Flavio Costantini was born in Rome on 21st September, exactly sixty years after Herbert George Wells. When, during the war, he became a young utopian influenced by the books of the English writer he was pleased by the coincidence, finding it “particularly meaningful”.
His mother, a Roman housewife, kept a record of all her dead relatives. Every evening she opened the book she prayed for each of them, naming them one by one. From time to time the book was updated. “I was afraid of becoming one of them!”
His father, from Osimo, worked for the INA insurance company; his hobby was painting. “He was an amateur painter, he painted on everything using oils.”
Little Flavio spent his time at home playing with cut-out newspapers. He kept diaries, decorating them with photos, collage, and drawings — like the Giamburrasca chronicles.
Apart from one little incident Flavio had a happy childhood, as we can read in his diary of 1937: “Dear diary, today Topolino has not arrived. I think the postman took it”. He is still convinced of the fact.
Since the age of seven he has had fears he still cannot explain: “the house walls in Rome were plenty of writings and dirty drawings. On the walls near my house there were also my Xs. When I was on my way to school I used to write half X and I thought: if I come back from school alive, I’ll write the second half of the X.”
The first books were Salgari, Conrad, Stevenson, Kipling and the great Russian writers.
He attended the Liceo Tasso “the best high school in Rome” for two years, but had to give it up when he failed his Latin and French exams: his mother decided to send him to the Istituto Nautico (nautical high school) “the worst high school in Rome”.
A familiar network of affection and attention surrounded and protected him. His luck protected him from many of the hardships of war. The presence of some German units assured gas, electricity and water supply to all the area, while the other areas of Rome had to do without.
He had few traumatic memories. One of them was the bombing of San Paolo where his school was located. “When the bombs started falling, my friends threw themselves on the bank of the river Tevere, while I started running along via Ostiense, from the school to the Basilica, I thought they would not bomb there. I looked like Dordoni. I found shelter in a confessional.”
One day his mother was sewing in front of the window as always. Outside swallows were darting in the sky, family books were in the bookcase, his father’s painting were on the walls, the silence was broken just by the noise of the sewing machine. Suddenly the young Flavio noticed a detail out of tune in the perfect family picture: a stretch mark in his mother’s stockings. He saw it and felt suddenly unhappy.
After six years of war, the stretch mark in his mother look showed him human frailty, revealed the occurring decline. A little imperfection and here comes the night.
In the summer of 1945 he saw Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend”. The delirium tremens scene — the hole in the wall, the rat, the bat, and the blood on the wall — shocked him. “The hallucination of the bat devouring the rat took me to the peak of the breakdown I had been suffering for long. He left the cinema as Ray Milland was screaming. That day Rome was silent and semi-destroyed. “In via Tritone I felt dizzy. I did not know what to do”.
He ran home! Up San Nicola da Tolentino as far as via Bissolati and left, then right into via Sallustriana to the number 29, the entrance was open and he reached his apartment door. After 110 steps he rang the door but nobody answered. The house was empty and he was exhausted. He knocked on a neighbour’s door: “Help me because I don’t know what to do”
What struck Costantini that day was the realization of human loneliness in this meaningless world. The perception of loneliness is added to the perception of decline and lack of meaning. It is not the best option for an eighteen-year-old atheist. He felt hopeless, looked out of a window and thought about a girl who, years before had thrown herself out into the emptiness. “She’s calling me”, he thought. But suicide is never the solution, it is part of the problem. The solution is somewhere else. “I was saved by the naval academy and the sea”.
In 1946, having received his Sea Captain’d ticket, he did his military service at Livorno Naval Academy where he remained until 1948, then went to sea. Discharged in 1950 he returned to Rome worked for a short time as a cashier in an electronics company. In September 1951, thanks to his father’s connections, he found a position on the tanker Rapallo, on which he sailed all over the world.
“I had the opportunity to see places that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise: Danzig for example. Who ever thought to go to that grey and bombed city? Neither I would have seen New York. It is a tough city. It scared me but I managed to visit it because I knew that at night I would have gone back to my cabin, it was like going back home. I felt like a snail, travelling around with my house on me”.
No doubt the academy and the Navy had a therapeutic role: strict rules and hierarchy created a world around him that protected him from emptiness but couldn’t make up for it.
True “salvation”, moral long-lasting salvation, came in 1954, during his last journey. He started his first “little drawings”, occasioned by a reading of Franz Kafka.
His cabin on the Driade was very small — a bed, a washbasin, a table, a chair, a small wardrobe and a bedside table. Costantini had found his own space: functional and far away from the emptiness of via del Tritone. He was comfortable there and he wouldn’t get out if not for literature.
The horror in Kafka is dense and with unlimited consequences. Costantini read his work and illustrated some paragraphs, as he did when he was a child in his diaries.
Costantini’s first works, in black and white, spring from the pages of Kafka. The intimate discipline of art followed the exterior discipline of the Navy. What Costantini considered a hobby was to become the focus of his life. He never stopped drawing. From that moment he started building walls of order, harmony and proportions. Black borders surrounded every space. In his very violent paintings everything had to be perfect.
The walls of his living room are white, the windows are wide; light strikes the bookcase where the collection Formìggini stands out. On a wooden bedside table there are family pictures and a chimera, tempera and collage, dedicated to his wife, Wanda. On the wall there is an oil of a bullfight and three “anarchist” prints “Les Travailleurs de la Nuit”, “Almereyda”, “Nogent-sur-Marne”. Everything is in order, outside swallows dart in the sky. “In my paintings everything must be perfect”
In 1956 he setup the Firma Studio with Bernazzoli, Veruggio and Biassoni. Since he had never been interested in marketing and nobody thought he could do it, in the early days he dealt with administration and cash flow, doing occasional “little drawings” for Shell and Esso already clients of the Studio.
