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The Mystery of the Infinite

Giorgio de Chirico: Greece is a country with lines that are just right. Nothing is too high or too low. It seems to be a country born and grown in a greenhouse. The ocean and the Alps are far from Greece. Even the sky and the sea are never too blue. It seems like a light blanket of grey covers the whole country. The mountains are never too high. One always has the impression that one could easily walk everywhere by foot. The rivers are never too wide and there are streams that invite one to stroll on their banks while meditating on philosophy. This is how the Ilissos was. I say “was” because it no longer exists. It used to flow through Athens and on clear summer evenings, Socrates would walk along it in the company of Aspasia, the intellectual courtesan, speaking and discussing questions of being and becoming.

Please, Maestro, where are we?

We find ourselves in a place close to Athens called Vugliagmeni. Vugliagmeni means “sunk”. To tell you the truth I don’t see anything sunken in this place, but that is what it is called. There is a lovely landscape, a beautiful port, beautiful beaches, a fine hotel called Astir, and so, here we are.

Are you happy to be in Greece?

Yes, I am happy. I am happy in other places also. I am always happy, I have the sickness of happiness.

In your autobiography you mention how the beauty of Greece has impressed you since you were a child.

Yes, I was impressed with the beauty of a city called Volos, which according to mythology is the city from where the Argonaut’s set sail. It is a beautiful white city on the sea with Mount Pelion behind, with villages that are like white spots. It is beautiful, something I have never seen… yes, I’ve seen villages on mountains in other countries, but not as they are in Volos.

Did you live long in Volos?

No, I didn’t live very long in Volos because my father was building the railway there, but the direction was Athens. I lived there a few years and then we lived in Athens.

What natural beauty and architectural beauty struck you the most about Greece and Athens?

Yes, architectural beauty, but especially nature, because you see, it is Greece’s nature that is its beauty, a beauty in which nothing is ever exaggerated.

There were the beautiful mornings when you went fishing with your brother.

Yes, sometimes, when the weather was nice we went fishing. We went with my mother and two helpers who worked with my father at the railway company. We went fishing, but with lines, not nets.

Where you a good fisherman then?

Good? No, how could I have been? I don’t know, I just dropped the line and sometimes a fish would bite. At the time I was less sensitive, I couldn’t fish now because the idea of taking an animal, even one not close to us like a fish, and make it die of asphyxiation, is something I wouldn’t want to do. I guess I am more sensitive now than I was then.

Did you go with your father to see museums and works of art?

Yes, we went once and a while, even to the Acropolis, but my father was always busy. We went on other kinds of outings, but I mostly visited museums on my own.

Praxiteles’ Hermes is in the Olympia Museum.

I went to the Olympia museum with students of an art school called the Polytechnic. I was struck by the temple. I remember that, walking beside the temple, I saw Praxiteles’ Hermes in the museum through a window. I found it intriguing because it didn’t have the usual feel of a museum, rather it had something almost homelike about it. But a strange hominess, sort of metaphysical. The sculpture of the Greek classic period is beautiful. I like the classics more than the primitives.

Did you do classical studies?

No, I can’t say I did… I am self-taught. I never attended school. In Greece, my father hired various teachers.

What about drawing?

Yes, I studied drawing once. I had a teacher in Volos. A young Greek but from Venice, who spoke Italian with a Venetian accent. And later, in Athens, I attended the Polytechnic where I took a drawing class, in black and white, for a year and a half.

Then, you left Greece when you were 12 or 13.

No, I was older, almost 17, 16 1/2, more or less.

Tell me Maestro, do you find it correct when it is said that there is a Mediterranean influence in your work?

There is a legend that my painting is inspired by ancient Greece because in a few paintings I made of horses, which I entitled “Horses on the Aegean Shore” etc, I almost always put hills or rocky shores above which I painted ruins of temples. On the ground in front of the horses I also put pieces of columns. But once a legend is born, it is hard to die.

Do you think these exercises are useful?

They are essential. I don’t think these exercises are done in art academies any more. Nowadays, there is no education in art academies. There are art academies in every country, of sculpture, painting, but I think the students don’t learn anything in these schools. They would learn the same if they stayed and drew at home.

So, when you have a notebook and a pencil, as you do now, here under the Pantheon, you immediately feel the need to…

Yes, to make some sketches, some notes.

You mean, it is a way to keep in shape. Do you also do this to better understand a subject?

Yes, yes, Once upon a time painters always carried a notebook and a pencil in their pocket in order to make sketches and take notes. It is a habit that is lost now.

Do you paint a lot, do you draw or paint everyday?

Yes of course, unless I am sick, or busy or very tired. Although painting is not something that is tiring.

How do you feel here Maestro?

Ah, very well. I haven’t been here for many years, but it is still the same and its classic beauty is still as awe-inspiring as ever.

How many times have you dreamt of returning here?

Oh, dreamt… maybe 5 or 6 times. I don’t remember exactly. But yes, I did dream about returning.

You dream a lot because you are such an artist.

Yes, I dream. I dream while sleeping.

Please, Maestro, a lot of people say you are standoffish, that you don’t like contact with people. But here you are in the middle of this crowd, the traffic, under this strong sun. How is that? Did you make and exception for Athens?

No, I am not standoffish. This is a rumour that has been spread in order to scare away potential buyers.

Have you ever painted the Pantheon?

Specifically the Pantheon, no. But I painted Athens with the Acropolis and even the Licabetto mountain where there is a convent of monks, from where one sees the Acropolis. 

Does the Acropolis represent the spirit of Greece?

Oh yes, precisely the spirit. The name Pantheon comes from “partheneia” which means virgin in Greek, because it was dedicated to Minerva – Pallas Athena – who was a virgin goddess. She was only interested in the arts, war and sciences.

What do you think of the Pantheon?

It’s good.

Will you be staying here long?

No, I will be staying about 8 days and then I will go to Venice, where I will stay for 10-15 days.

Where you will wait for us.

Where I will wait for you and where you will ask me again if I was born in Greece.

Well, we will also speak about Venice.

We will speak about Venice, but always adding that I was born in Greece. An airplane is passing.

Maestro, this place is beautiful but there is an airport nearby.

Yes, airplanes pass now and then but they don’t disturb me, they keep on even in the night, but they don’t disturb me.

You sleep deeply.

I sleep a lot and very well.

You have said that on some mornings when you are in a state of semi-sleep you have visions.

I have visions while in a state of semi-sleep in the morning and also in the evening.

You consider yourself a visionary…

I am indeed rich in psychic, mental phenomena, etc. Yes, it could be that I am a visionary.

Pardon me if I joke a bit, or am ironic, but I see that you are always ready to make jokes, to joke around.

Joking, I say the truth.

In any case, Maestro, you must appreciate the fact that we haven’t asked you what you think about modern painting, about Picasso. We avoided…

No, no, I cannot answer as I am bound by a professional code of silence.

In your painting, which we could say has a classic inspiration, in which there is a certain kind of serenity, joy and balance, in the Italian Piazzas is the element of melancholy already present?

Yes, there is a melancholy with very specific origins, which came to me from reading the works of Frederick Nietzsche, who had… he loved Italy, especially Turin. He found a Metaphysical sense, a feeling of tranquillity, of serenity in Turin, especially in the autumn, which can’t be found in other cities. And when I went to Turin for the first time, I felt this feeling Nietzsche spoke of.

Interview granted to Franco Simongini, Athens 1973.