A Cultural Round Trip from Como to Paris via Milan
‘In the 1930’s Como was the working base of four out of a total of ten Italian abstract artists of international renown’ – Luigi Cavadini, art exhibition curator, author and expert on modern and contemporary art.
When I first moved to Como five years ago, I soon became aware of the city’s ‘rationalist’ heritage. Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio (1932-6), built in a prominent position on an open piazza behind the Duomo, is a modernist masterpiece. His equally bold Monumento ai Caduti (War Memorial) (1931-3) on the lakefront, inspired by the visionary designs of Antonio Sant’Elia, provided further evidence of something unique in the cultural genes of this city. However what took me longer to discover was that, during this period of bold architectural innovation, a group of Como-based artists had established themselves at the forefront of the abstract art movement in Italy and Europe.
The core members of this Como Group were Manlio Rho (1901-1957), Mario Radice (1900-1987), Carla Badiali (1907-1992) and Aldo Galli (1906-1981). I wanted to understand how such a significant group of avant-garde artists emerged from a city with a total population of no more than sixty four thousand in those early years when the group first became productive.
My initial interest in the group was sparked by visiting the recent exhibition of the work of Manlio Rho at the Silk Museum. This is entitled ‘The Sense of Colour – In textiles and art’ and was curated by Luigi Cavadini and Francina Chiara. It runs until the end of the month (March 2019). I had always been aware of a vibrant contemporary art scene here in Como (see CC’s articles on Ester Negretti, Irma Kennaway and Adriano Caverzasio) and had wondered if this may stem in part from the influence of the local textile industry and the design requirements of their clients – the major fashion houses. The Manlio Rho exhibition explores that link directly.
Como’s Cultural and Industrial Background in the 1930s
The main industry in Como then and now is silk. The skyline of the city in the 1930s was dominated by tall chimneys rising from the power rooms of the numerous factories that lined the city’s water courses such as the Cosia river. The silk industry had started in the 1860s and would reach its heyday after the last war until the start of its relative decline in the 1970s. However silk finishing is still a major industry and, although most of the factories have moved out beyond the city’s periphery, training and employment of textile designers is as important now as it was back in the 1930s.
The city had also become the centre of activities of some young and highly innovative architects who shared Terragni’s interest in the ideas of modernism born out of the Italian Futurists whose architectural vision had been codified by Como’s own Antonio Sant’Elia who died tragically young in the First World War.
Terragni and his contemporaries like Pietro Lingeri (see the artists’ houses on Isola Comacina) named their style as ‘rationalist’ seeking to minimise all unnecessary or non-functional elements to focus on form and spatial structures. The contrast between this new rationalism and the contemporary eclectic fashion, with its numerous decorative elements, could not have been starker as the photo above shows.
Art and Architecture
Terragni’s vision for the Casa del Fascio did not just cover the internal and external architecture but also furniture design and the internal and external artistic decoration. He himself designed the chairs for the board room but asked Mario Radice to decorate the walls with a bold series of abstract frescoes.
Radice’s design left space for a full-sized photographic image of Mussolini to be displayed prominently behind the head of the table. This led to the frescoes becoming a target of anti-fascist revenge once the regime had collapsed in 1945 when the building was taken over as the local headquarters of the Communist Party. The frescoes were destroyed but have since been restored and the space previously occupied by the image of Il Duce now bears the insignia of the Guardia di Finanza, the current occupants and custodians of the building.
Mario Radice also collaborated with another local rationalist architect, Cesare Cattaneo, in the design of the ‘Fontana di Camerlata’. This sculpture was originally produced by Cattaneo and Radice in 1935-6 for display in Milan’s Parco Sempione (behind the Castello Sforzesco) for the 6th Milan Triennale. However it was destroyed during allied bombardment of the city but it too was subsequently reproduced in 1960 at its originally intended location on the roundabout at Ca’ Merlata on the southern edge of Como. It was designed as a monument to road traffic – in line with futurist ideals and well before the growth in traffic led to associated problems outweighing advantages. The four horizontal circles were intended to house directional signs pointing the route either to Varese, Cantu, Milan or Como.
