It must be said that the controversy against the official dictates of the church emerges, however, from sterile virulence because it draws from ancient religious sources. On the right we have the armed soldier, a model of war; in the centre the man loaded with only cruelty or the bearer of egoism, and finally on the left the most deviant attitude for Christ’s followers: indifference. None of these presences is the abstraction of concept, indeed each anthropomorphic element becomes loaded with blatant expressionist counterpoints. The lengthened forms of the horse and of the figures actually echo with the poetic anguish of a Giacometti.

The development of the concluding part, even from the cathartic point of view, embraces the earnest solicitations of a hallucinated Baroque dramaturgy with the violently shaken and filiform appearance of Paul VI outstretched towards the Crucified Christ.

As Pietro Zampetti (16) so well maintained, Romano Vio reaches the peak of his whole career on the threshold of seventy in the bronze panels cast for the church of S. Marco Evangelista in Mira Porte.

The thread of memory, so alive and active in the sculptor, brings him to the dramatic and howling scenes of the German Vesperbielder, bleak and anguished in the wooden tissue, then with spontaneous acumen rises up the slope of pain to Donatellian heights to holiness and to the clear-cut and calligraphic engravings of Durer’s small Passion to abate in the overexposed laicity of the doors to St. Peter’s by Manzù’. In this stupendous cycle “Romano Vio is no less than the Maestro from Bergamo; above all he has known how to relive the great tragedy of Christ with acute sensitivity, with a deep and moving sense of poetry” (P. Zampetti). (17)

The intention is already clear in the first station of the cross: he does not want to separate the learned interpretation from the popular roots of the problem; the message becomes clear before our eyes as Telhard de Chardin maintains. (18)

Unrestrained by reticence, devoid of all rhetorical concessions, the theme frees itself of binding ideological controls, precisely because it is confined in the venerable environment of a provincial church. It might seem paradoxical but the better Vio is to be found in private collections or in the almost forgotten presence of a suburban church. In Jesus Receiving the Cross, the composition becomes progressively complex through the dynamic positioning of the two main figures using three-quarter profile and through the perspective essentiality of the two axes of the cross. The full-bodied nature of the masses is exalted by the vigorous “schiacciato” and by the synthesis of the figure giving off flashes of Luminarism. The background, with an almost cinematographic gradual disappearance, embraces figure and space in an Impressionist sketch of rare finesse. Vio’s modernity can be measured in the IV station where he tackles Christ’s meeting with his mother. As in the Veronese panels of the bronze doors of S. Zeno (XI cent.),(19) the “schiacciato” relief covers the lower parts of the drapery with unimaginable force while overbearingly giving prominence to the heads in their engrossed and painful conversation, substituting the normal perspective with a controlled but more psychological one. The light shows similarities with Titian and extends across the background to make it atmospheric and therefore, by contrast, brings out the violent projection of Mary and Christ.

The cross can only provide the balancing factor among otherwise non-uniform rhythms. In The Cyrenian (V) and in The Holy Face (VI) the two clear-cut and terse planes of composition do not appear to concede anything to depth which is entirely entrusted to the relief of the figures, extended in the shepherds and in Veronica, binding and contrasted in the cross-bearing Christ. Contrary to what happened in the Renaissance, the rhythmic play is subordinate to the modelling. In The Cyrenian the cross and the hill slope appear parallel, the shepherds and Christ on double diagonals. In all these panels an exemplary economy of figures dominates; on the other hand subsequent stories have more complex directions and the crowd takes on self-sufficiency, almost as if a polyphonic need arose passing from harmony to counterpoint.

The evolutionary line begins with the XI station: the fallen Jesus is reduced to the subtle uniform lineation of his tunic, recalling the modelling of Martini, before exploding in the impassioned boundary of the bust, lean and tormented following the example of Grunewald.

The taut and emaciated outline of the Cyrenian stretches out towards the Messiah, creating continuous lines of triangular force, to then be picked up again in the cross itself. In the background the solitary horseman in his geometrical pose recalls Marino Marini who rediscovered the myth of humanity in the horseman.

The stations from XII to XIV conclude the story, bringing the art of bas-relief to the highest possibilities of expression. The crucified Christ could have become saturated with impersonal and anonymous quotes but rather adopts the comparison with two protagonists of painting: Masaccio and Tintoretto. That sense of bilateral symmetry, rediscovered after many, one could say unorthodox, attempts, comes from Masaccio, a symmetry that is positioned in a painstaking perspective space; however the light and the dramatic layout of the almost sketched background have similar success in Tintoretto in S. Rocco. Here, however, each element has its autonomous worth without looking for Mannerist-style magniloquence: in short it is an intimate theatre. On the other hand we must not forget that the perfect result is obtained thanks to the collaboration of Vio the modeller with Brustolin the foundry man: without a continuous, mutual plan the technique, which transcribes and intermediates the base mark of clay into bronze, would be subject to irremediable diversions of communication.

