Carlo Levi’ s book, Christ Stopped at Eboli is considered one of the major literary works of the 20th century, and once translated into English in 1950, became an instant bestseller. The only thing more compelling than this book are the stories of friendship, romance and ideals behind his drawings.
It is thanks to Antonino (Nino) Milicia and curator Nino Sottile Zumbo, that 42 of these works, dubbed “Blind Visions” or Carlo Levi’s “Disegni della Cecità”, never seen before outside of Italy, are now on display at NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò.
Levi was not some sequestered political activist in an elite or academic tower; he was gregarious and charismatic. He loved being out in the streets, talking to people, listening to them and admiring them for who they are or were. He took note of their wisdom just as he had while exiled in Aliano, Basilicata in 1935.
Out of that experience came Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Einaudi, 1945) which sparked a postwar conversation on the Southern Question.
Trained as a physician, he considered himself a painter rather than a writer, yet while in Basilicata, he was pressed into serving its residents with his medical knowledge, as there were no medical services available.
According to Stanislao Pugliese, professor of modern European history and the Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies at Hofstra University, Levi studied painting in Paris, and was among those in the circle of Piero and Ada Gobetti in Torino. With other members of Giustizia e Libertà (GeL), he was arrested in 1935 and sentenced to internal exile in Basilicata. There, he encountered the peasant culture of the Mezzogiorno, an experience that would fundamentally alter Levi’s politics and vision of the world.
So committed was he toward his art, that during his concentrated and long convalescence following delicate eye surgery (Levi suffered from diabetes and a detached retina), he still managed to paint even though he was practically blind.
In 1973, while bedridden, Levi used a special wooden notebook, built with strings attached to the sides to help guide his hand when drawing or writing. He labeled it Quaderno a cancelli (fenced notebook), the name given to his final collection of prose and poetry (published posthumously by Einaudi in 1979) that virtually accompanies these blind drawings, produced with pencil, pastels and ballpoint pen.
At the opening on September 10, Milicia spoke through his profound emotions and tears, “He gave me courage, no one believed in me; and he trusted me.”
The two men met in Switzerland when Milicia was sent to welcome Levi at the train station as he was invited to address immigrant Italian workers. Milicia confided that Levi brought a sea change to his life. According to Pugliese, “Carlo Levi (1902-1975) was a member of the Turinese branch of Giustizia e Libertà. The movement, founded by Carlo Rosselli, Emilio Lussu, and Alberto Tarchiani in 1929, attracted a number of Jewish intellectuals, among them Emanuele Artom, Leone Ginzburg, and Primo Levi.”
As much as Milicia loved his wife of many years, she was unable to share his political transformation with him, which saddened him. In the meantime, Milicia spared no expense to acquire, first a sculpture of Carlo Levi and then the drawings.
Among his family members, he felt disconnected and alone, but the friendship and respect he shared with the highly educated Levi strengthened his resolve and his beliefs. With an air of mischief, he told of two other love stories. Lucia Saba, daughter of the poet and novelist, Umberto Saba, said Nino was Levi’s amante, (lover)and she stayed with him through his convalescence until she died. She then returned to her husband, Lionello Giorni, whose texts often appear next to Levi’s drawings.
Levi and Milicia’s conversation began in Switzerland; through Levi’s drawings the conversation continues and we are fortunate to be able to eavesdrop on this legacy of love.
NYU’s Casa Italiana has plans for other related events organized in conjunction with the exhibit, including a screening of the uncut version of Francesco Rosi’s adaptation of Christ Stopped at Eboli from 1979. The film recently had a successful run at the Film Forum in New York in its four-part version with new subtitles by American translator Michael Moore.
Blind Visions or Carlo Levi’s “Disegni della Cecità” will remain on display at NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò from Monday-Friday, 10 am- 6pm through December 13, 2019.
NYU (24 West 12th Street, btw 5th and 6th Ave,
New York, NY 10011) through December 13.
Brief notes about each drawing by Nino Sottile Zumbo
1| The Rose
With very light ink, Levi did this drawing [with the writing “ogni rosa è nera quando è sera” ( every rose is black at night)] when he was already blind, on February 13, 1973, at the San Domenico Clinic in Rome.
Levi has already precipitated into darkness, when the shadows of the night envelop everything.
This is the first drawing from the period of his blindness.
The darkness is crowded with disturbing memories, represented, in the drawing “Vision”, with many eyes and face fragments.
3| On Eye Disease
The face and the body are supine, the eyes diseased and bleeding.
4| Professor Bietti Performs the First Surgery
The oculist Prof. Bietti visits him. The oculist’s profile, in the drawing, is confused with the profile of a nun.
5| My Mother is Dead – 6| The Loss of My Mother
Very painful themes. Immortality for Levi, is the result of living in harmony with others and with the world. The mother is an integral part of such harmony: with her death, the harmony is shattered.
The circle (symbol of perfect harmony) that originally was one, divides itself into two.
7| Self Portrait( blue)
During the time spent at the Clinic, because of the forced immobility, Levi does not shave.
