Painter and illuminator in Sarzana (Italy)
“THE PROPHET OF THE NEW GOTHIC”
Contemporary Illumination by PIERO COLOMBANI
(Extracts from an interview with the artist conducted by the Art Historian Annalisa Bellerio)
……“Within and without the geographical confines of Liguria, the region of his birth, an eclectic and visionary artists has re-interpreted the expressive potential of medieval codices in his own style, transforming it into something modern in spirit, language and semantics.
The path chosen by Piero Colombani is a little trodden one. He set out on it when barely seven years old, when he declared that he wanted to be a painter. From then on, his life has become his work and vice-versa, reflecting his research, thoughts, experiments and a vast range of human knowledge.
In over forty years of intense and multi-faceted activity, his reputation has expanded beyond the medieval walls of his native Sarzana, situated on the last thin strip of Liguria before reaching Tuscany, where he still lives, works and teaches. He has caught the attention of art critics, such as Vittorio Sgarbi and of a vast following in Italy, but also in France, Spain and Russia, obtaining both official and public recognition.
He is a curious and visionary artist, inspired by the themes of classical literature, philosophy and mythology without ignoring modern day issues and debate. From the very start, Colombani moved in an intricate universe of symbols which, as he matured, have found an ideal field of expression in that of manuscript illumination. The dark and lacerating atmospheres of the paintings of his youth have evolved, as has the artist himself, through inner turmoil, into a more lyrical, controlled language, though still mysterious, one which is minutely detailed, Flemish in taste, as has been observed, where horror gives way to the allusive preciosity of gold and lapis lazuli, to ancient materials such as parchment and hand-made paper, wooden panels and rare minerals, rediscovered and “re-invented” by means of medieval recipes like those recorded in Cennini’s Treatise of Painting.
His career has witnessed “A passage from Darkness to Light”, summarized in the alchemic formula “The Whitening of the Crow”, the title of the most important monograph of his work (from 1973 to 2008), edited by the English scholar Sandra Berresford.
Colombani, in his painter-alchemist’s bottega, is a modern day humanist, well aware of the inconsistency of so many of our contemporary myths. He aims to restore those things of authentic and consistent value to our lives, thus conferring a new dignity on Man….”
“From Darkness to Light”
(From the monograph edited by the Art Historian Sandra Berresford, published in May 2008)
“It is hard and unjust, in a few pages, to try to give an account of a life devoted to Art and to illustrate the extraordinary coherence which has accompanied the artist on his journey of self-discovery. Yet, with the publication of this first monograph on Colombani’s oeuvre, covering more than thirty years, the moment naturally calls for a review and a weighing up of what he has achieved so far. This visionary artist has passed through many phases and has, himself, referred to his latest “New-Gothic” creations as a passage from Darkness to Light. But, rather than consider his works in strict chronological order, or in erroneous terms of linear “Progress”, we chose to examine the cyclical nature of his inspiration and to highlight certain recurrent themes and symbols.
In an age which seems to despise materials and manual ability, Colombani goes against the grain, for ancient skills and manual dexterity have always been an integral part of his art. Over the years, the artist has experimented in many techniques: oil, acrylic, pastel and tempera and many grounds: hand-crafted paper, card, canvas and wood, even a marble-dusted canvas, not to mention his graphic work. It is not unusual to hear him negotiating the price of sheets of parchment or gold leaf. For many years he has developed the painstaking use of egg tempera, concocted from ground minerals and assorted diluents, according to ancient recipes like those found in Cennino Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook. His studio, like that of an Alchemist, is full of glass bottles containing his precious minerals; drawers are full of brushes ranging from the thickly bristled to fine sable. He uses gold leaf, silver and ground lapis lazuli; garments are embossed in gold and silver. Little “pinnacles” of colour remain on his palette, almost a work of art in itself, which, in turn, serve to build up his picture surface in thinly overlaid layers. If dissatisfied, weeks of work will be scraped away, the composition changed, a new figure introduced until the artist is content. The detail must be right without losing the compositional and chromatic balance of the whole.
In an age of speed, where time is money, where images come and go and are forgotten in a flash, Colombani proceeds with the dedication of a medieval monk. [……..]
