Discovered by Ettore Gianferrari

di Stefano Lorenzetto
"Il Giornale" 12-12-1999

A few years ago the incorporeal president of Mediobanca, Enrico Cuccia, left his bunker on Via Filodrammatici and began walking toward Professor Alberto Crespi's office. At the time, Crespi was the Chairman of Italy's first corporate law department at the Catholic University in Milan. The two were meeting to discuss a case. Immediately upon entering Crespi's office, Cuccia's attention was grabbed by the 14th century paintings hanging on the wall. Transfixed by these religious paintings, he began wondering about the artists behind the works and sighed, "Those were people with faith".

Bruno Grassi, a contemporary painter from Piacenza, is one of those people: he has faith. He is an artist who aspires to "send the soul soaring" through his work. His faith is manifest even in his house and studio, located in a 13th century convent in Calendasco, near Piacenza. The ex-convent is found on via Mazzini n. 13, once known as Via Francigena, one of the principle routes along the pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. Modern day pilgrims still pass the monastery on their way to Rome. If they peek inside, they'll see statues of Saint Aristide and Saint Corrado Confalonieri, who lived here before moving to Sicily where he became the patron saint of Noto.

Guidebooks often lead travelers to the ancient crucifix-laden door, and Grassi always opens to those who knock. One day Paul Duncan, director of the South African edition of Condé Nast's House & Garden, turned up on Grassi's doorstep. He was on a pilgrimage from England to Rome, determined to reach Saint Peter's tomb on foot. Grassi offered to him, as to many, a bowl of traditional local pasta, a bonarda and a glass of "sburlon" a liquor made from the Lombardian quince-tree in Grassi's courtyard. The artist showed Duncan several treasures he found on the convent's premises: "I found this 5,000-year old bone and this lavishly decorated Roman pottery in the cellar".

Grassi loved the Vatican's Holy Year 2000, as it kindled countless pilgrimages to religious sites in Italy and therefore ushered many pilgrims to his doorstep. Grassi truly believes in sainthood, pilgrimages and all the rest; he has dedicated his life to painting religious images and exporting them throughout the world. There is, in fact, a gallery in Washington DC run by Simona Troni which deals exclusively with Grassi's religious paintings. His images often depict Mary, Christ and angels without wings - the last of which were the source of inspiration for a cult novel written by Daniel Boulanger and published by Gallimard entitled Anges qui ont perdu leurs ailes et les cherchent, or "Angels in Search of the Wings They Lost". The Jubilee was a pleasure for Grassi because, despite the fact that he is married and has three children, he is a sort of laic monk, and isn't ashamed to admit it.

