Incorruptible Art

Life, works, mysteries, magic and miracles of Marco Bravura – a mosaic artist from Ravenna.

When I think about Marco Bravura I think about life, about the inevitable relationship that certain artists create between their personal lives and their artistic careers. Such an identity cannot be taken for granted. It is not so evident for all artists.

In particular, thinking about his work, a comment by Blaise Pascal comes to mind: “If you don’t love too much, you don’t love enough”.

Marco has loved. Intensely. He has a thirst for life and experience. And he has suffered. All this is sensed in his simmering way of creating form through mosaics.

This is why I like to “listen” to his works. They reveal all the experience of a curious, passionate man who has managed to live his life by exorcising ghosts and fears to give free rein to his emotions and, in the end, gather all this knowledge to give it, through mosaic images, the colours of a marvellous dream. But also subtly terrible.

Bravura manages to dream and smile even at times when the wind seems to whip you.

As a young man he managed to overcome the resistance of his family who wanted him to take up a safe future as a surveyor – his father, a famous opera singer in the 1930s, never wanted Marco to become an artist – to attend and graduate from the State Institute of Mosaic Art in Ravenna. He then moved to Venice, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts.

To maintain himself during the Venetian period, Bravura produced small paintings for tourists. I have never seen any of these works but I imagine that they were imbued with his love of light and beauty. After a long time travelling around various parts of the world, marriage and three  children, Marco settled again in “his” Ravenna, opened his own atelier and began constant artistic production focusing on mosaics.

Towards the end of the 1980s, he began a  rewarding collaboration with the poet and script-writer from Romagna, Tonino Guerra, a relationship based on friendship and shared intentions (the common desire to renew the vitality of artistic-craftsmanship practice typical of Romagna, where mosaics enjoy a major role), as well as sensitivity and artistic affinity that still today bears important fruit.

The first works developed to a graphic design by Guerra were some Fireplaces (1989) embellishing the interiors of important restaurants and hotels in the Romagna region.  Mention must also be made of a series of stand mosaics in which Bravura interprets the zoomorphic patterns of the poet as mosaics (1990-96). These are simple and evocative subjects interpreted with delicate chromatics, some of which emphasised by Guerra’s lyrical verses.

Bravura perfectly captures in his “tesserae” the spirit of the author, communicating sense through his mosaics and their oriental sensitivity. The enamels and marbles used in these works live in a rhapsody-like orchestration where colours dissolve and crumple as if caressed by perfumed sea breezes.

The framework, in these works, no longer limits the image but dialogues with it, reflecting colours and movements to become an integral part of the vision.

The collaboration between Tonino Guerra and Marco Bravura has also seen the production of another work of considerable interest: the Snail Fountain for Sant’Agata Feltria (1994). This is a monumental work set in an urban environment.

Bravura emphasised the spiral character of the design, that culminates with oblique and elongated height at its peak.

Water flows through the concave body of the animal and animates its vibrating surfaces, entirely finished with mosaics, so that it achieves a vivid and vital presence set in the air and light of the town.

Chiocciola, (the Snail), is a celebration of slowness, an expression of regret for a world once modelled on human dimensions where actions and sentiments still had values lasting more than just the moment, counterpoising the obsession with speed, the fear of being late in a reality always on the move and inasmuch ungraspable.

The artist, alongside these works in collaboration with Guerra, also developed his own projects, animated by a different visual, formal and chromatic climate, such as his Tapestries (1989-96). These mosaics should be observed at twilight, when their surfaces are softly emphasised.

Compared to the other works mentioned above, here colour becomes denser, carnal, more sumptuous and opulent, in a ceaseless blend of heterogeneous materials. The deep, bright and at times even disquieting enamel pastes merge with the glitter of gold, murrine glass and the strangest pearls to create images of Klimt-like sophistication.

Bravura uses various decorative elements re-assembled through a highly  personal formal syncretism that brings together Byzantium and Persia, Ravenna, India and Austria of the Secession.

In Tapestries, the handling of surfaces splendidly reflects the material chromatics of the tesserae in a continual flow of luminous echoes functioning in a Baroque sense by equally involving and disorienting the spectator. They are theatrical images in the finest sense of the term, revealing infinite courses where it is very difficult to detach the glance from the shadows. The “Cloisons” criss-crossing them with their irregular waves resemble roads, caravanserai routes to be followed through the marvels of form and colour.

