The small Umbrian hill town of Spello has produced two remarkable artists. The first was Bernadino di Betto, better known as Pinturicchio (“little painter”), one of the great painters of the Renaissance. The second was Maestro Elvio Marchionni. Elvio Marchionni attended the Art Institute of Bernadino di Betto in Perugia, where he explored medieval painting techniques, the classics and the past masters. His palette is one of subdued colours, and many of his works resemble frescoes ravaged by the effects of time. He has exhibited all over Italy, including at the Venice Biennale of Sacred Arts, as well as in Paris, Madrid, Germany and the US. I spoke to him about his work and his inspiration.
Do you come from an artistic background? No, I come from a family of farmers. My parents had no real concept of what art meant.
When did you realise that you wanted to be an artist? Ever since I can remember. I have always drawn, even as a very small child of two or three.
Which artists do you most admire? Michelangelo is for me the greatest of all artists, better even than Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael, although I respect them both. I particularly admire Michelangelo’s drawings. In terms of modern artists, I was very inspired by the work of Alberto Burri, the Italian abstract artist. He reduced his colour palette and incorporated textures in his work, using sacking, iron, wood and plastic. He would also scar and burn areas of his canvas to add layers of interest. Without Burri, I would not have developed my own textural techniques.
What artistic techniques do you use? I like to use different textures in my work. For example, I use the crumbling plaster walls of old buildings to extract colour and texture. I take layers of gauze which I stick to the walls. When the layers are dry I pull them off, and traces of the pale colours and plaster remain on the material. I then use this as my canvas. The paintings produced in this way are known as strappi, from the Italian word strappare meaning to tear off or extract. For me, the canvasses contain memories of the past and of colours that have changed through time.
I also use the serigraph or silk screen process. After creating an image, the silk is stretched across a frame and treated with a gel that is sensitive to light. A single colour is forced through the fine mesh of the silk material. When it is placed under a strong light, the image is fixed. Additional colours are added separately, drying well between each coat. It is a very long process.
Do you see yourself as following in the tradition of the great Renaissance artists? No, not specifically. I love Renaissance art, but my art comes from using all of the artistic knowledge that I have from both the past and the present. I continue to learn every day. My favourite colours are those you see in the ancient frescoes, although some of their shades have changed over time. For example, the Madonna was usually depicted dressed in a deep blue, but this would originally have been much lighter. As the blue pigment was very expensive, artists diluted it to make it go further. The dilution agents slowly evaporated, resulting in a darker colour.
So you paint every day? A good musician plays his instrument every day. It is the same for an artist. It is not enough to say you will only paint when you are inspired: you must practice, practice, practice to improve your art. Even now, when I am talking to you, you will see that my hands are never still; I always have a board or sketch pad close by. Sketching helps me to concentrate.
Do you ever paint outdoors? Rarely now. When I was a young boy I often painted in the fields and mountains, but now I prefer to paint in the studio. That does not mean that I do not get inspiration from the landscape, because I do.
I understand you were born in Spello. Yes, during the War, in 1944. In fact it was during an air raid. It was such a confusing time that my mother wasn’t sure whether I was born on the 16th or 17th of January. She settled on the 17th.
And you still live in Spello? Yes, I love this town deeply and I still live in the centre. I also have a house close by on the mountain. I know the mountains so well, and enjoy walking on the slopes, picking wild asparagus and herbs and hunting for truffles.
When you are away from Spello, where do you like to visit? I am happy to be in Spello even when I am not working! If I do go away, it tends to be to places that remind me of my home town, with mountains and olive groves. I love Puglia; when I go there I like to stay in a small village. The area is very beautiful. I also love to eat the fresh fish.
Many of your paintings have a religious theme – why is that? Well, I myself am an atheist, but I consider myself to be a friend of the Church. Many of my works are in churches and therefore depict religious themes.
You paint women often, and these women have the most beautiful, serene expressions. Yes, I love women! I like to paint them looking serene, calm and beautiful.
The depiction of a mother and child is a theme you return to frequently. I have painted the Madonna and Child frequently but also many other works showing a mother and child. My aim always is to portray them for any generation; an eternal mother and child relationship if you like.
You recently produced a beautiful painting of Pope Francis. How did that come about? It was a commission from a consortium of Umbrian banks. I actually went to the Vatican to present it to the Pope personally. I think he was pleased with it! The Pope took his name in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi, so I included the Saint and the basilica built in his name in the background. I also produced 500 serigraph copies – one of which hangs in my house – and a regional newspaper printed 50,000 posters of my portrait.
The Marchionni Foundation (Fondazione Marchionni) was recently inaugurated in Spello, in the former church of Saint Michael the Archangel. Why did you set up this organisation and what is it intended to do? The Foundation aims to encourage people – particularly, but not exclusively, children – to produce art and to grow as artists. It is about creativity and experimentation, allowing people to try out different techniques and materials. As well as trying to ensure that our rich artistic traditions are perpetuated, the Foundation will also manage my body of work. It is difficult for me to lay the responsibility for this on my family; through the Foundation my work can be managed independently.
Can you teach anybody to draw? I don’t teach people to draw. Through my Foundation, I put myself at the disposal of both adults and children when they are trying to solve problems with their art. Children know what they want to draw, even at a very early age. What might look like scribbles to us is something definitive in a child’s mind. Sometimes art lessons in schools drive children down particular routes. I want to undo this sort of teaching; children are able to express themselves through their paintings and they should be free to do this without necessarily having to conform to accepted art forms. I think that anyone can draw or paint to some degree, but without natural talent and training it is not possible to be a true artist.
Aside from art, what interests you? Women, children and cooking. I am told I am a pretty good cook! Also, as I mentioned earlier, being at one with nature in the fields and mountains.
What are you currently working on? I am producing a series of eleven pieces for the Baptistry of Folignio Cathedral.
From Maestro Marchionni’s house we crossed the street to the former church of Saint Michael the Archangel, home of the Foundation. Here I saw the work in progress for Folignio Cathedral and an exhibition of childrens’ art from the most recent junior workshop. We then strolled up the street to the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore to see one of his works, a Madonna and Child. We walked around the Renaissance Baglioni Chapel with its rich paintings and decoration by Pinturicchio completed around 1501: perhaps his finest works. We admired the two pale paintings by Perugino from 1521. Finally, we visited the Chapel of the Sacrament where Elvio Marchionni’s four panels decorate the splendid 16th century tabernacle. Today’s artist is justifiably proud of his work, that of the local Renaissance masters and of his town.
Of what are you most proud? Every day when I wake up I feel good to be alive. I am proud that I succeeded in becoming what I always wanted to be. I also love freedom; I am a free spirit.
With sincere thanks to Maestro Elvio Marchionni for his time and his generosity of spirit. Thanks also to Francesca Carbonini for her patience and help with translation.