Sunday, January 7, 2018

When Buddhists engaged

      Although the recent opening of the first pontifical university in Vietnam is certainly a reason for hope, the Indochinese people's republic remains a country where Catholics are not free to practice their religion, and are subject to many restrictions imposed by the state. A new religious practices act, that hopefully won't be even more oppressive, is due in 2016; but since the reunification of the country under Communist rule in 1975, the law has required religious groups to obtain a government permission to gather, and forced Catholic priests to undergo state reeducation programs.
Of course, that hasn't always been the case. From the end of the 19th century to 1940, when the Japanese occupied the region, French Indochina, even though it was ruled by the enfants of the Revolution, had actually been a Catholic bastion in the continent; and after the war the short lived Republic of South Vietnam was home to a great number of devout Catholics. Many, and their descendants, are now in the United States.


      There is of course a mountain of literature about the various reasons that contributed to the fall of Vietnam into Communist hands. The hostility of the (supposedly Catholic) American president Kennedy towards Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem is well known; but maybe the contribution of the Vietnamese Buddhists to the downfall of the devout Catholic president of Vietnam should be further explored.
In the 19th and 18th century, before the rule of the French, Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese faithfuls had been the victims of brutal repression, and many had undergone martyrdom. Buddhists were certainly aware of that, and in this chapter of his book Contro il Buddismo (Against Buddhism) Italian author Roberto Dal Bosco describes how the pressure of the Buddhist rebellion contributed to the toppling of of the government of South Vietnam, and the sinister reinterpretation of Christian martyrdom on the part of the followers of Shakyamuni.
Dal Bosco's book exposes some of the most obscure facets and menacing aspects of the Buddhist religion,and was very successful in Italy. We have translated into English, and we hope to publish it very soon. The following is an excerpt we hope you will find interesting. (Many thanks to J.J.P. for reviewing he English text).
Your comments will be very appreciated. 
Thank you very much.
L. Pavese

Sacrifice in Viet Nam.
By Roberto Dal Bosco (Translated and edited by L. Pavese). 

When the  Buddha attained enlightenment, he received the following awareness: in Sanskrit it’s called pratityasamuptada, in Tibetan rten-cing ‘brel bar ‘byung-ba, in Japanese innen. In English it is called “dependent origination,” but it can also be translated as “dependent arising.” It is a fundamental concept for the whole Buddhism. The Samyuttanikaya recites:

This being, that becomes.
From the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that does not become.
From the ceasing of this, that ceases.[1]

 In other words, it is the concatenation of cause and effect; the idea according to which every action (karma) originates a direct series of consequences.
Buddha supposedly understood it meditating under the tree; every thing is a cause; every minor act produces a never-ending chain of composite phenomena, spreading in an edgeless web. This is a metaphysical thought of enormous importance, in front of which the individual is either abolished or given a responsibility that extends beyond every one of his or her conscious action. Every thing we do, says the Buddha, can cause an endless ripple effect of consequences.
Therefore, the conduct of Buddhists should always be examined from behind this philosophical magnifying glass.
We think it is worth considering this point of view in earnest, and examine a particular historical event, that is, the so-called Vietnamese “Buddhist Crisis”: a moment in history during which the entire Buddhist clergy of a country mobilized and launched into some sensational demonstrative actions.

Republic of South Vietnam, May 1963.

The war that shortly thereafter will ravage the country had not yet come. The nation was experiencing the prodrome of disaster, with the Communist North poised to invade. The government of South Viet Nam was headed by President Ngo Dinh Diem, who will eventually pay for the escalation of the conflict, not only with the loss of his power but also with his life.
Ngo Dinh Diem today is considered a monster; the Western media of that time — especially the American’s — did their utmost to render him so.

Ngo Dinh Diem 

Dinh Diem came from a family that belonged to the Vietnamese Catholic minority. His brother Pierre Martin Ngo Dinh Thuc eventually became the Archbishop of Hue.
During the Catholic festivities of that horrible year, many flags of the Vatican State made their appearance, waved by the faithful who used them as emblems of their Christian identity. From a certain point of view, that was a grave problem, because it was contrary to a 1958 law (known as the No.10 Decree) that prohibited the display of religious banners.
The Buddhist monks’ organizations now had a concrete reason to oppose the policies of a government that openly favored Catholics in civic life: for example, according to the critics, government posts as well as those in the armed forces were reserved for Christians.
Buddhists seized the opportunity and called for a total nationwide protest. On Buddha’s “birthday,” the vesak of 1963, Buddhists were not allowed to fly their flags. During the protests in Hue, on May 8, the police intervened. There were eight dead.

    President Diem tried to put an end to it all, stating his reasons regarding the need to reserve a place above all others for the nation’s flag, and publicly proclaimed freedom of religion in the Republic of Viet Nam. As to the accusations of favoring Catholics, he could not admit it, but it was clear to everybody that hiring Christian personnel meant insuring loyal anti-Communist people in the nerve centers of the state. Diem’s Secretary of State, Nguyen Dinh Thuan let slip the accusation that the Viet Cong were taking advantage of the Buddhist rebellion.

