Palazzetto De Pisis, Sestiere di Dorsoduro, 1709/a, 30123 Venezia VE
Cimitero della Certosa, Via Borso, 44121 Ferrara FE
Palazzo Massari, Corso Porta Mare, 9, 44121 Ferrara FE
Filippo De Pisis (11 May 1896 – 2 April 1956) was an Italian painter and poet. Apparently unabashed by conventional morality, he assiduously cultivated his eccentricity from an early age, and carried a nineteenth-century tradition of dandyism well into the twentieth-century, hand in hand with a reasonably open homosexuality. In short, De Pisis seemed to have a knack for taking full advantage of the fickle licence which bourgeois society has traditionally been prepared to grant to cultural figures.
He was born Luigi Filippo Tibertelli in Ferrara. The third of seven children, De Pisis was born into a rich, aristocratic and strictly Catholic family in Ferrara. Since the area's political life was dominated by liberal or socialist anti-clericals, the family had a somewhat isolated position in the town, and the young De Pisis spent his first years at home, where he was educated privately. He began art lessons at the age of 8, and indulged his intense curiosity about nature in the family's large garden. The protected and idyllic character of his childhood, as well as his emerging imagination, are evident in an early photograph which shows him dressed as a fourteenth-century scholar chasing butterflies. But De Pisis emerged from his own luxurious chrysalis, attending a public high school, and in 1916, relieved of military service because of a nervous problem, he enrolled at the University of Bologna. While at university, he continued to paint, and he frequented Bologna's artistic and café society circles. In 1920 he held his first exhibition of paintings, which was not a success. But he obtained his degree in letters the same year, and after graduating he moved to Rome.
In 1919 he moved to Rome, where he started to paint. He published a collection of his writings, La città dalle 100 meraviglie, in 1920. Rome made Ferrara seem stuffy and provincial, and this impression was reinforced by the fact that Rome was where De Pisis appears to have had his homosexual awakening. He earned a living teaching art at a high school, and his diaries record sexual fantasies about his male students. In private he would sketch the way he imagined their torsos, based on what he had seen of other parts of their bodies, such as their knees. A more specific incident in his diary records a meeting with a 19-year-old oarsman in a boat on the Tiber, an account that glitters with barely suppressed homoeroticism. During this period De Pisis also painted continually, mostly still-lifes, but also landscapes when he went on holiday. In 1925 he exhibited paintings at the Third Rome Biennale.
By 1925 Italy was fully under the grip of Fascism, and De Pisis decided to move to Paris. Although initially he claimed that he was politically disinterested, and was no more an anti-fascist than he was a Fascist, it is probable that there were political as well as artistic motives for the move. Indeed, some years later he told a local Italian newspaper that he was not a fascist, and preferred to live in France. He was immediately attacked by several major Italian newspapers, and it was only the intervention of an old school friend and now Fascist minister, Italo Balbo, that saved De Pisis from being declared a traitor. Regardless of the political details, there is little doubt that in Paris De Pisis revelled in a lifestyle that the Fascists would certainly have considered degenerate.
The Parisian diaries are rich with details about the physiques of the many male models De Pisis recruited, mainly on the streets, and with details of the way the artist decked them out in classical costumes and posed them in the style of ancient Greece. But his sensual satisfaction was not limited to fetishising his models: De Pisis apparently also led a serene sensual life of unproblematic sexual encounters which were the envy of some of his friends. Beyond the satisfaction of his tastes and senses, De Pisis also worked hard during these years, and by the early 1930s was enjoying success as a painter. He had entered Parisian artistic and cultural circles, and among his friends and acquaintances were Matisse, Picasso, COCTEAU, Joyce, and the Italian writers Italo Svevo and Aldo Palazzeschi. Perhaps his most important friend was Giorgio De Chirico, whom he had known in Rome and who was an important mentor for him in Paris.
IIn 1935 De Pisis was invited to London by Anthony Zwemmer, an art dealer to whom he had sold several paintings. He stayed in London for some months, and Zwemmer arranged for him to work in Vanessa Bell's studio. The resulting exhibition of views of London was a success, and was reviewed favourably in The Times. In 1938 De Pisis made another trip from Paris to London, and was similarly successful. But once the war started in 1939 De Pisis was obliged to return to Italy. He spent most of his time in Milan, where he was kept under surveillance by the Fascists, and at one point was threatened with confinement by the prefect because he was viewed as a ‘perturber of morals’. After the fall of the Fascist government in September 1943 he moved from Milan, which was badly damaged by bombs, to Venice.
De Pisis became something of a legendary figure in Venice, where his eccentricity generally went down well. He had the means to live in a large house, and to buy his own gondola. His most stable companion at this time was a parrot, named Coco, never far from De Pisis's shoulder, especially when he was painting. He was one of a handful of residents at the time who used a gondola. He had two personal gondoliers on 24-hour duty, who wore black-and-gold livery. One of them, Bruno, fulfilled a multiplicity of other roles too: he would pose nude as a model, then dress in smart livery to serve tea at his employer's afternoon parties. De Pisis became well known for these occasions, to which he would invite cardinals and countesses, opera singers and army officers, not to mention down-at-heel artists and attractive young men. But De Pisis also became infamous for the parties he held later in the evening. In 1945, celebrating the end of the war, he was arrested in the small hours making merry with a group of 20 dancing boys dressed in G-strings. Although he suffered only the indignity of spending the remainder of the night locked in a cell rather than an embrace, it was a reminder that society's tolerance, even for artists, was far from unlimited.
De Pisis was also reminded of this professionally. His success as a painter continued, but in 1948 he was denied the grand prize at the Venice Biennale, apparently because of an intervention from Rome specifically referring to his homosexuality. Nevertheless, an entire room was dedicated to about 30 of his paintings, and he was clearly regarded by this stage as one of Italy's most important painters. This was recognised officially in the 1950s, when he won both the Premio Fiorino (1953) and the Mazotta prize (1954)./p>
Despite this official success, De Pisis's final years were a sad contrast to his colourful life. As early as 1948 the nervous problems that had enabled him to avoid military service had developed into a chronic illness, and De Pisis spent much time and money going from clinic to clinic seeking a cure. Eventually he ran out of money and could not even afford a private room. In 1948 he entered a clinic in Bologna, and from 1949 until his death his main residence was Villa Fiorita in Brugherio, a nursing home for patients with nervous diseases. He died in 1956.
De Pisis's work for the Collezione Verzocchi in 1949–1950 is now housed in the Pinacoteca Civica of Forlì. A large portion of his work is also housed in the Museo Filippo de Pisis in Ferrara.
My published books:
BACK TO HOME PAGE