If one has to qualify his art at all, then Colombani fits into that limited category of visionary artists that have always been hard to classify and, have always been, in many ways, “out of their own times”. Moreover, not only does he paint his particular cathartic visions, from out of his own head or inspired by his reading, but he also interprets those of others……… This is also true of Colombani’s latest “New-Gothic” phase, for the artist’s works grow and thrive on a rich humus of culture, both literary and artistic, formed over many years. [….]
The Gothic period has always been equated with Spirituality and has been previously revived in the past: by the Nazarenes and the Pre-Raphaelites in Painting, by the Gothic Revivalists in architecture, by the Romantics and Symbolists in Literature. So Colombani now crafts and amalgamates his visions and symbols according to the neo-medieval technique he has evolved over many years. Although he may not have completely banished his demons, the artist is working towards a more harmonious vision of the cosmos. Colombani equates the New Gothic with the dawning of a new spiritual awareness, both his and, hopefully, our own. […]
The MAGICAL, the SACRED and the SYMBOLIC are themes that are ever present in each and every work: unique creations that are finely worked in precious materials, each containing important philosophical reflections that allow us to perceive the immense cultural background behind the artists, a dedicated scholar of Humanism and Symbolism. He can execute completely innovative portraits, characterised and set in the context of the New Gothic, the pictorial language of his own invention, as may be seen, for example in the “Sacred Allegory of Mercury” in a private collection in Milan.”
The Art Critic and Historian Vittorio Sgarbi, together with the Florentine Antiques dealer Fabrizio Moretti, have visited Colombani’s studio in Sarzana on several occasions, expressing admiration for his paintings. On seeing the visionary CODEX COLOMBANUS, they appreciated his innovative themes, deliberately alien to those of the commercial world of art. In him they found a modern painter who, through a technical ability comparable to that of the Old Masters, has invented the “New Gothic” language, capable of fusing past, present and future in both small and large miniatures, which – with the stories they tell and their technique- are also a strong protest against much of the falsity of contemporary art.
COLOMBANI has been painting for over 44 years. His path has lead him to investigate Iconology, Symbolism, Philosophy and their ties to the tradition of the Holy Science, central themes of his paintings and his numerous conferences on art. His individuality distinguishes him from much of the sameness of contemporary art. The peculiar visionary quality of his art has made him a prophet of the future.
His new pictorial language, which he defines as “New Gothic” brilliantly unites the Old and the Modern in both small and large works in which different worlds meet and blend, creating visions of great emotional and visual impact, where every detail delights us, transporting us into worlds of imagination which tell us of Man, worlds both horrific and celestial, symbolic and sacred.
These works are based on contents and technique, two ingredients that few have recourse to nowadays, preferring the easier path of the serialized commercialization of art, reflecting the contemporary world of haste and money, epitomized by today’s many art fairs, all the same, which often exclude alternative modes of expression, like that of Colombani.
In his “New Gothic” style, this visionary artist has succeeded in evolving singular and immediately recognizable works of art, using pure pigments, often made by hand, according to old recipes and traditions.
On two occasions, he has provided backdrops for the theatre: one for a recital by musician Giovanni Nuti and one for the poetess Alda Merini.
The actress Lucia Bosè has recently exhibited a large Archangel Gabriel
(a detail of the Deposition from the Cross) in her Museum dedicated to angels near Segovia in Spain.
His great work, the Deposition from the Cross (4 x 3 metres), which took him 12 years to minutely paint and perfect, was revealed to the public in July 2011 in the atrium of the Town Hall in Sarzana in the presence of the authorities, the press and leading cultural figures, where it was greeted by all with enthusiasm not to say wonder at its composition and technical expertise. It is now hung in Sarzana in the Church of St. Francis while other sacred works of his are to be found in the Church of the Carmine. His work had been previously purchased by a religious institution: in 1986, his large “Seven Capital Sins” was chosen by an Italian Confraternity based in Sydney.
From 1997, he has been working on an illuminated manuscript called the Codex Colombanus, singular for the beauty of its images, refined technique and its philosophical contents. It is, indeed, a “work in progress”, fusing Past, Tradition and the Contemporary Spirit, created in pen and ink, gold, water-colours, sepia, and tempera.
The Italian magazine, ALUMNIA/Pagine Miniate, the only periodical of its kind in Europe, dedicated an illustrated article, by art historian Annalisa Bellerio, entirely to his work as a miniaturist.