You wouldn't be offended if I addressed you as Brother, would you?
"Not at all. Sometimes I even feel like one of those old Tibetan monks who puncture their cranium to decrease the pressure of their thoughts. At one time I even wanted to become a monk".
"When I was 16, but my mother Maria stopped me. She told me that I had to 'thrust myself into life', and I understand her, poor woman".
Why is that?
"Because my father died when I was one and a half years old, and she was left alone to raise seven children. The oldest had just turned 12, and I was the youngest. They wanted to put us up for adoption, but she fought against them with all her might. And she raised all of us by working as a seamstress".
Your calling to be a monk, when did that happen?
"When I was a child while reading about the life of Christ from a 17th century book. I would have liked to become a Franciscan monk".
Why not Carmelite or Cistercian?
"Who knows. When the Bishop of Todi conferred me with the Templar Investiture of Saint Bernard, instead of declaring my oath of faith to Saint Bernard, I said: 'I promise to be faithful to Saint Francis'. They made me repeat the oath".
And would you be ready to join a new crusade to defend Jerusalem from the Muslims?
"Absolutely, and I don't say this only as a Templar. This creeping Islamization worries me. Enough with being ashamed of being Christian! What's wrong with declaring the Christian faith?".
How did you end up living in a monastery?
"Everyone ends up returning to the stream like salmon".
"Retracing their own steps, returning to their place of birth. This hermitage was falling into ruin, and it took me ten years to restore it. And it has paid me back by binding me to the call of the sacred. The kind of sacredness which can be applied everyday and to everyone".
Where were you returning from?
"I lived in France. I had a house in Paris, near the Louvre. What more could an artist want? And yet, here in Calendasco, on days of crisp sunlight, I have found the same quality of light that captivated the Impressionists".
When did you begin painting?
"At the age of 7 I had already started painting daytime watercolors. During junior high school I drew the Rape of Persephone. My teacher, Vittorio Groppalli, still has that drawing and refuses to return it. When I was 12 I sold two small paintings for 15,000 lira which I spent on a deluxe edition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. But whenever I hung a painting up in our house, my eldest brother Emilio would take it down, to discourage me".
Fortunately he did not succeed.
"I applied to the Gazzola art institute in Piacenza, and then I attended the conservatory of music. I wanted to play the piano, but there was no more room in the class, so I chose the horn. It seemed like a heroic instrument to me. When I saw it, however, I was afraid. Now I am a horn teacher".
Who 'discovered' you?
"Ettore Gianferrari, the great art dealer. It's a hilarious story. There was a competition, and I went to Milan to deliver a painting to a gallery called Il Pavone. It was entitled An Evening with Alfredo. While I was waiting there, this little guy game in - he could have been either the writer Piero Chiara or the designer Bruno Munari. He saw my painting leaning against the wall and exclaimed 'lovely, interesting'. Then the gallery owner measured it and said 'Yes, but it's too big to enter the competition".
And what did you do?
"I took it home and sawed it".
"Yes, sawed. I took off enough centimeters to make it eligible. I took it back to the gallery and everything was fine, they accepted it. Then came the awards ceremony at the Hotel Leonardo, I think it was called. There were about 100 artists competing. They began reading off the final results, starting from the last place, to the second to last and so on, and my name never showed up. I must be among the first, I thought. When they finished reading the results, and my name was still omitted, I thought that surely I had won".
Did you win?
"Of course not! I didn't even place. They didn't even give me a consolation prize. I returned home discouraged. Two days later I received a letter with the return address: Ettore Gianferrari, Art Gallery, Via Gesú 19, Milan. I almost fainted. Gianferrari! Everyone passed through his hands, from Boccioni to De Pisis. The letter read: "Dear Painter", written just like that, with a capital p, "I would like to see some of your smaller-sized paintings". I thought it was a joke. For an entire week I didn't have the courage to show the letter even to my wife. I had just turned 22".
And then?
"My angel paintings won over Marco Valsecchi, the critic from Giorno and Panorama, who noticed my work in the Bolaffi catalogue".
Now angels are in fashion.
"Yeah, I know. Piero Guidi handbags, Lavazza advertisements... It's become an increasingly popular theme. But for me, for a man to turn himself into an angel is a completely different concept. Lightness, you have to rise up. I'm presumptuous enough to believe that I have a guardian angel next to me. We have to conquer our own wings. For this reason, my angels sometimes have wings, and sometimes they loose them. I started painting them in 1976, when drawing an angel was considered a sure sign of lunacy".
Are you? Insane, I mean.
"My kids think I am. Then again, someone who eats dinner at 7 p.m. and is in bed by 7:30, never watches television and gets up at 5 a.m.... or who closes himself off for three years inside his house and doesn't see anyone".
In this house?
"No, another one. Another medieval structure, made of stone, that I own in Bobbio".
Why did you lock yourself up inside your house?
"I needed to fresco the house. I began with an Ecce Homo under a beam, a tiny little image. Then gradually Madonna's appeared on the walls, and then the Christs. For three years I didn't leave that house, and I still haven't finished. There's a room that's 4x8 meters large. I was going to paint the earthly paradise there".
How did you eat if you were so secluded?
"My wife brought me food once in a while. Sometimes she stayed for a few days. Millions of tiny insects would crawl out of the eroded beams, and I painted in the nude. They ate me alive. After three years I was covered in red sores, I looked like I had scabies".
Did you fresco only that house and your current one?
"No, often I get calls from all over the world. Each time I stay two or three months. They're all big mansions owned by politicians, chief officers of multinational companies, but don't ask for names. I frescoed several houses in Washington, some in California".
