Paul Corio

Big Engine, 2020

acrylic on canvas, 71 x 53 inches

Corio: A Catholic Boy

I think that if one is a painter, one doesn’t have to have Italian ancestry in order to feel a strong connection to Italian painting—but it certainly doesn’t hurt. I grew up in a working-class community in Rhode Island that was solidly Italian American and just as solidly Roman Catholic. What little Italian I understand comes from hearing my grandmother and her many sisters speaking their Southern dialect when they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about.

My trips to Italy have always been organized around the paintings I wanted to see. One particularly memorable trip was 10 days in Rome in which the daily itinerary was exclusively dedicated to seeing all the Caravaggios there—a Baroque Easter Egg hunt that took me through the Vatican, the Capitoline, the Borghese Collection, and more churches than I can count. Judith and Holofernes made me cry. On that same trip, while roaming from site to site, I quite accidentally had a crash course in Bernini appreciation. Where else on earth could something like that happen?

And what of the terrible will that resulted in the Sistine Chapel? How could an individual do this impossible thing? And how does that will fit in with the appealing level of insouciance that struck me as an equally strong part of the culture? On the same aforementioned trip, I asked the concierge at the hotel to call the Capitoline to see if the museum would be open the day after Christmas (which was just a couple of days away). He made a call, then told me: “They don’t know yet.”

I could go on about the Renaissance and Baroque masters that I cherish: Caravaggio, Titian, Michelangelo, Veronese, Giorgione, others. I won’t, because there’s already been plenty of ink spilled about them, and it doesn’t speak to the core question of how, specifically, growing up Italian American affects the way I look at this work. It does, profoundly, and here’s how: I embraced atheism at a very early age, but I’m still a baptized, confirmed Roman Catholic. When I walked into those many Italian churches, from cavernous cathedrals to modest size spaces not so very different to the ones where I attended Mass as a child, I was instinctively aware that I belonged there, that I was part of the club. The solemn silence, the incense, the Madonnas and crucifixions and Stations of the Cross—I knew exactly where I was and there was no doubt in my mind that I was a card-carrying member.

Seeing the works in that context, as opposed to the gallery or museum setting, positions them within the framework of a culture that I am intimately connected to, which in turn connects the paintings to pasta, Novenas, and First Communions, plastic covers on furniture in order to keep it nice, ladies smoking cigarettes and drinking wine, and grumpy men who wore hats all the time. These are things that can’t be gleaned from an art history course.

Mephistophelian, 2019

acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24 inches

Desolation Angels, 2020

acrylic on canvas, 48 x 38 inches

Paul Corio