Sandra Lischi


The rooftops of Barga can be seen from the window, marked out by the dark vertical lines of the balustrade. Bruno Cordati painted them in this way, in the early 20's, in a painting much loved by Marinetti, and which shows, 'subjectively' (the painting is called 'in soggettiva' in Italian) not only what the painter saw but also the act of painting. Over his shoulder, we see his hands that hold the canvas and the charcoal, one foot resting on the balustrade, and, reflected in the glass of the open window, the painter's face, just off to the right.

Cordati was born in Barga, in the Garfagnana in 1890, and it was here that he lived all his life, apart from the period when he was teaching art and design in various European countries, between '37 and '43. And it was in Barga that he retired for the last thirty years of his life, refusing all public activities, all official recogni-tion, any exhibiting of his wok, any academic commitment: in other words, refusing anything that would distract him from his research and the creative energy of painting. In the 60's, he had bought the Palazzo Bertacchi, in Via di Mezzo, a long, narrow street that cuts through the ancient centre of Barga.

He had already rented rooms here after the war, which he used as his studio. And it was here that he passed three decades of unceasing, clear commit-ment, with the forms, the lights and the colours as his companions: right there, in front of the window, with the little woven straw chair where he cleaned his brushes and which even today you can see encrusted with all the colours.

Cordati has painted houses, but it was not so much landscapes in the traditional sense, or 'views' that interested him. Instead, he would create an arrangement of forms, including those that were marginal, at the limits, which the distracted eye would not notice: a messy, lopsided bush, or a large tree massed at the meeting point of two walls, or a long, thin tree trunk rising up in the centre of a courtyard. And houses, the subtle lines of their rooftops, or misty facades; the old castle of Barga, ghostlike and haggard, or again, the walls with their little windows like so many eyes: all like repeated vibrations of the same themes.

Houses like geological stratifications, as if part of the earth itself. But more than all this, it was the human figure that was to attract his investigation, so much so that at times it seemed to appear out of the depths of the canvas, even against the painter's wishes. How important for an artist like Cordati is the house, the town, the horizon under his gaze? And how important is it for us today to be able to understand his work right here, where it was created, where it was so carefully crafted?

Cordati died in 1979, and his painting, at the same time scorned and profound, that is so important in the story of 'an unknown of the 19th century', has recently been highly valued in thorough critical studies and in various exhibitions. Now his work has been put in order and exhibited (in rotation, for there is an enormous number of works) in Barga, in his very house and studio, the Palazzo Bertacchi.

The restoration of its grand facade has been celebrated by the town with a festival and a concert, as a gift from the Barga Council and the Ricci Foundation. The family has in fact taken the decision to allow the community at large to fully participate in this artistic inheritance, accumulated over an entire life, and they now open, for certain periods of the year, some of the large rooms of the house to a serious, thorough yet elegant exhibition of Cordati's works.

The permanent exhibition was first opened in the mid-90's, but gradually the experience of opening the collection has also opened up other roads - roads connecting the house to the town and further to the world: connecting a private inheritance (the palace, the 'Cordati-Martinelli Collection') with public enjoyment, the artistic experience of yesteryear with artistic experience of the present.

During the summer, the silent palace where Cordati painted, read his beloved authors (Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Tolstoj, Makarenko, Joyce, Proust, Musil, and also Ariosto) where he listened to music, where he discussed with the art world and with his students, especially Gombrich: yes, this palace comes to life. In the grand salon, in collaboration with 'Opera Barga', there are concerts of classic and contemporary music. This in no way destroys the atmosphere. The enormous table is moved out and a great collection of chairs - of all sorts of style and from all over the palace - is arranged for the spectators - about eighty in all. This is not all: there are discussions and meetings and book presentations, and for some years, in rooms at street level, the printmaker and etcher Kraczyna held an International School of Printmaking. Kraczyna himself knew the artist in the past and as a friend had many a discussion with the painter.

But time has moved on for this grand house, with its many rooms leading on one from the other, its large windows opening out onto the rooftops of Barga, and its steep, shadowy garden. For some years now, it has been a space 'offered' to those contemporary artists who know how to recognise it, live within it, and recreate it with their own work. To these artists is given 'a blank page' for working alongside the collection of Cordati. Thus, in '97, the artist Garutti (with the Foundation 'Teseco per l'Arte') has put his own personal touch to the exhibition, by highlighting and evaluating certain architectural features, bringing to notice the original floors of the palace. In other words, directing the visitors towards a different artistic experience. But the starting point is always the idea of 'house'; in a certain sense taking over the rooms of the painter and from there creating in that space something of his own vision.

