There is a city in this world,
but so beautiful, but so strange
that it seems like a game of Faerie Morgana
And a vision from the deepest heart.
Enveloped in a rosy veil,
with its churches, palaces, gardens,
all suspended between two turquoises;
that of the sea, that of the sky.
So changeable! To see it
on mornings of white sunshine,
it glows with a pale and weary laugh,
with a closed lustre, like the pearl;
But in the red sunsets, when they are burning
it is a golden ark, burning, radiant,
an immense ship sailing
to distant enchanted shores.
When the high moon enlightens
slender towers and full domes,
And winds through a hundred veins
Of sombre and drowsy water,
One cannot say what it is,
So wonderful a new thing it is:
Sweet island, mysterious,
infinite kingdom of fantasy...
A thing of vague and light dreams;
And yet it bears a thousand years of history,
And crowns itself with the glory
Of a great warrior's life.
Heart of a lioness, face that bewitches,
O thou Venice, twice sovereign:
plant of strong Roman virtue,
flower of all the grace of Italy.
Venice, Venice my love, how I miss you. The first time I set foot on your soil I was overwhelmed by your luminous beauty but disturbed by the sight of heads and legs as far as the eye could see. I was, I won't hide it, sad for you, but happy to discover you, so beautiful, with your streets and canals of water and stone, sinuous and mysterious, your bell towers, your buildings balanced between sky and lagoon, a work of art.
Finally in Venice! La Serenissima! Your strategic maritime position made you grow and become the dominatrix of the Adriatic, but the tourism industry was suffocating you, invaded by people and huge ships that unbalanced the ecosystem of the lagoon and drove out the residents. The pandemic and the “great flood” showed the world that Venice is not Venetian Land, but a fragile city that only its inhabitants can make live.
After 1600 years of existence, this is not the first profound crisis to affect the city, its economy and its entire life, but this time, in a year and a half, it has caused the closure of businesses, shops, taverns, artisans, taking tourists with them, swollen by an industry that monopolised its life. Paradoxically, the lockdown has finally made it breathe and exhibit itself naked, with the hope of once again being watched by many, but never invaded. The crisis has also been a good thing, because it has led residents to rediscover their city, free from the tourist hordes and even restored a certain environmental balance, appreciated by the dolphins seen swimming in the Grand Canal once again.
So, could this 1600th birthday be the year of Venice's rebirth? I asked myself, who has built and brought to life this miracle during these 1600 years? Who are the inhabitants who have been able, with intelligence, passion and love, to resist everything and everyone?
I have the good fortune and the honour to have met, to work with, and to know Lili and Silvano, a great story behind the postcard, or rather, far beyond the Venice postcard.
Crossing calli and canals, crossing monuments and markets, little by little we arrive at the La Fenice Theatre, a few more steps and we discover, behind a beautiful palace, the Minelli, a massive and precious door, which hides and defends a treasure of city history. It is a secret place, which welcomes you with an art gallery opening onto a small canal. From the hallway, we go up and discover a magical workshop from which it seems impossible that works of art have come out that have travelled around the world. This is Atelier Aperto, which for over 60 years has been a secret landing place for free and libertarian engravers, painters, artists and artisans from Venice and from every continent. From here, just to mention the latest masterpieces, collective and personal books of precious engravings have come out, including Metropolis, The Book of Night, admired first at the Atelier and then at Amor del Libro, but not only in the city and at the Doge's Palace, but also in museums and galleries on every continent. This Atelier lives, has lived and will live thanks to the untiring ingenuity of its protagonists, artisan artists, unknown to the swarm of tourists, but who have attracted hundreds if not thousands of artists from all continents.
How was this miracle possible? I asked them, the historic founders, together with Riccardo Licata, peace to his soul, of the International Centre of Graphics, and animators of Atelier Aperto and Venezia Viva, Nicola Sene (Lili), and Silvano Gosparini, two artists-craftsmen truly out of the ordinary. One is over 80 years old and the other over 90, with 70 years of art and 45 years of publishing activity. Their work is dedicated to the rediscovery of the book as a handcrafted product, heir to the ancient Venetian typographic wisdom and a privileged meeting place for the art of writing, engraving and political commitment, which here dialogue, confront and amplify each other. Two free, libertarian, independent artisans, with no masters, who have contributed to preserving the tradition of the artist's book and the handmade engravings of the early days of typography.
As Venetians, how do you live and have you lived the city, how was born your commitment and developed?
We are by choice resistants. The motivations are intrinsic to the fact of being libertarian Venetian citizens. We started in the 1960s, a lively collective workshop, half in the workshops and the rest on the streets. There were stonemasons, shoemakers, framers, cabinetmakers, blacksmiths, poster designers, a paper mill, the beginning of the later famous Arici photographic studio, in a post-war context, with constant poverty but also with solidarity between everyone.
We were in a hurry to live and build with the constant commitment to change the world and above all to survive. We were looking at the Paris Commune, as many were the French comrades with whom we shared choices. Our slogan became “ni Dieu ni maître”.