The revolt acquired an icon of its own too: the pseudo-martyr Thich Quang Duc, who chose a congested street intersection of the city of Saigon to light himself on fire, in protest against the Diem’s government. The media relayed the truly shocking image throughout the world. The Vietnamese chaos that according to the Karmic cause and effect logic was eventually going to provoke the historical horror that we all know had found its icon.
At the end of the month, the uprising reached Saigon, where the monks surrounded the National Assembly.

In June, Diem fell the heads of the officers who had used too much of a heavy hand in the repression, but even that was not enough for the bonzes. Several skirmishes occurred; tear-gas was launched against the monks; the secret police tried to arrest American journalists, while the monks directed their anti-government action from the Xa Loi pagoda; from which, on August 18, the most massive protest march that had ever been seen in Viet Nam originated: 15,000 Buddhists, under driving rain, marched through Saigon, though taking care to avoid government buildings.

 David Halberstam, the correspondent of “The New York Times,” noted that this could have been a strategy to prepare an even bigger demonstration for the arrival of the American ambassador. Halberstam reported that the monks “were playing a fast and dangerous game.” Since it was well known that the government was about to tighten the screw as to the Buddhist propaganda from the Xa Loi pagoda, the American reporter thought that “the Buddhists seemed to be aware of the possible consequences, while their protest became more and more intense.”[2]

The generals asked President Diem for a conference, informing him that the pagoda by then had been completely infiltrated by the Viet Cong. Diem became convinced of the need for martial law and to deploy the army in various points of Saigon; but he asked that the military intervention be contained, saying that the monks should not be harmed. But the situation got out of hand again: on August 21, the army attacked the pagodas over the entire territory of South Viet Nam. 1400 monks were arrested; others (some alleged they numbered in the hundreds) were killed or kidnapped. Many found refuge with the Americans. Saigon passed in the hands of the military; all airline flights were canceled.

The United States, after having trained the same troops that were now raiding the pagodas, reacted by dumping the Diem’s government: President Kennedy, through the famous Cablegram 243, informed the American ambassador that every effort had to be made to get rid of the government of Ngo Dinh Diem and his family members.

It is now a widely shared opinion that the November 1963 coup d’état — during which President Diem was murdered — was promoted, if not actually completely directed by the CIA. The generals seized power. Diem got away boldly through a tunnel, then he try to gather international support, but he was caught and shot point blank with a semi-automatic pistol. His body was then stabbed repeatedly.

1963. Coupe d'état

And so a new phase of the Vietnamese chaos began. This may be one of the most intricate stories of the 20th century. The administration of Ngo Dinh Diem was certainly corrupt, but the emergency situation of the unfortunate Asian country slipped from the hands of a reprobate President to the hands of the murderous Vietcong. As the old adage says: from the frying pan into the fire.

First of all, the historic situation must be put into context: Buddhism was not the religion of the masses, but of the elites. In the course of the early years of the 20th century, Buddhism was re-injected into the social fabric of Viet Nam, not to the disadvantage of France that financed the Buddhist organizations to better control them. Neither the theories of Confucius — to which traditionally the higher classes subscribed — nor the Catholic religion were for the French suitable to tame the riotous Indochinese people that had just been conquered: inoculating Buddhism into the upper Vietnamese classes might have turned out to be a profitable strategy in the long term.

Consequently, far from having ever been the only religion in the country, Buddhism enjoyed a true revival. Italian missionary and author Piero Gheddo wrote:
“The approach to Buddhism on the part of the upper class and, more in general, the better educated population of the cities could not have been without political consequences: in fact the opposition to Diem […] did not come from the countryside but mainly from the cities; not from the humble classes, but from the educated people who felt more intensely the lack of political freedom. Therefore, in the absence of political parties and associations, this renewed form of Buddhism became the central point of the political opposition, and it was backed also by those who were not at all Buddhist, but saw in a mass religion with international resonance a way to rid themselves of the dictator.”[3]

Nevertheless, the rumor that the Buddhists were in every respect remote-controlled by the Viet Cong was more than just plausible; although Edward N. Luttwak, in his book, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook (which was a very educational reading in the 1970’s) mysteriously hints at the support given to the monks by the United States.[4]
It was also a commonly held view (especially among the Christian missionaries, who were much more at the forefront with respect to reporters and diplomats) that Buddhism and Marxism, not only as doctrines but also from a geopolitical point of view, shared many points of contact.
Buddhologist Edward Conze maintained that “the doctrinal resemblance between Mahayana Buddhism and Dialectic Materialism is surprisingly close, and a reciprocal influence of ideas is destined to take place, with long term consequences for both.”[5]

