In 1981 Antonio Bueno began to write his autobiography which remained, alas, unfinished at his death. His recollections cover the period from his arrival in Italy, in 1940, with his mother Hannah and his brother Xavier, to the early years of the war. Here are some excerpts from this as yet unpublished manuscript.
From Chapter I (Arrival in Italy. The climate colder than the reception. Strange first impressions of Florence).
When I awake, the train is scudding rapidly through a boundless snowy landscape. Inside the carriage, for the moment, it is very warm but outside the temperature must be Siberian. Disappointment is added to fear: if at least the sun were shining! “C’est donc ça l’Italie?” I keep repeating to myself [. . .]
From Chapter II
[…] we reached the top of the cupola (editor’s note: Brunelleschi’s dome) […] From up there the entire superb city and the hills that surround it unfolded themselves, a spectacle of such beauty that even today, having for years seen it over and over again, it arouses the same amazed admiration in me as then. That first impression of Florence aroused in me a passionate love at first sight that time would never quell […] We never grew tired of wandering the streets, visiting the churches, the palazzi (editor’s note: with his brother Xavier) […] We must have covered tens of miles simply walking the rooms of the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti innumerable times. Baedeker in hand, we’d go as far as San Miniato or Fiesole Abbey.
[…] In Switzerland or France to say “étranger” [foreigner] is like saying “rascal” and whoever pronounces that word almost always accompanies it with a more or less marked grimace of contempt. In Florence terms such as “straniero” or “forestiero” had no such dishonourable connotations, on the contrary, they even seem to convey a mark of distinction. Foreigners were “tutti signori” [all gentlefolk] . And gentlefolk not only in the sense of being rich, but also in the sense of being well-mannered and civil. We were not, nor could we ever have appeared to be rich , with our lackadaisical clothes, our berets pulled down on our heads and our eternally long beards. Furthermore, we were artists, the profession par excellence of the down and out. But we were “forestieri” a word the Florentines populace pronounced as if they meant barons or marquises […]
From Chapter III
[…] We finished furnishing the place ( editor’s note: a small rented studio) by bringing in our painting paraphernalia and adorning the walls with my collection of clay pipes. In the middle of the studio there was a huge wood stove, but the premises were so large that we were never really able to heat them […] The stove was capable of warming, for short periods and at close quarters, a posing model, but it was not meant to heat such a large place. To make up for this we painted in heavy overcoats and wearing woollen gloves, cut short to leave the fingertips free. Among the various things we had brought from Paris were two pairs of boxing gloves; every now and then we would leave off painting to warm ourselves up with a little exercise.
[…] Lardera was the friend of another anti-Fascist artist, Piero Annigoni , the painter from Ticino, Togni, had already told us about[…] Togni, who was much older than us, said he was Annigoni’s pupil and took us to his studio. Annigoni, who at the time must have been about thirty, was a large, stocky young man, with two black sideburns on his full cheeks which gave him the air, not so much of a painter, as of a baritone (of which he had the voice); or rather, he did resemble a painter, but one from La Bohème.
A declared anti-Fascist and in no way afraid to make it known, a great eater, great drinker and great worker, Annigoni knew museums inside out, and not only the Italian ones but those of the whole of Europe, which he had travelled from top to bottom. We became friends immediately […]
[…] Strangely enough, while admiring many Italian painters whom I had got to know at the Louvre or the Prado and although I had come to know others of equal importance, it was the paintings of the Flemish and the Germans, relatively less numerous in Florence, which influenced my work.
