I would visit him in the morning, at home. It would soon be lunchtime and he would look at me with those blue eyes and start setting the table, saying look, stay, let’s have something to eat. I can’t remember a time I managed to say no: Romano was magnetic and like all the great artists retained something childlike, a disarming freshness.
He had begun drawing at four years old, he would shut himself in the bathroom with an album and crayons so as not to be disturbed; since then he had never stopped. We met when I was studying at the Accademia and painters such as Picasso, Cezanne or Monet soon became bland whenever I thought about “my” master. As recognised and as great as they were, they always appeared distant and unattainable. Not him, he was real and for this very reason our meetings were worth more than any lesson. We spent hours discussing a shade of colour or talking about forms, proportions or light. We never forgot, however, the more down to earth aspects of life, bills to pay, the newspapers, the shopping to be done. At the master’s home we ate simply but always well. There was a little woman from the south who helped out around the house and would often leave something cooked before she left.
Romano had maintained close ties to his roots in Puglia and, above during holiday seasons, would receive hampers from the south with oil, wine, smoked cheeses and dried figs stuffed with almonds. We usually ate in the dining-cum-living room in which a concealed kitchen had been installed. A little further over was a large French window giving on to a small terrace crammed with lemon plants. On summer’s days everything would be wide open and it really felt like we were down in the south and it was a delight to lunch there in the open air. Our meals were frugal, there was always either a chickpea soup or a dish of pasta with vegetables wilted with garlic and oil. The meal would be completed with a salad, a few olives and some fruit, as well as, of course, certain pastries from the Gargano. Romano always took care to fill my glass, pouring the wine from a hand-painted carafe. During lunch we would talk about anything and everything, he would catch up on my sentimental situation and I instead was in adoration, anxious to discover new things about his work. They were so great those conversations, so fluid and open! Before us, on a long wall, was a fine display of his grandiose turquoise and blue watercolours and canvases with female nudes also in various blue-green tones – the predominant colour. Then there were paintings by artist friends and photos of the castle at Peschici, his summer refuge.
Beneath this composite and vibrant picture gallery was a large sofa into which at the end of lunch we would always sink and watch a little TV. “In the early Sixties”, he told me in that warm, full voice of his, “the South of Italy was beautiful and unspoilt, of a purity all but forgotten today. When a stranger stayed in the small villages of the Ionian coast he would receive continuous gifts of flowers and baskets of fresh fruit, an image that today belongs to the imagination or some exotic place. There was no television, the rhythms of life were set by the hours of light and darkness. At the end of the day, especially by the sea, the children would be called to watch the setting sun – different every time! And this image of simplicity and pantheism gave meaning to life.”
Occasionally Romano would lie down to rest, taking his leave kindly but firmly, perhaps slipping a walnut into my pocket or telling a last joke. At other times - I never knew why - I was allowed to wait around for him and after his nap we would go out together, heading for his nearby atelier. I can still remember him, a big man in himself, coming down the stairs wrapped in a gigantic, over-sized coat. Once he was outside, everything seemed to attract his attention, he would look up and it would the clouds that interested him, he would peer into the courtyards of the buildings and the cries of the children playing would conjure up images of past times. “Here during the war there was an air-raid shelter”, he told me thoughtfully, “dozens and dozens of people spent entire nights piled up one against the other without knowing what was going on outside. They gave us hard bread and tinned beans to eat. With the American aircraft outside and the beans in there, explosions of all kinds.” We looked at each other and burst out laughing.
The space where Romano worked was in a 19th century building on a side street. To reach it you had to go past the janitor’s quarters with a strong smell of furniture polish and cross a broad cobbled courtyard. In the centre there was a fountain cloaked in moss on which a little smiling cherub sat and welcomed you with his tinkling jet. Once you were inside the city melted away and you were in a different dimension. The atelier itself was composed of a narrow hallway with a heavy curtain you had to move to one side to gain access to the main room where you were once again stunned by the enormous glazed wall and the light that bathed the room, modulating the shadows between the stacked paintings.
As soon as Romano entered the studio he would put on his smock impregnated with turps and linseed oil and would set to work: he cleaned brushes, leafed through lithographs, initiated the ritual he had often described to me. “You always need to tune up, like with music. You always need time to familiarize yourself with the spirit of the place, tuning your strings. You see this watercolour?” He asked me after having pulled it from a pile of papers with the skill of a card shark. “You see these slivers of white paper saved from the invasion of the water laden paint? They are the ones who give all the light to this landscape, they make it airy, crisp, if they weren’t there then it would be flat, the relationship between the colours themselves would be completely different. And this is what I’m looking for every day when I come here. And it shouldn’t be taken for granted, believe me. There are days when all your craft and technique seem superfluous, useless. You go on trying and nothing works. There are others in which everything is easy, the paintings from those days seem to generate themselves, with a force guiding my hand. And this is the mystery, the true mystery.”