Salvatore Fiume

Born in Comiso, Sicily, on October 23, 1915, Salvatore Fiume was a painter, sculptor, architect, writer, and set designer. At sixteen, he won a scholarship to the Regio Istituto per l’Illustrazione del Libro in Urbino, where he gained a deep knowledge of printing techniques: lithography, silk-screen printing, etching, and woodcut. In 1936, after completing his studies, he moved to Milan where he met artists and intellectuals such as Dino Buzzati and Salvatore Quasimodo (Nobel Prize in Literature in 1959), with whom he formed friendships.

In 1938, he moved to Ivrea, to Olivetti, as the art director of a cultural magazine particularly cherished by the president, Adriano Olivetti, which collaborated with prestigious intellectuals such as Franco Fortini and Leonardo Sinisgalli. Although he aimed to establish himself as a painter, Fiume achieved his first success with a literary work, the autobiographical novel Viva Gioconda!, published in 1943 by the publisher Bianchi-Giovini in Milan.

In order to dedicate himself entirely to painting, in 1946 he left Olivetti and settled in Canzo, near Como, where he adapted a huge nineteenth-century spinning mill as his studio, which became his permanent residence from 1952 (now the headquarters of the Salvatore Fiume Foundation). In 1948, as his painting, strongly influenced by Italian Quattrocento and the metaphysical painting of de Chirico, Savinio, and Carrà, struggled to assert itself, he painted and successfully exhibited at the Galleria Gussoni in Milan a series of paintings inspired by Spanish tradition and folklore, signing them Francisco Queyo, a non-existent Gypsy painter whose story he invented as a political exile persecuted in Paris.

1949, on the other hand, was the year of his first official exhibition, again in Milan, at the Galleria Borromini, where his Islands of statues and Cities of statues aroused considerable interest among critics. During the exhibition at Borromini, Alfred H. Barr Jr., director of the MoMA Collections in New York, acquired the 1947 City of statues, which is now at MoMA, while the Jucker collection in Milan acquired a painting exhibited in the same exhibition. In 1950, it was Alberto Savinio, brother of Giorgio de Chirico, who facilitated his participation in the Venice Biennale, where he exhibited the triptych Island of statues (now in the Vatican Museums), which earned him an entire page in the American magazine “Life”.

In 1952, still at the suggestion of Alberto Savinio, Fiume’s first experience in set design took place. In that year, he made sketches for sets and costumes for De Falla’s La vida breve and Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus for Teatro alla Scala. This was followed by Cherubini’s Medea (1953), Respighi’s La Fiamma (1954), Bellini’s Norma (1955), Verdi’s Nabucco (1958), and Rossini’s William Tell (1965). He then collaborated with other important theaters, such as Covent Garden in London (Verdi’s Aida, 1957), the Rome Opera House (Medea, 1954), the Teatro Massimo in Palermo (Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, 1954), and the Monte Carlo Opera House (Donizetti’s Il Campanello, 1992), with which he concluded his collaboration with the opera house.

In 1951, the renowned architect Gio Ponti commissioned him a huge painting (3 meters x 48 meters) for the first-class salon of the transatlantic liner Andrea Doria. Fiume portrayed an imaginary Italian Renaissance city rich in works of art from various historical periods so that travelers could get an idea of the masterpieces they would admire in our country. Unfortunately, in 1956, the immense canvas was lost in the sinking of the ship off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

In 1953, the magazines “Life” and “Time” commissioned him, for their headquarters in New York, a series of works depicting an imaginary story of Manhattan and the Bay of New York, which Fiume reinvented as Islands of statues.

Between 1949 and 1952, at the invitation of industrialist Bruno Buitoni Sr., Fiume completed a cycle of ten large paintings on the theme of the “Adventures, misfortunes, and glories” of ancient Umbria, in which the lesson of Italian masters of the Quattrocento such as Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello is evident. The paintings, donated by the Buitoni family to the Umbria Region in 1988, are preserved in Perugia in the Sala Fiume of Palazzo Donini, open to the public.