In our group, there were socialists, republicans, even Catholics, and the anti-clerical discourse was very lively. The Lombrosos, Anna and Paolo, De Michelis, Petris, Nane Paladini, and Sarpellon, the Catholic left, and also the trade unionists and dockworkers we were contacting, among them Vittorio Tommasi, with whom we printed, among other things, the first flyers and the posters for May 1, combining drawings with texts. The international vocation was concrete, there were always architecture students, both Italian and Greek, and then, over the years, many Japanese, already architects, who attended the master's course in Venice. And we were enriched by other visions and openings.
We were inspired by the creation of Venezia Viva with a debate that had become wider, and we chose engraving because, for us, it combines literature and graphics. We then resumed this tradition with the great Riccardo Licata, who taught and lived in Paris, but in the summer, he stayed in Venice. We decided to found the International School of Graphics to bring and spread in Italy the experimental techniques that he was already teaching in Paris in S.W. Hayter's Atelier 17 and in Henri Goetz's Atelier 17.
How have you lived through periods of crisis, as artists and artisans, and how have you resisted, over time and recently, during the high water in November 2019 and the pandemic from February 2020?
We have lived through this time of crisis very badly. Venice is the city where we were born and over the years, we have seen it transform, first with the emptying of its inhabitants and then with the large companies, offices and other things that have moved to the mainland. So, from being a city of reference, it has become a satellite city, with very few permanent residents and businesses aimed almost exclusively at tourists. This is just the latest in a series of crises that has affected not just us, but the whole city.
The first was the “great flood” of November 4th 1966, the flood that devastated the city, invading homes and workshops. It was extremely difficult to put things back together, and many people fled to the mainland because the costs and sacrifices involved in making the city safe and coping with the ever-increasing tides were unbearable.
Then came the witch-hunt against the left. The state unjustly accused the anarchists of the fascist massacre in Piazza Fontana in Milan. The police even went so far as to put a lock on the Atelier Aperto! Like good libertarians, we obviously went back. Next, we had to cope with bureaucratic impositions on arts and crafts activities and rising costs. The huge increase in rents, inflated by the tourist industry, has led to a large number of evictions, helping to drive residents back to the mainland. Large ships, whose influx has recently been restricted thanks to residents' battles, unloaded thousands of tourists daily.
The "Great Flood" of November 12th 2019, was an unbearable disgrace, especially because it was ridiculous. Until a few years ago, there were sirens that brought back memories of war and danger. Now they are replaced by musical scales that would like to sweeten the pill. If the windows are closed, often you can't even hear them, you have to open them and count the sounds that each correspond to 10 cm of tide. That evening, instead of 7 notes, only 4 were played, repeated twice to signal extreme danger. No one understood and ran for cover, even our premises were invaded by water that destroyed books of immense value. Then the pandemic and the lockdown did the rest.
What was your relationship with the other artists during this period? And if this period was an obstacle, did it disadvantage you and make it more difficult to create your works, or did it stimulate you?
Our character and the solidarity of so many friends allowed us to always raise our heads and continue. Even now, despite the fear of contagion, we continue to produce engravings and print books with the old presses and various printing systems, even in colour. Secrets that we continue to teach. Our relations have necessarily become more sparse over the last two years, we only saw each other with the residents, while people living on the mainland or in other regions and countries had great difficulty getting to Venice. In any case, we set out to be always present, creating a point of reference. We only realised the importance of this presence later, when we were thanked from many quarters for continuing to resist.
We understood solidarity as a need to find each other, not to get lost in isolation. We continued to exchange, to dialogue, to encourage each other.
After the "great flood", only the SIAE, which protects authors' rights, was the only institution to send its envoys to bookshops and publishing houses to assess the damage, and then make a monetary contribution to help the recovery.
What does the city of Venice need to get out of the crisis, both as residents and as artists and craftsmen. How do you want the city?
We don't feel like giving any advice to the institutions, we have gone too many times to propose without getting an answer. The only suggestion is to create a list of the various activities in each area, and thus open up a dialogue with the various artisans, artists and traders, not just for tax purposes, but as a way of getting to know the real situation, what is left of the operators in the city. We really need a census of shops.
We would like to see a city on a citizen's scale and not just devoted to tourism. Unfortunately, as long as the people in power have money and profit as their only reference point, any discussion is pointless.
What are your plans for the future?
This crisis is an obstacle, not a stimulus. Although we are active, this period has made us feel paralysed, the artists were not coming, they were all depressed, hidden, afraid. Now things are getting better, we will present the catalogue of the artists' books we have produced over the last 45 years, at the beginning of October in Rome at the International Engravers Association, and from 28 October to 28 November in Munich, in the Pasinger Fabrick exhibition space, dedicated to the editions of the International Graphics Centre, to revive the Atelier there too.
We want to leave a strong legacy to young artisans and artists: the craft of making Venice. Terre d'Autore, Venice, with Giuliano Scabia, by Gianfranco Anzini, the whole history of acqua granda and we talk about artisans with a piece filmed at the Atelier.
Né servi né padroni (Neither servants nor masters), Silvano Gosparini, an unusual character, tells his story from the beginning in the 60s.