A difficult way to be different            
    by Gigi Scarpa            
    Perhaps it was through Costantini that once I realised, as I observed a print by a French impressionist, that if that painting had value, and not only of a historical kind, then also some works by that recently discovered Venetian painter, were certainly no less valid, or less meaningful. In fact they seemed better.
Neither was the present contestation, that his works were perhaps “out of step”, “not in tune with the culture of the moment”, or “without information” valid; in fact, the opposite was true; they were new and alive and a part of the structured journey he began as he embarked upon his art career following his artistic training at school, which he had completed with great fondness and enthusiasm. It was a school which was still capable of its true function: ‘to nurture a vocation’ by providing the necessary technical, practical and human notions, essential to guide an intelligent, confident and gifted young man on his artistic journey.
After he left school and following the long pause due to the war, Costantini was able to harmonise what he had up until then learned and experienced to form the art he wanted to create, the family that he wanted to found on a clear principles of humility and a strong faith based on an inner spiritual training which was declaredly Christian, and to continue his teaching at school through which he supported the household and which therefore provided him greater freedom for his painting.
I am writing all this because, nowadays, such a clearly focused and harmonious life has become almost an exception, amongst the many difficulties and existential battles and conflicts of painting within a form or a point of view which by general assent but also superficially (if not stupidly) one might call ‘bourgeois’. And yet it is all too easy (sometimes) to play the anti-bourgeois part, by searching amongst the disorder, or inside the artifices, for presumed absolute liberties or at least inspirations, or better, for some excitement, even if possibly – or without possibly – these may become rich and fertile experiences. But to remain within the natural limits of a clear and traditional ‘humanism’ can be, and sometimes is, in addition to being wise, is truly courageous as well.
If then I delve deep enough into the history of art I understand that such a bourgeois approach provided the substance of the immense wealth not only of the anonymous painters of the early middle ages, but certainly also of the greats of successive centuries (from Giotto to Tiepolo) on and on, at least up until the most revolutionary romanticism. How many times Ernani would repeat to me, during our attentive brotherly conversations, on encountering the latest examples of contemporary painting, how convenient it would have been (and how easy it was) to make use of an imitation, to absorb others’ motifs, rid oneself of the real, follow a fashion and no longer be ourselves; and not do it on the other hand because one was influenced by the greatness and power, let’s say, of Cézanne or Modigliani, of Picasso and Mondrian and in what they stood for; so that, then, these greats would have been truly loved and understood.
In the end, I am left with an almost rhetorical but nonetheless valid quotation: we must obey the ancient teaching “know yourself” in order to really be ‘ourselves’. Ernani Costantini has remained faithful to this knowledge, without fear of being isolated, or perhaps with some fear but without compromise, also in his native city of Venice, and has sometimes been forgotten or underestimated. But fortunately, always free. It is for this reason that for me it is so very special to write about him once more, even though far away, as I did the first time in 1954, now that he has been working for nearly thirty years, and today he wishes to re-examine, re-consider and evaluate a lifetime and its activity which may serve him as an incentive to continue and the certainty of not having betrayed the enthusiasms and passions of his poignant and magnificent vocation.
    But where does Ernani find his inspiration? Where does his poetic world come from? And, might we add, what are the objectives of his painting? After a first brief interlude outside the school walls, an intense anxiety about reality gives rise to his ‘notes of life’ which appear around us regularly in the news, at the cinema, in advertising. He participates in these current events (or modernity) through his early works, accompanied by his developing passion for more recent music, consolidated by that more hidden and fonder passion for the classical; from jazz to Bach, from Mozart to Debussy, providing specific sources of inspiration.
However, another more personal element was to appear, that is to say ‘Ernani’s painting’. An intimate and delicate world, recreated through the study of still life, interiors, and transcriptions of the best-known and most intimately adored poetry: the poets of the thirteenth century and Montale, Dos Passos and Eliot are the authors he preferred at that time, whose works he knew by heart and which he would often enjoy.
This constant feature was to form a basis for all his work, his research and his production, dominated by that interiority and religious presence equally evident and clear in those works with a ‘sacred’ theme, which constitute a particularly remarkable and high level nucleus of his now twenty-year artistic career. And on this path, which may have an undulating shape of high and low points (all artists are familiar with these: quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus) I will try to highlight the various moments, stages, revivals and openings.