A fundamental work in this period is Bambola orientale (Oriental doll). This work, from a mosaic point of view is still very close to the Tapestries series as a kind of culmination that is equally a prelude to a new departure. It is a three-dimensional image, a figure made up of several parts that take on the appearance of a bizarre samurai.

It was originally based on the idea of paying homage to two of the most famous mosaics in Ravenna: Empress Teodora and Emperor Justinian, on the walls of the presbytery of San Vitale. The artist wanted to develop two three-dimensional works, one alluding to the female image and the second – which was never accomplished – to the male figure.

Bambola is a mysterious and seductive work, created around a play of appearances that defines the seductive mechanism. It has no intention of defining an absolute form or declaring an established truth but only the co-existence of different image cuts, a thousand references and apparent contrasts re-absorbed in a logic of interaction. Inasmuch, for example, a certain formal expressiveness with a strong, masculine impact exists alongside the use of evidently feminine materials in perfect integration. This aspect of the work, in any case evident in the Tapestries series already mentioned, is also determined by the constant and rewarding collaboration between Bravura and his daughter Dusciana, then a debut artist but today herself – in the wake of her father’s tradition – an established artist boasting impressive sensitivity and great skills.

I would like to view these works at sunset, at dusk, when even presences become shadows, become recollections, and reality loses its outlines, fading into dreams, or approach them on one of those Autumn days when clouds thicken in the sky just before a storm and make colours even more intense.

Bravura, later on, especially dedicated his efforts to the production of numerous important public works. Fountains, such as the above-mentioned Chiocciola experience for Sant’Agata Feltria. His predilection for this monumental form is no coincidence, since water, flowing over the mosaic surface, accentuates the beauty of the materials used to create plays of chromatic decomposition, iridescences, highlights and brightness that always stimulate different glances, suggesting the continual flow of time, the perpetual mutability of light and form, the transitory nature of life itself. There are so many examples: the Flying Carpet Fountain (1997) for Cervia and the Butterfly Fountain (2003) for Sogliano sul Rubicone – both designed in collaboration with Tonino Guerra; on the other hand, Bravura himself designed La luna nel pozzo (Moon in the Well) (1998) for Sant’Agata Feltria; the Fountain in the F. Agosto Park (1999) in Forlì; Le impronte della memoria (Imprints of Memory) (2002) also in Sant’Agata Feltria; Vele – Veils/Sails for the Fountain celebrating the Romagna aqueduct (2003) in Rimini.

Special attention must be given to Ardea Purpurea (1999; 2004), without doubt the most important of the monumental works designed and realised by this “Maestro” from Ravenna.

On 21 July 1998, Maestro Riccardo Muti directed the Milan Scala Philharmonic Orchestra in Beirut in a concert with evident symbolic references,  organised by the Ravenna Festival. This was an ideal “twinning” between Ravenna and Beirut founded, thanks to music, in the name of peace. This historic event saw the Italian-Lebanese Associations in Beirut and Italy promote the production of a celebratory monument to be installed in one of the central areas of Beirut most devastated by the war: Rue Verdun. The project was entrusted to Bravura, who decided to develop for the occasion a monumental fountain inspired – admittedly in abstract terms – by the Phoenix, the legendary bird that the Romans also named Ardea Purpurea. The work, more than six metres tall, has a fibreglass structure entirely faced with mosaics and introduced another fundamental chapter in the experience of this artist – teaching; in short, the project was implemented in the workshops of the Provincial Consortium for Professional Training in Ravenna, where Bravura coordinated work – mostly involving students attending the Mosaic Schools in Ravenna. The fountain was inaugurated on 20 November 1999, after about one and a half years of work.

Life can rise again from the rubble.

The idea expressed by Bravura’s image giving effective shape to the fountain is a dual helical structure. This form in itself possesses a strong sense of ascendant development that, in its movement, recalls among other things a flickering flame, thereby evoking in a more or less unequivocal, albeit summary manner the mythical Phoenix. The idea of the Phoenix as the subject for this creation is based on the fact that it represents a passage between life and death, between destruction and renaissance. The work was intended to rise from a bed of rubble, as a metaphor of life reborn after destruction, just as the legendary bird was reborn from its own ashes. This idea was subsequently abandoned in favour of a more traditional base.

The image becomes progressively lighter as it moves upwards, becoming as evanescent as flames, interacting with the surrounding atmosphere: material and spiritual at one and the same time.

