The Work

Antonio Manzi: a vedutista of the soul

Angela Pierozzi, July 2016
(Psychotherapist)

It was the summer of 1965 when grandfather Angelo took one look at his sketch and ticked off twelve-year old Antonio Manzi in the unmistakeable accent of his native Campania: "You've made me look old!ˮ Grandfather Angelo was the rst critic of young Manzi's work, the debut of an artist destined to make his mark. Because this wasn't a portrait, it was a journey into the inner workings of a man's soul, an expression as op- posed to a description. There was a subtle difference between drawing something and representing it, as a youthful Manzi, faced with a tough present and a bright future, had already realised. At just twelve years old, outstripping many a future academician, he had already advanced with feline circumspection into that strange, thirsty thing called life that was to hold him in utter thrall. Antonio Manzi was a child prodigy, and like most child prodigies he was viewed with suspicion, despite his enchanted, very personal vision that embraced the whole of humanity.

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This then is Antonio Manzi; a diabolical eye framed by an angelic smile, a tormented artist generally perfect- ly sunny and affable, someone who produces all-powerful art which is also humble and fragile, works of genius tinged with comforting familiarity. Manzi's adolescence was an explosion of ruthless energy, raw personality, self-condence, energy and emotional maturity. While most adolescents were desperately seeking an identity, Manzi already knew perfectly well that he was Manzi; his only youthful folly the reckless megalomania of the typical teenager. The results were devastating, leaving onlookers both astonished and delighted. It was during this period that he produced works of incredible emotional impact with a strong personal identity; interrogatively acute, with a symbolic expressionism which left no doubt of the stature of what was then a lad of just seventeen. Even the biro technique Manzi used represented his need to be himself alone, soaring free and revelling in a talent that the artist was the rst to acknowledge was "a great privilegeˮ.

The result was a series of works which ranged from ad hoc sketches on the marble table tops of local trattorias to careful, almost surgical, projects that were years in the making. His famous biro on linen tablecloths, arte- facts that took years to nish, were in many ways the manifesto of Manzi's art. A kaleidoscope of forms and lines, living memories and fantasies, anguish and hopes in a meticulously visionary context which managed to be both fantastic and inscrutable, destined to remain, like so many other works of art, mysterious, engaging and all-embracing in a theoretically hypnotic cloud... These were the years when Manzi was the rst to be ravished by all those artistic expressions of life capable of nourishing his emotions and poetic inspiration: music, theatre, cinema, travel, literature and poetry, but all inevitably focused on mankind in all his triumphs and tragedies, portrayed with an unerring eye that laid its subject bare in its unwavering psychological analysis without ever losing sight of that intrinsic grace and harmony which could well be labelled a "vedutista of the soulˮ.

Figurative abstractism redolent with the sublimation of the senses and a wealth of inner life in labyrinths from which there was no escape or hieroglyphs waiting to be deciphered, rich with all the complexities and contradictory impulses of mankind; a world in which pain became beauty, joy uncertainty and melancholy an overwhelming ecstasy in an emotional kaleidoscope of shapes and colours. As he reached maturity young Manzi's over owing enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge, coupled with his huge reserves of energy and work ethic, produced an astonishing out ow of new techniques which translated into over twenty thousand works, a museum dedicated to his art and a host of exhibitions celebrating his talent in such idyllic settings as the Boboli Gardens in Florence.

In rapid succession he dabbles in ceramics, lured by local tradition; drypoint, where the nail has to be cunningly wielded to leave its indelible mark on zinc panels; frescoes, in homage and devotion to his own mysticism; graffiti, an experiment with the magic of the material; sculptured terracotta, timid but effective forerunner to the sinuous glory of his sculptures in bronze and his monumentally imposing works in marble, powerful and delicate at the same time, a hallmark of Antonio Manzi's art where detail assumes universal proportions and small grows into large.

And like Picasso, who said that at the age of eight he painted like Raphael and then took a lifetime to learn how to paint as a child, Manzi ends up using a technique reminiscent of child's play, cutting out colour- ed cardboard shapes that become sensual collages to both reaf rm and perhaps complete an artistic journey spent investigating himself and others that has lasted 50 years. So what comes next? What Manzi wants now is Manzi; after a wealth of re- search, discovery and hard work, what now lies at the centre of his inspiration and poetical vibration is his own identity as a free, independent artist dedicated to an in- spired talent which has never abandoned him, "portraying the midnight sunˮ as the Maestro himself puts it. Manzi then comes full circle with that most intimate form of artistic expression: canvas and oils. Time softens into a rediscovered love of nature and the deep, overwhelming need to be himself, to marvel over a fragment that becomes a vast universe, in an orgasmic, imaginary vortex with a riot of colours transformed into light, that same light Manzi has pursued throughout his lifetime and which he has now rendered immortal. Who knows what grandfather Angelo would think if he knew that that un atteringly aging portrait had made him world famous!

