Painter of Light

A conversation with the Tuscan artist Mario Fani.

12 MARCH 2013,
Fuori dall'ombra, 2013, oil on canvas, cm 60 x 70, detail.
Fuori dall'ombra, 2013, oil on canvas, cm 60 x 70, detail.

A few days ago we visited Mario Fani in his studio in the Casentino valley in Tuscany to talk about his paintings.

BD: Your paintings often depict the interiors of what seem to be rather bare Tuscan country houses, simply furnished, with a few everyday objects, but glowing with an extraordinary light. Around these objects, but outside the picture frame one is aware of presences, histories, griefs: persons and voices from a world not very distant in time but now definitively lost. I know that human figures once appeared in your paintings: what led you to abandon them for ‘still lifes’?
MF: Yes, human figures did once have a place in my canvases, but one day I realized they were superfluous and that it would be more interesting to hint at them rather than show them. Once they were removed, the whole space was left to the objects, or rather things. Things now took on a life of their own and spoke of the absent persons. Things became invested with our emotions, memories and affections. In addition to being themselves and reminding us of their uses, they took on other meanings and symbolical overtones. The objects that I use as models—plates, bottles, glasses—are those I use every day in my own home. They move between kitchen and studio according to the needs of the moment. Of course, their status changes the moment ordinary, practical objects are asked to speak on my behalf. The interiors I paint are also rooms in my home, sometimes enlarged a little or multiplied, but still the space where I spend my days. I suppose you could say I am painting my own life.

BD: Luminosity plays a major role in your canvases, which often have a window or a door opening onto the sky or a stretch of countryside. Sometimes they show a shaft of light cutting obliquely through a room, falling through the legs and spindles of a chair and creating a cage of shadows on the floor.
MF: My house is on a hillside in the open country. The sun shines through the windows at all hours of the day, unimpeded (not to mention the moonlight at night). This light changes colour and intensity as the hours, days or seasons pass, suggesting scenes to me, creating a setting where absent persons can stage an invisible drama. It’s a place of expectation and of memory, awaiting someone who has perhaps already come and gone; and, as you say, everything happens elsewhere, just outside the frame as it were.

BD: A sense of mystery surrounds the simple objects, giving them an almost sacred aura. Some of your paintings would look at home behind an altar. What is the sacred for you?
MF: For me the sacred is the yearning for a spiritual dimension aroused by beauty, whether it’s a Bach sonata, the sky ablaze with a winter sunset or a painting by Jan van Eyck. I realize that somehow, whatever purposes or ideas I have in mind, whatever subject I set out to paint or meaning I try to give it, what I want most is to create a fragment of some such harmonious and intangible perfection.

BD: Is it true that you are self-taught? How did you start painting?
MF: Yes, I taught myself. As a child I loved looking at paintings in churches, and I’ve spent a lot of time poring over the great paintings of the past, of which fortunately there is no shortage here. I’ve done many jobs to make a living, but I’ve always painted. I was forty when I began to show my work first in Italy, then abroad.

BD: Which artists have influenced you most?
MF: To list all the painters I admire or that have influenced me would take far too long. What I can say is that over the last few years I’ve been fascinated by painters who gave artistic pre-eminence to light: Caravaggio and Rembrandt in particular, painters of light and darkness. I also admire Zurbaran’s and Stoskopff’s still lifes, Vermeer’s and Hammershoi’s interiors, and, closer to us in time, the atmospheres of Hopper.

Mario Fani was born in the Casentino valley, in Tuscany, where he lives and works today. His many exhibitions include personal shows in Rome, Siena, Arezzo, Poppi, Berne, Munich. He has also taken part in group shows in London, Amsterdam, Florence, Rome (La pittura ritrovata), Milan (Arte Italiana 1968-2007 e Nuovi pittori della realtà), Francavilla a Mare (58° Premio Michetti), 52° Biennale di Venezia (Lo stato dell’arte. Regioni d’Italia). His paintings are present in private and public collections, including the Permanent Collection of the Italian Senate.