Writer & Artist Carlo Levi, a Florence Exhibition

La Strega e il bambino (1936) painted by Carlo Levi (photo by Jack McGlinchy)

Until March 19: CARLO LEVI IN FLORENCE. Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Open 9 am – 7 pm, closed Wednesdays. Admission included in the €7 ticket to the museum.  To see a video of the show, click here.

This particular exhibition demonstrates the work of Carlo Levi and the influence of his dedication to social justice and human rights prior to and during World War II. His stay in Florence from 1941 to 1945 has now granted a return. An anti-fascist Italian writer, painter, and doctor, Levi excelled at many trades seemingly as an outlet to express his emotion during a tragic time. One of his greatest works is his memoir, Cristo si é Fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli), which addresses Levi’s exile in Grassano and Aliano in Southern Italy from 1935-1936.

Carlo Levi was born on November 29, 1902 in Turin, to wealthy Jewish parents. Though trained in medicine, he focused his creative sights on painting, living in Paris in the 1920s and participating in the 1932 Venice Biennale.  Levi also led a life of political struggle while being a light for those who suffered, proudly adhering to of one of the first groups that were against fascism.  Due to his participation in  “Freedom and Justice Movement” (Giustizia e Libertà), Levi was arrested on March 13, 1934, and exiled to Aliano, in the southern region of Lucania, or Basilicata. Though devastated, Levi acknowledged that he experienced a lighter sentence than his fellow freedom fighters.  He was freed in an amnesty for political prisoners in 1936, but continued his work opposing the Nazi-Fascist regime, first undercover in France then in Italy, where he returned  in 1941.  He again went into hiding in Florence, initially hosted by Eugenio Montale and later by Anna Maria Inchino across from the Pitti Palace.

As its title implies, the exhibition mainly focuses on Levi’s time in Florence, although there are a few works depicting peasants that he completed earlier in southern Italy.  Subsequently hidden by Anna Maria Inchino whose home across from the Pitti Palace was a place of refuge for many including Carlo Levi.  In hiding for his life, Levi painted portraits of his anti-fascist companions. Each portrait feels like looking at a photograph of a loved one, dressed in a frame. Ritratto di Eugenio Montale (Portrait of Eugenio Montale, 1941) can be seen within this series of portraits, showcasing the writer, poet, and large influential figure in Italian culture. Carlo Levi also painted self-portraits, depictions of family members and portraits of the women in his life, such as Ritratto di Anna Maria Ichino (1944). Ichino remained a significant influence in Levi’s life due to her generosity. Beyond this, his self portraits show the increasing hopelessness during the war. He wears exhaustion and paranoia clearly on his face.

While in fear and agony, he found freedom in his art. Each piece shows his view of a world full of violence. For instance, Levi’s Campo di concentramento o Le donne morte (Concentration Camp or Dead Women, 1941), depicts women lying on top of each other, dead, and exposed nude. The lifelessness of each limb and starvation are clear in this portrayal of what Levi’s fate could have been had he, a Jew, been captured by the Nazis. This idea is escalated in Fuoco di guerra vicino a Firenze (Fire of War near Florence, 1941), which highlights burnt flesh and exposed bone. The horrors of the scene suggest that the mind of Levi looked similar.

Past the horror of the Holocaust, Carlo Levi returned to southern Italy many times after his release. He built a long-lasting relationship with those of the region. Levi encouraged social redemption and a desire to increase the peasant workers’ quality of life. His understanding of their condition made him relatable and inspiring. After Levi’s death in Rome on January 4, 1975, he was buried in Aliano, his former place of exile since he championed the chance for a better life for the local peasants, seemingly trapped in hopelesses.

The Palazzo Medici Riccardi exhibition also displays one of Levi’s most recognizable works of art, Lucania 61, created in 1961 based on his memory of living conditions in Aliano in the 1930s. On loan from the National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art in Matera, Lucania 61 speaks volumes of the poverty, deprivation and hopeless of the protagonists of Christ Stopped at Eboli, revealing their desperate living conditions.

His work, both in art and literary, is an embodiment of neorealism. It is also a reminder of the tragedies that once haunted Italy, while revealing an inside look at a complex historical figure.  (Leiana Webb)