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PAOLO LEVI

THE METAPHYSICAL DIMENSION OF THE FRESCO

CONVERSATION BETWEEN FRANCO BERALDO AND PAOLO LEVI


Paolo Levi: Why did you turn to fresco painting at a certain point in your long artistic career?

Franco Beraldo: Painting is a kind of theatre, it is like a representation of visual memory and our cultural stratifications. The fresco is the oldest painting, we see it in churches, in the dwellings of Pompeii, in archaeological sites, but it is also the painting I saw as a child; I grew up in a town called Meolo and in my church, at the top, there was a fresco by Tiepolo. I always wondered how he managed to do that. And to tell the truth, the colours of that fresco are the colours of my painting.

In my opinion, oil painting is linked to the representation of the objective reality that surrounds us. The fresco, on the other hand, is no longer linked to naturalism, but can enter a reality, an almost metaphysical dimension. In this sense, it can be a means of representing the image of the world that everyone has inside them, like a drug that the shaman takes to enter another reality.

Giorgio Vasari claimed that the fresco is man's only true painting and that it introduces us into an immaterial reality that is half physical and half spiritual.

In the fresco, the lime burns the colours, even the brightest ones undergo a sort of dulling, and this burning is like evoking a memory with our eyes closed, and reality appears to us with blurred rather than sharp contours: we remember the voices of faces better, the atmosphere more than the precision of a moment. The fresco is like the memory, it gives back the same vagueness, the same evocative atmosphere.

Did you have masters or models?

When I felt the need to try the fresco technique, I turned to Bruno Saetti's assistant, Paolo Scarpa. He was a great teacher who introduced and accompanied me, perhaps a little jealously at first, but then he devoted himself to me with extreme generosity. The first fresco I did was one of the most beautiful, and while I was doing it I felt like I had always known how to do it, it seemed to come naturally out of my hands. Arturo Martini said that the Etruscans made statues with the same naturalness with which women make pasta; that is how the fresco was for me, easy and natural. The wall paintings I loved most were those of Piero della Francesca's Arezzo cycle. I used to visit them periodically, I felt a peaceful atmosphere, the colours were in perfect harmony with each other, the shapes, even if aggressive, were in their natural position where the artist had wanted them, the composition miraculously balanced.

We come to the choice of subjects, where interior and exterior spaces play. It is as if you had deliberately stopped at the beginning of the 20th century, following the trail of silence.

Here it is more difficult to answer, because I really love the modern action painting of Pollock and Rothko. But if an artist doesn't want to cheat, he has to draw on his culture, he can't skip steps. Pollock and Rothko had travelled a path that led them to express themselves in a certain way and lived in different times and environments from mine. I was born in a small country town: my early childhood, my imprinting came from the sky, which I would look at for hours on end. My expressive style comes from these moments of contemplation. However, I found it natural to start from the early twentieth century, even though culturally it may be far from my background, and yet I investigate these links, which I also use.

At this point, the theme of presence-absence opens up, since you talk to me about the fresco as objectivity and detachment, but also as an expression of subjectivity. Just as you say that your roots lie in your childhood in the country, but then you express more or less explicitly a sense of rupture and refer to Pollock and Rothko. So it seems clear to me that there is a hidden shadow of yours. So let's talk about shadow and light.

My still lifes are somewhere in between, between shadow and light. On the window sills, the shadows are barely noticeable and it is this middle light that interests me most, the light of the terrace, where the light is neither internal, and therefore not interior, nor external, and therefore not connected to objective reality.

Between light and shadow, we are in metaphysics, is this your message?

People say: 'I am a painter', which is like asking: 'what am I expressing through my painting? And will the message I communicate be perceived?"

That's the problem, and it's real because painting is a way of communicating with others.


Instead of saying the others, why don't you say the other, since yours is not a painting that addresses the masses. The others do not exist, there is only the other, which is your own solitude in front of the painting.

You are right, it is clear that the other is always me, and that painting is a communication between me and myself. My forms are chastened, geometric and essential, I have to play with the relationships of light, it is not easy to create silence in the painting, it is quite complicated.

Is the silence within the painting or within the viewer? Does the viewer have to be prepared to receive the message from the surface of your painting?

I am not interested in putting my biography inside the painting, I have to set myself aside in front of the painting. My feelings are personal and should not be of interest to others.

On the other hand, the viewer can also interpret what he sees with his own feelings. However, the content of a painting is always a difficult message.

So let's say that I am the user of your message, and that the silence of the paint surface is transmitted to me because I am predisposed to silence. So the user who is ru-mous inside cannot understand your painting. But I can also not perceive the silence because I put myself in a neutral position. However, a painting is not a splinter of the artist's spirit, it is his spirit that has settled on that track, and your spirituality, if you will allow me, is not on the surface of the painting, it is the painting. There is no surface in a painting, there is the soul. So there are only two possibilities: either I am able to receive your message because I am used to solitude and I recognise it in your painting, or I am totally unaware, but the charge of silence that I feel in your painting awakens in me an echo of spirituality.