 Piero Gheddo gathered a fair amount of proof of this idea, which today is almost totally forgotten. He wrote: “The magazine “Croissance des jeunes nations” dedicated an article about this subject: “Buddha opens the way to Karl Marx” (May 1965), in which the cultural connections between Buddhism and Communism were summarized […] Many observers asked — writes the above-mentioned magazine — whether Buddhism, which is being discussed very much since the fall of Diem, is really an obstacle or, to the contrary, is blazing the trail for a Marxist regime.”[6]
The answer lies in what occurred afterwards: when the Americans withdrew from their painful war, Viet Nam became entirely communist.
But it is not about the story of Ho Chi Minh domination that we would like to venture into a mystical line of reasoning.
Let us apply the logic of interdependence, that is, the Buddhist concept of “dependent origination,” the eternal Karmic law of cause and effect. Let’s do it to launch an imaginary (and probably useless, we agree) game of alternative historical:
If, in 1963, Buddhists had not begun that cycle of protests against the Diem government, maybe things would have unfolded differently. Diem might have been able to stand up to the aggressiveness of North Viet Nam for years, or maybe even decades; in a situation similar to what we see today in Korea, where the democratic South (which has had its share of corrupt dictators) has been containing for more than a half a century the invasion plans of the communist North.
In an even more interesting way, we’d like to fancy about a world without the Viet Nam war and all its consequential conflicts: the Khmer Rouge and their genocidal regime in Cambodia; or the too-often-forgotten 1979 war between China and Viet Nam, a conflict that broke out as soon as the communist unification of Viet Nam was completed. And setting aside the local conflicts, let’s examine the global aftermaths of the war: the atrocities committed by the Americans in Viet Nam legitimized the rise of the so-called youth counter culture, in the United States and Europe. In the face of the horrors suffered by the civilian population in the Viet Nam war, there took hold all kinds of sub-cultures that promised peace and utopia, whether they were hippies or even movements with a clear terrorist connotation.

On the other hand, this state of confusion had always been in the plans of the powerful ally of communist Viet Nam: the Soviet Union. The KGB had always hoped to find the key to undermine the vitality of the American spirit. According to the precepts of Sun Tzu (whose The Art of War was a fundamental text for the cadres of the KGB) the war, the cold war, had to be won even before entering the battle field.
As Soviet dissident Yuri Bezmenov[7] testified, they had to pull down the American enemy through the demoralization of the fabric of society; and it must be said that they almost succeeded: the American nation lived the post Viet Nam war period like a grave post traumatic stress syndrome.

Incapable of welcoming back the veterans and to make sense of what had happened, part of the American psyche — and consequently part of the Western mind too — was damaged forever. In a way, the Americans learned their lesson and tried to serve the Russians the same dish, fomenting a war that from this point of view can be considered an offspring of Viet Nam’s: the Afghan War.
At the end of her intervention in Afghanistan— which mowed down the lives of many young Russians — the Soviet Union imploded. Maybe, without the Viet Nam War, the Cold War would have lasted less; or maybe longer. But today, in the uncertainty of this post bi-polar world, bristling with powerful terrorists and financial crises, we are not given to know what would have been better. Certain it is that, today, in a bizarre twist of fate, there are Americans in Afghanistan.

This state of confusion was generated, in part, by monks who walked in the streets in protest. Maybe a bonze, endowed with the siddhi power of clairvoyance, could discern the boundaries of this deathly design of cultural and material destruction. Perhaps the plan was much more vast; and we mortals should give up trying to understand this twisted chain of events, even if we are experiencing its effects every day. But one thing is certain: even in that tragic hour in which chaos was unleashed in Viet Nam too, the goal of the Buddhists was to substitute themselves for that model which so far has yet to be surpassed by any other organized religion: the Catholic Church.

At the heart of Vietnamese Buddhism “alongside the political drive, there was a sense of religious frustration. In its attempt of renewal and modern re-organization, Buddhism came face to face with the Catholic Church that was already well organized and modernized, with an educated clergy, numerous and impressive works, strong associations of laymen, newspapers, higher education institutions, et cetera…hence the sense of frustration.”[8]

But this basic sense of envy was not just a matter of logistics. During the 1963 crisis, Vietnamese Buddhism went looking for his martyrs too. And that brings us to the case of Thich Quang Duc (1897-1963), the most famous “martyr” for the cause of the bonzes, whose holy picture-cards were copiously distributed to the Vietnamese population.

On June 10, 1963, in the very middle of the Buddhist crisis, an envoy of the Buddhist rebels approached the foreign media reporters, and asked them to be at the Cambodian embassy the following day. To stimulate the natural scoop-hunting instinct of the journalistic crowd, the rebels clearly promised them that something big was going to take place.

Not every one listened to the Buddhist messenger, because the crisis by then had been going on for at least a month and a half. Malcolm Browne, an Associated Press photographer, and David Halberstam of “The New York Times” decided to show up for the date. The two reporters saw the advancing of a long procession of bonzes, divided in two phalanxes, with the folkloristic detail of an old Austin Westminster automobile leading the parade.
The monks waved flags and carried bilingual signs in Vietnamese and English, which is proof of the fact that everything had been set up to manipulate the U.S. public opinion through the media. And they succeeded. The content of the messages, as it is easy to imagine, was a series of slogans against President Diem and its policies.

The procession stopped at the intersection between Boulevard Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet Street.
The elderly Thich Quang Duc got out of the car, accompanied by two young aids. One of them laid a cushion on the road; the other one carried a tank of gasoline. The old monk sat on the ground with his legs crossed, in the classic lotus position.
The young man with the tank poured the fuel on Quang Duc who was fumbling through a string of beads repeating a prayer to a celestial Buddha that the Mahayana sect worships.
 He said: “Nam mo A di da phat” (Praise to the Buddha Amithaba) and he lit a match, letting it drop on himself. His clothes and his flesh were soon consumed by the flames, and a black cloud of smoke blew in the air.

