Scattered pages

Written by  Gianni Venturi
Filippo de Pisis and the temptation of writing
De Pisis' 'vocation' as a painter is always contrasted with, (or, perhaps one should say, accompanied by) his equally great skill as a writer. The story goes that throughout his restless pilgrimages from Ferrara to Rome, Paris, Milan, Venice and finally to Villa Fiorita, de Pisis tenaciously and faithfully amassed the evidence of his dedication to literature in the form of boxes and packets full of paper. As Sandro Zanotto, de Pisis' official biographer, wrote: 'Throughout Filippo de Pisis' troubled life they continued to follow him around, each of his meandering tours amassed more scribbled pages, great chests full of his manuscripts were generated. After de Pisis' death, these chaotic papers, nibbled at by mice and clouded with mildew from half of Europe, were gathered up by his niece Bona from cottages and cellars in Ferrara, Paris and Venice thus saving them from certain destruction or dispersal.'
Indeed, these papers show an attachment to writing which was born in Ferrara and which still in 1951 prompted the artist to make this passionate declaration of love for poetry and writing: 'I have often been moved to say that I only like paintings which I haven't painted. Conversely, let me say, I love some almost completely obscure poetry which I am sure will one day gain critical acclaim.' However, in the light of this colossal quantity of unread material, the question of the actual quality of this writing remains unknown. I would suggest that what is really significant is that such a loved and favoured mode of artistic expression was abandoned to fate in his later years; it was a sort of fatalism which, led him, in spite of himself, to leave the pages on which he had recorded his sense of discovery of the world as semi derelict pieces, icons of a lost world. Nor do I think it is true to say that his literary interests helped create an internal poetry within his paintings. And yet it is true. But it is an uneasy truth, a doubtful truth. I therefore believe it is important to underline the artist's own depiction of Ferrara as a 'still life', a semi-riposte to the provincialism of a city which condemned him during his lifetime, but avidly looked for his works after he became famous, a 'dead' city, one which he perceived as lifeless, and as inanimate as the 'still life' paintings in which he excelled, and yet in which he managed to capture rare scintillating moments of beauty.
Other poet-artists or artist-poets have managed to conduct their discovery of complementary artistic fields as a kind of parallel experience which did not require or desire the rejection of the other's way of seeing the self and the world. I am thinking above all of Savinio but also Viani, and of Bartolini rather than De Chirico's important experiment, but I believe that Ebdòmero remains significant. In other words, I think that it was a deliberate decision to leave unpublished such a great mass of literary experiments, it is almost impossible to break into the magic circle of fragments which is the condemnation and the charm of De Pisis the writer. As I have previously stated, the image of Ferrara is not only captured in the great book La città dalle cento meraviglie but in the precision which is evidenced on every single page he wrote; he was increasingly aware that writing was almost certainly the best medium for narrating Ferrara. As Montale said, this writing was a mental reserve which was charged with a kind of lyrical memory for that which he didn't do ('I like paintings which I haven't painted') it signified a love of that which remained a possibility, unpublished or abandoned. Writing is a means of salvation for the artist, because for de Pisis the artist, the Idea prevails over the finished work, over the apparent ease of execution: what the artist pursues lies beyond the painting; whereas poetry or prose, in the form of a lyrical or autobiographical fragment, cloaks the other senses, opens an anxious spyhole onto inventive happiness. If Ferrara therefore signifies the discovery of the world through writing, then what Sandro Zanotto says makes sense: 'Recently a whole new 6.6 kg bundle of old manuscripts arrived at my house. My studio resembled some remote road-stead where the wind's capricious course has scattered items over a wide area. I thought this would be another de Pisis manuscript, but it was in fact his sister Ernesta's entire literary output, she who took the name of de Pisis and published a study of their ancestor Filippo de Pisis. It suddenly became startlingly clear how she had influenced her brother in his formative years particularly in terms of philosophical, psychological, mystic and esoteric reading matter. Her diaries very much resembled his, but hers had an obsessive and rational quality which his lacked. The unfortunate Ernesta died not long ago, condemned to a provincial life in which she could only be a 'crazed eccentric'. (Padua 14/12/1971)
The great writer Paola Masino, who developed a special relationship with de Pisis, putting him up in Rome and Venice, sent me a copy of the wonderful letters which she and Bontempelli had exchanged with 'Pippo'. This extract from a letter will suffice to justify the concerns of de Pisis the artist about his unresolved dreams of writing: 'And don't go thinking you are like de Pisis. All we do is put stuff to one side, and fret about how that relates to that which has been put aside. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, who said 'To write is to stop, to stop, to stop', he can maintain that 'To live is to put aside, put aside, put aside.' (Rome 18/1/1970).