A theme that recurs constantly in the lives of Italian artists, and made popular in Giorgio Vasari’s Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori, is that of the artist’s struggle to break away from the career path chosen by the father. In Michelangelo’s case he was to have studied for a career in law; for the goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini music was to have been the road to economic success and status. Carlo Rossi never had to conform to this stereotype as his father had a great respect for art, and for cultural activity in general.
In the late nineteenth century Carlo’s grandfather Antonio [b.1868], with his wife, and three sons Pietro, Emilio, and Domenico (eventually to be Carlo’s father) left their hometown of Cardito to seek a living outside Italy (1). His story forms part of an extensive pattern of migration from all parts of Italy to northern Europe and the United States of America, as families sought to escape the underdeveloped economy of a fragmented country. Despite the unification of 1861, Italy offered few opportunities outside of subsistence agriculture for the majority of its population.
The family eventually ended up in Paris, where they made a living by their skills as musicians, trading in plaster casts of famous statues, and by acting as artists’ models in the Parisian ateliers. The Italian trade in plaster statues and statuettes goes back to the sixteenth century when the French King François I, smitten by the new art movements of Italy, imported stucco artists and craftsmen to decorate his new chateau at Fontainebleau; thus starting a tradition that still exits today throughout Europe. After Paris the family moved further North to Belgium, where a daughter Maria was born. The family must have lived there for some time because we know that Domenico had a working knowledge of Waloon, a dialect spoken in the south-east of Belgium and some parts of northern France.
At some point the children set out on their own for Britain, and soon wound their way to Glasgow. They continued to earn a living playing music, Domenico was reputed to have had a very successful one-man band, and working for other Italians especially in the catering trade. Domenico however, continued to have links with the art world. He became a model for Francis (Fra) Newberry who was head of the Glasgow School of art in the 1880’s. Newberry was an inspirational teacher who was later to encourage among many others, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald. However Domenico did not sit for Newberry in Mackintosh’s architectural masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, but in the Treron building. Originally built as an art gallery for the wealthy art lover Archibald McLennan in 1855, it was purchased by the city in 1856 and housed the art school, while the new building was under construction. That Fra Newberry should wish to paint Domenico was not surprising. With his long mane of hair, a luxuriant moustache, and sporting an elegant fedora hat Domenico cut a striking figure. So much so that in 1891, when Buffalo Bill Cody brought his Wild West Show to Glasgow, Domenico was surrounded by a crowd who, despite his strange accent and protestations, was convinced that they had cornered the famous cowboy and demanded his autograph.
The turn of the century saw Domenico married and the birth of a daughter Elisabetta (2). Tragically his wife died shortly afterwards. He eventually married again and nine more children were to follow. His new wife Teresa Francesconi (3,4) came from the small town of Aquilea which lies just outside Lucca in Tuscany (5,6,7).
Shortly before the First World War Domenico and his brothers went their different ways. Pietro had married a local girl who, for some reason which was never made clear, had an antipathy towards Italians and wanted to live apart from the rest of the
family. Emilio moved to set up in business in Airdrie, Pietro stayed in Glasgow, and Domenico moved to Johnstone. There in 1921 Carlo, the youngest, was born. He had five brothers: Mario, Alessandro, Ugo, Enrico [died 1 month old], and Carlino [died 5 months old]; and four sisters: Elisabetta, Anna [died 3 years old], Elena, and Maria. The fates seemed to be spinning their deadly threads of destiny when he was baptized Eugenio Federico Carlo, and listed on his birth certificate as female. Wisely family, and everyone else, ignored his longer sonorous Christian names and called him Carlo; officialdom continued to accept him as female until Carlo finally spotted the error. He presented himself to the Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages at the age of 78 and asked, much to the consternation of the administrator in charge, to change his sex to male.