  news dealer girl in the kiosk
The Newspaper Seller, 1954
  If his first satisfaction was that of being selected for the 1954 Marzotto Prize with The Newspaper Seller with its paint still wet, without a shadow of doubt an even more notable result awaited him with the completion of Cafè in Rapallo, one of the most beautiful and important works not only by Ernani, but, I genuinely believe, of the entire city of Venice, at that time, at least among the younger artists. Perhaps it was unique. Despite being unknown, this great canvas of 1953/54 enshrined and opened up a distinctive ‘Costantini mode’. This is constructed through its composition with an intuitive freedom such as for example that of cubism, or even art nouveau, within a drawing completely imbued with colour, which has an extraordinary delicacy and flavour which recalls Eugenio Montale: the ‘lady’ in the foreground displays a rich poetic and sentimental languor and an elegance of that period as her solitude contrasts with the cheerful band of mischievous children playing their makeshift instruments.   people at the coffee shop   Café in Rapallo, 1954
    The following year he painted the Mother and Child which is absolutely worthy of a Picasso style ‘classicism’, strong and secure in its design, enveloped in a grey-pink tone which locks it into an interiority which at the same time expresses love and pain, until, dare I say, rare heights are reached in an exceptional formal and sculptural unity.
Just as the early ‘portraits’ show a fresh and secure ability to render a precise reality, with an agility of cut and layout which is still remarkable and enduring.
In the Portrait of G.S. the curious stripes of the jacket and the oblique lines of the limbs in the pose are typical formal elements like the way the figure is contrasted against the background of a delicate pink and balanced by the browns of the volumetric foreground.
  sitting mother with child       Mother and Child, 1955
    At the same time the necessary and natural ‘discovery’ of the most important contemporary painters – from Kokoschka, which he used in the ‘landscape’, to Picasso and Braque who set him off on the task of renewing his ‘still life’ paintings – offered him a way of freeing himself from the constraints of depicting the real, and of being involved with experiences which were ‘non figurative’, to explore a new and totally personal lyrical reality, interpreting varied themes inspired by or taken from music – (and Toccata and fugue is a complete painting, precise and vibrant; and St. Mark’s is of course present, but transfigured, in the golden light, into an explosive and unitary song) – or suggested by poetry (and The reading unites space and time in a rare harmony of colour, with immediate force and robust synthesis) – or from architecture (and the transfiguration of the interior of Taliesin West remains one of his most important and significant paintings, both for its tone and light, and its poetic recreation of the crudely photographic detail, achieving a feeling and an atmosphere filled with exquisite and soulful resonances).   sunlit romanesque stained   Toccata and fugue, 1957
    They are works which, with other interpretations of the real and of nature (some free constructions of ‘ficus’ were, for a time, a recurrent and much-favoured theme) were to become ‘typical’ themes or subjects for Ernani, towards a definement which is never a signature or a formula, but a fresh approach which gives nature and reality (objects, landscapes or people) that light which is pulsation and movement, space and time; a soul, through which the painting is natural and fantastic, real and abstract, order and freedom.
I remember a Ficus from 1957 constructed leaf on leaf in an architectural ascension, almost a stairway (like the one in nature which makes leaves grow on a twig), yet continuously gentle thanks to the precise movement of light, which gave substance and strength to the hard leaf of elegant plant and which together preserved its splendour and shape. A painting based on a somehow cubist lesson, without ever losing its truth and spontaneity, with no sign of a plan or any imitation, and which is able to conserve, truth to life, a new order of rhythm and colour, of strength and light, to reach, uniquely, a free but personal form which was (and is) his value.
still life with magazines and a book by Eugene O Neil
Strange Interlude, 1954
  Thus I would like to define a few of Ernani’s most important ‘pages’, which have included Composition with newspapers completely in blue, Death in the afternoon (variation in the cubist style of the older Strange Interlude), Homage to Dos Passos and lots of his ‘still life’ studies, up to and including the most recent ones which he managed to grant through the use of a kind of translucent light a depth of space which renders their colour and design in a new type of composition and where, the inspiration, which one might describe as of far-eastern derivation, is now dominated in an absolute inner originality, which no longer allows for the citing of sources. Among these latest paintings the best, in my opinion, despite their simplicity and apparent directness, are The Olive, A few potatoes and The clementines. While without fear and with an effort which is moral as well as ideal – and even controversial in a world with whose dramatic and violent nature Ernani is all too familiar, as well as the anxiety of renewal and the revolutionary utopia, it is for this reason that he aims to bring to it the joy of colour, light and nature (a joy which for him, as for me, is a gift of peace, hope, and certainty) – with this task Ernani returns to the portrait, the nude, from which an equal serenity and joy may be gleaned. But sometimes instilling an inner anxiety which animates the character, like in that nude on the pink background, which gives the startled nakedness of the woman in the huge space surrounding her, a painful weight despite the broad balance within.  
still life   Homage to Dos Passos, 1958

still life with olive branch   The Olive, 1968
still life with clementine branch   The clementines, 1971
    To underline then, not separately, but with a certain distinction, how much Ernani has given and produced in the field of the ‘religious subject’, is, it seems to me, an exception to write. And I wrote ‘religious subject’, because in a certain, even ‘romantic’ sense, all art is sacred, but particularly for him, precisely because of how he renders every work sacred almost like an offering to God, before all others, as a recognition of His creation and its splendour.