The rationalist architecture of Terragni, Lingeri, Cattaneo and others influenced the Como Group’s approach to form and structure and on simplifying those elements to ensure focus on what might be of the greatest interest or importance. This may have contributed to their interest in geometric shapes and simplified colour palettes.
Paris – the Intellectual Capital of Europe
At the same time, well away from Lake Como over the Alps, the predominance of Paris as the centre of European intellectual fervour and creative innovation was being further enhanced by the influx of progressive artists from Berlin and Eastern Europe. Amongst those artists escaping Nazi harassment in Berlin was Wassily Kandinsky, one of the pioneers and principal theorists of abstract art. Here, within the liberal spirit of the city, he continued to develop and complete an aesthetic theory that placed a primary focus on shape and colour to achieve its effect. Awareness of his work and that of other Paris-based avantgarde came to the attention of the Como Group through their links with fellow artists linked to Milan’s Galleria Il Milione, established in 1930 in the Brera district.
This gallery put on exhibitions of avantgarde artists including Kandinsky and provided a focal point for Milan-based abstract artists such as Atanasio Soldati (1893-1953) and Luigi Veronese (1908-1998). Both Manlio Rho and Mario Radice exhibited there and collaborated with the gallery to stage exhibitions of European modern art in Como, notably in an exhibition held at Villa Olmo in 1936 which included works by them and by Carla Badiali. Soldati and Veronese had travelled to Paris and both went on to join the Paris-based Abstraction Creation Group. Another frequent exhibitor at Il Milione was Osvaldo Licini (1894-1958) who had lived in Paris until his return to Le Marche in 1926. He too was involved in abstract art at the time although he interestingly went on to reject the notion of ‘rationalism’ in art. The Galleria Il Milione also had a bookshop and published a monthly newsletter ‘Il Bollettino del Milione’ which both spread interest and awareness of what was coming out of Paris as well as providing for an exchange of ideas between those artists based in Milan and those on the lake.
Art and Applied Art
Manlio Rho trained as an accountant and worked as such within the silk industry for up to fifteen years. During this time he was developing his artistic skills as a figurative artist through evening classes and by assisting in the studios of local professional fine artists. He then applied his artistic skills along with his industrial knowledge to textile design. Three out of the four core group members (Manlio Rho, Carla Badiali and Aldo Galli) would all apply their artistic skills in service to Como’s silk industry designing textiles for some of the most demanding clients in the fashion trade.
Chromatic composition and colour theory were central to the applied art of the textile designer and the most influential publication on this from Paris was the monthly ‘L’Officiel de la couleur des industries de la mode’. The cover designs shown above were undoubtedly influenced by the interest in abstract art at the time. Manlio Rho’s studies of colour applied in his abstract compositions were done in parallel with the colour combinations used in his textile designs. The recent exhibition of his work at the Museo della Seta includes examples of this direct link. What is more, Rho also applied his studies of geometric form and structure to both his fine art and to his textile designs for Parisian clients such as Givenchy.
Rho functioned successfully in the two worlds of fine art and industry through his capacity to transfer his own artistic skills and inspiration into valid industrial projects with their own set of inherent technical and financial constraints.
Como’s Artist Studios
The historic centre of Como is contained within the medieval city walls and the lakefront – an area encapsulating a grid of narrow cobbled streets offering quick and easy access to all points on foot or bike. Within this confined space were located most of the key artists studios at the time. Giuseppe Terragni’s studio was on Via Independenza. Manlio Rho’s studio was nearby on Via Porta. Both these studios were centres for the free exchange of ideas within a relatively close circle of friends and associates. Maybe the contained geography of the city and the ease in which colleagues could meet and share their innovative ideas on architecture, art and design helped nurture the birth of the Como Group. All of the artists had a range of interests and skills so not only did most also work on textile designs but they maintained an interest in sculpture and architecture. The architects for their part were also interested in fine art and design. Terragni himself was a reasonably accomplished figurative painter. This studio structure in Como had not only been critical in teaching this new generation the fundamental skills of painting but led also to the propagation of the new ideas. For example Manlio Rho encouraged Carla Badiali when she was working in his studio to undertake her first studies in abstract art. Her success may well then have encouraged Rho himself and Mario Radice to follow similar paths. Aldo Galli developed his particular ideas and interests once he was working in the studio set up by Carla. A second generation of artists like Alvaro Molteni (1920-2015) also came out of Carla’s studio.
