This September 21st was the 50th anniversary of a cultural event known as Campo Urbano – a ‘happening’ held over a single day on the streets of the historic city centre. The anniversary has recently been marked with a conference in Villa Olmo, the dedication of the display space in the town’s art gallery to one of the event’s art installations by Ugo La Pietra and an ongoing exhibition of some of the ephemera associated with the event in the de-consecrated church on Via Borgo Vico 33. This year’s Streetscape exhibition of public art installations running from October to November is also dedicated to the memory of this one day precursor to all subsequent public street art in Como. Many of the original contributing artists are still with us and some of them, including Ugo La Pietra, were present at a commemorative meeting at the Pinacoteca to review the impact of that single day 50 years ago.
All of these events made me gradually aware that Como’s Campo Urbano deserved some closer attention. It was an event still within the living memory of those of my generation in that exhilarating but brief period of youthful political and intellectual idealism which seemed to mark a release from the grey austerity of the post-war years. Como was (and perhaps still is) rather conservative politically and its youth did not catch the revolutionary fervour until a year after the street demonstrations in Paris, May 1968. This is in spite of the city’s enthusiastic participation alongside Milan and Brescia in 1848 – a fundamentally revolutionary year across Europe.
Como’s Artistic Tradition
If slow to revolt politically, Como was about to reveal itself again as a national or even international leader in the artistic world since Campo Urbano was pure innovative cultural agitprop. Como had established itself from the 1920s onwards in the vanguard of Italy’s plastic arts with the Futurist theories of Antonio Sant’Elia, the work of rationalist architects such as Giuseppe Terragni and abstract artists like Mario Radice, Manlio Rho and Carla Badiali. Our previous article on the these so-called ‘Astrattisti Comaschi‘ explores the extent of their phenomenal success and poses some reasons as to why such international talent came to be concentrated within this provincial city.
They had established a cross-fertilisation and integration of ideas uniting the disciplines of fine art, architecture and design. These talents, combined with exposure to international trends through galleries in Milan and links with Paris, put them at the forefront of artistic developments and gained them a massive national reputation. So much so that a next generation of architects, artists and designers decided to make Como their home. These included Ico Parisi who moved from Palermo to come and work in the studio of Giuseppe Terragni. He in turn worked with artists such as Mario Radice and another Como resident sculptor, Francesco Somaini to combine all three disciplines in ground-breaking buildings such as the Casa Bini on Monte Olimpino. Another artist, Giuliano Collina had also moved from Liguria to base himself in Como. Parisi, Somaini and Collina were to become key contributors to Campo Urbano.
What interested all of this next generation of artists was the possible impact their disciplines could have on revitalising the living environment in both public and private spaces. However they needed the inspirational leadership of another Como resident, the art and architecture critic Luciano Caramel, to organise Campo Urbano as a living manifesto of their ideals. This is how Fabio Cani, local Como historian and principal editor of Como’s publishing house Nodo Libri, describes the event:
‘Sunday 21st September 1969 some areas of the centre of Como were transformed by an unusual group of artists (mostly from Milan, but with a core of support and inspiration from Como) driven by fantasy and a desire to shatter the complacency of a provincial city. This was ‘Campo Urbano’.
He goes onto describe the uniqueness of the occasion as a mix of artistic activity, protest, exhibition and demonstration. It was essentially one of the most influential acts of public artistic and architectural agitprop, and even though similar events had arisen out of the atmosphere of 1968, Campo Urbano’s significance was in the quality of its organisation and the clarity and force of its message.
A catalogue of the event entitled Campo Urbano: Aesthetic Interventions in a Collective Urban Dimension, with photographs by Ugo Mulas and illustrations by graphic designer Bruno Munari, was published later giving the event a prolonged afterlife and providing scope for future academics to analyse its social as much as its artistic significance.
The main installations of the day are here described by Romy Golan, Professor of Twentieth Century Art at the City University of New York:
‘laundry hung on clotheslines across the Piazza del Duomo by Gianni Pettena, which brought the unsightly qualities of Italy’s impoverished peripheries to the city center; a wooden tunnel covered with black plastic in order to obstruct a main commercial street, by the architect Ugo La Pietra; mirrors lining the foot of the Gothic Duomo, by the architect and conceptual artist duo Mario Di Slavo and Carlo Ferrari, which created myriad reflections that unhinged the city’s most familiar monument; an invitation to the public to release pieces of folded paper from a nearby medieval tower by Munari, as an attempt to ”visualize the air”; and, finally, an artificial storm by the Paduan and Milanese collectives Gruppo T and Gruppo N, who enlisted local firemen and electricians to simulate falling rain and lightning with synchronized loudspeakers and projectors. Nothing could be more “presentist” than this.’
Fabio Cani describes the locals reactions to the event as either ‘shocked or fascinated, prompted to discussion or just disgusted, unable to comprehend and turning their backs on it or getting fully involved.’
However much the day’s event has subsequently been discussed, its original purpose was fairly modest, namely to stage exhibitions not in a gallery but in a public urban context alongside people who had not elected purposefully to attend or participate but were just going about their everyday lives. Simple though this now sounds, it was at the time revolutionary, iconoclastic and an idealistic act of civil protest. Like May 68, it was inclusive and egalitarian and about liberation from creative constraint, conformity and social convention.