He tries to maintain that sacred feeling even with the most difficult (perhaps) ‘religious subjects’, so often fallen by the way due to being drawn from the long tradition of religious art which is so ‘exemplary’ and secure in its history.
And it is a typical ‘story’ in the painter’s journey, which reveals his efforts and his courage and, without a doubt, as his work is more freely commissioned and accepted, its religious character appears all the stronger, so rich and original in its production and, so much more valid its contribution also to the religious education of the population, becoming, as it did, also an ‘education in art’.
    He begins with the ‘adventure’ of St. Joseph who should have remained in humble silence at the church of Madonna dell’Orto and who encountered, instead, vacuous opposition in a misunderstood and false respect of the past. It was indeed a logically composed painting, assembled naturally according to accurate and current criteria, with the freedom of colour and composition. It nevertheless revealed a continuity typical of the traditional ‘altarpiece’ (the saint in the foreground and scenes from his life in the background) within current expressive forms. Perhaps we might have discussed the unity between a certain imposed naturalism reflected on the face of St. Joseph (a young man with a restless child in his arms at last) and the episodes in the background, more freely invented, even reaching a certain ‘abstraction’.
It remained however a laudable work, thanks to its order and efficiency, exquisite detail, including even some ‘antique’ elements, such as the carpenter’s tools, one might say, almost reminiscent of Tintoretto.
  saint joseph and the christ child on a depicted stained glass background       St. Joseph and the Christ Child, 1955, Costantino Institute, Mirano (Venice)
    I would also like to recall a Way of the Cross (now housed in the church of the Seminary in San Vito di Cadore) which Ernani painted some time later, with its abstract and symbolic drawings, modulated by greys and violets, one might say as preparation for the one in the church of San Canciano (similar to that of the Cavanis Fathers, formerly in the A.C. collection) organized into fitting tercets using four fundamental and expressive tones: pink-red, golden yellow, violet, grey and black, which can be easily interpreted as symbols of condemnation, love, and melancholy, leading to the darkness of the sepulchre.
Then there was the large Crucifixion (now in Reane in Auronzo) and the words I wrote about it in 1957 and which I would like to repeat here still seem appropriate: “… with the other figures and Mary Magdalene so clear in construction and in colour and so secure in her still current form, and her space within precise geometric ratios, the altarpiece … shows the painter’s urgency to follow, in a free and personal way, the simplifying architectural lesson of a specific abstract art”.
The painting was prepared using ‘notes’ and studies of different Crucifixes, including the Pietà of the house of M.C., so essential, so severe and at the same time so delicate. Above all, like the altarpiece, without a rhetoric of movements or colours, but, like that and more, enclosed in the monochrome expression of never-ending pain. Also deserving of mention here is the small Sacred Heart in my possession in which Ernani was finally able to break with the physical sentimentalism of this very demanding theme by painting a single drop of blood and a few thorns which are hinted at rather than clearly defined on the gold background which ennobles it.
  Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross   Way of the Cross, 5th station, abt 1956, church of San Canciano, Venice
    The period between ‘64 and ‘68 was dominated by the great mural compositions in the churches of Sacca Fisola in Venice, Altobello and Bissuola in Mestre, Venice, and Sant’Agnese also in Venice. Works which kept the painter busy for months at a time, from the early preparative and conceptual stages, to the laying down of the sketches in the studio, and the deliberation of compositional solutions – certainly not easy due to obligations imposed by the architecture – before he attacked the enormous surfaces of the bare walls with gusto but also with some trepidation.
Used, as we are, to paintings done on easels, always of modest proportions, we might have expected that some of the painter’s most distinctive characteristics and some unique and original qualities – the freshness and luminosity, the mobility of spaces and the links between levels and volumes through light – would be lost in such large scale compositions. In fact, on closer inspection, these works display an equal touch, equal lyricism, and equal spirit. It is sufficient to re-examine amid the vastness of each composition and its movement, the main idea represented, slowly savour its ‘moments’ and then all his old and future paintings may be seen once more.
risen christ and crowd of saints
Resurrection of Christ and Communion of Saints 1964, San Gerardo Sagredo, Venice
  In the Resurrection of Sacca Fisola the composition is highlighted by the ascent of the group of Saints on the left, with exquisite detail, towards the enormous Christ figure and by their descent towards the characters of ‘our time’ (among which Ernani also wanted to include Chaplin as a provider of joy). The series includes some idealised but also realistic portraits which are quite indicative of the artist’s thoughts in a renewed ‘anachronism’ – which was such a fondly and frequently used device among the master painters of old.            