This may be more interesting.

You make me think of Morandi, who always repeats the same painting to rediscover and renew the same shadow, the same light and the same vibration. In a similar way, you fall every time into the silence of the image, which becomes secondary to the continuous search for definition of the relationship between surface and interiority.

To compare me with Morandi seems a bit daring...

But like him, you are a Franciscan of painting, perhaps more ancient because you use frescoes. And again, you propose an alternative to his pictorial and sign repetitiveness, which would be the recitation of a metaphysical drama. Your religio-osity is not contemplative, it is the writing of a prayer page.

I think that frescoes do not grant great riches. It is a chastened painting, very poor, my colours are few, only six. My colours are few, just six. Then they are mixed, the real chromatic richness is in the water and the lime.

I have a fairly personal idea of artistic individuality. The artist is never completely in control of his manual and technical skills, because if that were the case, every work would always have the same level of quality, with no lapses. The artist in my opinion is driven by a kind of spiritual influence, a kind of channel between himself and something that transcends him. Sometimes this channel is open, sometimes half-open, sometimes closed, and he only realises it when he stands in front of the canvas, or the wall. There is no inspiration that comes suddenly, you have to be prepared to receive it. The artist is an instrument that has been refined through education, formed by his own destiny, then something acts in him and a work is born, which then assumes its autonomy and leaves; someone else takes care of it to give it a decent life.

Very well, let us now see how you proceed, your elaboration of the fresco, the essence of this way of working.

To do a fresco, you have to warm up the atmosphere, it's not like putting yourself in front of the canvas: the night before you have to lay the mortar, the plaster, you have to decide on the measurements and so you already have a precise project. I usually think about it before I go to sleep. So the night before I had already prepared the arriccio, this coarse mortar on a plaster of crushed earthenware. The materials are few and poor: sand, water; they are the same as those used by the Romans, they have never changed in two thousand years.

Early in the morning, I apply a light plaster to the curl, finish the application with a trowel and paint on the surface. To do this, I use an outline, a sinopia, a cardboard with holes in it, then I begin to paint. The quality of the fresco skin depends on the predetermined degree of humidity. The lime must be a year or two old because otherwise it burns the fresco too much.

So the earth, then fire...

Fire actually comes first, for lime, because lime is made of calcium carbonate, of stones that have been heated and have become lighter. This is the quicklime, the stone through fire and then through water. It all combines with air and turns back into what we started with, the calcium carbonate, the stone. This is the chemical process...

... ...you mean alchemical...

... of course, alchemic, because inside there is also the gesture, the intelligence of man and perhaps something else. The colours are then particles of earth and oxide that wedge themselves inside the crystal that is being created. And everything only works with great care.

The fresco has to be completed within a day, otherwise the already dry part has to be thrown away. The procedure is as follows: I spread very strong hygroscopic carpenter's glue and canvas on the fresco. The glue settles and as it decreases in thickness it engulfs the crystals on the surface of the fresco, and thus detaches the skin of the fresco. At that point I glue it onto another canvas with acrylic resins, which are not water-soluble; at the end I wash off the carpenter's glue and the fresco appears in its true and final reality.

The most interesting moment is when the first canvas is removed, when the curtain opens on the fresco. My son is now doing this last operation for me, I'm there to see what comes out, it's like seeing a baby being born, still tied to the umbilical cord... It is the real birth, not the conception... The fresco is then punctuated because it has suffered a trauma, and these small wounds characterise it even more, they are part of its life, its skin and are its heritage. Then it can last for many years.

Does the choice of subject come to you instinctively?

The choice of subject matter is quite deliberate, the pyramid, the ball, the eggs are primary forms. But the choice of subject can have many reasons. It's like composing music, I think, you start with the basic chords, then the composition gradually takes shape.

Does colour have a symbolic function for you, or does it act as a feeling?

It's difficult to answer, because these two elements should really be united. It is natural that colour in itself is a feeling, that is, it belongs to the deepest sphere of being, but at the same time it expresses itself as symbolism, it becomes an expressive medium. However, I do not accept this way of theorising, I find it unnecessarily intellectual...

It is interesting to read Goethe on this subject, but it must be said that he really felt the colour. I can certainly appreciate his theoretical point of view now, it is certainly an enrichment for me, but only because I have enough experience to understand it and because I am sufficiently inoculated not to be influenced by it. But I would never make a young artist study colour theory.

I'm also thinking of the Bauhaus theories and Johannes Itten, who explained colour theory to his students by suggesting that they make juxtapositions between colours and feelings. This process brought out the character of the artist, and it was certainly right. Today what is taught in the academies is completely different, we are talking about things that hardly anyone is interested in anymore...

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