The Depths of the Subconscious

Giovanni Faccenda, Venice, July 2016

"Even the masks of life are
masks of deeper mystery."

Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam

Antonio Manzi's art has always been characterised by an almost torrid introspective urgency, an urgency in- creasingly accentuated as it explored the recondite recesses of the psyche and its attendant imbalances, the outcome of an all too contagious existential waste. Over the years this search has thrown into stark relief the gradual consolidation of the multifaceted talent, the singularly original, yet versatile, ability of a truly extraordinary artist. Manzi takes all that is carefully veiled in the secret intimacy of humanity as a fruitful pretext to shine a light on sentiments and moods frequently in contrast; his enchantment is tempered by anxiety, his hopes vie with disappointments, his smug complacency alternates with troubled doubts. This is art redolent with intriguing possibilities, with re- cent paintings revealing a Surrealist matrix which is wholly independent, free from the constraints of any specific influence, yet alluding to at least a superficial knowledge of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams.

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Memory's rich heritage, the subconscious, dreams, the sensory and extrasensory experiences of man as an individual, and the individual as part of the universe: all these blaze as beacons etching Manzi's mental path, re ecting equally clearly in all he has turned his tal- ented hand to; in his paintings, his sketches, his stunning marble sculptures, his austere bronzes or his fascinating majolica works. An inspired artist, a man who "thinks in images"; images that reveal in their detailed execution a fertile brain at work, struggling with life's unresolved doubts in a sort of hermetic awareness revealed through his eloquent lines and colours. Colours that come from a very Mediterraean palette of rare elegance, frequently suggestive of a submerged vortex of emotions, an arcane testimony to an artist whose talent and peculiar virtue emerge triumphant from the uniform greyness of the contemporary world.

Rainbows on the lines of the horizon

Lorena Gava, July 2016

I realize now how often i have all too light-heartedly alluded to someone as "self-taught", using it as a bland blanket term for any independent learning path beyond the conventional boundaries of academia and its like. Yet "self-taught" means so much more. A fact I nally grasped one hot June morning this year in the Council Chamber of the Lastra a Signa Town Hall near Florence, as I stood in front of those huge linen "ta- blecloths" a barely 17-year old Antonio Manzi had trans- formed armed with just a biro. It was 1970: Antonio Manzi had emerged three years ago from the Florentine Umberto I College where he had spent ten years of his childhood and early adolescence. The Umberto I was a residential institute for children with serious cognitive and behavioural issues, but Antonio's presence there was more a question of a precociously independent and prodigiously creative free spirit, something the adults around him completely failed to understand, coupled with his family's nancial difficulties, which led to his father leaving home.

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The child that wandered around the rooms of his boarding school for the deprived was in an existential limbo, assimilating a repertoire of anguished images that violated sight and soul alike. In an alien land, a context far removed from every blessing, Antonio Manzi learnt how to erect solid barriers to keep the outside world at bay and live his life within the con nes of his ercely protected inner space. This, then, was the wellspring of that uninterrupted fow of subjects and thoughts the works on display in the Lastra a Signa Town Hall document in such an extraordinarily lucid fashion. The works are two huge linen canvasses, known as Manzi's "tablecloths", lavishly engraved, and the choice of verb is deliberate, with a black biro. Their titles are impressive: Vita e morte (Life and Death), L'amore (Love), and they contain in embryonic form all Manzi's famous Aristotlean enérgheia. The protagonists are monstrous beings, gures without skin or feet, raised like banners against a white background, heraldic standards char- acterised by an obsessive transitivity of intersecting lines, fruit of an icastic dramatization, an exorcism that assumes the shapes of a horror vacui external to the dermal layer.

The scrupulous strokes of the pen and the density of the precise dark lines, carefully nuanced to generate an un- precedented abyss of depth and perspective, create apace lyptic scenarios in which the mangled bodies riven by linear vortices seem so many contemporary, surreal Marsyae. And then there are those arms and hands emerging from the head, mise en abîme of the subsequent iconography, along with the sol- itary cat, demurely mischievous, a sub- tle representation of the artist himself. In 1970 Antonio Manzi had no notion of the history of art, he had never seen even a copy of a famous painting. Yet he drew hands, hearts, mouths, eyes, muscles and arteries with the anatomical precision of Leonardo, combining them with a series of other elements, such as snakes, chains, crosses, grids in a topical and very personal symboism from a sort of interior frenzy. It was only a few years ago, in 1965, that he sketched his grandfather's por- trait, Ritratto del nonno, portraying a face set in stone, so true are the chiaroscuro effects to reality. This is a hugely powerful portrait, a tiny island of affection in the troubled seas of Manzi's life that were to leave such indelible traces on the marble tables engraved in biro of the Trattoria Sanesi in Lastra a Signa. Equally moving are those other linen cloths created in the early seventies that narrate the pain and alienation of the inmates of the asylum at Castel Pulci (Florence), which Manzi visited and which was where that great poet of the twentieth century Dino Campana was subjected to durance vile.