The work changes with different points of observations thanks to the logical progressions of its form and the effect of the luministic dynamics animating it. The decorative movement characterising the work once again refers to the Tapestries; it takes effective shape as a skin resembling an essential element of the form to which it belongs. The decoration blends Phoenician, Egyptian, Christian, Hebrew and Muslim symbols as if to embrace all the peoples and cultures involved in Lebanon’s civilisation.

Mosaic art, in this work, involves an inevitable decorative presence that is also determined by its architectural aspects. Decoration is fundamental in mosaic art and should never be viewed, as many critics superficially assume, as a negative element; it is innate in the very idea of art and the sense of decus – decoration – that characterised, in accordance with ancient precepts, architectural creations in overall terms. Art must embellish form, through its decorative aspects, to ensure dignity of image. Bravura’s decorative approach passes through personal poetics of materials, always used in a richly diversified manner and filtered by the emphatic chromatic sensitivity of the artist. Ardea suggests pure song, pure beauty, an idea of life and desire, through the vibrations and colour of the material, through the movements of the signs hallmarking the surfaces; here, form finds itself in an atmospheric fusion embodied through light, the light of the material itself and also its interaction with the elements: air, water. Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit father, said: “Like those transparent materials that can be entirely illuminated by a ray enclosed therein, the World, (…) seems to be impregnated by an inner light that intensifies its reliefs, structures and deeper parts. This light is not the surface glimmer perceptible even to superficial people. Nor is it the brutal incandescence that destroys the form of objects and dazzles us. It is the calm and powerful irradiation generated by the synthesis of all the elements of the World (…)”. This image from the writings of Teilhard de Chardin seems to match Bravura’s work perfectly. His use of light is ingrained in the mosaic techniques of Ravenna, based on clever use of irregularity in positioning the tesserae that gives rise to a continual splitting of light as an element as the dynamic and spiritual core of the image.

The formal and symbolic exchange that Bravura managed to create within the group that helped him in this enterprise is important. He worked with a few outline cartoon drawings but mostly gave verbal instructions to the team, suggesting developments and then leaving them rather free as regards their interpretation, almost as if to recall Severini, who said that a mosaic “is essentially all the more a mosaic the more the preliminary drawing and every other preparatory work are set aside to invent what the stones and the enamels themselves want to invent”.

The intention was that everyone involved in the development of the project should leave a personal creative mark, while nevertheless upholding the guidelines of the Maestro especially as regards materials and the use of colours.

Bravura’s skills also emerge in site management and workshop tasks that bring to life again the Maestro-student relationships that once characterised ancient artistic practice. He conducted the site by rediscovering within in it the organisational aspects of improvised jazz music: it is as if the work is the result of a supreme jam session.

Bravura, on this occasion, also worked with Palestinian craftsmen to install the work in Lebanon and was impressed by their quality, not only in terms of technical and professional skills but especially as regards their human attributes, all of which made a vital contribution to the project; they were deeply involved and aware of working for a common cause, for something important.

Bravura never does anything merely for its own sake – work seen as an end in itself – but always seeks relationships with others (collaborators – during executive stages – and “users” – once the project is finished) and always to achieve an effect involving empathy and interaction to enhance individuals in their reciprocal relationships: work thus becomes a metaphor of this relationship. Production is based not on competition but on collaboration. Art cannot develop through hierarchies but through affinity; there are no prizes to be won but souls to save, first and foremost your own.

A copy of Ardea Purpurea – although it is not so much a copy as such but perhaps rather of a re-interpretation of the first version – was completed by the artist for Ravenna in 2004 as a way of further emphasising the “twinning” with Beirut.

Bravura, with these two works, seems to want to remind the world that beauty is enormously precious, one of the few things that can help save mankind.

2007, lastly, saw the cycle of mosaic panels for Paray Le Monial. These mosaics highlight, like jewels set against a light, monochrome background, magical depictions where forms merge with each other. These images, in short, start from the initial idea of the Tree to sprout leaves and also recall, thanks to their chromatic magnificence, the feathers of a peacock.

And this closes one cycle: the peacock, in certain ancient cultures, represented the incorruptibility of the soul, since it was believed it could even feed on poison.

Things return to life again, then, with its light and its storms, contrasting elements that Bravura has always managed to blend in a unity through the logic of Art.

Michele Tosi

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