The police tried to reach the center of the scene, but the Buddhist clergy, who had probably studied the logistics of the performance, formed a human shield that prevented the officers from extinguishing the match.
The crowd was speechless. A monk took a microphone and began to chant: “A Buddhist monk set himself on fire; a Buddhist monk became a martyr.” Naturally the well prepared slogan was repeated in Vietnamese and in English.
Then the body of the Quang Duc was collected by the bonzes and taken to the Xa Loi pagoda, where it was completely cremated. The ashes became a relic, as well as the heart that — according to the monks — had remained untouched. Legend has it that the people of Saigon saw in the sunset sky the face of the Buddha in tears.
Malcolm Browne, who took the pictures of the self-immolation, won the Pulitzer Prize. So did David Halberstam, who recounted in his newspaper article the experience of the suicidal monk.

Those images not only had a political value; they were deeply shocking. In the 1963 Ingmar Bergman’s motion picture Persona, the main character becomes aphasic after watching on TV the images of other Quang Duc-imitating bonzes (until October 1963, there were at least five more instances of self-torching monks, some of which were filmed). Thirty years later, the rock band Rage against the Machine chose to put Malcolm Brown’s photograph on the cover of one of their albums.

Practically speaking, Buddhists had invented the snuff movie: a film that actually shows someone’s death. But snuff movies are not only made for perverse rich collectors. Especially in the course of the last recent years, they have acquired great political value: suffice to recall the videos of the decapitations of Westerners that were broadcast on-line by Muslim Jihadi.
 The Vietnamese bonzes had anticipated the cinematographic-political use of death. After seeing the picture, President Kennedy cursed then said that no other photograph had ever been more significant. William Colby, then head of the CIA, said that, after that, very little could have been done to salvage the situation for President Diem.

The photograph was printed on millions of cards and sent to every continent as the incriminating icon of American imperialism; the same imperialism that shortly thereafter would liquidate President Diem.
The monks had scored a bull’s-eye. The “martyr” had produced the desired effect; the mediatic power of his suicide had nailed Diem and his forces for ever. It was an absolute masterpiece of political propaganda.

But if we consider the Christian meaning of the word “martyr” — that is, its original derivation — we see that the bonze could not be considered a martyr. Because the martiryon — the “testimony,” in Greek — can never be a self-immolation: Christians become martyrs only when they are killed by executioners, who often receive blessings and prayers from their dying holy victims. Catholicism never, ever accepted suicide. The Christian martyr lives his or her life to the end, and loves it until the executioners take it away. The suicide as an act of protest does not exist for a Christian: life goes on till the last moment. Martyrdom is the testimony of an exemplary life.
For the Catholic Church, Viet Nam is a land in which the Divine Providence has arranged a good number of martyrs. Unlike Buddhism, with its self-combusting monks, the Catholic Church has produced men who lived their faith till their death, without looking for the spotlight or the Pulitzer Prize photograph to remind the world of their cause, and without co-religionists that yelled their reasons into a bullhorn for the Western media.

François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002) is an emblematic case, also because he was the nephew of Ngo Dinh Diem and of the Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc; that is, he was a member of the great catholic political dynasty that had led Viet Nam till the Buddhist crisis and its bloody epilogue.

François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan

When the Americans were in retreat and Viet Nam was about to become wholly communist, the Vatican chose Van Thuan as the new archbishop of Saigon, as his predecessor, Paul Nguyen Van Binh was gravely ill and exhausted by the past decade of war. Not even six days had passed from his appointment — Van Thuan had not yet taken his place in the dioceses — when the communist regime arrested him together with dozens of other priests. They all ended up in the reeducation camps.
Archbishop Van Thuan remained in jail for thirteen years; nine of which in solitary confinement.
In the Phu Kanh prison, his cell had only one hole through which a little fresh air came in, and Van Thuan spent one hundred days with his nose pressed into that narrow slit.
Worms, spiders and centipedes insinuated into his cell, and the priest, who later confessed that he had lost all the clear-headedness needed to pray, did not even have the energy to brush off the crawlers from his body.
He found the strength to go on thinking of San Paul and his imprisonment. He felt an unexpected strength spring from deep within himself, which gave him clearness of mind and vigor.

“Give up any superfluous thing and concentrate on the essential. It does not matter how many things we do; just the intensity of the love we put in any single one of our actions counts. I have to preserve my love and my smile for everyone else. I am afraid to waste even just one second living without this awareness.[13] 
The harsh regime of his imprisonment had a specific purpose: to reduce as much as possible the threat that he very clearly posed to society. They had begun to notice, in fact, that a very strange phenomenon was taking place around Archbishop Van Thuan.
A prison guard, who every day became more and  more impressed by Van Thuan’s devotion, told the Archbishop that he was going to pray for him on the site of Our Lady of La Vang, a sanctuary that had been torn down. The guard was not even a Christian; nevertheless he felt he had to pray for the intercession of the Virgin to help the prisoner. In a note that the guard sneaked into the cell, he confided the Archbishop that he went to the sanctuary every week:
“I pray for you like this: Our Lady, I am not a Christian. I don’t know how to pray. I am begging you to give Mister Francis what he wishes for.”[14]
The guard began in secret to provide the Archbishop the necessary to say Mass — Van Thuan celebrated it with an infinitesimally small crumb of bread and a drop of wine that the guard had managed to bring him.
 The warder was eventually transferred, but his replacements had the same experience. They were all converted.

