A stage of the journey in Italy, 1949

Formative years and first identity

Francesco Somaini was born in Lomazzo (Como) on the 6th August 1926. When he was only ten years old, he moved to Como with his family and decided to devote himself to sculpture, supported by his grandfather, who was a textile industrialist from Como and a member of Parliament between 1913 and 1919, whose name he bears. He began to practice modeling his first little sculptures under the guidance of Pietro Clerici, an academic of Brera. Other figures marked his formative years. Among these, the philosopher Franco Ciliberti, director of the magazine and the group “Valori Primordiali” of 1938, close to the rationalist architects and abstract painters of Como. In 1944 Somaini took refuge in Switzerland. After settling in Basel, he enrolled as an auditor at the University (Faculty of Arts) and met several artists, including Meret Oppenheim who introduced him to the foundations of surrealism.

After the Liberation, he returned to Italy and attended Manzù’s courses at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera from 1945 to 1947. He also contributed to “Sentimento” (1946), a monthly literary and art magazine born from the meeting of a group of young people who formed the “Gruppo dell’Arco” (later “del Cerchio”), of which he was one of the founders. During these years he came into contact with the philosopher Jacques Maritain, ambassador of France to the Holy See. Having obtained the transition from the Faculty of Architecture of the Polytechnic University to the Faculty of Law in the University of Milan and then of Pavia, he graduated in 1949, the year in which he also made his first study trip to various locations in Italy. Somaini made his national debut at the Rome Quadriennale in 1948 with a large bas-relief and in 1950 he took part for the first time in the Venice Biennale where he presented the Bagnante (1948-49). He made bas-reliefs, such as the large Crocifissione in the Como cemetery (1948), a series of female and male nudes, some portraits and animal skulls.

The artist is working on the plaster model of Grande Motivo. Donna che legge, 1953 (ph Aldo Barilli, Milano)

Dialogue with Plastic Expressionism and Synthetic Cubism. Adherence to Concretism

Interested in abstractionism already towards the end of the 1940s, Somaini started a profound reflection on contemporary sculpture from beyond the Alps. In 1951 he moved with his wife Emilia A. Rusconi in Lomazzo, where he built his atelier and had his two children: his daughter Luisa in 1952 and his son Cesare in 1954; in the same year, he made his first study trip to Paris. The following year he participated in the competition for the Monumento al Prigioniero politico ignoto, to be erected on the cliffs of Dover, and won the Olivetti Prize. In the French capital he met André Bloc, founder of Groupe Espace and director of the magazine “Art d’aujourd’hui”, and art critics such as Léon Degand; these major figures led him to exhibit in Paris in 1954 at the “Premier salon de la sculpture abstraite” at the Galerie Denise René and in 1955 at the Groupe Espace exhibition “Première exposition international des matériaux et équipements du bâtiment et des travaux publics” at the Parc de Saint Cloud, as well as adhering to the MAC-Espace in the same year. In 1957 Somaini took part in the “Exposition itinérante. Architecture contemporaine. Intégration des arts” and in the “Prima Rassegna Internazionale d’Arte Concreta” at the Schettini Gallery in Milan. In the first half of the 1950s, he began his collaboration with architects under the banner of the “synthesis of the arts”. He worked with Ico Parisi for Villa Bini in Monte Olimpino (Cabala, showed at the Rome Quadriennale in 1951-52) and for Padiglione di soggiorno on the occasion of the 10th Milan Triennale in 1954 (Grande Motivo. Donna che legge), with which he earned the gold medal; after these experiences, he began an intense collaboration with Luigi Caccia Dominioni, starting from the renovation of his home in Lomazzo. In 1954 he participated in the Venice Biennale with Grande Guerriero (concrete). Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti was interested in his work: he invited Somaini to exhibit at “Mostra di 60 maestri del prossimo trentennio” in Prato in 1955, at the Strozzina Gallery in Florence in 1956 and at “Premio Internazionale di Scultura Città di Carrara” in 1957. In 1956 Somaini participated at the Venice Biennale with large works in ferric conglomerate (material of his own invention which he patented in 1955), Forza del nascere and Canto aperto. Immediately noticed by international critics, he published his first monograph signed by Léon Degand and Mario Radice. During these years Giovanni Carandente (“Scultura Italiana del XX secolo” in Messina, Rome and Bologna in 1957-58) and the young Enrico Crispolti took interest in his work. Crispolti also presented Somaini at the personal exhibition held at the Galleria La Salita in Rome in 1957. In the same year, the sculptor was among the organizers of “Colori e forme nella casa d’oggi” in Villa Olmo (Como), where he exhibited paintings and sculptures, and was active in the house of Ico Parisi with Lucio Fontana and Fausto Melotti.

