by Letizia Pitigliani
The stark white light of Rome is one of my earliest recollections. I remember it reflected in the fountain of the dusty, pebbled park where I played each day under the tall umbrella pines, and off the Tiber across the street from our house. Sometimes I would hear the loud, amplified singing of Fascist hymns booming through the air from the stadium nearby, which drove my mother to slam shut windows and rattle down the blinds. And all the while that unforgiving, uncompromising light of Rome.
Around the time I was three, Italy began to pass racial laws, and as Jews we had to leave in order to survive. In January of 1938 my mother, my sister Anna and I boarded the huge Italian liner Conte di Savoia bound for New York. My fascination with ships began at this time. The liner's stabilizers had been removed and the big ship bobbed around in the Atlantic storms like a cork. Its dramatic lifts and dips thrilled us children who, unencumbered by adult supervision - they were all seasick - had free run of the splendid, lurching mammoth. We learned to count watching the portholes go from sky grey to deep water green.
We settled in Manhattan where I attended the neighborhood nursery school and where I sold my first painting for a nickel. When I was six I enrolled in Public School 173. We were the children of Europe. Our I.Q.s were carefully measured and we were encouraged to develop our skills and, in my case, artistic talents. When I was nine I was given the responsibility of heading a team to create the sets, props and posters for the school's pageants, plays and musical performances. Competition among schools was fierce and I was very proud when my background scenery design, General George Washington Crossing the Delaware River, was prominently featured in the New York Sun.
At thirteen I entered New York's High School of Music and Art. I enjoyed the lively, creative atmosphere. But then my mother fell ill and died and my father decided we should return to Rome. I was reluctant to leave the optimistic world of my youthful, talented companions. Coming back by sea to my native Italy, I felt that each passing day was pulling me inexorably backward in time. We disembarked in Genoa, birthplace of my mother, where my Dutch grandparents had a villa in the nearby hills. The crystalline stillness of their little garden, pierced occasionally by the gentle sound of distant church bells, was quite a contrast to the accustomed roar of New York.
That autumn my sister and I joined our father in Rome to live in the apartment on the Tiber we had fled ten years earlier. Rome seemed strange and foreign to me then, the people still feeling the pain and bitterness of the war. It was the time of De Sica's Bicycle Thief and Fellini's I Vitelloni, a time of resentment and misgivings, before the postwar boom. Our family life was enhanced in 1951 when my father remarried. My stepmother Lotte, an artistic and caring woman, was very supportive of my work.
On the advice of my father's friend, architect Giovanni Michelucci, I enrolled in the class of the painter Roberto Melli at the Accademia di Belle Arti. I was fourteen, too young for the course, but on the enrollment form I closed the top of the four making it look like a nine to seem nineteen. Being tall for my age I thus passed quietly into the adult world of art studies. My father accompanied me on the first day of classes. When I hung back shyly from the others, he pointed at another young woman standing to one side and suggested I go over to speak to her. As we began to talk, she started undressing, and I realized she was our model. Over the next year I was to sketch her at least two hundred times.
Roberto Melli was the perfect teacher. A true artist, a writer, a poet, an art historian, a wonderful, steadfast painter, he had been one of the moving forces of the art movement Valori Plastici whose doctrine stressed the importance of light in the creation of geometric mass, of volume in space, of planes of color. Although Melli never left Italy, his art was international in its creative freedom. "How fortunate you are to have ended up with me," he often told me. Melli was remarkable for his youthful enthusiasm which had endured the cruelties of the war and its consequences of poverty, and because he was a Jew, isolation and ostracism.
When I was seventeen, Roberto Melli was art critic for the newspaper Il Paese. An old man with a rolling limp, he walked with a cane, which he also used to gesticulate and punctuate his remarks. To my delight, Melli chose me to accompany him on his rounds of the Roman galleries. Eventually I began to keep notes and write critical essays. I wrote about forty pieces, many of which were published. Melli and I would meet several afternoons a week at a sidewalk café on the Via del Babuino, planning the day's strategy at a little round table over two granita di caffé con panna served in fluted glasses, gratifying a sweet tooth we had in common. Then we would make our rounds, sometimes together, sometimes separately. At dusk, a swallow-filled, bell-tolling Roman dusk, that for some obscure reason filled us both with an almost desperate melancholy, we would go to our homes to write our pieces for the next day's deadline, mine corrected and occasionally revised by my father.
Guided, encouraged, and sometimes bullied by these two wonderfully intelligent and gentle men, I never faced the lonely fearful doubts some of my friends endured. This was a particulary inspired period of my life. Thrust suddenly into the world of creative adults, I was freed of childhood preoccupations and could paint at will. And how I painted, as though being chased by the Devil. I would be covered with paint in my haste to accomplish and would finish a painting in a few hours with miraculous ease, almost as if someone were painting right through me. I never stopped long enough to bother with style, just content, because I was afraid the subject would somehow elude me and I would never be able to express the rapture I felt. Outside, the Roman light, that had once seemed so ominous, had become revelatory, sparkling on the pearly surfaces of the Tiber and its bordering buildings, touching off planes of color that vibrated like music.
I had my first public exhibition with another student, painter Marcos Grigorian, at the Bar Bruzio, a little café near the Accademia. My first one-man show was at the prestigious Galleria Il Pincio on the Piazza del Popolo. The paintings glowed inside their antique frames lent to me for the occasion, while wonderfully fastidious Melli admonished and fussed up to the last moment when I lacquered the oil paintings for the vernissage. I was warmed by the welcome given me by the many artists who stopped by during those few weeks of the exhibition, including Corrado Cagli and Carlo Levi, Orfeo Tamburi and Rosai, Afro and Mirko, as well as so many others of the younger generation.
After the Pincio exhibit closed and my four years at the Academy were behind me, I realized for the first time just how introspective and solitary the profession of being a painter was to be. Gone was the camaraderie of the Academy. My friends had returned to their native countries to make their ways. Even the good Melli told me, "I have taught you all I know, now go out into the world and look at the masters." I was on my own, and accepted an invitation from my aunt Gilda to visit her in Israel.