It’s not easy for me to express in words the memory, the presence or way of thinking that was Nino’s. Like many others, I have written many times about his work. As I well know, I spend my life writing; I spoke many times with him about his work, and not only his work: And now that I desire to say a few words – not with him but about him – I just can’t find them. I know not how to find them also because, amongst these friends who know Nino as well as if not better than me and who like me remember the presence rather than the memory of his vital exuberance, we realise that finding words is perhaps pointless.
Whoever writes about art, often has, amongst other things, a doubt: the doubt that their writing can be of any real use. The reader can perhaps be induced into following the guidelines, confronting their own impressions or judgement with those who solely work on, with the tools of their craft, the interpretation of other people’s works of art. However, there is often a moment in which it is precisely the critic who, relating their words directly to the original work of art that inspire them, asks themselves why force myself to come up with metaphors, paraphrases or give reasons; why wrap the work of art in a verbal curtain which is of no use at all to it. Now, if these sort of doubts appear when talking about works of art, you can well imagine how the voice must shake when it comes to dealing with not the works of art but of the artist who created them.
One must not speak of the absent. We can make use of this phrase when considering Nino – what he’s really like – not absent, but present as never before: at least after that day in which the unforgettable manner of his presence transformed into another, certainly more consuming and ineffable, but equally vital and operative. His way of being is unforgettable. I would like only to say that I have perhaps never in any other artist found as in him a connection between humanity’s unstoppable, assertive and unleashed vitality and the transcendental fullness of art. Life is generous, art is generous. Many, too many fleeting years ago, I became acquainted with and began to love his etchings; you know them all, there’s certainly no need to speak of them. In the etchings and above all the aquatints, it seemed as if you knew not by what magic his natural impetuousness took on a visual form; the colour on the paper seemed to erupt forth like the lava from the mouth of a volcano, which then trickled into rivulets with explosive but controlled energy calibrated yet exultant and elating. The reds, the yellows, the dazzling glow of the incandescent lights. I spoke before of the surprising connection between the man and his art and it’s certainly true. Nevertheless, if one had to capture the essence of Nino’s art it wouldn’t be what before I called impetuousness. If in life one could speak – discreetly – of extroversion, in art one entered into the spell-like dimension of silence. The vigour and the forever latent exuberance were no less, but the image engraved, painted or sculpted immersed itself in the magic of the spells, entered (every time with a different accent) into the realm of mystery. They might seem like terms unsuited to nature, Nino’s mood and temperament; but Nino was a true artist, and as always is the case with a true artist it can be said that the man and the painter were one. Even for Nino there was a chasm between life and art which couldn’t be filled or rather filled, precisely, by the dimension of mystery.
Many of us have in our thoughts and hearts his laughter and infectious charm. We can even remember him in his studio working, I won’t say frenetically as this fails to indicate his knowledge and skilful mastery of his craft, but with fervour and intentness . And yet how many of his images or sculptures seem to be born out of the silence of a moonlit night. Nino had within him the silence of a moonlit night: he who challenged myth and mastered the elements, was in reality entranced and bewitched. Moving beyond the clamorous facade of his personality, having crossed the magic threshold of art, he let blossom the secret meditations of the soul, the mute voices that beckon from the depths. He did this subconsciously. The spell that bewitches the spectator of his works is the same one that had bewitched him: in that kind of underground where the processes of art mature. This was the distinguishing trait of his work: the silence, the spell, the magic. A practical man, firm in his convictions who, just beyond the invisible threshold of his soul, was a dreamer. I can not negate it even if I never saw him dreaming. An artist always has some sort of double life. They live in society, with their families, interested in politics and have ideas, moods and their behaviour; but as an artist they are something other. The artist doesn’t speak: they live, suffer and force the walls of their metaphoric room toward an indecipherable other that entices them. And they work. And in their work they open the way for those secret impulses who know no other way to reveal themselves if not through that work. They have no other language but that specific one, which for Nino is the stylus, the slab, the knife, the brush: with these concrete instruments the dreams find their words.