The communists realized the inevitability of this “contamination” and established rotating shifts for the guards, to avoid as much as possible the exposure of the warders to the presence of Van Thuan. But the damage had been done: all the guards looked with admiration at that prisoner who taught them French and English; and there were even cases of guards who wanted to receive Latin lessons.

The Veni Creator Spiritus, the ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit, became an often-heard song in the prison.
Upon a request from the prisoner, he was given a few pieces of wood and some wire with which Van Thuan built a crucifix. A few years later in Rome, after he had been freed and elected Cardinal, he chose to wear it as a pectoral cross.
“Every day I wear this crucifix and this chain, not because they remind me of prison, but because they are the symbol of a profound conviction of mine, and of something that for me is a constant point of reference: only Christian love, and not the weapons, the threats or the mass-media, can change one’s heart.” [15]
No Pulitzer Prize winning picture of the Christian martyrs of Viet Nam was ever in the cards.


[1] Samyuttanikaya, ii, 28.
[2] David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Viet Nam during the Kennedy Era, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 2008, page 140.
[3] Piero Gheddo, Cattolici e Buddisti nel Vietnam, Vallecchi, Florence, (Italy), 1968, page 168.
[4] Edward N. Luttwak, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, Harvard University Press, Boston, 1979, page 40.   
[5] Armando Rizza, Buddhismo in risveglio (Buddhism reawakening), P.I.M.E., Milano, 1964, page 106.   
[6] Piero Gheddo, op. cit., page 199.
[7] Cfr. Thomas Shuman, Love Letter to America, W.I.N. Almanac Panorama, Los Angeles, 1984. In this book, as well as in the numerous video-recorded conferences that are now available on-line, the former KGB spy Yuri Bezmenov (who became Thomas Schuman after his adventurous escape from behind the Iron Curtain) deals with the general demoralization produced by the detachment of societies from religion. Schuman says that the KGB had very precise ideas about that, and invested funds and assets to promote a trivialized version of religion in order to provoke the disenchantment of the Western masses. “Every great civilization fell when people renounced God and religion […] It is a manifestation of an innate spirit of self destruction, which, if it is freed, leads to the physical extinction of the entire human kind”. Ibidem, page 29.     
[8] Piero Gheddo, op. cit., page 185.
[9] Robert Royal, Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, Crossroad Pub., 2000; page 356.
[10] Ibidem, page 420.
[11] Ibidem, page 360.
[12] Ibidem, page 360.
[13] Robert Royal, op. cit., page 366.
[14] Ibidem, page 429.
[15] Ibidem, page 430.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mario Sironi.

A short biography of Mario Sironi. 
by Elena Pontiggia (translated and edited by Leonardo Pavese). 
Posted by permission from the Associazione Mario Sironi 

“My greatest pleasure has always been to deal with matters of art; and I spent countless hours at my table when other people my age had fun. This passion was so strong in me, and art seemed such a great thing to me, sublime and unreachable, that I had always considered it an immense deity of which, unfortunately, to me mere mortal was only conceded to breathe the perfume.” This is what Mario Sironi, in 1903, at the age of eighteen, wrote to his cousin Torquato.
Sironi was born in 1885 in Sassari, on the island of Sardinia, where his father worked at the time, but he was brought up in Rome, not far from Villa Borghese.
“He considered himself a Roman, more than anything else; and of the Roman he also had the accent.” That is how Amedeo, Margherita Sarfatti's son, who spent much time with Sironi, remembered him.
In 1902 Sironi had enrolled in engineering school, but just the following year he was struck by an attack of depression, the first symptom of an existential malaise which would accompany him throughout his entire life.
Amedeo Sarfatti said: “He was an introverted man, full of complexes. Although, I believe, he was very well aware of his worth, and surely convinced of his artistic and aesthetic values, he was strangely disparaging, at least apparently, towards his work of which he never seemed satisfied.”

Mario Sironi  Self-portrait
Encouraged by the approval of the old sculptor Ximenes and by the divisionist painter Discovolo, Sironi quit college and dedicated himself fully to painting, and began to frequent the studio of the painter Giacomo Balla. In Balla’s studio he would eventually meet the painters Severini and Umberto Boccioni who, after a few initial misunderstandings, would become his dearest friend in his young age.
In 1905 Sironi began to make and publish illustrations, painting three covers for “L’Avanti della Domenica”, the Sunday issue of the (Socialist) newspaper L’Avanti.
His paintings, at the time (for example: Madre che cuce, Sewing Mother, of 1905-1906) were characterized by a filament-like brush stroke which was reminiscent of Divisionism, but already expressed Sironi’s plastic and architectonic vocation.

