Saturday, March 16, 2013

Close encounter with a Renaissance style artist and his fresco

Thursday, March 14, 2013 (part 1)
I hardly know the words to describe this fascinating day. Carlo Spadoni picks me up at 9 a.m., and in the next 12 hours, I will have more adventures than in my previous 10 days in Italy. He is accompanied by his good friend Franco Del Sarto, an accomplished artist who has created a fresco in a small church in Gramolazzo in alta Garfagnana, which is about a two-hour drive from San Salvatore.

Villa Mansi
Early in the trip, Carlo drives us past some of the sprawling and famous 16th and 17th century mansions near Camigliano where the rich families of Lucca used to live—and show off their wealth with elaborate gardens, fountains and ornate and imposing manors. We see the exterior of many of the most famous: Villa Mansi, Villa Torrigiani, Villa Reale, Villa Oliva, Villa Grabau and another few whose names I don’t remember.

Carlo and Franco carry on a steady conversation the entire trip, and I struggle to understand, mostly a losing battle. At times they slow down and ask me questions about myself, and then I am able to participate in a halting and ungrammatical way.

To reach Gramolazzo, we have to drive about two-thirds of the way up the scenic Garfagnana valley, a trip Lucy and I have taken twice before and enjoyed immensely. Today our route takes us through San Romano, the birthplace of Leona and Renata Donati, both of whom married into my family in the U.S. I know there are still Donatis who live in San Romano, but knowing we have a long day ahead, I don’t ask to stop. Maybe some time I will come back and take a walk around.

Il Battesimo di Gesu' nel Giordano, by Franco Del Sarto
Gramolazzo is not in the valley itself but up in the Alpi Apuane mountains west of Piazza Al Serchio. Snow is still visible in piles as we enter town and stop to get a church key. Then we make a call at a restaurant so Carlo can inform the proprietors we’ll be back soon for pranzo. The Chiesa di S. Bartolomeo e S. Rocco was built in 1959, without the ornamentation and frescos of the older churches. Carlo, who has an acquaintance in the town, noticed the plainness of the walls and hatched an idea to have Franco adorn them with frescoes. He presented the idea to pastor Don Gloria Giannetti, and the idea soon picked up steam.

Franco Del Sarto, self portrait
“One Sunday morning, sitting on a bench waiting for the pastor to start the celebration of Mass, while I was intent looking at the white walls of the nave, a strange idea began to flash in my mind,” he said.

“Being a native of Ponte Buggianese, where the master Pietro Annigoni has painted the interior of the Chiesa della Madonna del Buon Consiglio, aided my thinking: If only this church could be completely frescoed, what a wonder that would be. I immediately thought of my friend Franco Del Sarto, a painter of the school of Annigoni. The church of Gramolazzo could become his church.

“A day later I proposed this to Franco, and with his agreement I talked with Don Gloria. I committed myself to realizing the fresco in the hope that others would continue on this path so that one day upon entering the church you will find yourself in front of a wonderful show that delights the eye as well as helps you to grow in faith.”

When the church is opened and I see the fresco up close, I realize what a privilege it is to have the project explained to me by the artist himself, and I also come to appreciate his mastery. I have seen other modern paintings done in classical style, and often they have an amateurish look, but this looks like it could have come out of the Renaissance—the only difference being the colors are still bright and fresh rather than faded from centuries of weathering.

Franco Del Sarto with the famous Paul Spadoni. Oops, got
that a little twisted around.

I have read enough to know that painting in affresco technique is difficult because once the artist has applied the lime plaster to a section of the wall, he has to complete that section the same day—thus each section is called a giornata. To “build” a fresco, plaster is applied in several layers, starting with the rough arriccio layer and finishing with the intonaco coat. Franco tells me that unlike acrylic or oil, fresco painting cannot be covered over, thus making every stroke permanent. If the artist feels dissatisfied with some part, the plaster and paint either must be scraped off while still wet, or if dry, chipped off and the process started over again with the arriccio layer.

The fresco intentionally combines aspects of the Biblical story of the baptism of Jesus with other historical characters as well as symbols of the Garfagnana. Thus the river looks like a mountain stream that could be found locally instead of the River Jordan. The sheep grazing nearby are typical of the nearby hills. Watching from the lower corners are the patron saints of the church, accompanied by symbolism that represents their lives. Saint Bartolomeo is depicted under a fig tree, where he was found when first seen by Jesus. A knife is embedded in the earth in front of him because of the traditional medieval story that he was martyred by being skinned alive. Saint Rocco is shown as an impoverished pilgrim with a dog because he gave away all his possessions and once was saved from dying in the woods by a dog that brought him bread and healed his wounds by licking them.

Franco tells me the work took about a year to realize, with the first half taken for research, sketches and preparation of the wall, and another six months for the painting. I ask Franco who paid for the work, since the church is in a small and isolated community. I don’t completely grasp his answer because of my weak language skills, but it sounds as if some donations of money and labor were received, with Carlo being the most significant monetary donor and Franco doing the work for no fee. He also tells me that a figure on the right of the work bears the likeness of Carlo’s mother holding Simone, Carlo’s older son, and another figure on left of is Carlo’s late wife Sandra, holding their other son Francesco.

I am given a booklet and CD that describe the background of the project and includes a list of Franco’s awards and accomplishments, which takes up three full pages. Later I read online about the fame of Pietro Annigoni, one of Franco’s maestros. Besides creating frescoes and having exhibited work all over Italy, Annigoni painted portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Pope John Paul XXIII, the Shah and Empress of Iran, Princess Margaret and numerous other famous figures.

Carlo Spadoni, Franco Del Sarto and Paul Spadoni pranzano a Gramolazzo.
Carlo locks up and we drive to the restaurant for lunch. I often find that the best meals in Italy are served in country restaurants that have no menus, and as usual, I am not disappointed. The minestrone is fantastic, and I sip slowly to savor every spoonful. I also have grilled chicken and ceci beans. We have a superb red house wine, and I can’t resist refilling my glass. I feel sorry for Carlo, who declines more than a sip knowing he has to maneuver the curving mountain roads. I never find out if the meal price is the usual country bargain because Carlo insists on paying.

Franco shows his sketch to Don Gloria Giannetti.
We make two more visits in town before heading farther into the Garfagnana on other business. First we stop at the home of Don Gloria, where Franco shows him some ideas for the next section of the wall, where Franco wants to paint The Last Supper. Don Gloria tries to feed us and give us wine, but we decline on the very valid excuse that we are full from lunch. Then we stop at the home of Roberto Davini, the director of the Bank of Gramolazzo, where the dolce is brought out and the wine bottle opened even during our polite attempts to refuse. Roberto has pledged financial support for Franco’s next fresco, and Franco wants him to see his sketches as well. By the end of the conversion, I have tried all three types of sweets and had two more small glasses of wine, so by now I have had about as much wine as I usually drink in a month. I do not realize there is more to come today.

From there, we are off another pursuit, to find more Spadonis—dead or alive. And that will be part 2 of todays adventure, coming soon on your favorite blog.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting day and learning about the fresco process. Such a permanent painstaking process. Great to hear you are having such authentic experiences. Just what you were hoping for.



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