Good art often results from a happy encounter between inspiring places and talented artists. Think Botticelli and Florence, Michelangelo and Rome, Titian and Venice, Giorgio Morandi and Bologna.
With the exception of brief trips within Italy, and three trips to Switzerland towards the end of his life, Morandi hardly ever left his hometown, only taking vacations on the nearby Apennines to escape the muggy weather in Summer.
One could argue he didn’t have to travel at all: it was the world to gather up at his front door, patiently waiting to meet the artist.
“My only ambition is to enjoy the peace and quiet I need to work, but I have been deprived of this peace of mind ever since I received an award at the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil, two years ago. Now I receive more visitors from abroad in a month than I have ever received in ten years of my life” he lamented wittily in 1960.
Morandi loved Bologna. He found it even more beautiful than Florence, even if, by his own admission, the former couldn’t boast as important works of art as the latter.
Above all, he felt Bologna matched his own temperament.
Critics have often indulged in identifying the artist with his hometown.
Introducing Morandi to the American public, a 1949 article in Bazaar read: “He leads in Bologna the same middle-class life of the majority of the professors teaching in the famous university in that city”.
Morandi’s life was, indeed, made of small events, carefully planned on a slow pace, without the extravagances usually associated with an artistic personality. The way he dressed, elegantly but soberly, seemed carefully planned not to make him stand out – a particularly difficult task, considering his considerable height.
Born in 1890, Morandi was the first of five children: a brother, who died at 11, and three sisters.
After the death of their father in 1909, Morandi became the head of the family. They moved to a house in Via Fondazza, which would later become a pilgrimage site for intellectuals, journalists, and collectors. He never married – no records have been found of any kind of sentimental relationships – and neither did his three sisters, the four of them living together their entire lives.
It was a life completely dedicated to working in the studio, only interrupted by the classes in printmaking he would teach at the academy of fine arts; occasional afternoon strolls through the city’s porches; sporadic visits to the church of Santa Maria dei Servi, where Morandi would sit next to Cimabue’s Maestà, listening to the organ playing Bach.
Bologna is everywhere in Morandi’s still lifes. It’s in the dark-reds and amber hues of his paint; in the elongated necks of his bottles, reminiscent of the city’s medieval towers; in the rhythm of his compositions, which seem to echo the paratactic sequence of the city’s porches.
And then, there are the landscapes.
Most of them were painted in Grizzana, a sleepy village on the mountains, which Morandi visited for the summer holidays every year since 1913.
The legend goes that the artist had been invited to a party where a wealthy lady was telling everyone about her recent trip to French Polynesia, describing the landscape there as the best in the world. When she asked what the painter thought, he replied: “Look, I know what’s the best landscape in the world… It’s going up toward Grizzana; at a certain point there’s a curve and there, getting out of that curve, there’s the most beautiful landscape in the world”.
There, in 1959, he built a house which strikes for modesty and understatement.
Morandi designed it with the same simplicity and candor a kid would draw one for a school assignment: a squared façade, a door, four windows, a tile roof with a chimney, a garden with some plants. (Incidentally, photographer Luigi Ghirri, who took some incomparable pictures of Morandi’s studios both in Bologna and Grizzana, lived in a very similar house).
Today, Morandi’s house in Grizzana is a small museum where everything is kept the way it was left at the death of the artist’s last sister.
One visits those rooms with the same respect granted to religious places: moving slowly, keeping quiet, not to disturb the memories conserved in them.
In the living room, an iconic bookcase by Franco Albini houses the readings of its master: a very telling combination of catalogues dedicated to the artist’s oeuvre; a couple of handbooks on mushrooms, of which Morandi was greedy; a selection of European literature: Calvino, Celine, Buzzati before almost the entire catalogue of Bacchelli, Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrook” but not “The Magic Mountain”, Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black”, Tolstoj, Balzac, Cechov, Delacroix’s “Journal”.
Here and there, signs of the owners are strewn across the house, causing the slightly unpleasant feeling Morandi and his sisters might reappear any time, to reclaim what was theirs: a vase of dry silver wattles on the kitchen table, a jar of ovaltine – the same kind the painter would employ in his still lifes – some devotional images on the walls, linen carefully stored in the wardrobes.
Upstairs, a white door opens to reveal Morandi’s studio, lit by copious light coming from three windows, the real luxury of the house. From them, Morandi would scrutinize the surroundings, painting his beloved landscape over and over.
Very little has changed: one can still see the same two barns and the same white street of so many of his paintings.
As with his still-lifes, which Morandi kept studying over six decades, his landscapes come from love and dedication to the same subjects/places.
And yet, one never grows tired of looking at those paintings. Indeed, the most beautiful landscapes in the world.