Carlo Levi sometimes paints at twilight, almost in the dark. He has owl’s eyes or I have luminous bones, thinks Pablo Neruda. The Chilean poet is posing for a portrait, begun, he says, in the light of a Roman dusk and finished in darkness and silence. Levi often uses the adjective “vague”, a word that may seem odd for a painter. Painter and writer.
Turin, 1902; Rome, 1975. Carlo Levi studied medicine. He conspired and militated against the Fascist regime. He was internally exiled and clandestine. Public intellectual, author of Christ Stopped at Eboli and many other books, he sided with the causes of the South (the global South of all the Lucanias of the world). He was traveller, journalist and correspondent. Elected senator, he took part in the work of the “Commissione d’indagine per la tutela e la valorizzazione del patrimonio storico, archeologico, artistico e del paesaggio” (Commission of enquiry for the protection and appreciation of the historic, archaeological, artistic and landscape heritage) set up in 1964 at the suggestion of the then Minister of Education and chaired by the Honourable Francesco Franceschini. In that context, he opposed the idealistic conception of aesthetic landscape with an idea of landscape as environment shaped by life, a good to be removed from the sole concern of top-down planning in favour of participation of the social body. Levi was among the first to support the sociologist and non-violent activist Danil Dolci, his battles in Sicily for water, against fish poaching, the Mafia and waste: struggles we would now call environmental justice.
Carlo Levi’s written and painted landscapes reveal ecological thinking of a poetic and political nature. I shall try to retrace it in the dimensions of vagueness, darkness and the underground; in his discourses on the contemporaneity of times; in his thinking on resemblance, the portrait, sight; in the contact between human and non-human. Porous and transitive ecologies, they are expressed on the page with flows of words that advance by nuance, approximating by degrees a feeling, a meaning, a situation. The lilt of his writing has an equivalent in his painting, in the “wavy writing” of his paintings, as he liked to define it.
Self-portrait. Red, vagueness, darkness
Carlo Levi was an artist who painted, drew, wrote, travelled, debated, who put together materials and disciplines from outside the domain of art and literature (such as philosophy, anthropology and law) and who through all these practices engaged in politics. Painting and writing are practices. They are named as such in the “rational lists” of his last book, the Quaderno a cancelli, written in the dark after an eye operation and published posthumously in 1979. The lists are of what really counted in forming his life: “My mother”; “The garden of things (Via Bezzecca, the swing, the currant)”; “Friendship with my young teachers and brothers” (Piero Gobetti and Rocco Scotellaro); “Physical sexual love”; “Lucania”; “The practice of painting (and also of writing)”.
Beneath the image of his “Red self-portrait (or red man)” of 1931, Carlo Levi wrote: “Painting and the world are formed with the person, with the very red of his presence, the vagueness of his appearance”. This is one of the notes in the catalogue of the 1974 anthological exhibition at the Palazzo Te in Mantua that accompany the works he chose to exhibit and publish. Fifty years of painting. Levi recalled and sought “a common thread linking one work to another, one year to the next”, that which “can become a method of art history or a kind of confession, or story, a particular way of interpreting, a suggestion for reading, which becomes part of, and is added to, the substance of the paintings”. Painting is therefore a substance and is, he says, a category of reality. The face of the red man, his eyes, his nose, one side of his forehead, emerge by contours among areas of incandescence. The image appears within the features of a recognisable physiognomy, remaining precisely vague and wide. Erratic. The artist portrayed himself throughout his life: sometimes with a painter’s smock and palette, in some paintings ill, naked and even double, or matched with a colour, a sign, a thing. The yellow hand, a hat, glasses. During his convalescence, in 1973, temporarily blind after an eye operation, he did a self-portrait in the dark, from memory, with thick, delicate hatching in marker pen that repeated on paper the slow and difficult process of focusing his face.
Vagueness and darkness are keys for accessing a pensive, absorbed, inner dimension; in being outside the self, vagueness and darkness are regions of openings and confinements. Levi’s ecology is made up of porosity, of imagined communications, followed in the writing; of relations and real exercises of contact. Rock and forest, man and snail, medicine and magic. Shrouded in the “atmosphere permeated by divinities” of Aliano, he says in Christ Stopped at Eboli, that “the time passed, while the angels watched over me by night and Giulia’s witchcraft by day. I attended to the sick, painted, read, and wrote, in a solitude that was pervaded by animals and spirits.”