Informal Period

Somaini reached success at a worldwide level in 1959 with the exhibition hall at the V Biennale of San Paolo in Brazil, where he gained the first international prize for sculpture: this international recognition allowed him to access the United States art market. In 1960 he held his first solo show in the United States (at the Italian Cultural Institute, New York): it was promoted by Odyssia Gallery and it was accompanied by a presentation by Giulio Carlo Argan who defined Somaini’s production “sculpture of the fragment: not of the fragment of something, of the absolute fragment”. His participation at the 1960 Venice Biennale with his personal hall was accompanied by a monography with critical appraisals by Umbro Apollonio and Michel Tapié. In the following year, he won the Critics’ Prize at the Deuxiéme Paris Biennale. During this period, his artworks met the favor of national and international critics and collectors. Being interested in experimenting with different materials, he casted his works also in iron, lead and pewter, attacking them with the blowtorch, and finally polishing their concave parts in order to accentuate their expressive drive. This was the time of Verticali, Orizzontali, Oblique, Martiri, Feriti, Racconti, Figure di fuoco and Memorie dell’Apocalisse, presented in various personal exhibitions set up at the Notizie Gallery of Turin, at the Odyssia Gallery in Rome and New York, at the Blu Gallery of Rome and in the most important international exhibitions in Italy, in Europe and in the USA. During the informal period his works entered the most important European and American museums: for example the MoMA in New York or the GNAM in Rome. With the series of Proposte per un monumento, one of which was carried out on a large scale in Baltimore in 1970 (the year in which he placed other monumental works, still linked to the informal period in Rochester and Atlanta), Somaini began to reflect on the function of sculpture in the urban context, a theme that became central in the evolution of his poetics starting from the following season. His participation in the competition for the Monumento alla Resistenza di Cuneo in 1962-63 (where he collaborates with Ico Parisi and Lucio Fontana) and the construction of the Monumento ai Marinai d’Italia in Milan in 1965-67 (that was conducted with Luigi Caccia Dominioni) were also part of this line of research. In the first half of the 1960s he began using a high-pressure sand jet for carving material, which became a fundamental component of his plastic language.

The artist is using a high-pressure sand jet for carving the plaster model of Carnificazione di un’architettura: grande martirio, 1976  (photo Enrico Cattaneo, Milano)

Sculpture, architecture and urban context

After the informal period, Somaini assiduously devoted his time to drawing. These drawings are a prelude to the creation of sculptures characterized by strong symbolic meanings, where organic forms are placed in continuous dialectical relationship with geometric volumes of an architectural layout. Some of them constitute the environmental installation of the Grande Retablo della vita e della morte (1967-69). This visionary research culminated in the cycle of the Carnificazioni di un’architettura (1974-76), accompanied by the creation of photomontages of fantastic contextualization in the New York skyline and presented by Giulio Carlo Argan in the personal anthology of Salzburg (1974). Starting from the conviction that sculpture shall have a role in the requalification of the urban architectural context – opinion matured during informal experiences made on a big scale in Italy and in the United States – the sculptor formalized his own ideas, both at a theoretical and utopist level, in a series of project studies published in 1972 in Urgenza nella città, co-written with Enrico Crispolti. Then, he made interventions and projects that are part of the reflection on the relationship between sculpture, architecture and urban context: the large plastic intervention made for the facade of the church of Santo Spirito in Bergamo (1972), the installation proposed in “Volterra ’73”, the design of matrices and traces generated by them for Operazione Arcevia (1975-76) and for the Controprogetto per la Königstrasse di Duisburg (1978). These new artworks were presented for the first time at the 1976 and 1978 Venice Biennale. In this case, he presented his first Antropoammoniti and a group of photomontages of their fantastic contextualization; Antropoammoniti are carved matrix that, leaving a mark in evolution, developed and revealed on the trace a cryptic image in negative. This new plastic research, which took up the anamorphosis technique, was probed on numerous exhibition occasions, in monumental works such as the Anamorfosi Bargellini (1984) and in the context of actions. Matrices, sometimes made of pink Portuguese marble, and traces were presented in the anthological exhibition at the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg in 1979 and in the personal exhibition at the Botanical Garden of Lucca in 1980.

In his atelier Somaini is verifying the excavations obtained with the sand casting in the negative marble element of Porta d’Europa, 1995 (photo Bruno Fasola, Appiano Gentile (Como)

The last season

From the mid-eighties he carried out monumental works in Italy and Japan (Grande Scultura alata, 1998). In some of these projects, the dialectic of the imprint led him to the treatment of positive-negative forms, as in Stele spaccata (Tuoro sul Trasimeno, 1986), in Monumento ai Caduti di Ridracoli (1994) and in Porta d’Europa (Montano Lucino, 1995). In the context of the rediscovery of myth, Somaini started the series of Fortunie, Menadi, Leucotee, Lotte con il serpente and Baccanti. Thesesculptures  featured a highly vitalistic organicity and some of them were developed into monumental marble works carved using a high pressure jet of sand. See Fortunia I (1988), Fortunia III (1992), Grande Leucotea (1993-97), Grande Lotta con il serpente (1993-98) e  Fortunia Vincitrice (1997-2000). Some of the above-mentioned works were presented in the anthological exhibition set up in the Brera Palace of Milan in 1997, in the Rome Quadriennale in 1999, in the Carrara Biennale in 1998 and 2000 and in the anthological exhibition at the Pergine Castle in 2000. In recent years the sculptor carried forward, side-by-side to his plastic activity, his drawing and painting activity in a more intensive way. In 1999, he realized a large series of works on paper that recalled in a fantastic way the myths and legends related to the Etna volcano, revisited also through the reading of Maria Corti’s book, Catasto magico (1999). Somaini took part in some important exhibitions, as “Arti e Architettura, 1900-2000” curated by Germano Celant at Palazzo Ducale of Genova (2004), “Scultura Italiana del XX secolo” at the Arnaldo Pomodoro Foundation and “Annicinquanta. La nascita della creatività italiana”, at Palazzo Reale in Milan (2005). Forced to undergo dialysis due to severe kidney failure, Francesco Somaini died in Como on November 19th, 2005. The National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome dedicated him the first posthumous retrospective exhibition, “Il periodo informale 1957-1964” (2007).