Here he represents himself bearded, shattered, and also a stranger to himself.
Possibly it’s the forest of carob trees in Alassio, a place where his family owned a house.
For Levi a landscape is also a portrait.
9 |Portrait of John Paul Berto
The beloved pupil, during Levi’s long stay at the Clinic, hands him pencils and color markers so that the maestro can draw and write with a special “quaderno a cancelli” that has been created to guide the hand over the page with assurance.
The pupil is portrayed with irony.
10| On sickness
In ancient Greek the verb diabainein is related to “diabetes”, the pathology that caused his temporary blindness.
Unusually and extremely interesting, the theory about diabetes, which is explained in the “Quaderno a cancelli”: “Diabetics are always sweet, generous with the others, live fraternally, do not place obstacles in the way of others. This explains the sweetness of their blood. On the other hand, individuals who suffer from allergies are always reacting, they always have an external enemy to fight. People with diabetes are the humble peasants, people with allergies are the powerful Lords.”
11| The Eye that Sees is Seen – 12| Eye Tortured by Light – 14| Seeing without Seeing
The color, in these drawings, is the absolute and vibrant protagonist.
The eye of someone who can see, because of a biological fate, is directly related to the external word, and therefore derives nourishment from it, the eye of the blind does not. The diseased eye is tortured internally by many colored glows. He who has become blind cannot see external reality, he can only imagine it by reference to memories.
12| The Second Surgery
To be noted: the hands and feet are in a supine position.
The light hands, almost those of a butterfly, are the hands of Prof. Bietti.
The ocular bulb is incised.
15| Graziadio, The Owl
Ironically he transfigures himself into an Owl. Graziadio is Levi’s middle name.
The Owl is the bird that can see in the darkness of the night.
Pablo Neruda once said “Carlo Levi was an owl, he had the scrutinizing eyes of the night bird”.
16| Portrait of The Mother (1)
Very intense, the drawing reminds one, and has the same intensity, as those of Amedeo Modigliani’s female portraits.
17| Lovers – 18| Lovers ( Red)
The lover, uniting himself to the beloved, discovers himself in the other. The love relationship becomes flesh and blood.
19| Narcisuss sleeping
For Levi the Narcisuss Myth, or the Myth of knowledge, has a positive resonance. Narcisuss looks at himself in the water to better know himself, to identify and differentiate himself from the rest of the world; the lover, on the contrary, discovers himself in the other( the beloved).
20| Portrait of The Mother ( 2)
Here the memory of the mother is faint, almost transparent.
21| Portrait of Linuccia Saba. She is Levi’s lover. A few pencil strokes make this portrait intriguing.
22| Carlo, Linuccia, and John Paul
The figures of the dear ones who have shared with him the entire period of blindness are in the foreground. Levi is barely visible in the background.
This portrait is more celestial than terrestrial.
24| The Five Fingers
A complex drawing: each finger represents the protagonist of a popular lullaby that tells the story of a ritual celebrated but not shared by the other members of the tribe. A picture of a captured pig, who killed it, who cooked it, who ate it. The fifth individual is the one who reported the events, thus violating the secret agreement ( his mouth is muzzled).
The faces of the Lovers form a single heart (the inspiration is probably from ”The Death of the Lovers” by Charles Baudelaire)
26| Lovers (Pink)
A detail: the color pink of the body stands for the purity of the sentiment of love.
27| Self Portrait (Owl with Glasses)
Levi is man and Owl at the same time. The glasses, prescribed by the oculist to retrain the eye, are not a natural support, they exaggerate and alter the vision of reality.
A pale and fearful lamb, destined perhaps to a votive sacrifice.
Strong colors, proud look; this animal is a conquering hero.
30|Self Portrait ( Orange)
The pastel color is probably the cause of this pleasant and intriguing image.
31| Self Portrait( Pink)
The drawing was chosen by Einaudi for the cover of the book, “Quaderno a cancelli”, published posthumously in 1979.
After the eye operation, darkness clears up, slowly Levi can see again.
The vision of the exterior world “feels delicious, fresh as a rose”( from Quaderno a Cancelli).
33| Lovers( Orange)
A relationship made by complicit looks.
33| Self Portrait( Sky Blue)
A pensive, splendid pose: the big hand, used to write and draw, encircles the forehead, his right eye is fixed on us, the looks intersect, we enter into a relationship with him.
34| Burmese Hero
The hero, once always victorious, lies on the ground wounded, with no more strength.
35| Vision of the Loss of Immortality
Levi imagines the circle, symbol of immortality, that is dividing.
An abstract landscape: maybe a fire on a mountain ridge.
37| Landscape (Alassio)
The land and the sea of Alassio.
38| Self Portrait in Profile – 39| Self Portrait, Outstretched (1) – 40| Doubled Self Portrait –
41| Self Portrait, Outstretched (2)
Informal portraits, extremely mysterious and fascinating.
42| Eye Operation
Professor Bietti’s hand advances from almost nowhere to operate on the eye.
Nino Sottile Zumbo