The swarm of massed, twisted bodies, their faces identical in their spasms and grimaces, is reminiscent of a Garden of Earthly Delights in black and white, worthy of the great Hieronymus Bosch but devoid of light and landscapes, focused entirely on compulsive, serial, hypnotic lines: a vortex of human wreckage. One key element is evident: the consistency of the rhythm, the pulsing of a horizontal line almost like a shock, an unstoppable wrench that has all the elemental geological power of incandescent lava. These itting, terrifying "souls" are redolent of the Gothic, but also foreshadow Keith Haring's "little men" by miniaturizing evil, dissecting pain through a stylistic exercise in method and rigour.

From this decay, from these ruins, emerges the "shape" of Manzi's universe, with all that creative urgency and emotional self-control which was to ower with the same vehemence in the many ambitious sculptures, he was to mould from the 80s to the present day, evolving as mirror images of the artist's own gradual emancipation and social liberation. The mastering of his materials and the quest for a quasi-divine redemption through the creative force of a perfect symbiosis between head and hand, led Antonio Manzi to construct his own personal diorama of ceramics, bronzes, marbles, frescoes, graffiti, dry points and collages united by an invisible thread. An authentic resextensa, or corporeal substance, rendered in a kaleidoscopic blaze of gesture, line and colour, the artist's versatility is well represented in the Antonio Manzi Museum in Campi Bisenzio (Florence), which opened in 2007 with the donation of one hundred and fifty works. To meet the Maestro in his own museum, listen to him describing his painted vases, him tap his white marble circular stiacciato reliefs or caress works in blue Brazil or Belgian black granite, stroking the uneven texture of his panels or frescoes, is a unique experience. It is impossible not to hark back to that lonely child wandering through the stark rooms of the Umberto I Institute, unconsciously cultivating his very own hortus conclusus, now on public display in all its magnificent light and colour. A stroll through the central chamber of the museum, dedicated to pottery, enfolds the visitor in spirals of multihued owers with tendrils of green and garlands of ochre and yellow, in a welter of clasped hands and lovers' ardent gazes, of women portrayed as deities, as mothers or as queens.

In Manzi's works the sculptural tradition of Florence and the Renaissance resonates with that of the Art Deco period to create a rich vegetable world cultivated in a soil of delusional anthropometry, one that produces lush couplings of plants and a subtle eroticism of shapes moulded sinuously to their concave or convex surfaces in a pleasing echo of ancient Greece. Some of the decorations are mandalas, rendered even more powerful by the alluring gaze of the protagonists of the graffiti and collages, where everything is sinuosity, mystery, wonder and delight allied with outstanding artistic skill. But it has to be underlined that Antonio Manzi often gives of his prophetic best in his numerous large works in bronze and marble for public and private spaces, from Dalla materia allo spirito (Matter to Spirit, 1998) in front of the Manzi Museum in Villa Rucellai, to Inno alla vita (Hymn to Life, 2004) in its park, Ballerina (2008) in the piazza of Lastra a Signa and the recent Sei tutto per me (You Are Everything to Me, 2015), dedicated to the musician Riz Ortolani, in Pesaro cemetery. In these works, as in the others, the creative energy of the Maestro, where his signature lines, that typical iconography deployed solely in favour of the lacerating and pitiful in his early work, is rediscovered in broad new horizons of calm and harmony, a serenity and joy of the senses, a moving litany of dark and light, a systole and diastole of bitterness and hope, in the works of his maturity.

Thus the latest works of the Maestro, once again armed with paints and brushes after a long interlude dedicated to other mediums, confirming his surprising eclecticism, see a return of the incorrigible, portentous communicative power of his strokes in an explosive vortex of magnetic chromatic exaltation. The heady orphism of his colours, the pictorial and semantic allusions, the rhythmic hybridization, metamorphosis and contamination, all offer a world of the bizarre, an exceptionally fascinating world, one of powerful attraction and, not least, of untrammelled freedom. Antonio Manzi seduces, draws our eye through retinal ashes, sparks of light, psychedelic sensory short circuits, all dominated by that overriding imperative of his distinctive style that incomparably interprets and sublimates shape and form. And all this thanks to a formidable, unique spirit, and, may I add, one wholly and utterly "self-taught".