In May 2013, on the 10th anniversary of the magazine, Colombani was invited to exhibit his Codex Colombanus and other miniatures painted on wood at an exhibition held in then Bibliotecca Riccardiana in Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence (30th May-5th October 2013)
Colombani was one of four guest artists, chosen for having “re-invented” the language of Illumination and having applied it to contemporary works. The Editor of “Alumnia” presented Colombani’s work at the 23rd edition of “I Libri in Strada Le Strade per il Libro”(Sarzana 14th June 2013). Once again, in January and April 2016, articles were published there on Colombani’s Codex Colombanus and on his recent work, the “Fallen Angel”.
Colombani’s works were exhibited at Cinecittà in Rome in 1985 and, again in that year, he was invited by the Mayor of Assisi to exhibit in the Antico Loggiato of the Town Hall.
He has also exhibited beyond the frontiers of Italy. In 2012 in France, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chamber of Commerce in Marseilles, the artist was invited to show 50 works at the 60th International Fair. His work was received with great enthusiasm, as it was at in 1998 at Ronda di Malaga in Spain where the UNICAJA Bank of Malaga invited him to exhibit his “Tauromachia” The exhibition travelled to six other towns in Andalusia. Many other exhibitions have been crowned with acclamation of the part of experts and the general public.
In the year 2008 saw the publication of a monograph dedicated to the first 35 years of his oeuvre, entitled “The Whitening of the Crow”, edited by the art historian Sandra Berresford, a scholar of Symbolist painting and sculpture
Professor Antonio Paolucci, Director of the Vatican Museums and former Director of the Uffizi, expressed words of praise for Colombani’s work and the catalogue was also donated to the Pope. The artist divided the volume into 10 periods, each with his own commentary. Each section is one adventure along his long journey from Darkness to Light.
For seventeen of the total forty editions, the artist was invited to create a work during the Calandriniana Festival in August in Sarzana. Here, his canvases, of immediate emotional impact, were favourites with the public.
In 2007, an important miniature of his was chosen as the symbol of the Premio Eugenio Montale Fuori di Casa, awarded to journalists and tied to the symbolic theme of The Journey.
In January 2016,Vittorio Sgarbi selected him among Contemporary Masters to figure in the eponymous volume dedicated to Italians.
In April 2016, in Palazzo Clerici in Milan, he was awarded special recognition during the First TIEPOLO International Art Prize.
On June 9th 2016, he was invited by the Chairman of the Regional Council to the Sala del Gonfalone in Florence to present his Codex Colomban
and to talk about the New Gothic style, in the ambience of the aforementioned Premio Montale Fuori di Casa.
Piero Colombani’s high cultural profile has also attracted the attention of television: on June 1st 2013, he was featured in the programme RAI TG2 MIZAR-Cultura which, though not in peak viewing time, was appreciated by a numerous audience, curious to hear his tales of figures in the art world.
The RAI2 team filmed him at work in his studio in Sarzana and interviewed him at length on his philosophy of art.
Again in November 2014, he was filmed by a troupe from RAI 2 for the programme “Mezzogiorno in Famiglia”, dedicated to Sarzana in which some of his miniatures were featured.
Tele LiguriaSud, belonging to the Curia in La Spezia, had two DVDs made featuring Colombani’s exposition of his great Deposition from the Cross.
Many and various are Colombani’s talks on Iconology, Myths and Symbolism in various religions, recorded for the private regional TV, ASTROTV, during the 1980s and 1990s. These encounters with the “Magical” were extended into Tuscany, Emilia and Umbria. The journalist Enrico Colombo, recorded several interviews with Colombani on “The New Gothic” for this TV station.
At present, Colombani may be viewed on VIMEO: https://vimeo.com/54111724
featuring an extract from the much longer “The Whitening of the Crow” by the young video maker Antonio Bencini Farina, based in London. Further information on him is to be found elsewhere on the Web and in the press.Thinking of the heritage that he will leave to future generations, twenty years ago, Colombani opened a school in Sarzana: the Scuola Laboratorio di Disegno e Pittura where figurative art and Illumination are taught. For two years, he also organized intensive painting courses at the Quartieri Theatre in Bagnone, Lunigiana.
His numerous works are present in both private and public collections.