Umberto Boccioni's letters and journals tell us about Sironi’s recurrent depressive crises, which caused the painter to shut himself at home, avoiding everybody and concentrating obsessively on drawing. But they also reveal to us Sironi’s deep love for the classics, just at the time when the Futurist manifestos were inciting to the destruction of museums.
In August 1910, Boccioni complained that “Sironi keeps a house full of gypsum models, and copies a Greek head from every direction, 20 or 25 times!!! Obviously, he disapproves of us”.
It was not until 1913 that Sironi, inspired by Boccioni’s work, finally approached Futurism. He wrote to Boccioni: “After having matured on your art, and the art of you all, I fell in love with it, especially with yours.”
Nevertheless, Sironi would interpret Futurism from the point of view of his incessant research about volumes, and he would always paint Dynamic Volumes (quoting the title of one of his paintings), the movement of which never reaches the point of breaking down the structure of the figures.
Sironi’s activity within Boccioni’s artistic movement was very intense: in 1914 he was present at the “Libera Esposizione Futurista,” at the Sprovieri’s gallery in Rome; and he also participated in a recitation of freeform poetry.
The following year, Sironi moved to Milan for a short period, and there collaborated with his illustrations to the magazine “Gli Avvenimenti” (The Current Events), a publication which was close to Futurism, and he became part of the managing nucleus of that group.
“Sironi’s not only a very nice man, of a very generous and upright character, but he is also, and especially, a true Futurist, in the real meaning of the word, who now has joined deeply, and with great originality, the research into sculptural dynamism. He has taken Soffici’s place with an intellect that is at least one hundred times superior.” That was Tommaso Marinetti’s opinion of Mario Sironi.
In 1915, at the outbreak of First World War in Italy, Sironi joined the Battaglione Volontario Ciclisti (The Volunteer Bicycle-Mounted Battalion), to which all the other Futurists belonged: Boccioni, Marinetti, Sant’Elia (who was killed in the war), Funi, Russolo and others; and in 1916 he co-signed the Futurist manifesto: L’orgoglio Italiano (The Italian Pride).

Sant'Elia, Boccioni and Marinetti

The first critical reviews of his work appeared in the same year. The first one was written by Boccioni, who described Sironi’s drawings as “an exceptionally powerful and original manifestation of the artistic illustration.” The second was by Margherita Sarfatti, who emphasized Sironi’s “art of extreme synthesis and simplification...the stylization, from real life, through the use of great and strong angular masses of light and shade, white and black, which sometime reach very powerful effects.”
Meanwhile, however, his work was beginning to be pervaded by metaphysical influences. In July 1919, after being discharged from the Army, he held his first personal show at the Casa d’Arte Bragaglia where he displayed, alongside some of his futurist paintings, examples of work with a clear metaphysical ascendancy.

It was not an accident that Mario Broglio (1891-1948),who was an Italian artist, art critic and publisher, while stigmatizing the persistence of the Futurist elements, could not help but notice in a few paintings “a materialization full of wonderment and enchantment; a sort of contemplative repose”, and spoke also of “images which tend to bring us outside time and space, where an archaic soul seems to have brought to life simple and severe bodies, like in a dream.”
In July of that year, Sironi wed Matilde Fabbrini, with whom he had been engaged since 1915. However, in September he left for Milan without his wife, because he couldn’t afford to bring her along. He wrote to Matilde: “Milan buzzes all about, like the engines of that airship we used to listen to. What can this wheeling and dealing town give to me besides a loathing for her and the need to defend myself against its very power? Nevertheless, it’s much better than Rome, which is nothing but a deplorable dream.”
It was during this period, probably because he was affected and influenced by the city’s environment, that he began to create his unmistakable urban landscapes.

Meanwhile, he had grown closer to the Fascist movement. Marinetti remembers that, already by October 1919, Sironi was among those who participated in the meetings of the Fascio of Milan. His adherence to the fascist movement, which Sironi later expressed in great works with an ideological but never propagandistic content, has vitiated the opinions of many about his art, much more so than in the case of other artists of that time.
As an example, the architect Giuseppe Terragni was not less of a fascist than Sironi, but the studies of his work have not centered in a preponderant way on his political convictions, as it happened instead with the literature about Sironi.
 Furthermore, the numerous studies about the subject don’t always make an effort to comprehend fully what Fascism meant to Mario Sironi, as Agnoldomenico Pica, for example, advised the art critics to do. Emily Braun wrote: “As a diehard supporter of Sironi, even after the war, Pica frankly admitted that Sironi had been a fascist, as he himself had been, and, he said, still was. “But,” Pica admonished her, “you should understand what our Fascism was.”

Terragni,  Direttorio: the Conference Room of the Casa del Fascio , Como.

To Sironi, as it can be deduced from his writings, Fascism meant essentially two things: the first was the dream of a renaissance of Italy, and therefore of Italian art; the second, as we will see better later, it was the desire of “moving towards the people,” to use Mussolini’s own expression, that is, in the field of visual expression, the dream of an art which wasn’t meant for the salons, or for rich collectors, but for the squares and the walls of public buildings, and therefore for everybody.
When, in 1944, the sculptor Arturo Martini (1889-1947) said that Sironi “ believed to be a Fascist, but his was the nearly abyssal soul of a Bolshevik,” he just meant to emphasize the sense of Sironi’s fascism, which was always a fascism “of the left” (to use a cliché which is not without ambiguity) or, in any case a fascism with a “social” vocation.
We can compare this statement by Martini to what Sironi’s wife Matilde said about her husband: “He should be called an anarchist! As far as I’m concerned, I’d call him a “communist,” although of a later time variety...But he was for Mussolini, that’s for sure.”
In January of 1920, together with Funi, Dudreville and Russolo Sironi signed The Futurist Manifesto. Against all the revivals in painting, which, notwithstanding the title, already contained many of the proposals of the future artistic movement “Novecento Italiano.”
In March of the same year he participated in a group exhibition, in the newly established Galleria Arte, where he exhibited his urban landscapes for the first time. The first of the three urban landscapes to be documented with certainty was: Paesaggio urbano con camion (Urban Landscape with Truck, painted in 1920).