Yet at the same time, this respects and almost reinforces the vision of Cordati: the solitude and the poise, the silence and the patient commitment, the process of creating emptiness around him, as around the figures that he was painting. In '99, it was the turn of another artist, Modesti, to revisit the house and furnish it with his own creations: Modesti emphasised the feeling of giddiness from the windows that open on to the steep drop at the back of the house, using large, airy figures created out of metallic mesh, suspended in the empty space. So, a visit to the Cordati exhibition has become, in these years, an opportunity to know also artists of today. This will also be true in the summer of 2001.

The intention of the family is not only one of 'public service', offering an exemplary way of combining public and private sectors. It shows also intelligence, in the arrangement of the works in the house, and in the opening of the house to visitors, from the simply curious to the perceptive and, in a certain sense, privileged: the artist of to-day. It is this person that dialogues with the paintings as Cordati once did, clearly and with passion, with art of past eras and with the art contemporary to him.

But also the visitor who is simply curious finds something extra, some-thing unique in this collection 'at home': in the rooms themselves, the force of the paintings is enhanced by the very fact of this being the place where the painter lived. The colours of Barga are there at the windows, their distance, their nearness, their sense of 'out there' compared to those images on the canvasses. There are the particular tones of light bouncing off the facade of the palace opposite; there is the essential quality of the space itself, the kitchen walls streaked with the sprays of colours from when the painter washed his brushes.

There is the old table with its tell-tale circles of colours, left behind from the tops of the tubes of paint. There's a sculpture, some drawings, minor details that serve simply to enrich one's perception of the space. There's that old armchair that was to take its place in a painting, a piece of rock from a mountain, that became an object of an almost scientific studio; there are the echoes from the street. There are the silences. The present lay-out presents the rooms thematically; this also shows that the idea of 'always doing the same painting' when viewed with more attention is in fact a variety of thematic and stylistic solutions.

But we also find paintings from the Thirties and Forties, like those of the 'Bulgarian Period', with their full, luminous colours, the solid, almost polished, figures firmly placed in the picture. Whereas in the last decades, the form oscillates from one of 'being' to one of 'going', from a sense of coming out towards us to a sense of being sucked back into the background. After the tragedy of the II World War, Cordati painted the world with colours that were to become increasingly livid. He had also always sought to capture in his paintings the 'dead moments' of life: moments of rest, of weariness, of waiting and inertia, those moments in which nothing happens; thus the gaze and the thought turn inwards and these moments become times, scenes, figures heavy and elusive at the same time. The heaviness of life and the absorbing of material - or rather of death, that kind of death which is about not having a life that is worthy of that name, became his theme.

"Frightened flocks of a people wounded," wrote Garboli, "poor souls terrified and dazed, women and often children, covered in woollen cloths and rags, muffled up like refugees, they gather together to hover on the surface of the paintings, rising up out of the depth like ghosts, or like the vague etchings on a rock that a knife makes by scratching the surface of the hard stone…"

It has been said of Cordati that his was a journey from Cézannism to the informal - yet his was also a research into material and form uncluttered by the omnipotence of the human figure. It was a research that came from the earth, from rock, from geological strata, from light vibrations, as in the amazing painting 'Tulips' (these titles were given posthumously, as Cordati never titled his works.) "It is a dialectic, an alternation," writes Del Guercio, "that between a splintering hardness, a flowing softness, a visionary unravelling, indicates the dramatic form of the committed struggle of the painter with himself, with his own past, with art itself, through meditations… in no way weird or naive."

Del Guercio also refers to a 'vision that is both stoic and positive': painting that went through the whole cycle of expression and form without losing anything of its original keen focus. It is one of his first paintings, 'Soldiers at the Front' (1917-18) painted during the First World War. There is nothing in this painting that is heroic or dramatic; it shows two frail young lads, one with his trousers down and the other with a bare torso, intent on their task of delousing. Thus also during the years of fascism, Cordati followed his 'heretical' way of representing moments on the margin of life, without any rhetoric or clamour, or sense of grand destiny.

Anyone who visits this grand house, the rooms of the exhibition, is aware not only of taking part in a special cultural experience; he comes into contact with a space that is 'lived in', that the family wanted to open up to the world, and into contact with painting that at one and the same time is set apart from and participates in its times and its history, anything but 'small town' provincial. It is painting that dialogues wisely, clearly, with the art of our century, managing not to fall into so many of its traps; painting that perseveres in its research, in its struggle of daily creation, of the daily work of art.

His daughter Bruna recalls that this confrontation was with every type of work, not only artistic. "Also as a teacher, he refused to use terms like 'educate' or 'form'. He believed that we can teach someone to work, but not to draw or write or understand art. This, if it comes at all, comes with the grace of a true 'extra'."


Off-print from the bi-monthly magazine "Il grande vetro" October-November 2000 (Information: Via Ferrer, 1 - 56029 S. Croce sull'Arno - PI - Tel. 057149614)

(Translation by Mary Campbell)

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