From Figurative to Abstract Art
All the members of the Como Group learnt their artistic skills traditionally through the disciplines of figurative painting. Nor did they later abandon interest and application of the skills in perspective and projection born out of the Renaissance. They saw their interest in geometric and mathematical composition as deriving from originators like Piero della Francesca. It appears though that it may well have been Carla Badiali to be the first to make the switch from figurative to abstract output by taking up and working on the ideas emanating from Manlio Rho’s studio. A contemporary commentator Luigi Zoccoli stated the following;
‘Employed as a textile designer at the Ditta Castelli and Bari from 1927 to 1932, she had already been devoting herself to painting, having contacts with Como artists. It was one of these, Manlio Rho, who in the year before she resigned from Castelli and Bari  urged her to try some initial abstract studies developing on the experiences of Soldati, Veronese and Licini’ (Members of the Milan-based Il Milione group).
If Zoccoli is correct then Carla must be considered the founding member of the abstract group and the one whose initial actions encouraged both Manlio Rho and Mario Radice themselves to move over from figurative art in the following year. She went on to establish her own textile design studio in that same year out of which would later emerge the final core member of the group – Aldo Galli.
Carla Badiali’s Studio
Unlike Manlio Rho, Carla Badiali never sought to incorporate her abstract compositions into her textile designs. The two remained entirely separate activities but both flourished freely within her studio which operated from 1932 until 1963 with a period of closure due to the war from 1943 until 1948. Her studio was immensely successful and over the years produced a series of iconic designs for the Paris-based fashion houses. She ran the studio in a unique way always maintaining a rigid demarcation between fine art and design. Her custom was to bring a halt to all design work mid-afternoon, and to dedicate the rest of the day to fine art. She took pains to ensure that the working environment was conducive to creative reflection by providing a tranquil somewhat otherworldly atmosphere with classical music playing softly in the background. No doubt this sensitivity to the quality of the working environment was appreciated by the last core member of the Como Group – Aldo Galli.
Aldo’s talents and his importance as an abstract artist were recognised much later than those of the others. His first personal exhibition was not held until the 33rd Venice Biennale held in 1966 even though his personal move from figurative to abstract art started in 1937. He had moved back from Milan to Como in 1932 to become quickly acquainted with Manlio Rho and Carla Badiali. As with Carla, his initial exploration of abstract art was through sculpture. Aldo had originally wished to train as an architect but his precarious financial situation prevented this from happening. He was never as financially secure as the other members of the group and this led him to taking on a number of applied art activities in addition to textile design such as picture restoration before gaining a belated recognition for his fine art. He learnt his craft as a building decorator and restorer through evening classes. He then gained further knowledge of fine art techniques when working as a textile designer for Carla and profiting from her studio’s parallel interest in abstract art.
Why here in Como?
In attempting to answer the question, why here in Como, we have identified a) the heritage of rationalist architecture b) the influence of the silk industry c) the geographic proximity of Milan and the cultural and commercial links with Paris and d) the very compactness of Como with the easy transfer of ideas and influences across the studios. However these factors do not entirely explain the concentration of individual talent within such a small city. A partial answer to this might lie in the educational and training opportunities available locally.
None of the members of the Como Group came out of the established art academies like the renowned Accademia della Brera in Milan. They were all more or less self-taught taking advantage of both formal and informal sources of additional training, to supplement skills gained in the applied art of textile design. The teaching of textile design had been established in Como from the end of the 1800s. Carla Badiali attended the Istituto di Setificio in 1923 to learn design and then went on to extend her fine art skills by ‘sitting with Nellie’, in other words, learning directly from experts. As mentioned previously, Manlio Rho trained and worked as an accountant. Even though he came to teach design at the Istituto Setificio in later years, he learnt his artistic skills through evening classes and supplementary lessons at the Istituto Carducci in Viale Cavallotti. The Istituto Carducci, still open today, was set up by a silk industrialist Enrico Musa in 1903. Its aim was, and still is, to provide access to general culture and vocational disciplines for the local population. Here he attended both drawing classes and a course for what was described as the ‘decorative industries’ which included modules on perspective, the geometric aspects of planes and solids, projections as well as figurative drawing.