 

XI station – Church of S. Marco Evangelista, Mira Porte

 

The last two scenes separate the Deposition from the Placing in the Sepulchre.  The Deposition is one of the most extraordinary points in the cycle and the casting process has not cancelled the traces and freshness of the modeller: the subtly, even sharply, engraved lines create an effect of space that oscillates between perspective and atmospheric. The diagonal exploits the larval curve of the Virgin Mary whose bowed head receives the violent foreshortening of the dead Christ. The planes flee towards the background, arousing a sorrow elevated to tragedy.

Finally, for the Placing in the Sepulchre, the referent can only be in the wonderful Nanto stone in Padua. (20) In an updated tone it presents the same perspective essentiality, the same clotting of dramatic gestures, next to an ascending arrangement of human presence. The shroud, so solemnly taut and waning, brings together the figures with the same rhythms of Christ’s now lifeless body. The steady and sure modelling underlines a classic recovery from the Scrovegni Giotto. In short the exemplary elevation of tone emphasises what levels XX century religious poetics could reach when astonishment and reason in aesthetic action are very clear.

An example of grand style: the monument to Umberto Giordano. In our artist’s works the competition for the monument commemorating Umberto Giordano occupies a separate place. In fact he was never again able to try his hand at a civil undertaking of such commitment despite his fervent desire to operate on the highest urban scale. (21)

Certainly the commission is decided within the sphere of provincial notables over a period of time (1956-62) crossed by conservative political pressures on a national level; however, beating 52 participants in a public competition is a clear statement of Vio’s worth where he expresses himself without sweetened yearnings. On the other hand the jury, consisting of important experts of the calibre of Guglielmo de Angeli d’Ossat or of Franco Schettini, bears witness to a decision that was neither subjective not impulsive. The artist’s accompanying written presentation contains the criteria adopted with regard to a historical monument and there emerges a distinguished respect for the traditional cemetery repertoire of the Risorgimento so abounding in customary symbolic references and in bogus architectural elements. (22)

An important innovation which seems to anticipate subsequent Milanese solutions (Andrea Cascella, Minguzzi) is to place series and statues in an already predisposed park. The flowerbed makes the square regular and marks the boundary of the natural scenario which closely interacts with the creative activity of man. The central green space enables the groups to be read in an alternating series of masses and voids. The figures are taken from the various operas written by Giordano from 1896 (Andrea Chenier) to 1929 (Il Re). (23)

 

Andrea Chenier, 1956/62 – Monument to Umberto Giordano, Foggia

 

Umberto Giordano, an exponent of post-Verdian music, has only received a balanced appraisal of his worth in recent years even if the words of Massimo Mila are still valid for their effectiveness: “none of the composers belonging to this school makes progress; generally speaking they no longer succeed, in the case of a long career, to match a felicitous initial success”.(24) Vio transcribes in a very dynamic visual language that melodrama between Romanticism and Verism that is characteristic of the composer from Foggia.

 

Il Re, 1956/62 – Monument  to Umberto Giordano, Foggia

 

Several XX century masters have taken an interest in the complex relationships between art and music but this case is almost unique because recurring ties are with painting (Klee) or with architecture (Gropius). Generally speaking the sculptor does not find the necessary linguistic affinities and the difficulty increases if we think of a master who had no continuous musical experience; certainly the secret harmonies which bind the various expressive disciplines are lost. An examination of the complex can start with “Il Re”, a melodrama where Giordano forces himself to vary his own taste with a careful orchestration and an effective theatrical style. (25) The sculptural group captures the essential moment of the libretto and arranges it in a daring pyramidal layout with fire positioned on the right. The young girl, with a subtle grace in keeping with Manzǔ, spies underneath the wig and official regalia of the King a mediocre and wretched figure of a decrepit man. The fulcrum of the scene is determined by a skilful use of fullness and void and of orchestral chiaroscuro by means of the natural stage of trees. The extreme control of the barely gathered drapery and the facial expressions balanced in their realism enrich the excerpt with a fairytale touch.

In “Andrea Chenier” the figure of the revolutionary poet walks towards the guillotine accompanied by Maddalena who follows him in the same destiny of love and freedom. (26) The suggestion of a sincere late-Romantic sentiment inherent in the early Giordano is only partially captured by Vio who carries out a rigorous control of every lyric moment as an end in itself. Both Andrea and Maddalena almost emerge from the base with a subtle and aerial lineation similar to the profitable nouveau season of Constantin Meunier or of Leonardo Bistolfi.

