Finding All the Movements of Life: The Art of Sandro Martini

Image: Courtesy of Sandro Martini estate

Someone once said that all writers and artists, famous or not, share the same pain and the same dreams. They all struggle to have their work seen, heard, and appreciated. At one point in my life, because I was not famous and I had no chance of ever becoming famous, I pursued the concept of accomplished, as in: “Corrado Paina is an accomplished poet, with several publications, blah, blah…”

Sandro Martini was recognized as a maestro in his time, in his country, by fellow artists, by the public, and by art critics. He was paid to create, travel and speak about his art. He was everything I was not, and at the beginning of our friendship I was in awe of his work and his life. I could not imagine we would one day work together. Sandro Martini died last December. His ashes are in his studio, the place where he spent most of his life, where we spent many hours together.

I first met Sandro Martini forty years ago when we were both living in Milan. At that time, Milan was referred to as “Milano da bere,” Milan is for drinking – a city enjoying life, excess, culture, and too much corruption. Visual arts were extremely important, and fashion and design were the symbols of creativity. The city was under a sort of drunken cultural hegemony, which cultivated movements like the Arte Povera, and many great post-World War II artists like Pomodoro, Burri, Afro, Fontana, Vedova, and Manzoni.

Sandro Martini built a reputation as a difficult artist, no compromises – a pure-breed racehorse of Galleria Blu, a historical gallery of contemporary art. Legend has it that he was one of the first artists in the 1970s to ever receive a salary.

Image: Courtesy of Sandro Martini estate

At the end of the ‘60s, Sandro Martini was a privileged artist in a city that knew how to gratify its artists. “I had everything: a house, money. All I had to do was produce some paintings by the end of every year. Well, I was not able to produce one single painting.” This is what Sandro told me when we met at Trattoria Toscana in Corso di Porta Ticinese, close to the Bohemian area, by the canals where poets and artists and left-wing students would hang out.

In the ‘70s, at the Briosca, a trani (a locale that is a cross between a restaurant and a bar), Wanda, a slim, mature transsexual, would dance and sing the songs of Wanda Osiris, the queen of rivista, the Italian cabaret theatre. Poets would drink and smoke and talk and walk along the Navigli canals through the deep and thick Milan fog.

In the heart of the night, you could hear the echo of distant, strident speeches, great ideas, and passionate poems, without ever seeing their authors. Alda Merini, the poet who was shortlisted for the Nobel prize, was among them. I was living mainly in the street, like many other youths. I would sleep on different couches and leave poems and sketches on scraps of paper as a token of gratitude for the hospitality.

Sandro Martini was the grandson of an Armenian trader, a wandering man who landed in Livorno, the third-largest port in Italy. According to Martini, Livorno is quite ugly, despite being in Tuscany. Though Livorno is not a beautiful city, it was an anthropological “forno,” the harbour of many communities, including Jews and Greeks. The city is famous for the mercatino americano, the little American market. (Livorno is home to an American military base.) Here, one could find beautiful blue maglioni alla marinara and other blue clothing. It is not by chance that Sandro Martini wore as a sort of uniform, a thick blue shirt, a blue or dark leather vest, jeans, red socks, and heavy-duty shoes (scarponcini).

Image: Courtesy of Sandro Martini estate

Livorno is swept by the wind, and the waves beat the passing of time. Its naval academy discharges young sailors. My father was a lieutenant, baked by the Accademia di Livorno. Sandro Martini died on same date my father was born. La vela, the sail, became the symbol of Sandro Martini’s installations – the beating, breathing, sighing, and crying sail – the pulsating heart and body of Sandro Martini’s installations, a roof and sanctuary for sea birds.

His paintings are the open-air market seen from the sky, the meeting of goods and fruits, of colours, of gentium; his canvasses, the labyrinths of his vision. He used to work by lying on them with his old helper, Luca Lovati. Luca died after falling from a ladder at the Royal Palace in Milan while setting up an exhibition for his other master employer, Agostino Bonalumi.

Sandro Martini, like many artists, had a death wish, and he had to fight addiction and pain. He was a traveller, but not the Rimbaud-in-Africa type, not like those on the road. He said to me once: “The only people for me are the mad ones; the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desiring everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing – but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles, exploding like spiders across the stars. And in the middle you see the blue light pop, and everybody goes, ‘Wow!’”

Sandro Martini was not Chatwin, not Bowles; he was more the Mitteleuropa pilgrim-type. He used to travel to America, but only to teach. He was not a cowboy studying perspective in the Grand Canyon or semiotics like Baudrillard in Monument Valley. In a room – a studio, a class, a church, the hall of a building – he could find all the movements of life, just like he could find the sound and breath of the wind. The walls were the horizons of his travels. On the floor – he always worked lying on the floor – he encountered order and science.