About Antonio Manzi

Cristina Acidini

Superintendent of Historic, Artistic and Etnoantropological Patrimony,
and for the Museum Complex for the City of Firenze And, ad interim, for the Museum of SemiPrecious Stones

Those who have seen the works of Antonio Manzi, whatever the technique used to make them (drawing, drypoint, ceramics, fresco, graffito, sculpture, collage), will not forget them: indeed, he will immediately become familiar with his iconographic themes and his language of expression, and will be able to recognize the author at once and without any effort, whatever the context where he meets him again. Manzi's universe is no reassuring one: rather, the dark side of a Creation where man and woman, animal and plant, share airless, sulphureous, paradoxical dreams. And even though, through time and thanks to the multiplication of successfully resolved experiences – I am thinking of stone reliefs, especially those in white Apuan marble – Manzi's art has been able to express a simplified and finally light purity, the graphics and paintings of the 60's and 70's, on which this intense retrospective show of Pontassieve is concentrated, bring us back to the first moments of an obsessed and obsessive artist, who is fighting with a forest of mental presences which swarm in his creations, giving rise to the visual equivalent of the buzz of a crowd, interrupted by anonymous and mysterious cries.

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Concerning the works of those years, in the exhibition catalogue Antonio Manzi. Custode di attimi (Fiesole 2011), I wrote: "The startling sureness that Manzi shows when creating his sign is evidenced, in a dated and irrefutable way, by the large drawings on linen tablecloths which he made by pen when he was very young, in Lastra a Signa: rightly placed as an introduction to his artistic career in the museum dedicated to him, with more than one hundred works, in Villa Rucellai in Campi Bisenzio, those swarming and visionary drawings are the authentic incunabula of Manzi's artistic future, housing the implicit premises of every future development. There is the clear, bound, sealed line; there is the horror vacui with close-knit figures and bodies; there is the ambiguity between violence – the silent and accusing violence narrated by piles of victims, which for example emanates from the shocking photos of naked and thin bodies in concentration camps coming from the 20th century – and the sweetness of constantly and sinuously interlocking bodies which do not let the eye wander. And yet more, mirroring a complex personality who knows how to convey suffering in art and to sublimate it in a continuous, renewable creative catharsis".

The selection of works, already well documented in an enlightening monograph by Franco Riccomini in 2003, also takes us beyond the period of graphics on fabric and marble, to the canvases of the early 70's, dominated by self-portraits, accompanied by a gallery of other sinister or pathetic personalities. The development of an artist always has some elusive aspect, and one can rarely be certain about his sources: especially in the case of a contemporary artist, who in an image-based civilization like ours, can pick up suggestions and indications without being aware, even from signs which have merely been glimpsed. And this is even more true for a self-taught artist like Manzi. Where then can we place the echoes of resemblance which reverberate in some of his paintings, taking us back to more or less remote, more or less well known precedents? Are they but unintentional quotes? Or are they independent achievements, submerged affinities, remote contact with people far away in time and space, but close to each other in vision and companions in delirium? I think of Munch, the scream deforming face and head, which opens without hope the dark gap of the mouth.

I think of Ligabue, with his self-portraits which combine dignity and distrust, the pride of an eagle and the brooding of a raven. I summon up the sixteenth century figure of Arcimboldo, for his capricious portraits made of heads stuck together to make a living mosaic: not only living, but here also anguished, contorted, accomplice and slave. Did Manzi see the anatomical studies of skinned bodies, or at least one skinned figure, Saint Bartholomew holding his skin in his hands, Marsyas punished by Apollo? It would seem so, to judge by his characters shown as hanging red skins, tendons and bunched muscles which drip into each other in fluid combinations like broken and molten wax. Did he study the highly intellectual, exact graphic intrigues of Escher? Or, as a child, did he page through cartoons like Linus, discovering the clear and weird graphics of the very serious characters with large eyes of Ezio Lunari, Ghirighiz and Fra' Salmastro, which – as their author himself said – were inspired by the bas-relief in Milan of Saint Ambrose driving out the Arians, an expressionist scene of the 12th century?

When he was young, indeed very young, Manzi incorporated Futurism and Cubism, challenged Surrealism, practiced Expressionism, interpreting the nightmares of the 20th century; and he also took on the weight of the most disquieting dreams which artists of every age have ever depicted. His disquiet is ours, unconfessable and rarely admitted. Manzi arrived at his current manner of expression, full of wisdom and technical versatility, pacified – on the surface at least – concerning themes and motifs, marking the distance from the tribulation of his beginnings, measuring the length of the road he has trod. Altogether, a major tribute to art, which once again reveals itself to be the mirror and support of man, starting with the artist himself, along the difficult road to self-awareness.

Antonio Manzi

Mob. +39 339 72 90 402

P.Iva 04744590482 - Pec: antoniomanzi1953@pec.it