by Fabio Benzi
Letizia Pitigliani made her artistic debut at the age of eighteen. This first exhibition, presented by Roberto Melli, revealed an already mature artistic personality quite unusual for such a young woman.
She had been a student in Rome of Roberto Melli, an artist of extraordinary quality who had lived a complicated and intriguing life. He participated in some of the most important and stimulating movements of the Italian art world between the 1910s and the 1950s. His early style was influenced by the Fauves and the Futurists, but after World War I he joined the European ritorno all'ordine which was represented in Italy by the artists of the Valori Plastici group, including de Chirico, Carrà, Morandi, Savinio and Martini, and advanced by the movement's journal, edited by Mario Broglio. At the beginning of the 1930s Melli became the mentor of the young école de Rome, formed by Cagli, Capogrossi and Cavalli, which represented one of the most active artistic tendencies of that season in Italy. His painting style passed through various stages, guided by a sense of architecturally structured form and by a use of color which was initially violent and vibrant, and later, from the 1930s, softer, albeit still retaining its vibrancy. This style was given the descriptive label of Tonalismo. His use of color influenced the many different aspects of the Scuola Romana, but always with a sense of the esoteric and an emphasis on intellectual precision.
I have dwelt on the story of this master in particular because Pitigliani's early Roman works owe a considerable debt to Melli's style. Indeed, though to a lesser extent, the works from her later and more extensive New York period also reveal a connection with the master. For example, Pitigliani structures her composition almost without line and renders the figures by overlapping areas of color, without chiaroscuro, thus creating volume and light on the canvas through depth of tone. Her brushstroke is loose and confident, and quickly renders the development in space of the figures and the architectonic elements against the uninhabited landscapes. Pitigliani learned this stylistic technique from Melli at the Accademia di Belie Arti. She developed a strong tie with the recent and vital period of the Scuola Romana, made personal, however, by the artist's more "modern" approach to composition; and with her use of a wide variety of colors, from light to dark, from luminous to opaque, recalls the innate self-assurance of a soprano who uses the full range of her voice.
This "ease" of approach characterizes the painter's early works, but from 1957, after a trip to Holland, she transcends these stylistic experiments in search of a new sense of painting. The architecture which populates her landscapes acquires a disquieting presence, alsways subtly mysterious, almost like figures involved in dialogues with themselves.
This new poetic search reaches maturity in the works painted in New York. The panorama of the city, where Pitigliani has permanently established herself, inspires the static, shaped compositions; buildings are gathered like unfathomable figures, mercilessly arranged so as to reveal cracks on the façade, like wrinkles on a face.
The prevailing sense of melancholy of many of these paintings, emphasized by a sharp light typical of cities on the sea, which casts penetrating shadows on the architecture, recalls Edward Hopper, another great painter of the American urban landscape. As in his works, the human presence is not represented but only suggested, thus making the building itself the psychological metaphor for the inhabitant. These works represent urban solitude and desolation, but they also express a refined attentiveness and a vital exuberance.
These architectural elements are generally isolated from the urban context; they are confined to the foreground like silhouettes against the luminous sky. And from a corner emerge other contrasting elements, as for example an old house placed against a glass skyscraper, a geometric form behind a nineteenth-century colonnade, or a horizontal element that breaks the verticality of the composition.
This presence of "disquieting" elements in the serene objectivity of the representation will have an unforeseen development during the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in a type of instinctive, playful surrealism. A bell tower opens its wings like an angel, a huge turtle ambles along the roof of a skyscraper, human figures fly freely in the crystal-clear sky of the city, populated by immense and imaginary animals. These works are the translation into images and symbols of the amazement which New York never ceases to inspire in Pitigliani; New York, with its daily enchanting spells and new and unpredictable magic. The works which the artist painted as poster designs can also be viewed in this way. The subject is almost always New York, populated with crowds of excursion boats and flags, illuminated by fantastical firework displays which exalt the monumentality, the bizarre and vital joy which continually animates the city - a city with a varied and multiform soul, which Pitigliani is able to grasp with the lightness of an ironic and surreal poet.