Frames Blog Federico Serrani

Fabulous Calvino

23 October 2023

by Jasmina Trifoni


Catilina Volo, Viola Alconti, Avito Calloni, Latino Cavoli, Livio Antalco, Lola Catironi. And these are just some of the names that Italo Calvino had created by anagramming his own. Because, he said, there is nothing more intimate than one’s own signature. So much so that at a certain point in his career, he would avoid signing his manuscripts (and would publish the annotated edition of the Barone Rampante under the pseudonym Tonio Cavilla). All those names of possession, as he called them, are listed on a graph paper sheet in A4 format which, at least in the opinion of the writer, is one of the most interesting – even hypnotic – relics of the rich exhibition inaugurated at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome on October 13th, exactly two days before the date that celebrates the centenary of the birth of the most visionary writer of our twentieth century.


Italo Calvino’s pseudonyms

And perhaps calling him visionary is not enough, so much so that the title chosen for the exhibition defines him as fabulous, quoting the “Fabulous Calvino” from an enthusiastic article that another great in literature, Gore Vidal, wrote in 1974, on the occasion of the translation into English (the first, followed by 46 other languages worldwide) of “Le Città Invisibili” (Invisible Cities).



Calvino by Salgado


This grand exhibition is curated by Mario Barenghi, professor of contemporary Italian literature at the University of Milano-Bicocca, as well as the greatest scholar of Calvino on the planet. However, and it is evident, this is his first curatorial experience of an exhibition that, by its nature and to meet the expectations of a wide audience, must be visual. His merit lies in having set up a path that allows one to enter the Calvinian universe, through a narrative in which the experiences of his life (starting from childhood in Cuba, where he was born, to his Ligurian adolescence with his parents: his father was a distinguished agronomist and his mother, Eva Mameli, was the first woman in Italy to obtain a free teaching position in Botany) intertwine with his powerful literary creations. To tell Italo Calvino – his initial neorealist production, his, in some ways eccentric and magnificently motivated, adherence to the partisan struggle (did you know that in 1958 he wrote a song, “Oltre il ponte,” for the Turin group Cantacronache, to try to prevent the memory of that fundamental moment in our history from fading, as we know has happened in recent times), his journalistic work, and his work as an editor for the publishing house Einaudi, as well as much more, is a kind of impossible feat. Just as each of us readers of Calvino has already seen, and continues to see, and imagine, his stories within ourselves in a very personal and unique way; therein lies his greatness as a man and as an author.


Italo Calvino and Natalia Ginzburg


Therefore, and still for the writer, the extraordinary wonders of this exhibition are his phrases, sometimes disheveled, which dot the exhibition path. His photographs, whether in moments of leisure, with Luigi Einaudi, Leonardo Sciascia, Natalia Ginzburg, and other friends and colleagues, or unposed portraits, like those taken by Sebastião Salgado while, with his hands in his hair, he is intent on writing. Or while sitting in the passenger seat of a car, with a rhinoceros grazing in the background. Interesting, too, are the images of Calvino sketched by the pencil and colors of his friend Tullio Pericoli, or his portraits, rendered with nervous expressionist brushstrokes by Carlo Levi. Or yet, the extraordinary illustrations of his fairy tales, the work of Emanuele Luzzati. It is then discovered that, although he was a reserved personality, Calvino was the most represented Italian writer, on film, paper, or canvas, in the twentieth century.


Italo Calvino by Carlo Levi

What appears weaker in the exhibition – even with the excellent exceptions of the works on display by Mario Paolini, who was linked to the writer by a long and deep friendship, and to whom the wife requested a project, unfortunately never realized, for his tomb, and a few others – are the overly scholastic associations between Calvino’s imagery and that of other, also remarkable, visual artists. The “Barone Rampante” lived in a tree, and here is a tree from the celebrated “wooded production” in the sign of Arte Povera by Giuseppe Penone. “If on a winter’s night a traveler” evoked by the poetic fog of the Po Valley in the photos of Luigi Ghirri, or “Invisible Cities” associated with a metaphysical urban landscape by Giorgio De Chirico. Or, to stretch things further: Calvino leads us into a magical world, the same (but why, then?) as the bucolic depiction woven in a famous Renaissance tapestry from the Pistoiese School. And did it really serve to bring in an imposing medieval armor from a prestigious Viennese museum? At least for the writer, these associations detract. They detract magic from the always fascinating and sometimes unbearable complexity and uniqueness of Calvino’s storytelling, inviting each to imagine their own invisible city, to find the other half of his “Viscount,” or his very personal “Cosmicomics.” Finally, a piece of advice: sit down to enjoy the (unfortunately brief) video apparatus that completes the exhibition. From his own voice, it is discovered – and it is shocking – that even for a genius, and moreover for an extraordinarily prolific genius like Calvino, the craft of writing was a painful struggle. And that irony is the fundamental tool for telling the present.

Federico Serrani decided from the beginning of his journey to dedicate his productions to the great authors and the books that inspired Federico and his niece Stefania. Continue the discovery of Italo Calvino on Federico Serrani, with the original drawings by Fiammetta Ghedini illustrating the “Invisible Cities” on bag straps and camera straps from the collection dedicated to the author here.


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