Art as Epitedeusis and Energheia
by Francesco Sisinni
For anyone who attempts an iconographic and, even more, an iconological reading of the work of art, in the endeavor to comprehend it, feel it, and interpret it, to the point of identifying with its act of creation, if the challenge that presents itself is that of ensuring that the evaluation, however critical or historical, will be able to claim an albeit relative validity, rooting in a Kantian way the objectivity in subjectivity thanks to its extensive sharing, then it is only fitting to state the premise that the writer here is certainly facilitated in such a demanding enterprise by the long and continual association with the Artist. This frequentation has been characterized by ineffable emotions and suggestions, together with engrossing reflections and discussions: a sort, therefore, of that pulchre cogitare (thinking beautifully) described by the founder of modern Aesthetics, Baumgarten. Such a methexis (participation) in the maieutic act of an inspiration or intuition that becomes expression, that is to say language, was however each time tempered by the awareness that this privilege could not but exhaust itself on the threshold of Mystery, since the “Beyond” is not granted to anyone who does not have wings with which to ascend to the vision of the Beautiful (Ione), or who is simply not an actor of the Poiesis (bringing forth) that is Poieo, (which is to say, to make). So it is that now, invited to comment upon the work of the maestro and friend Alessandro Romano, in speaking about him I take the liberty of referring to the innumerable meetings in his studio, in the presence of his works of art in their marvelous becoming, with a continual thinking back or reference to other similar occasions, they too unforgettable, which my privileged institutional and academic position allowed me to have with many other artists, among whom numerous sculptors such as Manzù, Greco, Crocetti, Fazzini, Messina, Mastroianni, and Consagra (to mention only those who are no longer amongst us), with whom it has been wonderful to discuss especially about the nature of Art, over and beyond the deviations of the Baconian idols and of the convenient tautological evasions.
It is well known that the incipit of the artistic life of Alessandro Picca (in art, Romano) is marked by an interesting production of “modernist” paintings: large canvases, which in the rapid and thick brushstrokes, not at all indifferent to the linguistic suggestions of the avant-garde (or anyway of some of its tendencies), already reveal in the isolation of the plastic figures, emerging from the space, spatulated onto the inexorable emptiness of the surfaces, the signs of that innate and inescapable vocation as a sculptor, which had in truth already manifested itself in his playful activities as a child, who precisely in those innocent but surprisingly skillful games began to burst forth in the search for Beauty and, with it, in the joy of wonder. Later on, Romano will understand that the Beauty he glimpsed is a fragment of the same one postulated by Kant (next to the Sublime) and analyzed by Baumgarten and Winckelmann. In the protohistory of Western thought, it is the Beauty seen in Plato’s ‘Idea’ and heard by Pythagoras in the ‘Harmony’; but also indicated by the ‘Nostalgia’ of Plautus; lucidly defined “ integritas, claritas et debita proportio” by Thomas Aquinas; and, further, lyrically experienced by Dante as “splendor of the intimate perfection of the soul”. In fact, such a Beauty, “always new and ancient”, as Augustine refers to it, will constitute the dominant poetic feature of Alessandro Romano’s entire artistic production, at least since the 1980s, in which the maturation of strong feelings and thoughts was accompanied by a contrasting sort of tiredness, or rather, of tedium for that contemporaneity in which he found himself in any case immersed. This reluctance concerned a way of doing or researching that, although continuing to call itself art, ended up by renouncing not only to the form along with even the material, and consequently to its very existence inasmuch as representation, but also to the identifying memory of Art itself, provoking the caustic reactions of Baudrillard and Virilio.
It is true that, as Calvesi writes, the avant-garde movements had created formal typologies that were placed at the antipodes of the classic and naturalistic concept of Beauty; and that the same movements, in their subsequent realignment along a single front, could no longer define themselves as avant-garde, since they no longer constituted any novelty on the linguistic plane and thus reduced their own destiny to a plurality of experiences, each incapable of proposing itself as a prevailing tendency. But already Argan, in observing that in this way “art brings about its own death in bing art”, had warned that in renouncing to art and to the history of art, society renounces not only to art, but also to its own history! Faced with such a situation of art, which once again, according to Argan, constituted one of the great problems of the century, Romano considers inescapable precisely the need to enter into history, but history as understood by Giambattista Vico, for whom the real history, which is of our doing, is providentially accompanied by an “ideal history”.
That is to say, Romano felt the need to lay hands on the material to be sculpted, to be modeled, in order to draw from it, as Dante says, “il troppo e il vano” (the superfluous and the vain) and thus free from its “prison”, the form, that is to say, the Beauty (Plautus). Placing himself in the Aristotelian dialectic of history, he concretely inverted the itinerary of the avant-garde and in particular of abstract art (v. Seuphor), which had moved from reality in order to distance itself from it and dissolve itself in always more ephemeral and less coherent patterns and signs, to the point of representations that were extraneous and unrelated to reality itself.