End of A Dream
Campo Urbano was held in the September that followed on from Como’s first student protests in January 1969 – well after Paris in May 1968. Its importance in the collective memory may well be influenced by this particular timing since in retrospect it seemed to reflect the end of a brief youthful period of idealistic hopes and expectations. Soon after protests on both the extreme left and right were to rapidly degenerate into acts of terror and assassination. The Neo-Fascist atrocity in Milan’s Piazza Fontana took place a mere three months later on 12th December 1969 killing seventeen and wounding eighty eight. So started the period of bitter terror-driven civil war that came to be known as the ‘anni di piombo’ – the years of lead. Alongside the victims in Piazza Fontana lay the innocent idealism of an entire generation nurtured on the humanist and egalitarian principles that had underpinned the work of those architects, artists and designers who had been defining an aesthetic for the post-war world.
Como’s Artistic Heritage
For me, the ‘discovery’ of Campo Urbano prompted even further admiration of how the small city of Como has been able to produce such a rich artistic heritage throughout the twentieth century. It was fascinating to see how a generation following on from Terragni, Badiali, Rho and Radice was able again to take a national lead in the areas of art, architecture and design. Thanks to this, I have begun to appreciate more profoundly the influence and importance of Ico Parisi and his wife Luisa, a furniture designer who trained in the studio of Gio Ponti.
The 50s and 60s generation of Como artists differed from their forebears who were for the most part self-taught. Instead they were mostly academically trained with the Brera Academy in Milan taking a leading role. Luciano Caramel even became Vice Director of the Brera Academy later in his career. But the work of that earlier generation had now become mainstream in the art schools and so artists like Atanasio Soldati, a student at the Brera Academy and founder of the Italian form of Concretism, could cite Mario Radice as one of his major influences.
Campo Urbano’s Legacy
The long term legacy of that single day of artistic agitprop may not be so easy to discern from within our more atomised post-modern art world. It may well have brought about the annual Streetscape exhibitions of street art installations which are commissioned and placed so they refer in one way or another to their urban setting. However I believe Campo Urbano was about much more than that and in any case, even the idea of street art itself seems now to get compromised as installations acquire increasing monetary value.
Romy Golan described Campo Urbano as ‘the reorientation of contemporary art practices toward a dematerialisation of the art object and the extra-mural trespassing of the artifact into its surroundings.’ Her language points me to the danger that the more art objects ‘dematerialise’, the more dependent they become on ‘interpretation’ which in turn relies on textual descriptions that can be very obscure. That may be one of those ‘unintended consequences’ of Campo Urbano.
The legacy can also be seen in its social impact. For example, its spirit is certainly present within the annual Parada Par Tucc. This may be more street theatre than art but, now into its eleventh year, it is committed to giving visibility to the more marginalised citizens of Como with a strong belief in using art for social participation and inclusion.
Another initiative in the spirit of Campo Urbano but directed entirely to wellness and physical activity is that organised by Pratiqiamo. They are robustly non-commercial, public spirited and inclusive. They are also dedicated to reclaiming public spaces. For them, being outdoors and surrounded by nature is of primary importance hence their name Prati-Qi-Amo (translated as Fields-Qi Gong-I love) but also sounding like ‘pratichiamo’ – we practice. They like to locate their activities within Como’s different parks and public spaces with the intention of reclaiming these as places for communal enjoyment. Some of Como’s parks away from the lakefront can be somewhat neglected and certainly underused. Pratiqiamo aim to assist the reintegration of these overlooked areas back into social urban life.
These two examples might be thought of as tangential to art and architecture but I believe they, and many other similar low-key events, reflect the social impact of Campo Urbano’s revolutionary act of bringing art out of the galleries.
Cast of Characters
Collina, Giuliano: b. Intra 1938 – . Artist. Studied art at Milan’s Brera Academy. He currently holds a chair in design at Como’s Galli Academy.
La Pietra, Ugo: b. Pescara 1938 – . Artist, architect and designer. Studied architecture at the Milan Polytechnic.
Parisi, Ico (Domenico): b. Palermo 1916 – Como 1996. Artist, architect, designer. Apprenticed to the studio of Giuseppe Terragni.
Mulas, Ugo: b. Brescia 1928 – Milan 1973. Photographer. Self-taught but frequented the Brera Academy and the nearby Bar Jamaica. Photographic chronicler of Campo Urbano.
Munari, Bruno: b. Milan 1907 – Milan 1998. Artist, graphic designer. Self-taught and apprenticed to Milanese studios. One of the original founders of MAC (Movimento Arte Concreta)
Somaini, Francesco: b. Lomazzo 1926 – Como 2005. Sculptor. Studied at Milan’s Brera Academy. Member of the MAC (Movimento Arte Concreta). Collaborated with Parisi and Mario Radice in creating Casa Bini, Como.
Caramel, Luciano: b. Como 1935 – . Art and architecture historian and critic. Served as Vice Rector of Milan’s Brera Academy from 1979-1982