A theme that recurs constantly in the lives of Italian artists, and made popular in Giorgio Vasari’s Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (1550 and 1558), is that of the artist’s struggle to break away from the career path chosen by the father. In Michelangelo’s case he was to have studied for a career in law; for the goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini music was to have been the road to economic success and status. Carlo Rossi never had to conform to this stereotype as his father had a great respect for art and for cultural activity in general.
Carlo’s grandfather, with his wife and three children (Pietro, Emilio, and Domenico - eventually to be Carlo’s father) left their hometown of Cardito in the mid-nineteenth century to seek a living outside Italy. His story forms part of an extensive pattern of migration from all parts of Italy to northern Europe, and the United States of America, as families sought to escape the underdeveloped economy of a fragmented country (Italy would only be united in 1861), which offered few opportunities, outside of subsistence agriculture, to the majority of its population. The family eventually ended up in Paris. There they made a living by their skills as musicians, trading in plaster casts of famous statues, and by acting as artists’ models in the Parisian ateliers. The Italian trade in plaster statues and statuettes goes back to the sixteenth century when the French King Francois I, smitten by the new art movements of Italy, imported Italian painters and stucco artists to decorate his new chateau at Fontainebleau, and thus started a tradition that still exits today. After Paris, the family moved further North to Belgium, where a daughter Maria was born, and where they must have stayed for some time. We know that Domenico had a working knowledge of Waloon, a dialect spoken in south-east Belgium and some parts of northern France.
At some point the children set out on their own for Britain, and soon wound their way to Glasgow. They continued to earn a living playing music, Domenico had a very successful one-man band, and working for other Italians especially in the catering trade. Domenico however continued to have links with the art world. He became a model for Francis (Fra) Newberry who was head of the Glasgow School of art in the 1880’s. Newberry was an inspirational teacher who was later to encourage among many others, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald. However Domenico did not sit for Newberry in Mackintosh’s architectural masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, but in the Treron building. Originally built as an art gallery for the wealthy art lover Archibald McLennan in 1855, it was purchased by the city in 1856 and housed part of the art school, while the new building was under construction. That Fra Newberry should wish to paint Domenico was not surprising. With his long mane of hair, a luxuriant moustache and sporting an elegant fedora hat Domenico cut a striking figure; so much so that in 1891, when Buffalo Bill Cody brought his Wild West Show to Glasgow, Domenico was surrounded by a crowd who, despite his strange accent and protestations, was convinced that they had cornered the famous cowboy and demanded his autograph.
The turn of the century saw Domenico married and the birth of a daughter Elisabetta. Tragically his wife died shortly afterwards. He eventually married again and nine more children were to follow. His new wife Teresa Francesconi came from the small town of Aquilea just outside Lucca in Tuscany. Just before the First World War Domenico and his brothers went their different ways. Pietro had married a local girl who, for some reason, had an antipathy towards Italians and wanted top live apart from the rest of the family. Emilio moved to set up in business in Airdrie, Pietro stayed in Glasgow and Domenico moved to Johnstone where, in 1921, Carlo the youngest, and now only surviving member of the family was born. The fates seemed to be spinning their deadly threads of destiny when he was baptised with the sonorous Christian names Eugenio Federico Carlo, and listed on his birth certificate as female. Wisely family, and everyone else, ignored his official names and called him Carlo; whereas officialdom continued to accept him as female until Carlo, at the age of 78, finally spotted the error and presented himself to the registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages and suggested, much to the consternation of the official, that his sex be re-classified as male.
Carlo’s precocious talent for drawing was soon evident. At the age of four his father gave him his first commission: to make three drawings to advertise the pianola in the family café, which were duly executed and displayed. Despite living in Scotland, life in the Rossi household revolved around things Italian. Both his parents and his elder siblings spoke Italian, indeed his mother, despite living for over seventy years in Britain, only ever had a rudimentary grasp of English; they ate Italian food; and visitors from Italy were constantly appearing bringing the latest news, as well as delicacies such as Domenico’s favourite - very ripe, lively cheese. When this happened Teresa refused to enter the kitchen till the offending comestible had been consumed and any surviving wrapping had been consigned to flames. All of this was to have a profound effect on Carlo’s views on art and his aesthetic predilections. His school days passed peacefully; he excelled in Art but he also achieved the grades in English, French, and Mathematics which would have enabled him to go to university. His headmaster, who regarded art as little more than a pastime, endeavoured to point him towards an academic career, even to the extent of writing a letter to Carlo’s father urging him to dissuade his son from a wasting his God-given talents. Domenico however, had too much respect for the fine arts, for a world with which he had been in close contact all his life, and gave his son his blessing to choose his own profession. Thus encouraged Carlo entered the Glasgow School of Art in 1938.
