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Mario Donizetti
"Faith and beauty, truth and reason, reason and passion"
by Silvana Milesi 

"Odious to God and man is pride... Why does he who is earth and ash become proud?... Who is king today shall die tomorrow... The principle of pride is, in fact, sin". This is what is written in the books of Knowledge (Sir 10, 7-9-10-13).

Only the first of the seven deadly sins can be said to be truly deadly: the sin of our ancestors, the ruin of those who want to build a tower up to the sky. Presumption, ambition, arrogance and self-centredness, the great evils of our own and all times, descend from pride.

This is why the book was to be started with the face of Pride. A beautiful face because "splendour of style is not a luxury but a necessity" even when the content has in itself another meaning. And Donizetti manages to express the essence of pride simply in the look, of she who considers others as lesser beings, incapable of pursuing ends worthy of general attention like hers.

Having reached the end of this century exhausted by its immense capabilities, Mario Donizetti reproposes the theme of the "Seven Deadly Sins", an old but always topical theme, as are the contradictions about existence, hanging between sin and virtue, guilt and redemption, reason and passion.

Art still poses itself the question about the seven deadly sins which take on different shapes in a humanity intent on pursuing well-being at all costs, a happiness which is searched for and lost in the obscure tangle of its passions.

Through painting, Mario Donizetti meditates on the destiny of man, depicting the seven deadly sins one by one as they take place, unlike Dante who, in the seven frames of Purgatory, represents their purification through punishment contrary to the sin.

Reason and passion also battle against each other in a terse dialogue in Mario Donizetti's text, one defending the other, abhorring either this or that sin. Each expresses its own arguments with utmost clarity on each point in order to secure the consent of the reader, who, in the end, wonders whether a just and balanced path to love even exists, that is to say the love portrayed in Dante's Paradise, to understand which we must first come out of our modern "dark wood". The dark wood of a society threatened with death by its own progress.

And whilst he passes from one sin to another with ease and confidence as if continuing the same story, not only does Donizetti not even give a hint of the enormous effort required for such a vast work, but he seems to want (and to want us) to be reminded that "beauty will save us". (You must raise yourself from beauty to beauty until you attain supreme Beauty), is written in Plato's "Banquet". But this century's man seems to fear beauty more than death itself(1), or more probably he is not strong enough to withstand beauty, because to accept it always means accepting "an end of the old man and a difficult new life". Beauty, Cristina Campo writes, is theological virtue, "the fourth, the secret one, the one which flows from one to the other of the obvious ones... Faith, Hope and Charity, are infinitely entwined and significant of Beauty"(2).

Like the Englishman of letters and critic, John Ruskin(3) through his theoretical writings, Donizetti becomes the apostle of a religion of beauty based on a deep moral sense of beauty as a synonym of truth. He has written books of aesthetic and moral reflection(4) on beauty (which God calls "good"), thereby joining in the modern debate on art with a strong opinion. Donizetti refutes Kant's theories that would lie at the origin of non-figurative painting effect, and perhaps partly cause, of the shapeless aesthetic and cultural decline of the environment we live in, destroyed to such an extent because it has destroyed its positive relationship with the past, with it deepest and manifold meanings in which to root modernity and the prospects of civilised cohabitation on Earth, ("the flower-bed which makes us so ferocious").

Beauty will save you. This, too, is a problem reaching far back into the past. Albrecht Dürer, the painter and etcher, wrote the following five centuries ago: "Many and different details do men need who go pursuing beauty in different ways and who on the other hand obtain the result of depicting ugliness everywhere. And I, among our many errors, cannot find the way to portray true perfect beauty, although I want nothing more than to eliminate imperfection and ugliness from the works of contemporary artists. However, I shall, with all due study and diligence and as far as is within my capacity, try to be of help to men, at least to those who do not follow imperfection and ugliness deliberately"(5).