Yes, the artist has a double life. I know not if this is a privilege, certainly it is a fact. Not only is Nino alive in our memory, but present amongst us is the voice of his works of art and this voice – the voice of art – never repeats itself but is forever reborn. To say of a painting or a sculpture “I’ve already seen it”, is the harshest of criticism, because this means that the work of art is dead or born dead which is the same thing. An old adage says that art never gives all of itself, but always keeps hidden away something more to give or say. If this wasn’t the case none of us would go back to listen to a concert, look over again the same museums or reread the same book. Art lives and changes with time just as a person does; and it is within art that a person lives. It is also for this reason that Nino is here with us now. Two nights ago at the Santa Cecilia Auditorium, I heard the voice of Franz Schubert in one of his most beautiful sonatas. There is no doubt that it was Schubert himself, 172 years after his death, speaking and saying amongst the most vital and touching things that one can hear; relevant even after nearly 200 years of changing life and human experiences. This indeed is the privilege of art. But what Schubert’s music speaks of to us, today, would not have been neither heard nor recognised by someone who lived in Schubert’s time even if he had known him personally. When the pianist at Santa Cecilia came forth to take his bows, there seemed to me to be an incongruous gap between that small man of a certain age whose character I didn’t know; in brief between his concrete yet evasive and functional detail – and the infinite, changeable, overwhelming and elusive richness of the music of which he had been the bearer. I asked myself if this incongruous gap would be narrowed if he were instead Schubert himself.
Nevertheless, whatever it may cost an artist to cultivate two souls ( one as a person, and the other for the art which finds expression through them), whatever it may cost them to be alone in their work of giving form (which is much more than manipulating clay, or colours, or acids), perhaps this so-called double life is really a privilege. And no-one can say this more than he that enjoys, as interlocutor, this privilege, happily during the life of the artist, and with doleful but equally poignant happiness after: just like all of us, today. Today that we experiment, precisely by watching and re-living Nino’s work, just how different the dimension of time that he, as an artist, knew, is from our daily lives, where we register his disappearance, the pain which builds and subsides, the recurrence that measures the days, the months, the years. If we think about, amongst the many, one of his most beautiful sculptures, The Memory of the Bride, we don’t just say: ” The artist is here alive like never before”: in the all consuming grace, in the indefinable nostalgia: we can not but follow, enamoured, the gorge created by wave-like strokes, the hair caressed by a breeze not of this world, the dreamlike gaze that sinks to where only the yearnings of the soul can reach. No historical reference arises to indicate a certainly unaffected finery of the 1700’s. Rather, it is a sentiment of a time that comes from a far. It embraces us in it’s charm and does not turn us away from the world, but of this world probes traits without time, which know not the seasons and touch man’s roots. And I’m not speaking of the mythic vain in his work or of the timeless myths that can be found flagrantly in the realism of Nino’s etchings: and neither am I speaking of the crumbling frescos where the sentiment of time had the same reason of being as the image itself.
Thinking back, I realise that I’ve never been to Sicily with Nino. Both of us are Sicilian like few others – I mean to say, Sicilian in our souls, our culture, and our native temperament. And yet in the thousands of encounters with his work and with Nino himself, we exchanged perhaps little other than our profound Sicilian essence and I, just a little older than he, joyfully drank in my fill of it.
Allow me to conclude with two brief literary quotes. There have been and there are many ways in literature to approach the final hour. Tolstoy sums up Anna Karinina’s death in an adverb which in his words becomes chilling: speaking of the reflection of the flame, which in the final moments flickers and dies in her eyes, summing all her life in an instant, the author concludes: “It is forever spent”. The peremptory, irremediable fatality of that adverb has always, clearly, disturbed me. I prefer the phrase spoken by Tacito at Agricolas death: “Et novissima in luce desideravere aliquid oculi tui“. In the supreme moment your eyes desired something: they desired, and I would like to add, they hoped and perhaps they found.