Thus Romano returned not only to the transcendental “subject-object” process, recuperating the form as a construction of space and matter (v. Focillon), but he also reconsigned himself to the memory of Art (and to the statute of the arts) and therefore to his own moral and civil destiny as an Artist. But at that point he could consider concluded for himself also the adventure of the “New Manner”, of which he had even been a protagonist. In fact, that movement of young artists, which Calvesi provokingly called “Anachronism”, had very soon revealed one of its roots to be in Conceptualism, creating an intimate discomfort especially to whoever did not succeed in denying the primacy of Sentiment.
Romano is no longer content to look for just the ways and the signs with which to actuate the idea of Beauty, if need be by utilizing past works of art (v. the case of Paolini and, for another aspect, that of Mariani), but he feels that the Classic, in its authentic sense of order, harmony, and culture, is a perennial category of the spirit, and as such the primeval and irreplaceable source of art.
The problem therefore presented itself not so much as a matter of recuperating the vestiges of antiquity (and with them the rules and methods of the past), albeit in a contemporary linguistic context, as instead of achieving an awareness of Hegelian thought, according to which sculpture is the classical art par excellence, which concretely means the commitment to prefer an identification with the artistic ideal as a unity of spirit and nature (with obvious reference to the idea of Augucchi and Bellori, and in our time to the classical ideal of illustrious theoreticians, among whom Gnudi), and from a Crocian viewpoint, an interrelation or rather identification of beauty and expression.
This choice, followed by the solitary collocation in the world of aristocratic, contemporary art, but never arrogant, provocative, or polemical, thus led to making explicit the awareness that art – as Stefano Zecchi has written – “is not something that exists among other things and is practiced like an indifferent habit, (since) it commits an entire existence to a decision. So much so that if the person renounces to evoking the truth by means of the forms of art, in the future not even the person will exist. Only if we understand art not as a simple work that is produced, but rather as a metaphysical activity to which life obligates us, will it remain in essence expression: language that neither circumscribes art to its own self-referencing, nor reduces it to a selective technique of the operative criteria and materials”. As far as concerns Romano, as attentive as he is to the lessons of the ancients (and in particular to Phydias and Lysippus, without neglecting Policlitus), but also to the outcomes of his own experience, he becomes always more certain that the elements constituting Beauty – as moreover has been seen even in the contemporaneity by scholars such as Fry – are to be sought in the rhythm of the composition, in the movement of the mass, in the spatiality that goes beyond even the a priori of the senses and of the intellect, and finally, in the plasticity soberly offered by the play of light and shade: “Color et in eo Lux et umbra, Candor et tenebrae” (Color and in it Light and shade, Candor and darkness), which Bellori, drawing from Junius, applies from classical rhetoric to figurative art. From now on Romano’s art will be more characteristically marked by naturalism and geometrism (v. Bianchi Bandinelli), meaning by the former an organic relation with nature in its autonomous and individual identity, and therefore in a profane vision; and by the latter the spiritual need of order, measure, and harmony, in a vision by now metaphysical, which clarifies to itself the deep longing for transcendence (v. Hauser).
It is the time of the drawing. Nor could it be otherwise. Romano is mindful of the Italian tradition concerning the culture of drawing, which flourished already in the fourteenth century of the Florentine Compagnia di San Luca, then to become the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, to which belonged, among others, Michelangelo. The works that Romano draws seem to comply with emotional tensions and sudden creative impulses that in the musical movement of the compositional rhythm, almost like a medieval dance step, are to be returned immediately to the sculptures already glimpsed by intuition.
He travels throughout the world, almost renewing the adventure of the Pensionnaires of the Colbertian French Academy and later of the draftsmen of Jean-Claude Richard, Abbot of Saint-Non, and of the painter-writers, such as Edward Lear and Herman Melville. But his real pilgrimage is to the art sanctuaries of ancient Ellade and Magna Graecia. His travel notebook avails itself precisely of the aristocratic art of drawing in order to retain on the still blank page, lines and outlines that compete to become image, in a chase that is now centrifugal, now centripetal, towards the primeval origin of the Vico-like “Poetic wisdom”, that is to say, the inexhaustible source of Myth. And the mythology (of Greece, of course) is not only the arsenal of art, but also its maternal breast. According to Plato (in the Phaedrus), myth is equivalent to a grandiose, intuitive, and visual representation of that which transcends the real, and as such is not an object of logos, whence the close connection of its symbolic worth and esthetic value. Here is to be found Poetry, or rather Art, as generated by, and generator of, myths (v. Cassirer). Here too there is the clear distinction between the mythopoeic activity of the spirit and the activity of cognitive speculation; and lastly, the way in which the former, in its self-narration or esthetic self-representation, belongs to Mystery. So it is, since it is precisely Art that tries to go beyond the frontier of the senses, the limit of experience, by means of expression, which when a word of Beauty, is ontologically inseparable from Mystery.