In Lucania, where from August 1935 to May 1936 he served his police sentence of internal exile for anti-fascist activities, Levi listened to the stories of the “scattered peasants”. He collected the fables, the magic spells and the songs, the facts and legends of the dark epic of the brigands. He understands and highlights the relations of power, violent or farcical. In the closed perimeter of the village, from the windows of his house above, he painted the landscapes of gullies and white clays as far as he could see and followed in his mind the monachicchi, the tiny beings with their red hoods, mischievous, “tiny, airy” creatures that know “all the secrets of the earth”. He notices the differences between his own culture (middle-class, Jewish, of one born in the North) and “another civilisation”, directly experiencing the asymmetries between the “two Italies”, the unfinished project of national unity to which he contrasts the prospect of the autonomy “of the community”, “of the factory, the school, and the cities, of every form of social life”.
Levi had a personal triad of gentle men: Job, Jesus Christ and Boaz, the elderly landowner from Bethlehem who married a young Moabite woman, breaking the law. The episode, taken from the Bible, from the 85 verses of the Book of Ruth, became a night painting in 1950, with the newlyweds lying under the moon, watched over by an owl. Boaz, he explains in the Quaderno a cancelli, is “the inventor of exogamy, of the breaking of the tribe and its taboos”. In the space of human, cultural and affective relations, Carlo Levi’s ecology is exogamic.
The roar of lions
In the same year he painted “Boaz”, Levi published L’Orologio, a political novel about Italy and Rome in 1945, the end of the war and the Resistance, and the crisis of the first national unity government. The narrative mixes autobiography and nation, the halls of power and life on the streets. He had just left Florence, where he had lived in hiding until Liberation and where, almost ten years after the experience of internal exile, he wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli, using the book, he was to explain, as an “active defence”. He moved to Rome where he was asked to edit “L’Italia libera”, the daily newspaper of the Partito d’Azione, heir to Giustizia e Libertà, a movement in which he had been a militant since 1929.
The beginning of the novel is resounding, alienating: “At night, in Rome, one seems to hear lions roaring”. It is the “breath of the city”, a sound “both vague and wild”, broken at times by the sound of ships’ sirens, as if there were a port, as if the sea were close by. That indistinct murmur is “born of machines” (the workshops, engines and cars of the modern city) and of a reverberation that emerged “from the inner depths of memory”, picked up as in a kind of acoustic archaeology from the protohistoric soil of Rome, inhabited by wild animals, she-wolves and abandoned children. The sound matter brings deep history to the surface, opening a passage between the present and the remote, the built and the uncultivated, the artificial and the organic. The roar of lions comes late at night from the open window of his new home. The house is Palazzo Altieri, of baroque architecture and full of entrances, staircases and hallways, of curves and folds. A kind of big shell.
The novel is divided into twelve chapters, like the hours and the Zodiac, but the watch it is named after (the Omega received as a gift from his father for his medical degree), has fallen and is broken. Its “insect heart” has stopped, interrupting “unhesitating time”, “mathematical time” and letting internal, real time flow. In order to recount recent history, the individual and collective events of the Italy that has just emerged from Fascism and World War II, the writer undoes the linear chronology and follows an anomalous, expanded, unconfined temporality. Carlo Levi’s ecology is also and especially a work on time, more precisely on the “contemporaneity of times”. Antithetical to the common meaning of the present, contemporaneity is the spatial concept that allows him to produce stories and narratives through displacements, durations and irregular rhythms. Levi is not Gramsci, but, like him, albeit with completely different approaches and aims, he notes that the question of colonialism and subalternity also concerns the subject of historiography and feels the need to invent forms other than the canons and hegemonic vocations of the historical discipline: “Of what is normally called History”, as he wrote to his publisher, Giulio Einaudi.
