Ottone Rosai
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Ottone Rosai

There are many places one might easily turn to learn about the art of Ottone Rosai. Here, my task is not to critique the artistic or literary works of this Florentine painter, engraver and author, but rather to tell you about his troubled, turbulent life, which played out against the

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Thu 11 Sep 2014 12:00 AM

There are many places one might easily turn to learn about the art of Ottone Rosai. Here, my task is not to critique the artistic or literary works of this Florentine painter, engraver and author, but rather to tell you about his troubled, turbulent life, which played out against the backdrop of some of the major historical events of the last century.

 

Born on April 28, 1895 in San Frediano, then the poorest and roughest part of the city, Rosai was the third of the four children of carpenter and carver Giuseppe Rosai and his wife, Daria Deboletti. After he finished elementary school, his father wanted him to work in his workshop. But, as he displayed considerable artistic talent, after a brief apprenticeship with a cabinet maker, he was enrolled in the Istituto d’Arti Decorative in piazza Santa Croce and then later in the Accademia di Belle Arti, where he remained until the end of 1913. Rebelling against discipline, he was expelled from both, preferring to frequent the artisans and the omini (‘little men’ or ‘losers’) of the cafés and osterie, streets and alleys of his neighbourhood, where he drew inspiration from the faces and places that are now so recognisable in his paintings and engravings, such as Via Toscanella (1922), Giocatori di toppa (1928), L’uomo della panchina (1930) and Strada di Compiobbi (1932).

 

In 1913, Rosai had a brief flirtation with Marinetti’s futurist movement and frequented other artists and intellectuals at the Giubbe Rosse café. At the onset of World War I, he was sent to fight, was wounded twice and was decorated for bravery. Hard times and family tragedy awaited him on his return from the front. In 1922, unable to honour his debts, his father drowned himself in the Arno. But despite this and being forced to return to working in the carpentry shop (where he remained until 1931), Rosai kept painting, and critics, when they finally came to recognise the importance of his work, consider his ‘classic’ period to have been between 1919 and 1930. In this period, he also adopted fascist ideology, even becoming a ‘blackshirt’ or member of a paramilitary squad. In 1935, he was commissioned to paint two large landscapes for the new Santa Maria Novella station. Because of his growing reputation as an artist, in 1939, he was made an art professor at the Liceo Artistico and, in 1942, a professor at the Accademia, although because of his ties to the regime, the latter was revoked after the liberation. Over the years, he exhibited widely at home and abroad, including an important retrospective at the Venice Biennale in 1956, not long before he died.

 

A large man legendary for his huge hands, Rosai never fully came to terms with his father’s suicide. His tormented personality was probably best described by two of his friends, artist and mentor Ardengo Soffici, who labelled him as ‘a painter and foul-mouthed hooligan,’ and journalist Indro Montanelli, who called him ‘an ill-tempered, aggressive and argumentative bad lot.’ He spoke rarely and swore often.

 

He was also anticlerical and homosexual. In fact, incensed by Mussolini’s Lateran Pacts with the Catholic Church, Rosai wrote a pamphlet entitled Per lo svaticanamento dell’Italia, embarrassing his fellow fascists. It would cost him dearly. Whilst his comrades had previously tolerated his homosexuality, now they threatened him with exile, virtually forcing him, in 1922, to marry Francesca Fei. She knew about and accepted his affairs, which were often with male prostitutes or with the teenage street boys who modelled for him. In fact, his male nudes are some of his most suggestive images. In the early 1930s, when Rosai underwent a deep existential crisis, aggravated by his chronic shortage of money, he and Francesca separated. He retreated into the countryside, where his contact with nature finally restored serenity to his painting. In 1934, on returning to town, he opened a new studio in via San Leonardo where he remained for the next 30 years, immortalising Florence, its surroundings and its people on canvas with such paintings as Via San Leonardo (1938), Giocatori di carte (1943), Nudo disteso (1947) and Strada fiorentina (1954).

 

Rosai was also an accomplished writer. Prompted by his war experiences, he wrote his first book Il libro di un teppista in 1919. Others followed like Via Toscanella (1930), Dentro la guerra (1934) and Vecchio Autoritratto (1951), published by Attilio Vallecchi, who became one of the first to collect his art.

 

In the early hours of May 13, 1957, the day before he was to open a solo exhibition at the Olivetti Cultural Centre in Ivrea, Rosai, aged 62, died suddenly of a heart attack. Following his funeral, he was brought home to Florence, where he is buried at the Porte Sante monumental cemetery.

 

To learn more about Rosai’s paintings and the influences that led him to develop his unique style, see Christopher Saint-Amand’s article ‘Ottone Rosai: Enchanted Visions’ at theflr.net/ottonerosai.

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