The Artist and the City: to Stay or to Go?

Written by  Roberto Pazzi
To stay or to go? Ferrara's difficult relationship with its artists.
According to the French author Charles Baudelaire, a poet's mother, when she became aware of her son's artistic vocation, instantly cursed her fate, «Ah! Que n'ai-je mis tout un noeud de vipères /Plutôt que de nourrir cette dérision!».
The city behaves in like fashion with those who sabotage the arts and crafts dear to the establishment; in the provinces, especially, where the number of potential artists is small, there is no love lost for those who avoid complying with and replicating provincial tastes, choices, and rituals.

Ferrara, in spite of having been the cradle of the Novecento movement - headed by ferrarese artists such as Filippo De Pisis, Corrado Govoni, Giorgio Bassani, Michelangelo Antonioni, Lanfranco Caretti, and Gaetano Previati - is no exception to this rule. At first sight it would seem that all these artists shared a common predilection for exile. In some cases nostalgia and an elegy to memory hecame the keynotes of almost all their work.

I have remained, I have never left Ferrara and have no plans to do so; and I know to my cost the price to be paid if the artist is to aspire to poetic transfiguration - even in the novel - a feat that may only be accomplished if he manages to put a certain distance between himself and his city.

I prefer to entrust the direction of this motionless journey through my city to an unpublished poem:

The Horizon

Child that you are
Playing at being old
And looking back whence
The way was lost: the corners
-I did turn right, didn 't I
Or was it left? -
the stops and the encounters
- Did I turn here then,
Or farther on? -
I try to recall
Signs, graffiti, shop windows,
Traffic lights, lamp posts,
Number plates, a marvellous forest
In which roam others of my kind
Seeking the way out
As soon as possible and not knowing
What I know,
That at the edge of the wood
I glimpse the same sinking
That made me tremble
Before the sea's horizon
When the ships would fall into that void
beyond the line of nothingness.

But let's get back to those who left the city in the first half of this century. Painting for De Pisis, like the cinema for Antonioni, needed and still needs a market and a world of stimuli, experiences, and contacts that only great metropolitan centres such as Milan and Rome and, once upon a time, Paris, can offer.
In the early years of the century and in the Thirties what could Ferrara offer those seeking to measure themselves against the masters? The danger, for those who stayed on, was of solipsism, of walling themselves up in a solitary dimension, far from new ideas and new thinking.

But my mind nonetheless leaps to the two possibilities opened up to creative intelligence through the examples of Manzoni in Milan and Leopardi in Naples.
Italy's two great Nineteenth century literary voices reached the summit of their art by different routes: the former by imbibing a very modern cultural atmosphere, an intellectual fervour that was wholly Lombard, in which debate and even a rather heated exchange of ideas were welcome; the latter by remaining in Recanati, closed in on himself, obliged to carry on a dialogue more with the dead than the living, and using his father's well stocked library to trace the entire course of classic culture before he found his own highly original voice in the Romantic movement.

I don't feel I can state that artists always decide either to stay or to go, as the case may be.

Which of those Ferrarese artists possessed a vocation that was genuinely contemplative and cloistered, lyrical and solitary? De Pisis perhaps? Bassani perhaps? I don't think so.
It's a different matter in Antonioni's case, because the cinema obliged him to leave home, he would have remained an amateur otherwise.

Today the terms of the question have changed a little: faxes, the airport 54 kilometres away, the telephone, the cellular phone, and the Internet have all eliminated distances while permitting the kind of rapid connections that have allowed Ferrara, with its slow and provincial rhythms, to carve out a providential space for meditation and concentration. For this reason in recent years many talents have fled the big cities seeking to find in the solitude of the country and of the small towns that buen retiro.