He became famous with Shell magazine no. 1 in 1957, who published his work called “America” on the cover. It illustrated a desolated and complex New York. The prestigious Swiss magazine Grafis published this illustration on the international annual of the best drawings. “The only drawing I made was chosen. The other illustrators perhaps took it badly. They said: it is impossible — he is an accountant!”
In 1959 he went to Barcelona. “I hate tourism, I like going to places if I have something to do there. In fact in Barcelona I spent my time in a café.” The only place he visited was the Plaza de Toros to watch the Corrida. “I am for the bullfighter. Try to confront a bull!”
Back in Italy he started painting Tauromachias in which the bullfighter is almost always defeated. The corrida for him is the performance of violence and abuse. The bull represents evil and fascism. “If it was red,” he says now “I would have been better”.
During the 60s he worked with the magazine “Italsider”, painting in his studio, basing his work on photographs took in the factory.
In 1962 Costantini painted a large canvas for a group exhibition organized by Finsider at Sokolniki Park in Moscow, and took the opportunity to visit USSR. He spent entire days walking around with Luzzati. “Moscow was an enormous colorless village, in spite of the polychrome grandeur of the Red Square”. Streets were crowded with people who looked “strangely silent, not happy nor miserable”. There were big cars with curtained windows driving around; the general impression was that the revolution was over.
Back in Italy he tried starting again his tauromachias but he found it difficult. He painted Landru. This temper is the first of the “anarchists cycle”: the serial murderer is the “topos” of the concept “one against all the others”. He overcame the contraposition good/evil, here we find something that really moves Costantini: the fight of the individual against the society.
In the same period he read Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge Through the pages of the first chapter of this book, the old illusion grew inside Costantini: the anarchism.
“I started to promote the idea of anarchism as far as I could.”
He was interested in humans and their actions more than in ideas. Who are Caserio, Bresci, Angiolillo, Ravachol, Bonnot and his group? Where are they from?
Costantini wanted to know everything about them and began looking for documentation at the historical police archive in the Quai des Orfévres in Paris, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and at the Archivio di Stato in Rome where he studied magazines and newspapers of the time.
But this is not enough and so he paints. In this way a meticulous reconstruction of facts, scientific and concrete flows into the modern concept of subverted perspective and ungraspable mystery.
Ravachol in prison, a step from the gallows, Bonnot in Choisy-le-Roi, a step from the final battle, they stare at us, impassively. They are impenetrable like sacred icons.
Although our questions won’t be answered, we perceive, thanks to art, un peu de l’ame des bandits.
The anarchist series of prints lasts until 1979, when Costantini began work on a painting about the execution of the Romanov family. What he discovers moves him to the point that he stops believing in the revolutionary illusion.
He returns to his bourgeois culture. “ I do not trust anyone who wants to change the world. I do not trust ideas, in general. People who love an idea very much cannot love the others”.
The massacre of the family of the Tsar is not represented in Costantini’s paintings: the room is clean and empty. The broken wall shows us that harmony is lost forever. What remains is a world of shadows. Emptiness and silence. With the Ipatiev house individuals disappear from Costantini paintings, leaving space to a cruel light that submerges everything like a tide. What we find in the paintings of the Ipatiev House, Tobolsk and Tzarskoie Selo is the submerged world of dead ideals.
In 1982 it was the turn of Titanic. After the almost monochrome Ipatiev house, we find the multicolored ship wreckage. As happened with Franz Kafka and Victor Serge, the cue is literature.
This time everything starts from A Night to Remember by Walter Lord: the detailed description of the last 180 minutes of the unsinkable ship that sank, during her official voyage.
The symbolic strength of the tragedy of the Titanic captures Costantini’s imagination. The metaphor is simple: Titan challenged the gods and lost.
The effort of individuals to dominate nature and their destiny are useless: an entire culture sinks.
Admiring the elegance of the liberty rooms of the ship, the vanishing points of her desert deck, we feel lost in a maze where something terrible is happening. The end is near; we can do nothing but wait, like the duchesses of Tzarskoie Selo and of Tobolsk.
A suspended atmosphere reminds us of Kafka: the anticipation of our punishment for being alive.
In 2008 he works at the murdering of citizen Marat: “It is wrong to say that The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters. The truth is that the Watch of Reason Brings Forth Monsters!”
He returns to organic figurative and back to blood. The figure is Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday; the blood is that of Jean-Paul Marat. The conflict between individual and society, so dear to Costantini, returns.
Charlotte Corday represents herself; Marat represents the Revolution. The former is an individual the latter is a mass symbol. To Costantini, Corday is like Ravachol: she strikes a tribune, he strikes a procurator, and both will die for the good of society.
Costantini denies the value of power, because it is always domineering, even if it is the power of the revolution.
Sometimes he still paints clear sea landscapes like pleasant memories of youth. Dawns and sunsets are still and silent, sailing ships sail on a flat sea above the Titanic. These works evoke a deep feeling of nostalgia. The harbours are all behind us, we land no more, and we can only follow the wind.
He sailed in the Navy and with the merchant navy; he was never a good sailor he says because he used to stand spellbound watching the ocean and the clouds.