This series of paintings represents one of the high points of the art of Sironi, nevertheless it’s also one of the themes which were least understood by the more recent critics.
In this regard, it is helpful to review the interpretation that Margherita Sarfatti gave of these paintings: an interpretation born from her daily conversations with Sironi, and with which the painter identified, in view of his on-going intellectual fellowship with the writer.
The basic elements, which Sarfatti isolates in Sironi’s urban landscapes, are two: the tragic element, and what she calls, with a Nietzchean and D’Annunzio-like expression, the “Glorification.” There’s no need to dwell on the first point: the tragic aspect of Sironi’s paintings is evident: the outskirts of the town he paints don’t know niceties, prettiness or embellishment. Only the implacable arrangement of volumes. They are a metaphor of existence: the neighborhoods are not tough, life is.
Nevertheless, Sironi infused strength and grandiosity in these tragic elements. The powerful structure of the buildings, which resemble secular cathedrals, expresses a constructive energy, which stands in contrast with the severity of the image; an energy which, on one hand, is evidence of the persistence of matter and on the other hand the sign of a rediscovered ability to construct the forms. It is actually, in the widest sense of the expression, the very symbol of construction, meant as a “categorical imperative,” or moral duty.
At that time though, Sironi was mainly known as an illustrator. During the 1920-21 period, especially on the magazine “Industrie Italiane Illustrate”, he published on average a drawing a week. It was a commitment with an overwhelming rhythm, about which Sironi complained to his wife: “I work and work; like I was drilling my brain”.

Furthermore, in August of 1921 Sironi began collaborating with the “Popolo d’Italia”, the daily newspaper founded by Benito Mussolini himself, a co-operation which will last uninterrupted until October of 1942.
During the early 1920’s, his drawings appeared on the newspaper very frequently, at times almost daily; and his illustrations constitute a dramatic and sarcastic commentary on the political events of the time.
As he himself remembered: “We worked with feverish fervor. Many times, the ideas and the subjects for the illustrations were given to me by Mussolini himself. I had to deliver the drawings by nine o’clock in the morning, and many times to finish them it took all night.”
During the same year (1921), Matilde was finally able to join him in Milan. They were frequent guests at the Sarfatti’s house at Cavallasca, on Lake Como, and their first daughter, Aglae, was born in 1921.

Margherita Sarfatti as portrayed by Sironi

In December of 1922, Sironi, with Bucci, Dudreville, Funi, Malerba, Marussig and Oppi founded “Novecento Italiano”, an artistic movement inspired by Margherita Sarfatti, which proposed the idea of a “Modern Classicism”, that is, a classic form of painting, devoid of the pictorial effects of the 19th century and sifted through a purist filter. The group exhibited for the first time at the Galleria Pesaro, in March of 1923.
In 1924 Sironi participated to the Venice Biennale with the “Novecento” group, who had rechristened themselves the “Six Painters of the Novecento,” due to the absence of Ubaldo Oppi.
At the Biennale Sironi, whose pictures unfortunately went almost un-noticed, showed four paintings centered on the human figure, among which L’architetto (The Architect) and L’allieva (The Student), which remain among his greatest works of art.


Still in 1924, he created the scenes and the costumes for Aristophanes’ The Knights, beginning his research work into theatre, which will continue into the following decades.

Sironi was, by far, the most representative artistic figure in the “Novecento” movement. He became a member of the Board of Directors as early as 1925 and he exhibited his work in the national and international group expositions; but his absence from the group exhibition of 1927 called: “Quindici artisti del Novecento” (Fifteen artists of the Novecento Movement) in Milan, at the Scopinich gallery, was the first hint of his dissatisfaction with the “system” of art, the galleries and the market circuit.
The desire to return to mural painting was growing in him: it was a wish that Sironi had been cherished for a long time, (and there’s evidence of that even in the articles by Sarfatti, since 1919). It was a desire that had been acquiring a deeper and deeper theoretical awareness.   
In the meanwhile (in fact since 1927), Sironi had also begun writing as an art critic for the “Popolo d’Italia”.

Mario Sironi

Around the year 1930 Sironi met Mimì Costa, to whom, through alternate vicissitudes, he will remain bound for the rest of his life.
In 1932 he separated from his wife Matilde, although the problematic family situation would not prevent him to prove himself a very tender and attentive father to his daughters Aglae and Rossana. (Rossana had been born to the Sironi’s in 1929); and 1930 was also the year in which the first monographic book about him, authored by Giovanni Scheiwiller, was published. It must be said, incidentally, that Sironi in this case revealed a total indifference for the dating of his paintings; the same attitude that he would always demonstrate towards the accuracy of his biographical data. “I was born in Sassari (Sardinia) in the past century…” is the laconic biography which Sironi used to pen about himself.
In 1931 Sironi was commissioned to build the stained-glass window entitled La Carta del Lavoro (The Charter of Workers) for the Ministry of Corporations in Rome, which he will complete in 1932; and two great canvases for the Palace of the Postal Service in the city of Bergamo entitled: Lavoro nei Campi or L’Agricoltura (The Work in the Fields or Agriculture) and Lavoro in Città or L’Architettura (Work in the City or Architecture).

