Giorgio de Chirico
Translated from the Italian by Stefania Heim
In 1916, during the First World War, the painter Giorgio de Chirico returned from living abroad in Paris to enlist in the Italian army. He was stationed in the north in Ferrara, where after a medical examination he was determined unfit for the front line and consequently worked as a non combatant at a desk, eventually spending the majority of his time in “a kind of hospital, or rather convalescent home.”
This wartime period in Ferrara was to be a particularly productive creative and intellectual period for him, as he notes in his memoirs:
Most accounts attribute Italy’s offer of amnesty for military deserters as the motivation for de Chirico’s return. In his memoirs though, de Chirico presents a counter narrative, comparing his determination to that of the poet and critic Guillaume Appollinare, whom de Chirico had befriended in Paris, and who was an early champion of his metaphysical paintings. De Chirico believes Appollinare’s rush to the frontline was not “so much for love of France as many ingenious people believe, but because his origins were very complicated and obscure. He was of Polish origin; that is, his mother was Polish, but he was born in Italy, in Rome.... As a result he was yearning to belong to one country, one race, to have a proper passport.” De Chirico himself was of slightly less complicated origins—an Italian born in Greece, he studied in Germany, returning to Italy in his early twenties—but with Appollinare shared “that kind of modesty and shame due to being born in one country while possessing the nationality of another.”
Whatever the true motive or, more likely, combination of motives for de Chirico’s enlistment, in Ferrara he shifted to writing his verse in his native tongue: Italian. The poems from this period share some of the imagery of his paintings, such as The Disquieting Muses and Melancholia—deserted plazas, closed shutters, and towns full of statues and shadows. The dedicatees of the poems also seem to celebrate or at the very least commemorate, the artistic peers of his homeland. There is a poem for the lyrical poet Corrado Govoni, which begins in exalted praise: “In the city where they hail him among a thousand statues on pedestals.” Two poems are dedicated to the painter Carlo Carrà, whom de Chirico met and painted with in the hospital.
Writing of Carrà much later in his memoir, any affection has faded, and de Chirico accuses Carrà of attempting to hijack his painting style “probably in the hope of persuading his contemporaries that he was the one and only inventor of metaphysical painting, while I in fact was one of his obscure and modest imitators.” And, as if to leave no doubt of his true feelings or artistic historical lineages: “Not everyone knows that Carrá plagiarized in an unpleasant way some of my metaphysical paintings which he saw me paint in a military hospital in Ferrara during the First World War.”
Though de Chirico may not be as
well-known for his writing of what he
characterizes as “some poems,” he did
compose poems throughout his life (as
well as the novel, Hebdomeros, which was
published in 1929). We also know that
he certainly valued his poems enough
to correspond with Jean Paulhan, the
director of the Nouvelle Revue Français, in
1937, inquiring about publishing some of
his “numerous unpublished poems.”
—Brett Fletcher Lauer
My room is a beautiful vessel in which I can take adventurous voyages worthy of a headstrong explorer.
In the anteroom the revenants crowd.
What do they do while I can’t see them? While the wall’s motionless curtain remains drawn between them and me? Nobody could tell me. Whenever, curious, I leave my work and approach on the tips of my slippers that half- closed door and look into the mystery of that anteroom they always appear in the same natural poses. True still lifes.
It is the terrible naturalness, the inexorable logic that each object—destined by the immutable laws of gravity to remain on the earth’s crust—carries within, printed on its Center.
But when I go away and see them again only with my mind’s eye; when I aim my gaze like the metallic dart of a drill on the wall curtain then, oh then every revenant seems still another, and behind every curtain I hear things moving that I’ve never imagined.
Then even the natural pose of the chess player seated at the meditation table appears to me in all its tremendous spectrality. And from the vine-stitched, gagged, sealed, armored mouth, I hear welling up the most dismal murmuring summoning the companion who at that hour perhaps also sits down there, in some faraway city in the industrial territories beyond the seas. Cities sliced by asphalted and shining streets; beautified by the sunny squares’ perfect quadrants and by piazzas pregnant with shade. Cities where the strident life sings night and day amid the cheerful circle of mines and industrious shipyards, with the dwarfish railroads that climb and run pitching like hasty ants along the cement bastions and on the platforms yellowed by the yellow earth, with the armored trucks filled with the flesh and the blood of the freshly sliced channels. Cities that joust between the metallic scaffolding decked out in blasts of steam, and the sweet symmetry of the long, low workshops wrapped in a belt of large academic windows; curled up into herds beneath the noontide heat; kept awake by the solemn sentry of the tall chimneys continually spewing thick, dark clouds that slowly fade in a most comforting premier between the city and the sky turbid with heat where up above nostalgic families of bald-necked birds of prey trace tired spirals circling without rest...
The great river of the idiot crowd will filter them forward without trembling for the terrible mystery frozen within the frames’ rectangles...
But then as centuries will have followed centuries and the new mechanics will have plotted new metal laces, sketched out new complications for the ossified exhaustion of the dead planet, my name, murmured within tribes chosen by the future, will be the sweetest emotion to the brother who I will never know but who will carry stamped in his eyes that strange and tremendous longing that in this faraway today burns my heart and brain, and shakes my weary body with rape, and blackens the veins across all my flesh with a blood pregnant with bile and tears.
Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) was an Italian painter and writer. His early metaphysical paintings were championed and beloved by Apollinaire and Breton and the French Surrealists, and had a profound influence on modern artists and poets. His novel, Hebdomeros (Exact Change), has been called the “the finest work of Surrealist fiction” by the poet John Ashbery.
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