In his sonnet Sul proprio ritratto (di mano di Bartolomeo Schidoni) – published in 1620 within La Galeria, a collection of poems conceived as descriptions of, and dialogues with, figurative artworks – Giovan Battista Marino suggests that to depict his portrait a painter should employ the harshness of ice and fire, the terror of the shaded dark of night, the paleness of death, the imperfection of nature, and colours sharpened with whispers and tears. Continue reading Marino: a cosmic self-portrait
In chapter XIII of Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi, Renzo, one of the two betrothed, is involved in a riot in Milan, where people, exasperated by food shortage, start assaulting the bakeries. To placate the rioters and rescue an official who risks being lynched by the crowd, the Chancellor Antonio Ferrer is forced to intervene. Manzoni represents in his portrait all the hypocrisy and duplicity of power embodied by Ferrer. While cutting through the raging crowd with his wagon, Ferrer shows a hyperbolically smiling face, «a countenance that was all humility, smiles, and affection». He also tries to enhance his intervention with gestures, «now putting his hands to his lips to kiss them, then splaying them out and distributing the kisses to right and left». Ferrer pronounces the empty keywords that are supposed to please the crowd: bread, plenty, justice. But at the end, overwhelmed by the pressure of voices, faces, and bodies surrounding his vehicle, he draws in, puffs out his cheeks, gives off a great sigh, and shows a completely different expression of intolerance and impatience. Continue reading Manzoni: grimaces of power
In 1763 the Abbot Giuseppe Parini composes the poem Il Giorno, a satirical text addressing the inactive, lazy, superficial life of the aristocracy. Pretending to be an ode written in praise and for the education of a Young Gentleman, the poem harshly criticises the parasitic emptiness of noblemen and women. As a parody of a eulogy, Il Giorno deforms the classical poetic style, applying the language and rhetoric of epic and mythological tradition to the frivolous daily activities of the gentleman. The text provides a series of caricatures: first, the Young Lord is scared to death by the word “work”, and his hair stands on end (vv. 54-56):
Ma che? Tu inorridisci, e mostri in capo,
qual istrice pungente, irti i capegli
al suon di mie parole?
In 1540 Niccolò Boldrini engraved this surprising caricature after a drawing by Titian. The deformation of a renowned and deeply respected image such as the Laocoon affirms caricature as a deviation from the idealization implied in the Renaissance revival of antiquity and ridicules the obsession with the imitation of classical models of beauty, perfection, and symmetry.
Caricature misshapes the masks that society applies to the human face. This is why artists use deformation to build self-representations that contradict the social stereotypes of self-fashioning. In one of his poems, Michelangelo Buonarroti portrays his physical and psychological dejection creating a proper self-caricature: bluish coloured eyes, rotten teeth, a face that is fit to terrify, damaged clothes, injured ears and laboured breathing. The self-caricature involves not just the body of the artist, but also his own work of art: his writings become valueless scribblings, and his sculptures are seen as useless rag-dolls. Continue reading Michelangelo: a self-caricature
While reaching an outstanding complexity in the improvement of the human portrait, while exploring the perfection of the human body’s proportions and symmetries, Leonardo da Vinci sketches several experiments in deformation and exaggeration of the human figure.
Scholars refer to Leonardo’s deformations as proto-caricatures, because of their lack of explicit satirical aims. Indeed, Leonardo’s misshapen figures are entangled with his more general inquiry on the human subject, on the inherent shape, both physical and psychological, of the human individual. In this perspective, the caricature can be considered as the exploration of divergent possibilities of representation of humanness, and also a form of criticism against the canonization of the Renaissance portrait, that adopted idealized models screening off the observation of reality.
Is out my last essay, The Cognition of Priapus. Caricature procedures in Carlo Emilio Gadda’s Eros e Priapo. Here it is available the English abstract, while here you can find the whole essay in Italian.
I extract from the essay three different caricatural descriptions of Benito Mussolini provided by Gadda in his controversial pamphlet Eros e Priapo, written between 1944 and 1945. In the first, Gadda portraits the image of Mussolini speaking from the sadly well-known balcony:
Di colassù i berci, i grugniti, i sussulti priapeschi, lo strabuzzar d’occhî e le levate di ceffo d’una tracotanza priapesca: dopo la esibizione del dittatorio mento e del ventre, dopo lo sporgimento di quel suo prolassato e incinturato ventrone, dopo il dondolamento, in sui tacchi, e ginocchî, di quel culone suo goffo e inappetibile a chicchessia, ecco ecco ecco eja eja eja il glorioso, il virile manustupro: e la consecutiva maschia polluzione alla facciazza del «pòppolo».
The second caricature ridicules the bourgeois-like image adopted by the former revolutionary Mussolini after the conquest of power:
Pervenne alle ghette color tortora, che portava con la disinvoltura d’un orgango, ai pantaloni a righe, al tight, al tubino già detto, ai guanti bianchi del commendatore e dell’agente di cambio uricemico: dell’odiato ma lividamente invidiato borghese. Con que’ du’ grappoloni di banane delle du’ mani, che gli dependevano a’ fianchi, rattenute da du’ braccini corti corti: le quali non ebbono mai conosciuto lavoro e gli stavano attaccate a’ bracci come le fussono morte e di pezza, e senza aver che fare davanti ’l fotografo: i ditoni dieci d’un sudanese inguantato. Pervenne.
This description reveals an unquestionable affinity with visual caricatures published in satirical newspapers and magazines, particularly in the early Twenties, such as the following by the caricaturist Carlin.
Finally, Gadda deforms Mussolini’s figure, and particularly his head and face, adopting a pseudo-medical perspective, mixing up dismissed disciplines and brand new disciplines, such as physiognomy and psychoanalysis, in order to connect physical features of the man and psychological and psychiatric explanations of his behaviour:
Vorrei essere frenòlogo e psichiatra per poter iscrutare la follia tetra d’un gaglioffo ipocalcico dalle gambe a roncola, autoerotòmane, eredoalcoolico ed eredoluetico: e luetico in proprio. Da discrivere e pingere in aula magna que’ due mascelloni del teratocèfalo e rachitoide babbèo, e l’esoftalmo dello spiritato basedòwico, le sue finte furie di scacarcione sifoloso.
To deeply understand the inner misshapen thoughts and wishes of the dictator, his face and body must be «depicted» according to a deformation endowed with a critical meaning.
Quotes are from:
Carlo Emilio Gadda, Eros e Priapo. Versione originale, edited by Paola Italia and Giorgio Pinotti. Milano: Adelphi 2016.
Carlo Emilio Gadda, Eros e Priapo. Da furore a cenere, in Idem, Saggi Giornali Favole e altri scritti, II, edited by Claudio Vela, Gianmarco Gaspari, Giorgio Pinotti, Franco Gavazzeni, Dante Isella, Maria Antonietta Terzoli. Milano: Garzanti 1992.