The Literary Homage of Alberto Sughi
The Museo Civico of Sansepolcro, one of the most important museums in Tuscany due to the presence of masterpieces by Piero della Francesca, does not usually hold temporary exhibitions or retrospectives of living artists. It is usual to emphasise the worth and adequate conservation of memory. The welcome given to the panels of Alberto Sughi dedicated to the literary triad of Dante, Leopardi and Manzoni is neither an exception nor a broken rule, because it comes under the heading of intimate, refined mono-thematic and interdisciplinary exhibitions that occasionally take place in the Sala Verde of the museum.
It should be remembered that certain exhibitions held in previous years also had this characteristic, whether they were exhibitions of important private collections or other specially created events; the brigands in the countryside around Rome caught by the eye of a foreign artist, or the extremely successful exhibition of the original sketches of Fascist propaganda, or the illustrations of Tuscan towns by the American artist Joseph Pennell.
There is a singular connection between the book illustrator Joseph Pen-nell and the "literary panels" of Alberto Sughi. Heirs of different cultures and inspired to work in moments that are far from each other, they both face the problem of transliteration, that is, the translation of a given context from one language - in this case literary - to another, a figurative one. Then, Pennell illustrated Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James; today Sughi illustrates Dante's "Vita Nuova", Leopardi's "Operette Morali" and Manzoni's "Promessi Sposi". There is however a substantial difference between the work of Sughi and that of many other illustrators of classic literature, from Aligi Sassu, to Giorgio De Chirico, to Frabrizio Clerici, not to mention the earlier Italian and foreign illustrators. His illustrations often have a life of their own. They are literary homage in the real sense of the word, enjoyable in themselves, not totally servile to the written word, which they only refer to on a second glance, as a spark to the memory after a long distance of time. In this sense the contemporary quality of the writers who are illustrated is directly proportional to the vicarious nature of the illustrations to the text. Something similar happened with the splendid Manzoni panels by Tranquillo Cremona, Giovanni Fattori and Giovanni Previati which were all pervaded with the unmistakable stylistic personality of various moments from Manzoni's masterpiece.
In a recent interview with Sergio Zavoli, Sughi expressed a revealing affirmation which explains his relationship with Dante:
"I thought that a component, deposited deep in our conscience, that is important in explaining our identity as Italians, is connected to Dante; it was for this reason that I was inspired to create a cycle of seven works... that I wanted to bring Dante amongst us". It would be limiting to interpret the panels of Sughi as just a projection of the characters from Dante with their glittering collections of vices, virtues, dreams and passions. Because, for our artist Dante is above all the element of cohesion of the national identity, its solid guarantee. It is not by chance that more than a century and a half ago, on the eve of the Unification of Italy, an intellectual like Thomas Carlyle could write: 'A country that can boast of having Dante among its poets is surely already united."
The texts that the artist feels he can illustrate inspire fantasy and activate the potential of figurative language. At times it is an almost an actual animation, and this is the case in the iconographic translation of the "Promessi Sposi" by Renato Guttuso, who is excited by the crowded scenes like the assault on the Grucce bakery or in front of the monks' cart overflowing with corpses. In other cases, and this happens in the panels of Alberto Sughi, a major impartiality and a marked emotional detachment allow the artist a calmer and more classical reading of the text. Something that you see directly from the portraits of the writers that comes from the revitalisation of a consolidated, if not obsolete, iconographic tradition. This explains the unusual subject matter chosen by Sughi who, especially for Leopardi's "Operette Morali" and Dante's "Vita Nuova ", reveals illustrations of ideas and concepts, more than a visual narrations of episodes and events. And this con frontation with ideas rather than facts becomes a symptom of a profound accord with the illustrated work and guarantees its continual renewal, beyond the barriers of culture and time.
President of the Istituzione Biblioteca Museo Civico, Sansepolcro
Sansepolcro July 2003
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