This is the beauty in Donizetti's paintings, in his drawings, in his writings, in his life, in his artistic techniques, and in the tradition of the great artists of the past.

And here is all the softness and lightness of pastel painting which seems almost to rise from the steam needed to fix and smooth it. A new technique, the one used for the Sins, bringing out the bright, enhanced and lively colours from the pastels which we admire in the oil and egg tempera works by Donizetti. Blue skies and blues of shades never seen before, almost unnaturally luminous "dolce color d'orïental zaffiro (sweet oriental sapphire colour)"; complexions of a velvety ivory rose pink, full of sensuality when the sin is that of Lust and Greed, but also in Envy and Sloth.

Pride, Avarice and Wrath are, on the other hand, dried up and withered by their own craving. Violet-blue shades for Wrath which blinds you, livid shades for the claw-like hands of Avarice, the worst sin, avarice, the she-wolf who ravages the world and lays it waste to hunger, who corrupts family, civil and political life and even the church itself. Cold colours for cold Pride, so taken up with self-love as to believe herself above all else and despise the others reduced to dummies at her feet.

The play on shades of colour and meaning is extremely subtle. Certainly a single glance is not enough to absorb it all. The light of poetry shines through, but also rational coldness. Scenes dominated by large expanses of colour where the female nudes are lying down or standing out, in soft flexing movements or in violent outbursts, depending on the sin they represent. Female bodies because the name of the seven deadly sins is of female gender in Italian.

Tense and painstaking painting. Tense in its effort to penetrate the reality of man. Painstaking so that it reaches places words cannot reach, seeking out truth and reason.

His look is detached as it must be for the artist who sheds his immediate subjectivity and converts his own personal experience into universal insight where each person can recognise himself. Donizetti searches out the heart of the sin and in the severe beauty of his art shows it to us, but not as did certain court preachers in the past as described by La Bruyère: "The orator expresses certain aberrations with such felicitous images, uses such precious details, attributes such great spirit, so much elegance and refinement to those who sin, that, even if I do not want to be like the portraits he paints, I at least need an apostle, who, with more Christian style, makes the sins which have been so enticingly described repellent to me"(6).

In the beauty of his painting, Donizetti manages, one does not know how intentionally, to be the apostle rather than the highly eloquent preacher, or more simply to be modern man seeking for that knowledge which requires one to look deep within oneself, "when night falls and another millennium passes on", with a very clear view of the world and of the men who inhabit it with us.

An intent vision, therefore, with neither approval nor reproach. Extreme commitment to lucid resoluteness and almost Olympic formal elegance, where an atmosphere of unease and sometimes of disaster does, however, transpire. What else is this skeleton at the feet of Avarice if not the extreme wreck washed up to her (so that she can finally "see") by the immense sea of poverty which devours thousands and thousands of pot-bellied skeletal children every day?

There are important questions to which no answers are given. Rather, they are not even posed, or are no longer posed.

Man, love, religion, God. "What do I know of God and the end of life?", Ludwig Wittgenstein, an aeronautical engineer, son of a Vienna steel industrialist, asked himself. He wrote a logical-philosophical Essay about this: "I know that this world exists. That in it there is something problematic, which we call its meaning. That this meaning lies not within it, but outside it. That life is the world. That my will pervades the world. That my will is good or bad. That, therefore, good and bad somehow belong to the meaning of the world. The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God. And associate the similitude of God as father to that. Praying is thinking about the meaning of life"(7). And Novalis wrote that "we are linked more closely to the invisible than to the visible... What for philosophers is reason, for poets in the strict sense is faith. Our whole life is a religious cult"(8). But modern man, in his intellectual and technological arrogance, is increasingly losing the religious meaning of life and, along with this, the sense of virtue and of the theological and cardinal virtues, Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Justice, Strength and Temperance.