In such a context the studio-foundry of Alessandro Romano becomes a new School of Egina, from which issue forth one after the other, with their load of symbolic meanings and literary references, the large sculptures: Icarus, Mercury, Medusa, and so many others, among which the Siren that arrives at Maratea after the last metamorphosis, with the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton and the seduction of feminine beauty. And, finally, the miracle of the Shield of Achilles (1989). In reality, Romano, before that pilgrimage (for which he too could have declared literally, along with Guercino, Poussin, and many others, the enigmatic “ Et in Arcadia ego!”), had thought of a shield, but it was that of Enea. And it was natural for him to refer to the work of the Augustan poet Virgil, he who had a short time before taken on the artistic pseudonym of “Romano”. It as a trip that had not only engendered the growth of his admiration for Greek art and particularly for the work (and the lesson) of Phydias, filled with expressive force and vivified by the tension of Beauty, as it had been relived from Donatello to Canova, but it had also allowed him to deeply inhale especially the Homeric classicism. And Homer – the mythic Homer or the Homer of myth – immediately became his guide and at the same time told him of his Chios, of the Iliad and the Odyssey, but also of the Thebaid and the Cypria (attributed to him by Callino and Apollodoro, respectively). And he will read to him precisely from the Iliad – Book XVIII – the famous verses: He made the shield in five thicknesses, and with many a wonder did his cunning hand enrich it. He wrought the earth, the heavens, and the sea; the moon also at her full and the untiring sun, with all the signs that glorify the face of heaven – the Pleiads, the Hyads, huge Orion, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain and which turns round ever in one place, facing Orion, and alone never dips into the stream of Oceanus. …
All round the outermost rim of the shield he set the mighty stream of the river Oceanus. (translation by Samuel Butler). It was Hephaestus, the god of fire that creates and produces, and thus the deity of Art and of every related work of art, who was the maker of the Shield of Achilles, as of the shield of Zeus and the trident of Poseidon. But Hephaestus was dear also to Dionysus, the god of inebriation, who exalts and loves Aphrodite, the god of Beauty, which enchants, and of Love that carries away. The Shield of Achilles was born from the fire that Prometheus delivered to humans as the first vital element, which together with air, water, and earth was seen by Empedocles as constituting the entire universe. This work released “energheia” and as such delighted those in Olympus, along with Heracles and Tethys. The challenge is existential! Romano returns to the foundry of Lemno, where the scepters of the gods and the arms of heroes are fabricated, and in his Shield he delivers to us a masterpiece, about which the most rigorous art criticism and most attentive iconological culture have already written pages of acute analysis, lyrical interpretation, and shared admiration (and it seems to me here that this calls for a reference to the beautiful publication Lo scudo di Achille di Alessandro Romano, edited by Franco Maria Ricci, 1990). The fact is that Romano identified himself with the Homeric verse of the Iliad, and also of the Odyssey (Book VIII), with the sensitivity of one who is accustomed to the suggestions of the mythopoeic. However, it was only in subordinating his vocation to Beauty, and the strong tension to Truth, that he was able to confer an admirable form upon the thoughts and intuitions that are drawn from the sources of the Absolute. Thoughts and intuitions that find lyrical expression and modern language in a work in which the Platonic distinction between the world of ideas (the constellations and myths) and the world of things (the contingencies and earthly events) poses and opposes the vision of human beings inasmuch as “being” and “existing”, for which both Parmenides and Heraclitus will always be right! There remains entrusted to this work a lofty message: counter to the destiny of the announced, inescapable death, there is the certainty that Beauty cannot die. In the meantime there began for Romano a new, fascinating, and intimately spiritual adventure. In the company of the Confessions of Augustine, he drew closer to the reading of the biblical text, with the consequent dedication to sacred art, or rather, to art with a religious subject, since art – as one knows – when beautiful and true, is always sacred. Along with this, there is an awareness of the responsibility that such a choice implies, for Christianity sees in art the vehicle of feelings and ideas of spiritual elevation and transcendence: “invisibilia per visibilia”, as Hadrian I had commented in this regard. Such an art is destined to God’s people, towards whom it has a triple function to perform: catechistic, liturgical, and lastly, of salvation. Religious orders and curiae request Romano’s work always more insistently, and Saint Peter’s Factory has placed as many as four of his sculptures in the external apsidal niches of Saint Peter’s Basilica. I know that Romano is now waiting for the moment of grace in order to sculpt the Crucifix. On his work table I notice a book: The Idiot of Dostoevskij, open to the pages in which the nihilist Hyppolite asks Prince Myshkin which Beauty will save the world.
In the contrasting considerations about Beauty, while we are assaulted by nihilism, Dostoevskij proposes to us the overcoming of the contradictions, the way to get beyond them, by means of the Crucifix. “Only if God takes upon Himself the infinite suffering of the world abandoned to evil, only if He enters into the thickest shadows of human misery, will pain be redeemed and death vanquished. But this has happened on the Cross of the Son” (Forte). This is so because “ the divine suffering succeeds in being a complete expiation and liberation” (Pareyson). Thus Christ, the incarnation and crucifixion of Beauty, is the Beauty that will save the world. I leave Alessandro Romano in his studio-foundry, besieged by the numerous students who attend the course I direct for a Master’s degree in historical-artistic studies. The artist has in his eyes a kindof light, which gives rise to wonder, just like that piece of clay that he has in his hands and which is prodigiously taking on form, or rather, beauty.