Finding Morandi in Bologna

There are any number of reasons to make a trip to the beautiful city of Bologna.  It might be for business, since Bologna is a center of commerce, or  for great shopping,  or to eat the meat-rich regional food.  Pasta bolognese, anyone?  It could be to wander through the multitude of arcaded walkways, dry in winter and cool in summer, that give the city its architectural harmony.  Or it might be to visit the vast cathedral with its sculptures by Michelangelo, or the archeological museum, stuffed with Etruscan artifacts.  None of these treats drew me and my family to Bologna the first time, although we were delighted to discover them once we’d arrived.  It was, instead, the paintings, drawings and watercolors of Giorgio Morandi housed in the Museo Morandi, right in the ancient center of Bologna, that first opened up the beauties of the city for us.

 If you are not yet familiar with the work of Morandi you have a very special experience before you.  Why Morandi?  What is the fuss about?  At first glance his paintings seem simple.  He paints the sames subject over and over again.  These are an arrangements of small objects, a particular bottle and bowl, a vase with one flower, or a glimpse of the walls of the courtyard outside his studio, returning to these subjects repeatedly and painting them in a hundred different ways.  The variations of colors are subtle, a pinkish grey, a muted green, the softest wash of yellow ochre.  However the objects and narrow views he painted have a powerful, steady presence.  It is difficult to look away from them.  You can see in the calm of these works, not only influences of twentieth century artists like Paul Cezanne but also of Renaissance painters like Uccello, Giotto and Massaccio. 

 Except for short stays in the nearby country town of Grizzana, Morandi lived in Bologna from the time he started at the Accademia di Belle Arti at the age of 17 in 1907 until his death in 1964. Throughout much of his life he taught drawing in Bologna’s elementary schools and some of the freshness and liveliness of his paintings surely arises from this work with children.   As a young man he associated with Bolognese intellectuals and artists like the painter Osvaldo Licini and the writer Mario Bacchelli, with whom he worked on a magazine called La Raccolta .

Perhaps because of this association with intellectual life, writing on Morandi can tend to get a little abstract, about the “metaphysicality of objects” and the other heady constructs that can sometimes build up around a body of work.  However, in contrast, the quiet immediacy of his paintings speak quite simply for themselves in their soft beauty. When you walk up to the second floor of the City Hall that houses Museo Morandi museum and walk through the rooms filled with his painting it feels like someone is there, the artist himself, showing you the way he saw.

The museum features a reconstruction of the studio where Morandi painted for many years.  The objects that we get to know so well through his paintings are all right there on the shelves near his narrow bed.  The ordered chaos of the working painter is in  evidence.  What strikes one about this space is how constrained it is, and how few subjects he painted.  There is that particular vase, there the bowl and small rounded dish.  His window looked over a courtyard enclosed by buildings, with just a glimpse of a tree branch, and a blank wall.  Tellingly, Morandi chose this constricted space for his studio, instead of another room available to him which had views over distant hills and an orchard.  It is this narrowing of focus which makes his work so intense and influential.

In fact, I would go so far as to say, that looking closely at the paintings of Giorgio Morandi has deepened my ability to experience and appreciate the beauty of Italy, itself.  How so?  It is because he looked so closely at a small part of Italy, specifically the limited view over his enclosed courtyard, or the way light fell on a few objects in his studio, that he makes you look at everything in this country again.  Sometimes, when I happen on a window with a view over a blank, wall, a corner of sky, or a few angular bits of roof, I stop and gaze, struck by the narrow glimpse of beauty.  This is in part because this one artist spent his lifetime showing us the way light falls and changes in such a limited space.  Thank you, Giorgio Morandi.

Having made this pilgrimage, gazed our fill, somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer extent of this body of work, it is a relief to head back out into the living bustle of Bologna.  Here the rich brick red of the arcades, the delicious smell of baking lasagna and bread coming from the open restaurants are full of welcome.  The loud cheer and energy of a northern Italian city at midday, seals in the experience of the quiet, empty spaces of Morandi’s works, an interior quiet that goes with us into the lively bustle of Bologna.

 If you are staying at the UNA Hotel Bologna it is an easy and pleasant walk up the main street of Via dell’Indipendenza to the Museo Morandi at Piazza Maggiore, 6.  Or you can take a more meandering route through the smaller streets of the town.