Finally we could place the transposition of Siberia which sums up the artist’s various stylistic phases both successfully and completely. The death of Stephane, a public woman who proclaims her love for Vassili, (27) is tackled with a daring and upward-rising horizontality on a par with Giotto. As usual the psychological introspection shows a certain idealistic purification while the volumetric retrieval on a well raised base is dominant in all the images. Here we can find the complexity common to all the statues of the late period; the characters, sculpted with wide-scale harmony and theatricality of gestures, show a declared classic force which dates back to the beginning of Vio’s activity and to the examples of Ernesto Bazzaro.(28)

Ermanno Paleari

Milan

Teacher of Art History

1990

 

Notes

  1. General texts dealing with the XX century: C. Maltese Storia dell’arte italiana, Turin, 1960 and G. Anzani-L. Caramel Scultura moderna in Lombardia, Milan, 1981
  2. The bibliography for R. Vio consists of just three publications and numerous articles. For a wide anthological choice see: Romano Vio, mostra di scultura, S. Nicolờ, Venice Lido (preface by C.B. Tiozzo), 1982 and Romano Vio scultore 1913-1984 (preface by P. Rizzi), Venice 1984. The latter volume contains a bibliography updated to 1985. In merito al concorso indetto per il monumento a Umberto Giordano, Foggia, 1956, contains all the participants’ designs as well as the words written by the winner Romano Vio.
  3. For a close understanding of the work of Giolitti and his relations with the working-class movement see: G. De Rosa, La crisi dello stato liberale in Italia, Rome, 1964; G. Carocci, Giolitti e l’etά Giolittiana, Turin, 1961: G. Manacorda, Il movimento operaio italiano, Rome, 1963.
  4. About the artistic debate at the beginning of the XX century and the exhibitions see: M. De Micheli, Le avanguardie artistiche del Novecento, Milan, 1966 and especially A. Pansera-M. Vitta, Guida all’arte contemporanea, Casale, 1986.
  5. In his preface to the publication Romano Vio op.cit. Paolo Rizzi warns against considering Vio’s expressive freedom as being eclectic: “This versatility has often been taken for eclecticism. In a certain sense it is: but not as subjection to the so called ‘mannerisms’, but rather as restlessness of mind” but then Rizzi’s own statement that “Vio does not have one style of his own” is thwarted. The question of worth lies in the relationship between stylistic practice and expressive meditation.
  6. This passage comes from: M. De Micheli, La scultura del Novecento, Turin, 1980, page 78.
  7. De Micheli op.cit. pages 92-93.
  8. As regards Martini, De Micheli states: “this popular root, which indeed has been suitably pointed out by more than one attentive critic, is what has allowed him not to identify himself totally with the intimately aristocratic assumptions of poetics and of ‘metaphysical’ practice”.
  9. G. C. Argan, L’arte moderna (1770-1979), Florence, 1984, page 459
  10. The article by A. Garofalo in Il Gazzettino, 26 January 1939 together with the one by O.L. Passerella in Il Gazzettino, 25 January 1939, are examples of the critical and cultural limits of Fascist journalism.
  11. Regarding Manzừ’s particular position which started from an uneducated Christianity to reach a Humanism far from the position of the Church see pages 104-105 by M. De Micheli op.cit.
  12. For example the girl struggling with the goose by Boèthos in P. Adorno, L’arte italiana, Florence, 1992, vol. I page 268.
  13. A brief excursus on Blondel can be found in M. Dal Pra, Profilo di storia della filosofia, Florence, 1971, vol. III page 194.
  14. Romano Vio, Mostra di scultura, Chiostro Monastero Benedettino of S. Nicolờ, Venice Lido, 1982, page 8.
  15. Romano Vio op.cit. page 8
  16. P. Zampetti-L. Sesler S. Marco Evangelista di Mira Porte, Venice, 1985, pages 17-18, 46, 54 and 58 where other bronzes by Vio are also analyzed.
  17. In P. Zampetti-L. Sesler op.cit. page 18.
  18. An interesting passage by De Chardin is used by Claude Cuenot Teilhard de Chardin, Florence, 1964, pages 125-126: “You could say that seeing is life, if not as an end at least as an essence…. The perfection of an animal, the supremacy of the thinking human being cannot perhaps be measured by the penetration and by the synthetic power of a look, to try and see more or better is not therefore a fantasy, a curiosity, a luxury. See or perish”. As for Teilhard so for Vio seeing is where the spiritual understanding is brought to bear on the biological.
  19. A comprehensive iconographic repertoire accompanied by important critical remarks in E. Arslan, La pittura e la scultura veronese, Milan, 1943, pages 83-106.
  20. Regarding Donatello’s Deposition, cf. Tutta la scultura di Donatello edited by L. Grassi, Milan, 1963, pages 37-97.
  21. For the various projects submitted for the competition it is useful to consult the publication Giordano, Foggia, 1956, pages 48-115.
  22. The presentation by Romano Vio highlights very well the requirements for the project. See Giordano, op.cit. pages 43-44.
  23. An evaluation of the whole of Umberto Giordano’s work can be found in F. Testi, Umberto Giordano, Enciclopedia della Musica, vol.II, Milan, 1964, pages 316-317.
  24. Repertoire in F. Testi, Umberto Giordano, Enciclopedia della Musica, op.cit. pages 316-317.
  25. article by F. Testi.
  26. For the plot of Andrea Chenier it is useful to read Il Dizionario dell’opera lirica edited by M. Porzio, Milan, 1977, page 449
  27. The plot of Siberia can also be found in Il Dizionario dell’opera lirica, op.cit. page 482.
  28. An effective examination of Bazzaro can be found in G. Anzani-L. Caramel, Scultura moderna in Lombardia, Milan, 1981, page 84.