A month has already passed since my arrival in Florence. It is unbelievable how quickly the time is going. Walking through the streets of Florence feels familiar now, but luckily I have not lost the wonderful feeling of awe at everything I see so as to become deadened to the splendor of the city. Winding cobblestone streets slick with water from the recent rainfall, the wonderful smells of food and perfume, and beautiful earthy stone buildings with bright hanging plants formed the path to Ornella Baratti Bon’s studio space.
The door swung open to reveal a short woman with short hair ornamented with traces of pink. With a large gesture of her arm she invited me in. Energy and liveliness shone from her eyes and her smile. I felt as though I was intruding into a private space, but she gladly displayed all of her paintings, as she was still in the process of selecting which works would be showcased at the festival. As she sorted through some of them, I felt like I was visiting the backstage of a play with the scenery and props before I even saw the production.
Baratti Bon did not speak English, but I was happy to conduct the interview in Italian. Her voice was just as full of expression and vitality as she was, so I could follow her easily. She lives and works in Florence, since she was born here. She attended the Istituto d’Arte, Magistero, and studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. In the 1960s she held numerous exhibitions in Italy and internationally.
At first glance, her paintings appear to be imaginary and fantasy-like scenes. However, Baratti Bon’s work has been described by Marco Fagioli, an art critic, as “emblematic of the very nature of daily life,” by “exemplifying the absurd lurking in it, the shadows that pervade it.”
I was impressed at how easily she could lift and move the large paintings around, as she searched through her many works to find ones she wanted to use to explain her style as an artist and painter. It became easy to tell which paintings were from which phase of hers as an artist by the colors and tonality. Her later works were light with colors such as blue, pink and yellow that faded into white. Her earlier paintings are very dark and fade into black. The complexity of these paintings is striking, with rooms that open one onto another endlessly. The more one looks, the more little details one finds in the painting, which makes them very interesting and captivating for the viewer, such as hidden musicians or the profile of a woman. Fagioli termed this as a “happy desolation;” the feeling one gets when observing her work.
In her earlier series, Theatres and Circus, which began in 1988, there is a strange yet magnificently beautiful combination of light and dark. Looking at these paintings is like walking into a brightly lit theatre lobby when the night outside from which you have emerged is pitch black.
According to Fagioli, Baratti Bon’s paintings “reveal unmistakable antecedents in certain Italian Expressionist painters” such as Lorenzo Viani and Scipione. However, her more recent paintings portray a more “dream-like” quality, almost like hallucinations. These paintings also incorporate very intricate details that draw the viewer in and force them to look closely into images that appear at first to be simple, but are in fact quite complex.
After having the privilege to view the paintings in the studio with the brilliant artist herself, we settled down with what little space we had to do the interview, since both rooms were piled high with paintings and materials. I asked her how she thought art exhibitions such as this contribute to the overall theme of the festival, and she responded: “l’arte e’ una lingue universale.” Baratti Bon also believes that there is a special relationship between the Americans and Italians, because of the aid Italy received from the United States during World War II, which was much appreciated. She also rightly said that there are many Italians in America and many Americans in Italia, and this festival is an occasion to celebrate that.
I then asked Baratti Bon how she chose which paintings she wanted on display, and she answered that she wanted paintings that showed unity, so she selected a period of 20 years of work that she really liked and decided to go in that direction. Her favorite painting was proudly displayed on the wall of the studio; in fact it was one of the only paintings actually hanging up instead of stacked. It is a painting from the Circus series, and she likes it because it represents her world as a child, with a theatre and clowns all enclosed within endless connected rooms that resemble a dollhouse.
Before I reluctantly left, Baratti Bon shared a beautiful experience of hers with me. While she was young, an American girl came to live with her and her family. This American girl did not speak any Italian before she came to Italy, but she was with a program in which the students stayed in hotels, in dorms, with families, and all over Italy so that they were exposed to as much vocabulary and different situations as they could be to learn the language. When she stayed with Baratti Bon, they could not communicate at first. But they did everything together, so little by little they began to teach each other Italian and English. By the time the American girl left Italy, she was very close to fluent in the language. To this day, Baratti Bon still remembers phrases in English and understands them when she hears a native speaker. This story is beautiful, and perfectly showcases why American presence in Florence can be positive. Cultural intermingling does not mean giving up or renouncing your origins, but learning from someone else through their perspective.
From the way Baratti Bon spoke with me, I could tell that she was excited to be a part of the festival, and happy to share her art with the community.
Click here for more information regarding Ornella Baratti Bon from the Studio Art Centers International Florence website:
Written by Emily Hayes, student at Fairfield University