Aldo Galli instead started by taking evening classes at the Accademia della Brera in building decoration where he learnt and applied a knowledge of classical design emblems. He applied these skills working on some of the decorative features of Milan’s Stazione Centrale. His name is now given to the Como branch of the IED (European Institute of Design) where students can study some of the skills he acquired in his individual way such as design and picture restoration.
So most of these artists had a formal education that covered aspects of applied art, primarily textile design. Their skills in fine art were mainly acquired by ‘sitting with Nellie’ – working and learning in the studios of local established figurative artists.
Politics and Abstract Art
In France and Germany, abstract art and other avantgarde movements of the 1930s had traditionally been associated with left-wing politics, hence the Nazi denunciation of ‘decadent’ art. However in Italy and Como, the art appeared either apolitical, or, as in the case of Mario Radice’s frescoes, was denounced by the left due to collaboration with the fascist regime. Giuseppe Terragni’s brother Attilio was appointed ‘Podestà’ of Como in 1934. The Podestà was essentially the city mayor – the un-elected central government’s local ruling representative. No doubt this political connection helped Giuseppe gain his commissions, but his association with the fascist regime led to a post-war reaction on the left that led to a delay in the full recognition of his skills and significance as a modernist architect. Carla Badiali however was a committed anti-fascist. Her studio had closed down from the moment of Nazi occupation in 1943 until after the war. She moved her studio to Milan where she associated closely with the resistance and used her figurative skills to falsify documents to aid escaping Jews and political dissidents. There in 1944 she married Alessandro Nahmias, a long time friend from a Jewish family in Como. He had gone underground working for the resistance in Milan. The couple were captured later that year and he was deported to Mauthausen labour camp whilst Carla was imprisoned in Milan’s San Vittore Prison from which she later managed to escape by feigning illness. Alessandro was one of the few deportees to Mauthausen who returned alive but in ill-health to Italy after the war. Carla reopened her studio in Como in 1948.
The combination of a set of circumstances and people in a specific place and time to produce a phenomenon like the Como Group has to be considered rare and its occurrence must ultimately be as unpredictable as a win on the lottery. Como had its cultural and industrial background which no doubt went some way to facilitating the rise of talent. The individual artists were all highly committed and talented. The scope for learning and the opportunities to share ideas were plentiful. These days Como may be better known internationally for its tourism based on the glories of the local landscape. Yet this – the one dimension mostly ignored by the abstract artists – is only one of this city’s multi-faceted appeal. No doubt, like the hoard of roman gold unearthed here recently, the city will come to reveal even more surprises to me as time passes.
Acknowledgments and Further Information
My thanks go to Carlo Pozzoni (Carlo Pozzoni Fotoeditore) for his advice on where to learn more about the group.
Luigi Cavadini is a true expert and gave his time freely and generously. His studio on Via Natta houses a large library on art and architecture of great value to researchers. The website (http://www.uessearte.it/) details many of his publications and current activities.
More information on textile design is available from the Museo Didattico della Seta on Via Castelnuovo 9, and from the Fondazione Antonio Ratti at Villa Sucota, Via per Cernobbio 19, Como.
The top floor in the Pinacoteca Civica di Como on Via Diaz 84, Como houses a collection of 20th century art from Como with examples of the work of all four Como Group members.
I did not know about the abstract artists of Como, but am particularly interested in the houses of Como artists on Isola Comancina. Is there some information with pictures about these houses?
The ‘case per artisti’ on Isola Comacina were designed by the rationalist architect Pietro Lingeri who was also responsible for a number of other modernist buildings around Tremezzina. This link is the nmost informative I have found. https://isola-comacina.it/en/the-island/interactive-map/houses-for-artists-in-rationalist-style/
Lingeri formed part of the rationalist group of local artists that included Giuseppe Terragni and they in turn formed part of the same aesthetic movement that included the local abstract artists – all quite impressive for a town of about 60,000 inhabitants at the time!