While visitors to the Cinque Terre in North-Western Italy between Genoa and Pisa may notice the murales of the Latin American artist Silvio Benedetto who emigrated from south to north unlike many inhabitants of these five villages who undertook the opposite journey in less prosperous times, most of them will have little inkling of the actual cultural and artistic legacy of this small corner of Italy. A unique landscape transformed to serve its communities & the result of centuries of man-made back-breaking work – it was slowly discovered by a whole host of painters as well as by poets and authors and even film-makers who have immortalised this particular part of Italy.
There are a number of references to the Cinque Terre and its particularly precious wine known to the outside world but not to its inhabitants as sciacchetra’. Boccaccio himself was said to have lauded it and it was apparently sent to the table of Popes. An Argentinian relative of mine referred to a passage in one of Cervantes’ works in which the wine was mentioned (I have as yet to confirm the existence of this passage but I’ve always been curious about the appearance of a Sen’or Vivaldo in Don Quijote – the original name of my ancestors who settled in the Cinque Terre eight centuries ago were registered as Vivaldo’s and not Vivaldi’s). Nonetheless, these regions were relatively isolated and were generally reached only by boat until the Nineteenth Century (unless one was to trudge there by dirt roads through the hills).
In 1860 one of Italy’s greatest nineteenth century painters and, perhaps, the most significant of the macchiaioli movement, Telemaco Signorini, would walk with two fellow painters to the hilltop village of Biassa. Disappointed that they weren’t able to see the sea from there, they were told by some of the biassei to continue on to the Santuario di Montenero where they could get a view of the entire Cinque Terre. After another hours walk they reached this shrine and decided to continue on to the village of Riomaggiore. Signorini years later will describe both the immense beauty of the landscape and the harbour as well as the backwardness and primitive nature of its inhabitants with an orientalist description mixing charm and horror. His first impressions are those of the immense beauty of the landscape that hits the eye and the terrible stench of the village that the affects the nose, he is horrified by the unsanitary habitations and the fact that everything was thrown directly into the river (then uncovered). Signorini would later return and in the early 1890s he would paint some of his most celebrated views of Riomaggiore with its harbour, its vegetation, village life as well as a splendid view of the Cinque Terre from the shrine where he was first to set eyes on this luminous view: ‘one of the most beautiful’ he had ever seen. His daily view of the sea would transform the art of one of Italy’s greatest European painters whose output has even included a work painted in Edinburgh leading some critics to suggest that he was, in a way, the inventor ante litteram of Pop Art. Signorini may be seen as one of the greatest artists to have visited Riomaggiore but most definitely not the only great artist to have lived in the Cinque Terre. The twentieth century has seen the arrival of other great artists with one, in particular standing out amongst others. An artist who instead of choosing Riomaggiore as his home chose the neighbouring village of Manarola.
This artist was Renato Birolli, one of the most interesting of Italy’s twentieth century artists who joined the avant-garde of Renato Guttuso, Giacomo Manzu’, Edoardo Persico in the twenties. His move into a kind of expressionism and inspired by Van Gogh, Kokoschka and others will mark his definitive break from the more archaic legacies of Nineteenth Century art as well as his active political rupture with fascism which between 1937 and 1938 will cost him a year in prison. His documentation of the terrible years of the second world war and his active participation in the Resistance will eventually bring him to the Cinque Terre through his friendship with fellow resistance fighter and resident of Manarola, Dario Capellini. After a period in Paris where he is influenced by both Picasso and Matisse developing a post-Cubist style, he will spend some time in the early 1950s in Manarola and will paint some of the most impressive works set in the Cinque Terre where he will experiment with the relation of colour and form in his paintings. He will also use his stay in Manarola to develop an annual Festival of Painters which in the early 1950s will bring a whole generation of painters to this small village.
A video on youtube gives some extraordinary footage of Manrola during one of these painter festivals in the 1950s. The commentary is in Italian and mainly about Birolli in the Adriatic – however, the original footage shot is nearly all of Manarola:
As well as these true greats of Italian art who temporarily made their homes in the Cinque Terre, others significant painters have also sojourned here. They include the Divisionist painter Antonio Discovolo (who worked alongside Giovanni Fattori):
Lino Marzulli who used the Cinque Terre to develop his oneiric fable-like paintings mixing the primitivism of the Cobra group of artists with a Matisse-like fauvism and who spent much of his last two decades in Riomaggiore.
Another name of some note is Giuseppe Arigliano, another painter who worked in the Cinque Terre:
An extraordinary cinematographic document of the Cinque Terre was made in 1942 by the director Giovanni Paolucci. It is a portrait of a community that almost has the expressive power of Bun’uel’s ‘Las Hurdes’ or Kalatozov ‘Salt for Svanetti’.
Signorini, Birolli, Marzulli, Benedetto, Discovolo and Paolucci are only some of the names that deserve to be recognized in the field of art and film. When it comes to literature the story is just as, if not more impressive, given the association of a Nobel Prize winning poet with the Cinque Terre. An Italian poet who, according to Joseph Brodsky, was second only to Dante in that language. This shall wait for another post.