Saturday, 11 December 2010

Tranquillo Marangoni (1912 - 1992): the school of subversion

The Italian artist Tranquillo Marangoni received the kind of training that artists rarely do. Born in the north-eastern town of Pozzuolo del Friuli he became acquainted with woodworking tools through his father and first went on to make furniture then skis. Although he had always drawn, his only formal art education was as a topographer in the Italian army during his national service in 1933 - 1934. He was eventually encouraged to take up wood-engraving by friends during the war and he made his own tools and set up a studio in 1942. How much this was a front I don't know but he certainly then went on to test his skills in a very crucial way. He first made stamps to be used on the kind of false identity card you can see below (the partisan in the photograph had the Jewish name Finzi).

This certainly puts a different slant on ex libris which he also began to make. In addition to stamps he also forged German orders and passes for the use of both partisans and Italian soldiers on the Eastern Front. His 'Piccolo egoista' of 1948, at the head of the post, is only four years after the forged document (I'm not suggesting Marangoni made that particular stamp) and is a classic example of what has been called neo-realism. Yet like almost everyone on the post-war scene in Italy, Marangoni's inventiveness was not to be circumscribed by the political conditions of the 1940s or early 1950s.
Gianni Mantero commissioned this ex libris in the same year and it displays that welter of imagery the Italians have at their disposal: classicism, Catholicism and cubism, amongst them. They are all there in unholy and vigourous alliance. In fact, he had tried this image out once before and this is by far the more successful. The firm depiction of the face and beard are particularly good. (Yes, it's one of mine!)

Outside of Italy he is probably best known for these ex libris now. He produced alot. The architect Mantero commissioned hundreds of them from various artists. But Marangoni also made prints like this one of a press (below). And for all the variety of his work, everything is touched with this same intense physicality and complexity. Everything, with him, interlocks and everything sits firmly in the world we live in.

Even so it is an uncanny piece of equipment. He manages to depict what he sees and also suggest something else - a world of real involvement and inquisition. Although his never makes crude statements the man naked on the theatre table has been diagnosed with something possibly the doctors easing on their gloves cannot cure. His drama, first and foremost, is the drama of the human body and all that it contains.

His art is both diagnostic and confessional - get the curtain. So, it all the more suprising to see him creating panels for a liner. We are reminded that Italy has always been a land of both seafarers and frescoes.

He made these designs for the ships interiors in 1958, the same year that he produced this commemorative stamp. It introduces yet another crucial image in Marangoni: the tree.

They are very reminiscent here of the British post-war Romantics. But the stylisation is of a different order: he is analysing the way the world works not regurgitating Samuel Palmer.This is an urban space of interaction even though all of the figures are made of stone. All the other dimensions are here: time, light, public heroism. I think only someone born near the Mediterranean could have produced an art like this.

The sixties see him becoming more refined and perhaps taking a more historical view. In 1967 he became principal of the Liceo Artistico in Genoa, keeping the post untill he was 69 in 1982.

These later images are easier on the eye; they don't make the same demands on our attention. And there are plenty more where these came from. If people want to see more of Tranquillo Marangoni, an essential stop-off is this site which is stuffed with images, interesting photos and other details about him. I think it's run by his son and is in Italian only. For those who don't read Italian, click on Opere (Works) on the left and a list will come up on the right, including stampe (prints), francobolli (stamps), disegni (drawings) etc. Most of these images come from there, so I must credit Aldo Marangoni.
Nota bene: unsigned ex libris like this one come up on both Italian and Austrian ebay. Others are initialled or signed like the one for G Mantero (and may go for around 10€ - sometimes more, sometimes less). The unsigned ones may be re-strikes ie not printed by the artist himself but nevertheless from his blocks. I'm not sure. But they can be very inexpensive and are also very nice to own.


  1. I had to read it twice and look at the pictures four times. There is a lot going on in them and details are extraordinairy. Will visit the link afterwards ofcourse.
    the friendly-ghost

  2. Interesting point. I'd forgotten that you have to get used to the way he does things. The viewpoint and his way of presenting imagery is complex.

  3. Do you have a view as to why Marangoni always engraved in unsymmetrical shapes? It's one of the things that has always struck me as unusual (and not necessarily sympathetic) about his work.

  4. You notice when you're trimming margins that other prints aren't regular even though it isn't obvious to the eye. Bernard Rice's woodcuts are one example. With him, it was part of the truth to materials outlook. In a similar way, Marangoni wanted them to look as if they were engraved from a natural material. The effect is to help make the earlier prints looked carved - as if they were 3-dimensional. This is very true of 'Piccolo egoista'. I think it was intentional. Seaby also uses irregularity to great effect where he has the heron's beak poking over the keyblock. It makes the bird look vigourous.

    But I also lose patience with the stylisation of the wood-engravers.

  5. Inizialmente era "cubismo" puro. Le linee non sono mai parallele e convergenti, in modo di accentuare la prospettiva. I muscoli delle figure sono accentuate per dare forza al movimento. La sua vita rispecchia fedelmente la sua arte. I figlio Aldo

  6. Grazie mille, Aldo. I hope the following is a fair summary of what Aldo Marangoni, the artist's son, has written above: Tranquillo Marangoni started with a pure Cubism. Rather than engraving lines in parallel, his lines converge in order to accentuate the perspective. The strength of movement in the figures is achieved through definition of the muscles. His life and his art were the same.

  7. I have inherited a number of original prints from my late uncle who met TM when stationed in Trieste. I have been in correspondence with his son who confirms the authenticity and was able to tell me that TM designed the cover of the British Forces Christmas magazine but I don't know what to do with the prints and wonder if they have any value.