There was a large Italian community in Johnstone (8). Families had migrated to the area to provide services for the ever-increasing work force required for the expanding, and new, industries such as coal mining, thread-making, cotton weaving, and engineering. The Italian community: the Bianchi, Deghelli, Giaconelli, Parducci, Rossi, and Tomei families were a close-knit bunch. However, the green-eyed monster was ever present, and the High Street was a hotbed of rivalries, jealousies, and intrigues to rival the adventures in Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochemerle. One of Johnstone’s By-Laws declared that Wednesday was to be a half-day, and that all shops and cafés should close. One intrepid owner Mr. Parducci had a side entrance to his café through which he surreptitiously, and illegally, introduced customers to his establishment. While this was going on, another café proprietor Mr. Tolomei would spy on Parducci. When satisfied that enough customers had entered the shop he would hasten along to the police station and inform on the miscreant and the misdemeanor. Tolomei must indeed have been very brave because Argante Parducci was reputed to have been a giant of a man with huge hands, who chewed Toscani cigars for breakfast.
The Parducci-Tolomei ritual dance went on week after week, with no apparent real animosity, and to the amusement of all.
Carlo’s precocious talent for drawing was soon evident. At the age of four his father gave him his first commission: to make three drawings to advertise the pianola in the family café, which were duly executed and displayed. Despite living in Scotland, life in the Rossi household revolved around things Italian. Both his parents and his elder brothers and sisters spoke Italian; indeed his mother (9), despite living for over seventy years in Britain, only ever had a rudimentary grasp of English. They ate Italian food, and visitors from Italy were constantly appearing, bringing with them the latest news as well as delicacies. The arrival of Domenico’s favourite -– a very ripe cheese – was eagerly awaited. On its arrival Teresa, who was justifiably convinced that once unwrapped the cheese would meander across the table of its own accord, refused to enter the kitchen till the offending comestible had been consumed, and all existing wrapping had been consigned to the fire.
All of these aspects of italianità were to have a profound effect on Carlo’s views on art, and his aesthetic predilections. His school days passed peacefully; he excelled in art but he also achieved the grades in English, French, and mathematics that would have enabled him to go to university. Despite attempts by his headmaster, who regarded art as little more than a pastime, to point him towards an academic career he was encouraged by his father to follow his passion. He entered the Glasgow School of Art in 1938 (10,11,12,13).
His teachers in the Mackintosh building were many, varied, and eccentric. Hugh A. Crawford and Henry Young Alison were the painting tutors. The latter had the unnerving habit of standing, accompanied by his pet terrier, behind a student busy working on a canvas, and suddenly exclaiming in a loud voice for all to hear: “See you, you canna paint, ma wee dug can paint better’n you”. These excoriating verbal castigations were often accompanied by the violent obliteration of the offending image.
Despite such helpful advice Carlo learned all the techniques necessary for expressing himself, and he was encouraged by
J. D. Ferguson to follow his own path. During this period Carlo executed numerous drawings for a Dr. Moore which were to form the basis for a book on anatomy. The only book on anatomy I could trace that fits into this time frame is Robert A. Moore, A Textbook of Pathology: Pathologic Anatomy in its Relation to the Causes, Pathogenesis, and Clinical Manifestations of Disease, 513 illustrations, Saunders, 1945. Even though he became fast friends with other artists such as Joan Eardley, Alfredo Avella, and Margo Sandeman there was never any sense of a corporate enterprise, or movement in the art school at that time (14). Perhaps the disruption of the war, and the uncertainty for what the future might hold, led to more solitary introspection.
Certainly the fact of being born of Italian parents, the nationality of the enemy, brought its own problems, both psychologically and physically. Sometimes the existence of dual nationality, or being born in Italy, could give rise to quite extraordinary consequences. Carlo’s friend Enrico Guidugli (always referred to as “Big Enrico”) was born in Italy. At the outbreak of war he found himself on holiday in Italy and though, by this time, he had become a British citizen and held a British passport, he was conscripted into the Italian army. He spent the war terrified that he would inadvertently blurt out something in English leading to arrest and execution as a spy. Carlo’s father on the day war was declared took a plaque of Mussolini out into the garden and smashed it with a hammer. Domenico had a real antipathy towards the dictator, but for others it was a wise precaution. Detectives were going round the Italian shops and if any evidence of fascist regalia or memorabilia were to be discovered the owners would be promptly interned. Older members of the community manifested their patriotism in more eccentric fashion. Such an individual was the elderly skilled cabinet-maker Mr. Tortolano. On the day Italy entered the war he donned his colourful, and flamboyant, Bersagliere uniform and, having consumed more wine than he should have, paraded alone through the streets of the West End of Glasgow exclaiming “Viva il Duce”. It is a surprise that he lived to tell the tale. In Carlo’s own family there were some startling anomalies. His brother Ugo was interned on the Isle of Man, while another brother Alessandro was engaged in delivering essential food supplies (8). Carlo himself was called up for the army but declined as a conscientious objector. He spent the war fire watching on the roof of the Art School, as well as working in the aircraft industry. A collection of entertaining essays, written by former art school students of their war years, can be found in Art Booms with the Guns. The War Years at the GSA, Glasgow School of Art, n.d.