In 1962, a traveling exhibition brought one hundred of Fiume’s paintings to various German museums, including the cities of Cologne and Regensburg. In 1967, he made the sketch for the large mosaic in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth in the Holy Land. In 1973, accompanied by his friend photographer Walter Mori, Fiume went to Ethiopia, in the Babile valley, where he painted his Islands on a group of rocks using marine paints.

For the major retrospective exhibition in 1974 at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, Fiume created a life-size polystyrene reproduction of part of the rocks painted in Ethiopia, almost entirely occupying the huge Hall of the Caryatids. On the same occasion, he presented for the first time the African Mona Lisa, now in the Vatican Museums, a tribute to African feminine beauty inspired by Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. In 1975, the Calabrian town of Fiumefreddo Bruzio enthusiastically welcomed Fiume’s proposal to revitalize its historic center with some of his works. Thus, in 1975-76, he painted some internal and external walls of the ancient castle and, in 1976, the dome of the Chapel of San Rocco.

His first exhibition as a sculptor was in 1976 at the Galleria l’Isola in Milan. His production also includes large-scale works, such as the bronze statue at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the sculptures of the San Raffaele hospitals in Milan and Rome, the bronze group for the Fountain of Wine in Marsala, and two bronzes at the Museum of the Portofino Park. In 1995, the Allende Center in La Spezia hosted his last sculpture exhibition in its outdoor spaces. In 1985, he held a major painting exhibition at Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. In 1987, the exhibition De Architectura Pingendi at the Sporting d’Hiver in Monte Carlo, inaugurated by Prince Ranieri of Monaco. In 1991, he exhibited his architectural projects at the International Architecture Exhibition in Milan, at the Palazzo della Triennale, and in 1992, he exhibited his paintings at Villa Medici, headquarters of the French Academy in Rome.

In 1993, Fiume visited Gauguin’s places in Polynesia and,

as a tribute to the great French master, donated a painting to the Gauguin Museum in Papeari, Tahiti. In addition to the novel Viva Gioconda!, which was critically acclaimed, Fiume published numerous short stories, nine plays, a tragedy, and two collections of poems. In 1988, the University of Palermo awarded him an honorary degree in Modern Literature.

His works are found in some of the world’s most important museums such as the Vatican Museums, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the MoMA in New York, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Milan. Since 1978, the Vatican Museums have hosted a collection of 33 of his works, which synthesize many of the main themes of his production.

Fiume died in Milan on June 3, 1997. Among the exhibitions on Salvatore Fiume’s work held since 1997, mention should be made of the one at the Artesanterasmo Gallery in Milan entitled The Painting Alliances of ’97, the retrospective at Gualtieri Castle, Reggio Emilia, in ’98, the portrait exhibition The Body and the Soul in ’99, again at the Artesanterasmo Gallery in Milan, that of 2001 in the Municipality of Canzo, where Fiume lived since 1946, entitled Salvatore Fiume: Myths Hypotheses Metaphors, the two exhibitions in 2006, in Vilnius, and in Warsaw at the respective Italian Cultural Institutes. The great retrospective (207 works) at the Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Arezzo in 2007-2008, for the tenth anniversary of his death, and in 2008, the one entitled Myth and Classicism on the Threshold of Metaphysics, at the Auditorium-Parco della Musica in Rome.

From December 2010 to February 2011, the Oberdan Space in Milan hosted the exhibition Salvatore Fiume: A Nonconformist of the Twentieth Century (100 works including paintings, drawings, and sculptures). In October 2012, the exhibition The Identities of Salvatore Fiume, 50 Works from the 1940s to the 1990s was held at Palazzo Pirelli in Milan. The municipality of Varese acquired one of his sculptures, which was placed in 2012 in Piazza del Tribunale. Between 2012 and 2013, Salvatore Fiume’s children donated eleven large-scale works to the Lombardy Region, which hosts them in the Fiume Space inside the new Palazzo Lombardia in Milan. In addition, one of his sculptures was placed in Milan in Piazza Piemonte on October 23, 2013, the day Fiume would have turned 98.