Perhaps Donizetti would do well to dedicate a series of paintings to these, before they are lost to memory, together with the religious sense of life. An irreparable loss (since), even Croce writes, "without religiousness, i.e. without poetry, without heroism, without consciousness of the universal, without harmony, no society would survive"(9). Consciousness of the universal and of world harmony which makes the modern scientist of relativity say: "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the higher and infinite spirit which is revealed in the minute details we can manage to perceive with our fragile and weak minds. This is my idea of God, the profoundly emotional conviction of the presence of a supreme rationality which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe. The main function of art and science is to re-awaken this [religious cosmic] sentiment and to keep it alive in those who know how to appreciate it"(10).

Here it is therefore clear that not only does the theory of relativity not suppress the absolute, but is based on an absolute located externally. According to the physicist Planck, the man who discovered "the quantum", "in the study of every natural phenomenon... we do nothing other than look for the independent behind the dependent, the absolute behind the relative, the everlasting behind the transitory... not only in the field of knowledge, but also in that of what is good and beautiful"(11).

"In the emerging view of new physics - Ervin Laszo upholds - absolute matter does not exist, but only an absolute virtual energy field which generates matter... The Universe is more like a living organism than a silent rock... We are part of this evolutionary process, of the never-ending construction of the cathedral of Nature". From this, new ethics arise, a greater responsibility for man and above all for art "ubiquitous in our society"(12).

Even in a tormented and problematic way, Mario Donizetti feels these many tasks of art. The choice of the Seven Deadly Sins is not and cannot be a casual or solely aesthetic choice. To try and comprehend the deeper meaning is not easy. The reader should not, therefore, perceive as excessive the resort to authoritative thinkers with whom, as is also the case of Donizetti himself, he may or may not agree, but with whom it is not without usefulness to make a comparison.

It is important for the questions to at least be posed, "the essential thing is to know that you are hungry"(13). "There is only one art, of which every man should be master, the art of reflection. If you are not a thinking man, what use to you is being a man?".(14)

The "Know thyself" sculpted on the lintel of the temple at Delphi, remains the minimum requirement for anyone to be able to call himself a man. Pope Wojtyla uses this to introduce his thirteenth encyclical: Fides et Ratio, Faith and Reason, two wings with which the human spirit rises up towards contemplation of Truth.


NOTE:

  • (1) "But it is true, they fear it more than death, beauty is feared more than they fear death..." (William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963)
  • (2) Cristina Campo, 1923-1977, Sotto Falso nome (Under false Name), Biblioteca Adelphi 352, 1998
  • (3) John Ruskin, 1819-1900, Pittori moderni (1843-60) a cura di G. Leoni, Einaudi, Turin 1998
  • (4) Mario Donizetti, Perché figurativo (1992); Razionalità delle Fede e della Bellezza (1995); Lettera a Parmenide (1996); Lettera a Platone (1997); Argomenti di Estetica (1999), Corponove, Bergamo
  • (5) Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528, Quattro libri sulle proporzioni dell'uomo, Venice 1591
  • (6) Jean de La Bruyère, 1645-1696, Caractères, Einaudi, Turin, 1981
  • (7) Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, Einaudi, Turin 1990
  • (8) Novalis [Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg], 1772-1801, in "Grande Antologia Filosofica", vol. XVII, Il pensiero moderno, Marzorati, Milan 1968
  • (9) Benedetto Croce, 1866-1952, Frammenti di etica, Laterza, Bari 1922
  • (10) Albert Einstein, 1879-1955, Pensieri di un uomo curioso, Mondadori, Milan 1997
  • (11) Max Planck, 1858-1947, La conoscenza del mondo fisico, Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 1993
  • (12) Ervin Laszo, L'Uomo e l'Universo: alla ricerca di una nuova visione, Di Rienzo Editore, 1998
  • (13) Simone Weil, 1909-1943, L'amore di Dio, Borla, Rome 1979
  • (14) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834, Aiuti alla riflessione, in "Grande Antologia Filosofica", vol. XIX, Il pensiero moderno, Marzorati, Milan 1973

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