Marvels undreamed-of

Written by  Ranieri Varese
Filippo De Pisis and his representation of Ferrara
De Pisis' relationship with Ferrara must be seen in the context of the city's relationship with the painter: it would be more precise to see it as a relationship with the people of Ferrara, as well as with the city itself. And these complex relationships are reciprocal: there is also the inverse relationship, that of the people with De Pisis.
A writer from Ferrara, Roberto Pazzi, inspired by his city, has previously written about relationship that every artist has with the place where he or she was born and has lived.
'The population of a provincial city in particular, where the number of people destined for the arts is bound to be small, does not like anyone who goes against the flow and against established tastes, choices and rituals; who does not share in its yearning for introspection, in the need to prove oneself equal to one's associates, satisfied with the opportunities offered by their native circumstances'.
First of all, I believe one can say that De Pisis knew the city, with a particular type of knowledge which he made public in order to be accepted by his fellow citizens.
In order to obtain the recognition that he wanted and that he believed was due to him, he made himself the historian and custodian of local memories. He donated his own collection of graffito ceramics to the museum of Faenza. He presented the herbarium with its collection of regional plant species to the University of Padua. Both were opportunities to associate him, self with publicising Ferrara,its collections, its treasures. He sought to establish himself as the vital intermediary between the city and the world.
All this showed an awareness of the history of the city which looked beyond the big triumphs. He did not become entangled in the myth of the house of Este, nor was he sucked into the whirlpool of interest which revolved around the XVI century to the exclusion of all else. He preferred fields of minor interest and subjects which were overlooked. However, this was not likely to please his fellow citizens who, in contrast, were competing to identify Ferrara once and for all with the glorious white eagle of the Este family, and who found it 'bizarre' to investigate incidents that were held to be of little importance.
There are around 30 titles by De Pisis in the Bibliotheca Ariostea: a gift from the author. As a citizen of Ferrara, he wanted to be represented in the place which preserves the history of the city and of the intellectuals who worked there. He even tried, clumsily, to pay homage to the victorious fascists, but without a political reason, merely to keep up with the rest. He wrote: 'The world of today has seen significant changes. The internal combustion engine, electric light, the hustle and bustle, marble and water, iron and steel, the sterility of the human heart which is leading to a new political and sporting Hellenism, are in danger of relegating painting, la bonne peinture, to the ranks of useless things.' It was an uninvited appeal for approval.
In Paris in 1926 he gave an interview which sparked off a huge row in the Ferrara newspaper 'Corriere Padano'. From the article in the French newspaper it appeared that Gigi had spoken mockingly about fascism. 'I defended him [said his brother Pietro] in order to keep our mother happy. Fortunately Italo Balbo, his old school friend and playmate, stepped in to explain that Gigi had never paid any attention to politics'.
A letter from Donato Zaccarini to Gualtiero Medri, dated 1918, goes straight to the point: '[?]I could tell you a lot about De Pisis but in order to keep it short I will simply say that after striking a variety of poses, very often making himself look ridiculous, he has learned to be a little less jesuitical. To give you an example, he has several times and to several people expressed the desire to be appointed as a member of the Deputazione di Storia Patria (the local historical society),a position which is insignificant anyway,and each time he has managed to further reduce the likelihood of his joining this body.'
Obviously, after each rejection, it became more difficult for him to live in Ferrara. 'The cult of celebrity is not recognised in this city,' observed the author bitterly when his fellow citizens failed to recognise quality, in either works of art or their creators, and mocked any sign of diversity or behaviour outside the norm. 'You want to be a painter? You want to be a painter?, everyone laughed.'

The book from which I have drawn a large number of the many quotations is, not by chance, La città dalle cento meraviglie ['The city of a hundred marvels']. Written partly before and partly after his departure for Rome, the book draws its power from the emotional conflict between its author and the provincial mentality. De Pisis confides to these pages his desire to escape the prison of his native city, 'which I hate and yet most tenderly love,' but his departure did not succeed in severing the umbilical cord which connected him to the city.
The connection was not in fact broken, but was maintained in the only way possible: from a distance. 'Up there I keep a series of postcards of my city; I keep them within sight to remind myself that I must only love the place from afar; they remind me of distant, remote times.' There is a cliché which is still sometimes used today, and which was very popular in De Pisis' time: Ferrara, the city of silence, the dead city, city of the dead. De Pisis made it his own, and believed it wholeheartedly.
In very few pictures does De Pisis represent Ferrara. I can only think of one in the Bona De Pisis collection: Piazza Ariostea 1935; even in the Ferrara show there were none. The painting which he gave to the city, 'Alla dolce patria', 1932, now in the civic museum of modern art, is a still life, rather than a view of the city.
De Pisis' painting is fascinatingly monotonous; it does not change over time. The many still lifes have their own internal history, but no evolution. The series of still lifes painted by De Pisis is splendid, but sealed in an immutable dimension, cut off from change as he believed the city was: a continual variation on a single theme.
At every moment, the painter declares his position as the narrator of both himself and Ferrara. There are no depictions of Ferrara, but there are many of the cities which he inhabited and frequented: Rome, Milan, Paris, Venice. It is not, then, an unwillingness to depict urban scenes which lies behind this absence; we need to look for other reasons.
Why is Ferrara missing? Is it really absent, or is it rather that we have not recognised it? I believe there is a problem of identification. We should not allow ourselves to be led astray by overly simplistic approaches to iconography. Mimesis and reproduction comprise two elements. The simpler of the two is external to the image, which we recognise thanks to its relationship,as a more or less accurate representation,to an existing model.
The other, which is more difficult and yet closer to the truth, is the rendering of the fundamental essence of the artist's subject; the recreation, in formal terms, of an identity. Not the copy of the existing object: this is not a matter of iconography, but of culture and comprehension. We are not talking about dependence on, and depiction of, another reality; but rather about the construction of an autonomous reality which is composed of the essential characteristics of the intellectual position we are trying to represent.
If this proposition is true in practice, we must seek the connection and relationship with the city in the one place they can be found: not in iconographical choices, but in formal ones. Ferrara, for De Pisis, is a dead city, in a state of dissolution: the paintings which fully express this sentiment are the still lifes.
It is in the still lifes that we find the painful representation of the essence of Ferrara, the beloved and yet hated city, as perceived by De Pisis.
The relationship between De Pisis and Ferrara can be found in his painting; any other pronouncements are only hints, attempts at explanation made with tools with which he is uncomfortable, and which thus over-simplify the feelings expressed so clearly and fundamentally through the images. These images are not, they could never be, a depiction of recognisable places, but they serve the purpose of representing the city in the terms through which the artist sought to comprehend it.
The people of Ferrara do not recognise themselves in this image, and the city stolidly refuses even to acknowledge the connection. Ferrara nevertheless remains, and its portrait, glowing with life in the artist's depiction, is really to be found in the series of still lifes, variations on a themes in which artist has made real a city that could otherwise never have existed.