His teachers in the Mackintosh building were many, varied, and eccentric. Hugh Adam Crawford and Henry Young Alison were the painting tutors. The latter had the unnerving habit of standing, accompanied by his pet terrier, behind a student busy working on a canvas, and suddenly exclaiming in a loud voice for all to hear: “See you, you canna paint, ma wee dug can paint better’n you”. These excoriating verbal castigations were often accompanied by the obliteration of the offending image. Despite such helpful advice Carlo learned all the techniques necessary for expressing himself, and he was encouraged by J. D. Ferguson to follow his own path. Even though he became fast friends with other artists such as Joan Eardley, Alfredo Avella, and Margot Sandeman there was never any sense of a corporate enterprise, or movement in the art school at that time. Perhaps the disruption of the war, and the uncertainty for what the future might hold, led to more solitary introspection. The oil paintings of this period already evince tight, careful compositions, and the instinctive balancing of colours. If there is an influence it is that of Cezanne and the gentle cubism of Braque. The paintings Abstraction and Abstraction 2 show the tight geometry, the rigorous balancing of shapes, and the subtle shifts in tones and colours of his early style. At this time landscapes do not feature in his works. It is as though the key to unlocking this side of his artistic personality was missing.
The turning point in Carlo’s life came when he met the young Vittoria Bertoncini, who had come to Scotland to study and stay with her sister. They were married in 1944 and in 1946 Carlo travelled to Italy for the first time, alone, to meet up with his wife and baby son Paolo who had travelled on ahead. One can only imagine the effect of finally coming into direct contact with the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that he had heard about all his life. Three days after leaving the cold, grey surroundings of Glasgow the train threaded the pass at Ventimiglia into the intense light of northern Italy. The sight of the pink and ochre painted houses with their terracotta roof tiles, surrounded by vines, cypress, and pine trees along the west coast rail line to 8 Pisa were a revelation. After Pisa he journeyed by car through the Serchio valley, past his mother’s birthplace, to what was to be his new spiritual home: Barga. This small town perched on the summit of a peak in the middle of the Tuscan Apennines has magnificent views of other valleys and mountains, with their respective small villages, hamlets, and farms. We can date Carlo’s lifelong passion for the Italian landscape from this first experience. Every year, since 1947, he has filled sketchbooks with annotated drawings (such as Hillside, Barga, and Sunflowers), then, on his return to Scotland, with the help of the sketchbooks and his memories of the light, forms, and colours he has transferred the mental images to canvas. Barga and its surroundings have never ceased to be an inspiration. He has painted the steep, winding streets of La Fornacetta, the views of the duomo: Barga, Barga Vecchia, or the views seen from his house Sommocolonia, many times; yet he always finds a different viewpoint or emotional response as he explores the changing effects of the light, or the manner in which the landscape responds to the seasonal changes of man and nature.
Another aspect of Carlo’s paintings is the power of music. This no doubt reflects the importance of music in the Rossi household, but may also be related to that first trip to Italy when he shared a Wagon-Lits with the young baritone Giuseppe Taddei. Taddei, who had just made his debut in London, regaled Carlo with the full majesty of his vocal dexterity as they journeyed down the peninsula and left an indelible mark on his memory. Carlo often compares his works to the music of Bach, and describes his paintings as carefully orchestrated fugues of shapes and colours linked together and controlled by the geometry of the line. If we examine the works Still Life with Fruit Bowl, Still Life with Guitar, and Septet we can see how all these elements subtly interact to give a satisfying synthesis, which appeals both to the emotions and the intellect. Carlo never tires of experimenting; he uses: paper packaging and detritus in the Still Life with Fruit Bowl paintings; monotype printing in Reclining Figure; themes from classical Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art are reworked in his drawings and prints.
Today the dark colours of his youth have given way to a vibrant palette such as in Trio or Girl with Headdress. He has moved out of Barga, if only for sojourns, and begun to pay attention to other Tuscan towns: Towers - San Gimignano, Coreglia, Buildings - Siena. It is however the Serenissima, the city of Venice, which has been his major focus in recent years. The palazzi of the Venetian merchants and aristocracy, crushed together for mutual support, yet each with its own personality and history, have captured his imagination. Whether it is a response to the ever changing sunlight, revealing a myriad of colours in the facades and the rippling waters of the Canal Grande and lagoons: Palazzo Dario; or to the magic cast by the artificial lights of lanterns on the buildings and boats as in Palazzo Bernardo, these paintings inject vitality and a life-force into the crumbling stone and stucco of the fast-fading splendour of the most serene republic.
The American poet Catherine Savage Brosnan on seeing Carlo’s work, and learning of the family history was moved to pen the following portrait. In the poem Domenico and Carlo become one; artistic licence metamorphoses the experiences of the real Domemico into those of a sculptor plying his trade as he crosses from Italy to Scotland. There his son will inherit things bred in the blood, and inspiration from a distant homeland will resurface and be reawakened to create new art in the north.
© Paolo L. Rossi, Easter Sunday, 2008