The contemporaneity of the earth
Contemporaneity is spacious: a space even more than time. Levi goes looking for it on the ground, often underground. The diverse collection of concave and inflected spaces, of dens and shelters contained in his books and in some of his paintings belongs to the fancy of inhabiting the uninhabitable: the cavity of a nuragh, a Sardinian domus de jana, tomb and fairies’ house; the “enchanted circle” of shells, the maternal womb, the “curve of a nest, where there is room even for the smallest, even for those who cannot speak”. Entrance into these circumscribed and intensive territories is made by sensitive and thoughtful exercises but also by concrete actions of settlement and incorporation. On his travels in Sardinia, recounted in Tutto il miele è finito (1964), Levi chose to begin his commentary on the island from inside a nuragh, which is at once archaeology, symbol and ruin. He slithered through the opening “like a snake”, sat down then lay down. He set aside rationality and even imagination, abandoning himself to “physical feeling”, to finally reach an “unknown region, before childhood, full of animals and wild grandeur”. On hot afternoons during his internal exile in Aliano, Carlo had the habit of going to read lying in an empty grave in the cemetery, on the fresh soil. “It was the complete opposite of fear, of the shudder of the dead”, he recalls in Quaderno a cancelli: “immobile in the excavated clay, it was like being everywhere, and feeling the continuity, the contemporaneity of the earth, with the living and the dead and the bones of the dead, and the rummaging dogs and browsing goats, and the errant crows, and the worms and the roots of the meagre grass”. The change of posture, perspective and scale (below above, high low, small large, inside outside) is one of the endowments of his imagination, of his talent for making room, place and landscape for himself, a body between human and non-human bodies, in the midst of living and inorganic forms. “Every stone is a very hard and coloured thought”: the landscape excavates and inhabits the mind, smooths the thoughts. Levi’s ecology is sometimes geo-logical.
Eye that sees is seen
The artist loved resemblance, a concept-word that recalls the idea of similarity, that requires the effort of recognition and so has a relevance in the sphere of the visual but also of the ethical and political. Unlike identity, resemblance is always in itself vague, that is, mobile, fleeting, fragmentary and open; impossible to fix once and for all. For the painter it was a prerogative of the portrait, portraits of relatives, loves, friends. Carlo never stopped talking and listening as he painted. The portraits assimilate words, convictions and ties, weaving conversation and physiognomy. Looking back at them much later, the artist found that over the years they ended up looking more and more like the people portrayed. Resemblance is a process and concerns the sphere of the other. Not only human. “The Other is history, reason, time, event, religion, life, story, fantasy, dimension, perspective, relationship”, he wrote in his Quaderno di prigione, in a cell at Regina Coeli, Rome, in 1935. “This reality, this other self, this self Other, is the portrait”. Its perspective and relational nature makes it extensive, beyond the division of artistic genres. In the 1920s Levi had painted landscapes, taking up this minor genre as a form of coded resistance to the iconography advocated by the regime, based on the tradition of figure painting. In his maturity he elevated the landscape to the rank of portrait, a comprehensive and affective means by which it is possible to inflect the plurality of relations with people, animals, trees, places and things. The portrait is reciprocal: it consists of the “Eye that sees and is seen”, as the title of one of the drawings from the blindness cycle indicates. This transitive property of sight, and consequently of painting, becomes clearer in the dark, when the artist wrote and drew blindfolded after his surgical operation. At this juncture darkness became the screen of an infinite series of source images, of constellations of thoughts and memories mixed with the dust of spots on the diseased retina, that at times formed a hedge, a wall and resembled “photons”, “detritus”, “lichens”. During his exhausting rehabilitation, Carlo Levi thought that his crying eye was like a “Snail’s eye” with its “oscillating, liquid, undulating, changing” look; “that perhaps, more than a space and a form, marks a hygroscopic degree, which in turn is a form, a language of fabric-water, of swelling, of direction of movement”. It will be necessary, he wrote, to invent other movements, discover asymmetries, to be capable “of being, also, at times, snail, fish, lizard, owl or eagle”. Going through a forest and “being seen, without being aware of this, by all the sighted people, and being composed and formed by the contemporaneity and fullness of these infinite views; being shaped, made real and alive by this infinite contemporaneity, where you, like everything, are the place of all possible relationships, of all possible views, of all possible eyes; and you are real, and lightly you step on the grass and go by the path and among the branches, and cross the patches of sunshine, and you, too, stop to look, you who are looked at, made of those looks”.
Carlo Levi’s words are taken from: Quaderno a cancelli, (1979) Einaudi, Torino 2020; Ragioni di una scelta, in Carlo Levi mostra antologica, (Mantua, Palazzo Te, 21 September-20 October 1974), Electa, Milan 1974 Mantua 1974; Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1982; L’Orologio, Einaudi, Turin 1950; Un volto che ci somiglia. Ritratto dell’Italia, Einaudi, Turin 1960; Tutto il miele è finito, Einaudi, Turin 1964; I ritratti, (1935), in Lo specchio. Scritti di critica d’arte, ed. Pia Vivarelli, Donzelli, Rome 2001
Written for this publication, the essay arose out of research for the Carlo Levi: tutto il miele è finito. La Sardegna, la pittura exhibition I curated for the MAN, Museo d’Arte Provincia di Nuoro (11 February-19 June 2022), Allemandi catalogue, Turin 2022 (Italian, English).