Nothing in Italy?
"I've isolated myself from the Italian setting. They're all afraid of the Madonna, and priests are the worst of them".
"Once I was commissioned to paint a stage set to accompany a performance of Metempsicolon, at the Municipal Theater in Piacenza. Halfway through the work, Christopher Columbus' voyage appears, and for me it seemed natural to paint a Madonna. Well, can you believe that the composer, Giuseppe Zanaboni, objected to this? And they say he's a friend of cardinals. He rejected the Madonna. If I had proposed this to Carmelo Bene, I'm sure he wouldn't have voiced any objections".
Aren't you perhaps a bit obsessed with the Madonna?
"Yes, I am. It's a theme with infinite possibilities, the Madonna. When I was young I frescoed the apse of the Biana church: the crucifixion of Christ and the death of the Virgin. Now they covered it up, with the excuse that the figures' feet were too long. How can they do that?"
For centuries churches were decorated with Pantocrators, pietas, tabernacles, canopies with spiraled columns. Why do you think that in the last century, nothing like this has been commissioned? Why do priests absolutely refuse to commission works of art?
"Because they're ignorant! I don't mean art historically, I mean spiritually. They have an incredible fear. Have you ever tried talking to one? Theologically, culturally ignorant. I have lots of friends in the clergy, but I've learned that it's better to pray at home. Instead of a fresco, a painting, a stained-glass window, they prefer to buy pinball machines and video games for their parish".
For what reason?
"For centuries the church has managed people's spirits. Now they think they can live off the interest".
And churches? Why is it that today they all seem like fast-food joints?
"Don't even get me started on that. Churches in the form of spirals, a curtain in the desert, a handkerchief... Hare-brained symbology and architecture. They seem like bus stations. It's the triumph of the white wall, of exposed brick, like a medical clinic. We've become iconoclasts. Doesn't it say something that the Holy See wasn't compelled to commission some great work of art for the first Holy Jubilee Year of the third millenium?"
Is this an appeal?
"Yes, a very subdued appeal. I'd like to pose this question to the pope, to that holy man imprisoned inside the Leonine Walls. Your Holiness, we need an old-fashioned church. We need an art that awakens faith, as wrote to me Father Bernard Vialle, the Paris Archbishop's delegate for sacred art".
When does art become sacred?
"When looking at it makes you want to pray".
From this perspective, I don't think you could be classified as an orthodox artist.
"Yes, I know, twenty years ago I wanted to exhibit something in Genoa... come and see it: a flagellated Christ, sitting on a sofa next to a perfectly bourgeois woman. It was entitled A presence (see page 17). The gallery owner closed it up in a closet. He was afraid, thought it was blasphemous. Then he saw it photographed on the cover of the exhibition catalogue and was forced to bring it out. Now it's hanging up here, above my bed. It's the last thing I see before falling asleep and the first when I awake".
And do you feel this "presence"?
"Yes, even now, in this very moment, as we're talking, I feel that He is here. I never had this feeling when I was young".
When did you start to feel it?
"About fifteen years ago. At first, all I ever thought about was painting, nothing else. I was in a state of delirium. I never knew which day of the week it was, Saturday, Sunday or Monday. I always wanted to give my best, an endless competition with myself. Complete slavery. It always seemed I'd never make it. My concentration was so intense it gave me nosebleeds. Violent nosebleeds. Blood as an allegory for the color which refuses to learn to flow out. And then there's the frustration when a painting just doesn't work, the rage when erasing it. Incredible".
Why do you think people lack faith now?
"Because to believe you have to be gullible, childlike. You have to believe in miracles for them to happen. Believe in mystery. Not believing in the existence of mystery gives modern people a false sense of security".
Aside from God, what else do you believe in?
"In Padania, the Po Valley. But not Bossi's Padania".
How would you define the borders of Padania?
"Where the fog ends. Where that curtain of fog ends, Padania ends".
And the capital is Calendasco?
"No, the capital is the Po. There's a map from the 5th century AD where my country is marked as Ad Padum. The Po of silver-plated willows, this freeway of water navigable since the Iron Age. Did you know that near here, along the pebbly shores of the river, they found a hippopotamus jaw?"
What kind of people live in this land?
"My great friend Gianni Brera, who is now resting in peace on the other shore of the Po, always said that the people of the Po wear moleskins even under tuxedos. People with a strong exterior, who fill their lungs with deep breaths of fog, who can tell the seasons from the smell of the fields, who know how to placate animals and reassure women. Who perhaps neglect children, but it's precisely because of this that children become fascinated with them".
What kind of rapport do you have with modernity? Do you ever surf the web?
"Never seen it. I refuse to allow my children to install it at home, even though they're pretty old now: the only purpose it serves is to play games, I told them. I don't use a computer. I still write with a quill. Until 40 I had neither a telephone nor a driver's license".
In your youth you must have harbored some sort of passion, no?
"Piero della Francesca, Titian, Goya. They no longer inspire me".
What do you think of art critics?
"They're like traffic police: it suffices to not to run a red light".
Have you ever run a red light?
"Certainly my reds disturb them. My paintings are disturbing. My Madonna's, my Christ's are disturbing, because they're foreigners in this world. And then, if you notice, inside all of the houses are alike".
In what way?
"White. Seas of milk. You bring color into them and suddenly it disrupts everything".
At the risk of seeming conventional: is beauty that which is beautiful or that which we like?
"Absolute beauty exists".
But if I said that Picasso was horrible, you would be scandalized.
"Actually, I would sympathize: I don't like Picasso. And I don't even find De Chirico's streets and ponies any better".
You'll be expelled from the human race for that.
"I already expelled myself fifteen years ago. God appeared, and the horizon swelled".