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Morano, Escher, Strada Statale 19 : modern sources of inspiration

His art is enjoyed by millions of people all over the world. There have been exhibitions all over the places, in the USA, China, Japan, Canada, Australia, Russia; and of course in Europe: Italy, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Denmark... England... you name it. He is among the most known artists of the Op Art, short for Optical Art, a style of visual art that uses optical illusions.

Escher, around 1971. Photo by Hans Peters (ANEFO)

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) is perhaps the world’s most famous graphic artist. During his lifetime, Escher made 448 lithographs, woodcuts and wood engravings, more than 2000 drawings and sketches, countless illustrations and designs for books, carpets, banknotes, stamps, murals...

Conceptually, the Op Art movement has been driven by artists investigating perceptual effects, and - as a Modern Art movement - fits well our hectic times. Escher, in particular, is known for his impossible geometries, for multiple vanishing points, and for ever minute tessellations. In his work, the element of order - conceived as repetitive patterns emerging from 'something else' - is a leitmotif. His work pleases - for instance - mathematicians, nerds, software programmers.

Escher was indeed one of the major inspirations of Douglas R. Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. By exploring common themes in the lives and works of logician Kurt Gödel, visual artist Maurits Cornelis Escher, and music composer Johann Sebastian Bach, the book articulated concepts fundamental to mathematics, symmetry, and intelligence, thereby connecting music, design, and logic. Escher's work is inescapably geometrical and mathematical. Nothing seems more remote from emotional expressions of the soul than symmetry, logic, and rationality. This aspect of his work caused a disconnect between his immense popular fame and the consideration (or better, the lack thereof) with which he has been viewed in the art world. His originality and mastery of graphic techniques have been widely acknowledged, but his work has been seen as insufficiently lyrical, insufficiently poetical, insufficiently emotional. Yet, the work of Escher is not exhausted in geometry, order, and reason. I would like to explain why. I would like to start quoting the words of the French poet Paul Claudel: "Order is the pleasure of the reason; but disorder is the delight of the imagination". Allow me, please, to amend the aphorism: rather than disorder, harmony carries such delight. Do you see the difference?

Harmony is at the core of Japanese aesthetics. In traditional Japanese aesthetics, Wabi-Sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance and longing of a special type of imperfection and transience. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is fundamentally "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete". Exhausted by the rationality of contemporary life, Wabi-Sabi is the emergent aesthetics of our times, which are unfortunately saturated with information technology and announcement of ever invasive digital transformations. We all seek harmony, more than order, and certainly much more than disorder and chaos. Such call of imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness was not alien to Escher, and attracted him at the beginning of his career. It was for him a source of inspiration, as it was for many artists all along the History of Art. Where was the source of inspiration? Of course, where it has always been: in Italy! The relationship between Escher and Italy, between Escher and Inland Areas of Italy (le cosiddette Aree Interne), between Escher and the Inland Areas of South of Italy in particular, is amazingly strong. After completing his school, Escher traveled for a long time through Italy. The first journey was in March 1921 with his parents, in Liguria, after having visited the South of France and Côte d'Azur. In 1922, he decided to go with two friends for the Grand Tour, which for artists has always been - since 1680 - an unavoidable must. Of course (it cannot be otherwise) he started with a journey to Tuscany, and in particular to San Gimignano e Siena, on a horse cart. About San Gimignano he wrote: “As the 17 towers of the city got closer and closer, I felt like I was living a dream.It was not possible that so much wonder was real” .

In love with Italy, in love with her landscape and nature, Escher visited La XIII Biennale di Venezia, which presented that year the first retrospective exhibition about Amedeo Modigliani. In the Autumn of 1922, while Benito Mussolini was busy with the March on Rome, he was in Italy, and stopped in Genova, Pisa, and Roma. Finally, he set out to travel South, where most North Europeans do not dare to go: he arrived to the enchanting Amalfi Coast, la Costiera Amalfitana. There - of course I would say - he fell in love with a lady. He met in 1923 Jetta Umiker, daughter of a Swiss industrialist. They met at the Duomo di Atrani. They would soon marry, in Viareggio, in 1924. The happily married couple went to Rome, where they lived until 1935. Eleven years. During these eleven years, Escher traveled every year through Italy and made drawings and sketches that he later used in his studio for his lithographs, woodcuts and wood engravings. He had three children. They happily grew up in Rome. I am delighted by the account of his son George, who gave us a lovely, tender, and very personal account of the life with his father in a short film, titled The House of Four Winds, by Filiz Efe McKinney, Uriah McKinney d Aaron Sarnat, produced by Brave Sprout Productions in association with the M.C. Escher Foundation. Escher was passionate for the work of Giovanbattista Piranesi, Italian architect and artist, famous for his etchings of Rome and of fictitious prisons. He followed the lesson of History of Arts of Professor Adolfo Venturi at the University of Rome. His love for Italy was sincere. He traveled frequently, visiting (among other places) Viterbo in 1926, the Abruzzi in 1927 and 1929, Corsica in 1928. So keen on travelling Italy, Escher did not miss the news of the new road, the SS 19: la strada statale 19 detta "delle Calabrie". Incidentally, Calabria - the current name of the region - is not suited to the reality. There are many pieces that constitute the region, and thus using the plural is perfectly appropriate. I say Calabrie, not Calabria.