[…] I worked a long time on each picture, with a view of going more deeply into the stylistic problems that interested me. But at times, when one might say it was finished I used to paint another painting on top of it to save canvas. It was Xavier, faster and more prolific than myself , who was more inclined to destroy his work in that way. We were not working either for exhibitions or posterity. And yet we worked ten hours a day, as if the time to learn at our disposal were never enough […]
From Chapter VI
[…] life in that squalid boarding house would have been lugubrious, had not our friend , Alfredo Serri, a painter and a pupil of Annigoni’s , he too older than his master, cheered us up. Extremely poor and unbelievably thin, with a huge cravat à la Lavallière , which made him look like an anarchist, he was endowed with an endless supply of good humour […]
From Chapter VII
Our new profession was the restoration of antique paintings. We had not chosen this occupation, in fact we had never even given it a thought. And yet this new job of ours not only permitted us to make ends meet for a year or so, but it was of the utmost benefit in that it allowed us to acquire new expertise […] Thus we learnt how to prepare canvasses like the artists of the Fourteenth century and cover them with many coats of glue and plaster until they became as smooth as ivory […] We began to buy coloured clays and mineral powders in certain old shops, part hardware, part chemist’s, which existed then and still exist in Florence. We learnt how to hand-grind colours on huge slabs of marble and to preserve them in jars sealed with wax.
[…] This makes it easy to understand how a painting could take weeks, even months to complete. But as we sold nothing, the stock of pictures that built up little by little in the studio became quite numerous. More often than not we acted as models to each other, seeing that it was so hard to find others, docile and patient enough. Xavier, however, got Julia to pose, as he had done in Paris.
Quite unexpectedly I too found a model : a fourteen-year-old with pig-tails (editor’s note: his future wife).
We got to know […] a Neapolitan merchant who dealt in many things, including antique paintings […] What our Neapolitan had discovered in us, especially in Xavier, was expert draughtsmen and pictorial virtuosos, so rare in painters, totally lacking in restorers.
[…] At the beginning our new trade amused us greatly. It was necessary to repaint the missing pieces in the style of the intact parts and this meant painting one day in Venetian style, the next in Flemish or French.
[…] At last we were able to offer our mother decent lodgings; there was a room for Julia too, and we could rent a piano again, […] furthermore, we were able to take up our old habit of playing together in a trio which may not have delighted the neighbours, but it gave us that kind of pleasure which listening alone can never offer […]
From Chapter IX
[…] Xavier, having got over his youthful fascination for Delacroix, was now enthralled by Courbet and by Manet’s Spanish-mannerist period. I, who desired to learn by meticulously observing reality , was mad about all the Flemish masters, from Van Ejck to Vermeer, as well as the great Spanish realists. All this was an excellent source of training, but were the works we derived from it suited to meet the approval of the public and the critics? […]
[…] after the Milan exhibition we repeated the experiment in Florence […] He (editor’s note: Giorgio De Chirico) went around the entire exhibition without a word of comment, but stopping for ages in front of each picture. This was the extraordinary thing about him that struck me: he really looked at the painting […] I had discovered his painting and his name while still a student at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris […] It was the first time I had come across a De Chirico, the picture “Piazza d’Italia” and the impression it made had been enormous […] Right there before me, in a small preparatory drawing, which seemed to encompass an immense space, was a splendid, arcane painting. But not extravagant like the works of the surrealists then in vogue, on the contrary, almost classical in all its solemn mystery […]
[…] another artist whom Xavier and myself began to frequent after the San Domenico transfer was Felice Carena, even though we were not so close with him nor did we esteem him as we did De Chirico[…] He walked slowly along the road bordering on the beautiful Valle d’Africo, in the company of a tall, lanky young man who listened with deference to what he had to say. This lanky young man, was, as I learnt later, the poet Piero Bigongiari […]
[…] It was the time when the allied bombings began to strike the cities of the north heavily, and Milan was one of the most severly hit. Besides in via Brera, the famous Il Milione gallery had been destroyed , and Ghiringhelli had to put our exhibition off until better times.
Some noted art collectors had taken refuge in the Brianza area and they invited us to spend a week or so there. That is how we got to know the Roman art collector Toninelli, a friend of the Cesatis whose guests we were, and the painter Sciltian who came every now and then to visit […] As a person we liked Sciltian and his picturesque accounts of his life amused us; with him we were able to speak French and evoke our memories as ex-Parisiens.