Sandro Martini was a Renaissance pilgrim. He could make colours – penetrate their very soul –and paint a fresco like the great masters from the time of Giotto. I loved watching Sandro Martini clean the studio after a day’s work. He would move the broom like a measuring tool, bring order and make peace between reason and passion. The broom moved the dust and the work slags like the sea moved its line of waves away from the beach.

Image: Courtesy of Sandro Martini estate

At art school in Livorno, Sandro Martini’s teachers recognized his outstanding talent quickly. He set foot in Milan in the 1960s, and his technique immediately created interest. When he left Livorno for Milan (a very short trip geographically, but a long one considering the role of Milan in the country – an immigrant movement from a town to a capital like Giotto in Florence), he found his home. The city was a furnace of business and ideas. Montale was the city poet, and with him stood an army of intellectuals, publishers, printers, columnists, winning soccer teams, designers, architects and fashion designers. Martini arrived with the immigrants from the south, described beautifully by Giovanni Testori. Milan was the capital of theatre, il Piccolo, la Scala, and the first leftist tumults.

His wandering ways were over. The real journeys would now be taking place in his studio, every day. Wherever he would point his sails, they were pointing at the target, la meta. His routes were on the canvas. The canvas was the soul, the sail was the canvas, and the sail was the soul. More than a sailor, Martini was a merchant like his grandfather. He brought Milan knowledge, colours, and goods. All these elements were alive in his canvas. He was Ulysses incognito.

In the last years of his life, after long residencies in California, Sandro Martini arrived in Toronto – I like to say because of me. He had come to Toronto once before, but he didn’t know the city. He stayed with me and my partner Deborah, and we introduced him to the sea. The great sea that Dacia Maraini called the Arrogant Lake because it was not a sea. The Mediterranean Sea and the American prairies were replaced by the Lake. He came for the first time in the 1980s to explain conceptual art, and to teach his technique. He was the Mediterranean trader in the Americas.

My organization, the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario, was able to connect Sandro Martini with Lanterra Developments, a land development company that was looking for artists to do public art in Toronto. Sandro Martini got the job. When the delegation of Lanterra went to his studio, they were transfixed. Martini, would work for more than a year on the drawings for the Glass Memory Project, a huge fresco with mobile glass plates set in the atrium of a building at the corner of Bay and Grosvenor.

Over the years several restaurants have been opened in the atrium, often hiding or scarring the fresco and the installations. Today the Glass Memory Project is practically abandoned. The atrium is empty like a deserted chapel. Every time I walk along the artwork (often because my doctor has an office in the area), I can see Sandro walking on the scaffolds, surrounded by his assistants, like a Renaissance master. Sandro Martini was one of the few who knew the Renaissance technique of the fresco. He was a master of the conceptual fresco. Toronto has not shown Sandro Martini any gratitude. I have never read a significant review on the Glass Memory Project. I wrote something for Canadian Art Online.

Sandro Martini did not become part of the artistic fabric of Toronto. We once met officials of the AGO to propose a retrospective of his work. But just like the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union, they told us that they worked on five-year plans. And then there was Covid. Toronto shrank and it has yet to recover.

Sandro Martini loved Toronto, and it was in this city that we presented our three art books. We loved working together, and he loved my poetry: Tempo rubato, l’alfabeto del viaggiatore, Abecedario. Sandro prepared the etchings and some of the best milanesi printers made the books. We presented Abecedario at Biblioteca Sormani in Milan with the famous printer Giorgio Upiglio, arguably the most important printer in Europe. I will always remember our readings at the Italian Cultural Institute, and his lectures at OCAD University.

Sandro Martini was a highly cultured man – uncommon and deep. He was able to connect his work to the ferments of the Italian scene. He wrote several essays, one of them entitled “The Scents of Painting,” a beautiful anthology of thoughts about the meaning of painting. He exhibited all over the world, with installations in Brazil, California, New York, Switzerland, Canada, and hundreds of exhibitions in Italy, the last one in Livorno, the city where he was born. He went back home to the sea. Like a tired seagull, he lay on the sail. The Royal Palace in Milan owns many of his paintings. I believe Casa Boschi owns twenty-six paintings. And the Met is said to own one of his livre d’artiste.

His studio was in the yard of an old condominium. At the entrance, in the androne, on the right wall, there is a huge canvas by one of his great friends, Grazia Varisco. The painting, characterized by a dominating yellow, is still luminous, despite being exposed to the weather. It looks like a scaffold leading to the bridge of Martini’s ship. Covid may have killed Martini, but it did not diminish him.

Dedicated to the memory of Luca Lovati, Sandro Martini’s friend and assistant.

Corrado Paina is the Executive Director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario and an accomplished poet.

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