Sea Study II, 2020, oil on paper, 5 x 5 inches
Sarrantonio: A Reflection of Italian Heritage
When I was preparing for my first visit to Italy, my wife, Ann, and I visited my Italian grandmother, excited to tell her about our trip. She started yelling at me, “Don’t go! Don’t go! There’s nothing there for you! Don’t go!” I realized that my grandparents had left behind a life of hardship in the hills of Abruzzi and worked hard so their children would not experience the deprivation that Italy meant to them. Living in Astoria, Queens, they had no interest in the life they had left behind. My planned trip seemed like a betrayal to her.
Of course, we fell in love with Rome immediately. Visiting friends who were living in there, we were able to avoid many of the superficial experiences of tourist life, instead living in an apartment in a residential area, cooking meals at home, and enjoying the sounds, smells, and sights of the endlessly entertaining life of Rome. We also visited Florence, Venice, and Assisi on this first trip.
I was always attracted to Italian art. In our suburban home in the cultural wasteland of Long Island there were three art books: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and (incongruously) Velasquez. I spent hours with these books and embarked on an oil copy on cardboard of The Last Supper when I was 11 or 12 years old (it could be generously described as a disaster). Trips to Italy were always art focused for me, including “pilgrimages” to visit The Last Supper in Milan and Giotto’s Arena chapel in Padua. I was never disappointed in these experiences. My interest in Italian art reached back in time to Classical Rome, Etruscan and Medieval Art and forward to Baroque and Modern. One of the many experiences that I will not forget was sitting in the Museo Nazionale Palazzo Massimo surrounded by the four walls of the Garden Fresco from the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta (First Century B.C.). The modern lighting, compressed into a matter of minutes, is engineered to mimic the changing natural light that would have bathed the room in the course of a day. Watching the warm light of a Roman day transform into the cooler, darker values of late afternoon into evening was a magical and transportive experience.
On a visit to the village of my ancestors in Abruzzi I met my grandfather’s sister (he had not seen her since he left at 19, when she was 16) and I was pleased to find that my lineage going back at least seven generations were all shepherds. The landscape was not unlike the rocky hills of the Shawangunks [the southeastern edge of the Catskills] near where I now live, and the hard life that was evident there helped me understand my grandmother’s dismay at our plans to visit.
Returning to my own practice, what I think I strive for and find inspiration for in Italian Art is a sense of the timeless. When I look at Masaccio and other masters I see echoes of both Classical and Modern Art. There is no isolation in a time period. A dear friend recently compared my seascapes to Morandi which I consider high praise indeed, and perhaps a reflection of Italian heritage.
Sea Study III, 2020, oil on paper, 5 x 5 inches
Sea Study IV, 2020, oil on paper, 5 x 5 inches
Thomas Sarrantonio in the studio