The road SS 19 had just been instituted in 1928 with the following route: Battipaglia - Eboli - Auletta - Sala Consilina - Lagonegro - Castrovillari - Spezzano - Cosenza - Soveria Mannelli - Tiriolo - Catanzaro - Catanzaro Marina. The original route was 365 km long from Battipaglia to Catanzaro Lido. Here he goes, our artist, in springtime 1930, along the SS 19: a new fantastic adventure. Escher made a journey through Basilicata and Calabria that proved very inspiring. The tour took him in such places as Palizzi, Morano, Pentedatillo, Stilo, Scilla, Tropea, Santa Severina, Rocca Imperiale, and Rossano, and yielded no less than 13 prints. And then followed again the Amalfi Coast in 1931 and 1934; the Gargano Peninsula (in Puglia) and Sicily in 1932 and 1935; then again Corsica in 1933.

During the time that he lived and worked in Italy, he made beautiful works, as at Castrovalva, in Abruzzo. The townscapes and landscapes of the places he visited feature prominently in his artworks.

Oh, I almost forgot... where are his works?

Escher in Het Paleis is a museum in The Hague, in The Netherlands. The Escher collection is housed in the Lange Voorhout Palace since November 2002. On the other hand, Federico Giudiceandrea has one of the largest private collections. Federico Giudiceandrea was the curator of an exhibition about Escher in Milan. Not only the artistic production of Escher is noteworthy, but also the the management of his intellectual property. The M.C. Escher Company B.V. of Baarn, Netherlands, licenses the use of the copyrights on all of Escher's art and on his spoken and written text. A related entity, the M.C. Escher Foundation of Baarn, promotes Escher's work by organizing exhibitions, publishing books and producing films about his life and work. This is an extremely functional organisation. Chapeau! In a video interview of 1968, Escher answers the question: what did you particularly like in the Italian landscape? That is hard to say, he replied. I was especially interested in the Southern Italian landscape. Not in the Italian landscape in general. The Moorish influences, like those bun-shaped roofs, for instance. And the rocks. I found those fascinating. Why? I do not know. I find it awesome. I have a smile on my face while I am writing: a Dutch artist travelling to South of Italy and finding so much inspiration, for reasons unknown to him! Escher left Italy in 1936. The Italian landscape, the sun, the blue sky, the thousands 'borghi', each with countless pieces of fine arts, which were his source of inspiration, were lost. He had to turn to his inner-self for inspiration. Yet, the memory of the inspiration of those 11 years surfaced again and again, later in life. We know that from subsequent work. What we know from those who have been or are curators at the Escher in Het Paleis - Micky Piller, Dunja Nadjézjda Hak, and Judith Kadee - and the author Erik Kersten - is that during his travels, he took numerous photos which he pasted into a photo album, adding a note about them in his diary. They are memories of beautiful journeys. In many of those photos, one can also recognize the landscapes that would go on to feature in his work.

It was a great surprise to me when I visited Escher in Het Paleis and I could recognize an illustration of Viggianello, which is a village not far off the SS 19, on the wall of one of the museum rooms. Nobody could locate the place from which the illustrations was taken. I could. It was taken from the window of the best room of the Castle of Principi Sanseverino, which offers a truly spectacular view.

The most significant place on the SS 19 that Escher certainly visited is in my opinion Morano Calabro. I am happy to report that the old part of Morano Calabro is as beautiful as it was when Escher visited it. It is nothing less than a jewel of vernacular architecture. The question is now: how much of what has been the source of inspiration for Escher is still there? The answer is: a lot of it.

You were waiting for me to reveal where the soul of the inspiration for Escher was, the source that could not be reduced to geometry or mathematics, but can still exhibit the shape of order that emerged from centuries of spontaneous architecture without an architect: the source is in Morano Calabro. The spirit of Wabi-Sabi, of what is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete", but still beautiful and full of harmony is still there, hidden from modernity. Escher asserted that his years in Italy were the best time of his life: ‘de beste tijd van mijn leven’. What sort of testimony would one need better than this?

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