Rossi’s oil paintings of this period already evince tight, careful compositions and an instinctive balancing of colours. If there is an influence it is that of Cezanne’s Still Lives and the gentle Cubism of Braque. The paintings Abstraction (15), and Abstraction 2 (16) show the tight geometry, the rigorous balancing of shapes, and the subtle shifts in tones and colours of his early paintings.
At this stage the landscape did not feature in any of his works. It is as though the key to unlocking this side of his artistic personality was missing. The turning point in Carlo’s life came when he met the young Vittoria Bertoncini (17), who had come to Scotland to study and stay with her sister Palmira and her husband Attilio Bertoncini (18,19,20).
Carlo and Vittoria were married in 1944 and spent the early years of married life living together with Palmira and Attilio. Carlo always spoke of his brother and sister-in-law with the greatest affection. He said Attilio was one of kindest men he had ever known, and a model of integrity. Separated from his own brothers and sisters who spoke English, Carlo now found himself immersed in a totally Italian environment, as Italian was the only language spoken in the home.
In 1947 Carlo travelled to Italy for the first time, alone, to meet up with his wife and baby son Paolo who had travelled on ahead. One can only imagine the effect of finally coming into direct contact with the sights and sounds, smells and tastes,
that he had heard about all his life. Three days after leaving the cold, grey surroundings of Glasgow the train emerged from
the pass at Ventimiglia into the intense light of northern Italy. The sight of the pink and ochre painted houses with their terracotta tiles, surrounded by vines, set amid stands of cyprus and pine trees along the west coast rail line to Pisa were a revelation.
All was alien but somehow familiar, memories of descriptions bequeathed by his parents, and his new family, must have been overwhelming, and a feeling of returning to an ancestral patria predominated. Carlo was ready for new inspiration, and was driven to explore something hitherto neglected – the landscape. After Pisa he journeyed through the Serchio valley, past Lucca and his mother’s birthplace Aquilea,to what was to be his new spiritual home, Barga (21). This small town, perched on the summit of a peak in the middle of the Tuscan Appenines, has magnificent views of other valleys and mountains, with their small villages, hamlets, and farms. The Rossi family stayed with Vittoria’s sister Palmira and her mother Fiora in a free standing villa surrounded, at that time, by farms and fields on the road leading up to the town.
Fiora Bertoncini was an indomitable matriarch (22). After the death of her husband, shortly after the birth of Vittoria, she raised a large brood of children and ruled the roost with a fist and will of iron. Her strength of character was fully tested during the war when, despite the fact that the Germans had requisitioned a villa not twenty metres away to act as headquarters, Fiora hid a number of American soldiers, who had been separated from their unit, in the cellar. When one of them died she, and her sons, took him out in the dead of night and buried him, despite the sentries next door and the frequent patrols.
Her strict sense of propriety, of what was correct behaviour in public, is well exemplified by what happened when she, at the tender age of eighty-five, was invited to join the family at Viareggio, at that time a very elegant and upmarket seaside resort near Pisa. A week before the trip she became worried and unsettled, refusing to tell anyone what was troubling her. Then a few days prior to departure she suddenly brightened up; problem solved – solution found. Arriving at the beach she stretched out on a striped deckchair under a brightly coloured ombrellone and, with a sigh of contentment, gathered her black skirts together, and put a grey scarf over her head. She then proceeded to take a large cigar from her handbag, which she contentedly smoked for the next two hours, casting benign smiles on all and sundry. The fact was that Fiora, on the death of her husband, had taken up his pipe and smoked it; thereafter she continued the habit [she went through dozens of pipes, reducing them all to charcoal, as she lit them with burning embers from the fire] till her dying day. On this occasion her problem had been the realization that an elegant lady did not smoke a pipe at the seaside. The solution, which only came to her at the last moment, was that a cigar, even if was not as satisfying a smoke as a pipe, was at the very least elegant.