  I followed the creation of the Stories of the Virgin Mary in Mestre (the Virgin soaring with passion and enthusiasm like the Happy Bride by Arturo Martini) quite closely during the complex vortex of its composition, obliged by the curved shape and the windows of the chapel, and I realise the significance of the research into this broad synthesis (on such a large scale) of figures in the light which forms them and keeps them suspended and happy in the air. Perhaps the work San Girolamo Emiliani in the same church may be considered even more successful, thanks to the variety of episodes, which helped resolve the problem of space and of composition, with the greater motion of the varied colours, thus emphasizing anthological details (the ‘infected’ – linked to tragic moments both recent and contemporary – the lovely landscape of Quero, accurate and life like). We repeated how pertinent and precise the insertion of written phrases was, “as done by the ancients”.  
life of saint girolamo       Life of St. Girolamo Emiliani, 1966, church of Cuore Immacolato di Maria, Mestre, Venice
episodes of the life of Mary       Stories of the Virgin Mary, 1968, church of Cuore Immacolato di Maria, Mestre, Venice
The Last Supper, 1968
church of Sant’Agnese, Venezia
  last supper, venice            
    In contrast, the horizontal and almost frontal composition of the Last Supper in the church of Sant’Agnese is more traditional. To me as I contested him by warning of the risk of being too ‘classic’ (which he isn’t) and bound by an expression in the manner of Andrea del Castagno or Raphael – unrepeatable – Ernani replied knowingly: “Should I perhaps be afraid? I am not afraid if with my Apostles and Christ some people think they can use those distant models against me. For centuries the Supper has been painted like that, new every time, despite everything, … but I have also been able to free myself of those patterns, as in the one you are familiar with, centered around the circular table, in Bissuola”. (And I know – he meant to say – and I try today, through my freedom and my craft and above all my personal effort, to imagine and create a Eucharistic Christ, the Apostles with their various different faces – and also the same amazing and moving faith even in Judas.)   last supper in Mestre   The Last Supper, 1967, church of Santa Maria della Pace, Mestre, Venice
    And among these works were some more intimate ones, with a deeper exploration of personal, emotional and sculptural interests always with an ideal religious purpose: The loaves and the fishes on which a miraculous light descends and the unfortunate (and poorly understood) Emmaus often, in the faces, and the contrast of the two fundamental shades of colour, with its free composition – “are swept along by the winds of the Holy Spirit” – reminded me of some details by Rembrandt, even though indistinct in my memory.   loaves and fishes on a table   I pani e i pesci, 1959
    Further back in time, I wouldn’t want to omit, the Annunciation from 1955 with a spectacular Angel who dominates the light which bathes the space: one of the works drawn with a very great though very delicate precision, without unexpected changes of colour.
Seeing that for Ernani drawing (although more concealed and little known) provides a key to his qualities, especially in the preparation of ‘themes’, the study of details (I remember those of the ’lily’ in the afore-mentioned Annunciation, exceptional in their purity and sculptural-formal substance) and in the compositions, even if it often comes naturally to him to embark on the painting by ‘facing it’ directly on the canvas. But there is no shortage of excellent examples of how the suggestion or the idea (commissioned or suddenly revealed and felt) are studied, observed and researched with the most rapid and varied means, the drawing, which is still a keystone of artistic technique.
The discourse is not finished either, because (as I read a few days ago) as old Kokoschka said, as he redesigned the Night by Michelangelo, “a true artist must always learn” and Costantini too would certainly not deny this teaching: one can and must learn from everything: from the past and the present, from consecrated art and from everyday life, from nature and from technique and bring everything into one’s own spirit, make it the body and soul of one’s own feelings in order to give it back to others, transfigured by a personal ‘poem’ as a thankful gift.
In this way we may consider other no lesser aspects in order to understand how Ernani creates his paintings. Alongside technical expertise, there lies a careful continuous personal study of art (history and critique) made more alive by his urgency to communicate it to his pupils every day. How many times have I heard talk of his ‘lessons’ with methods and themes which reveal his passion, taste, sensibility and even his emotive reaction when faced with the most spontaneous ‘answers’ from his students. Just as his own critical work is important, dedicated to an art form quite closely related to painting, such as the cinema, which often becomes, in his portraits, in his ‘photograms’ an opportunity for inspiration and learning sometimes even for himself. And if in a recent ‘message’ to a group of teachers he spoke of ‘drawing’ and ‘active gesture’, I know how true his experience is, because in addition to his drawing, also gesture (in his youth in the theatre for example) has often defined his personality.
These are the elements which contribute to produce not only his character through varied and stimulating experiences, but which form the ultimate purpose of his life – and it is the first: that of translating his life into the comforting beauty of painting – “I want to give joy” are his sincere and revealing words. An intention that Ernani Costantini is carring out with faith and sacrifice.
        Gigi Scarpa            
        Marseille, February 1973            
  © Famiglia Costantini