From this period the Italian landscape entered Carlo’s life. Every year he filled sketchbooks with annotated drawings such as Hillside, Barga, (23) and Sunflowers (24). On his return to Scotland he would transfer the images to canvas. Barga and its surroundings would never ceased to be an inspiration. The steep winding streets of La Fornacetta (25), views of the Duomo and the surrounding countryside (26), or views seen from his house as in Sommocolonia (27) were painted many times, but always to present a different subjective emotion. The light and shadows changing, and the colours shifting as the sun would rise and set.
Another ever-present aspect of Carlo’s paintings was the power of music. This no doubt reflected the importance of music in the Rossi household, where everyone had the natural ability to play an instrument (28). There is also an echo of that first trip to Italy when he shared a Wagon-Lits with the young baritone Giuseppe Taddei (29). Taddei had just made his debut in London, and regaled Carlo with the full majesty of his vocal dexterity as they journeyed down the peninsula. This, added to what he saw out of the carriage window, left an indelible mark on his memory. Carlo often compared his works to the music of Bach; he described his paintings as carefully orchestrated fugues of shapes and colours tied together and controlled by the geometry of the line. If we examine the works Still Life with Fruit Bowl, (30) Still Life with Guitar, (31) and Septet (32) we can see all these elements subtly controlled to give a satisfying synthesis, which appeals both to the emotions and the intellect.
Carlo was an indefatigable worker. Light permitting, he spent every available hour in his studio (33). His enthusiasm for his craft was boundless and he never tired of experimenting. He used: paper packaging and detritus as in the Still Life with Fruit Bowl paintings (30); monotype printing in Reclining Figure (34). His drawings and prints rework, and incorporate, classical prototypes as in From a Red Figure Cup (35), as well as images from the tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte. In later years the dark colours of his youth gave way to a vibrant palette as in Girl with Blue Headdress (36). While on holiday in Barga he became involved in the local festivities and, together with his son Mario an acclaimed artist in his own right, decorated some carnival floats with colourful, joyful images (37–40).
Eventually Carlo moved out of Barga and its environs and began to explore the colours, and urban textures of other Tuscan towns: San Gimignano (41), Coreglia (42), and Siena (43). It was however the Serenissima, the city of Venice, which began to fascinate and demand his attention in his later years. The palazzi of the Venetian merchants and aristocracy, crushed together for mutual support, yet each with its own personality and history, captured his imagination. Whether it was the ever-changing sunlight, revealing a myriad of colours in the facades and the rippling waters of the Canal Grande and lagoons: Palazzo Bernardo (44); or the ever-changing colours of the palace facades as in Palazzo Loredan (45), his paintings inject vitality and a life-force into the crumbling stone and stucco of the fast fading splendour of the most serene republic.
In June 2010 a small tumour was diagnosed, and Carlo entered hospital to have it removed. The operation was successful and the prognosis for recovery was excellent. Unfortunately he suffered from a series of complications that his system was unable to overcome. He passed away peacefully in his sleep on 6th November 2010, in the early hours of the morning. During his months in hospital there were periods when he could recall with remarkable clarity details of events from his childhood; at other times the distinction between reality and fantasy became blurred. His drawings during this period often betrayed an inner anguish (46); he was desperate to return home where, on the easel in his studio, a painting of Venice was waiting to be finished (47).
The American poet Catherine Savage Brosnan on seeing Carlo’s work and learning of the family history was moved to pen The Stonecutter; a verbal portrait of ancestry and inspiration. In the poem artistic licence metamorphoses the experiences of the real Domenico into those of a sculptor plying his trade as he crosses from Italy to Scotland. There his son will inherit things bred in the blood, and inspiration from a distant homeland will resurface and be reawakened to create new art in the North.
© Paolo L. Rossi
26 September 2011
Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian,
Patron Saints of the Medici family