From this moment on, Sironi will devote himself mainly to great decorative works, disregarding painting on the easel, which he had come to consider, in his own words: “a limited and insufficient art form.” For him, in fact, wall painting was not simply a technique, but a radically different way to think about art (ancient and classic at the same time, but also novel and authentically fascist, in the sense that, as he himself said: “it was the “social art” par excellence”).
But why should a mural painting be more valuable than a canvas? Sironi believed there were three basic reasons. To begin with, a large public wall decoration embodied an egalitarian utopia, because it couldn’t be privately owned, and it could be found in the streets, in the workplaces or at the post office. Furthermore, in this way the importance of the galleries and the market was reduced, because a wall couldn’t be bought or sold easily, nor could it be exhibited, unless in an ephemeral form, therefore stimulating the commissioning of works of art by the state. Lastly, mural painting would have inspired the artists to tackle solemn and grand themes (because it would have been impossible to paint, for example, an apple near a pear under, let’s say, the Arch of Titus) and to develop a new concept of space, to bypass the intimism and the idea of art centered around the psychology and the feelings of the artist.
Nevertheless, and this is the main point, wall painting should not fall in the trap of placing emphasis on content over form, or degenerate into propaganda. Sironi dreamt of an art that was in keeping with the spirit of the fascist revolution, but he was aware that that depended solely on style and not on the subject of the painting; contrary to what was happening, for instance, with (Soviet) socialist realism, as he himself pointed out: “Rather than through the subject (the communist idea), it is through the suggestions of the environment and through style that art will be able to shape anew the popular soul…”

Italy between the Arts and the Sciences

For the entire decade, Sironi (among the innumerable things at which he worked at an unbelievable rhythm) toiled after a long succession of monumental works, in which he chose a multi-centric composition, very often divided into quadrants and ruled by pre-Renaissance perspective and organization of space. Even in his few easel paintings of this period (which were often inspired by the ideas of labor, the family and the landscape, in the sense of primordial and timeless concepts), the figures assume titanic proportions, reminiscent of the statues of antiquity, which have the potential grandiosity of mural paintings.

It is impossible to list here all the works to which Sironi gave his contribution between 1932 and 1939, because they truly are innumerable, (for a complete listing, please refer to Sironi’s biography at the Associazione Mario Sironi's  website). During this period Sironi invited all the best Italian artists to execute monumental decorations. He himself sculpted the great mural Il Lavoro (Labor), besides several other sculptures. It was also in this occasion that the anti-Novecento controversy resumed. The polemic had started actually in 1931-32 and it was encouraged especially by Roberto Farinacci, from his paper “Il Regime Fascista.”
Sironi was the object of violent attacks and he defended with passionate articles the line of thinking of the “Novecento” movement. Contrary to what is often stated though, Sironi was not forced to resign from the daily “Il Popolo d’Italia” (and in fact he continued to contribute to the newspaper’s monthly supplement “Rivista Illustrata del Popolo d’Italia” (The Illustrated Magazine of the Popolo d’Italia); nor he ever lost Mussolini’s personal appreciation. The anecdote relayed by Ojetti, who said that the dictator, in 1933, criticized the “big hands” and the “big feet,” in Sironi’s drawings, finally blurting out: “Sironi’s an idiot” is dubiously trustworthy and, in any case, it should be put back into perspective.
Mussolini, as late as in the years of the Republic of Salò, wrote: “The art of Sironi was the background against which I built my revolution.” Even Sironi’s failure to participate in the 1934 Venice Biennale, which has been often attributed to his controversy with Farinacci, had different causes, as we will examine later.
In 1939 Sironi also planned the execution of the sculptures for the Danteum (an envisioned, but never built monument to Dante Alighieri), designed by the design group directed by Giuseppe Terragni; and between 1939 and 1942 he collaborated again with Giovanni Muzio to the completion of the Palace of the Popolo d’Italia, executing the decorations for the facade and for a few internal spaces, contributing also to the architectural design.
It was a commitment without respite, with unforgiving deadlines that compromised even his health but did not completely satisfy his creative tension, which was frustrated not only by the envy of his colleagues but also by the incomprehension of the critics.
About the 1937 bas-reliefs for Paris, for example, Sironi wrote:
“Mine is a modest effort; just a feeble germ of what my contribution could be if the aforementioned bullies were bumped off, as they deserve and they are not, instead of being alive.”

In the course of that decade, Sironi had radically cut down his participation to the art exhibits, although he held two important personal shows at the Galleria Milano in 1931 and 1934. A symptom of his disinterest was a little known episode: Sironi was invited to the 1934 Venice Biennale. He had pledged to show never-seen-before work, but he failed to send any painting, ignoring the ever-more-frantic telegrams from the curator of the exhibit, Maraini, who was urging him, halfway between begging and threatening him, and who, five days before the final coat of paint, declared himself “sorry to have to dispose differently of the space that had been reserved for you until now.”    
By that time, the war was raging. Notwithstanding the fact that Sironi had guessed early on how the war would end, (in November of 1942, he had written to Mussolini himself: “May God save You, and with You all of us.”) he gave his support to the Italian Social Republic, following the evolution of the events with increasing anguish.
On a sheet of paper, written in 1944-1945, that was found in his studio, we read: “Every day is an enormous effort to go on, to resist with this heart crushed by the enormous fatigue to exist...There is nobody here close to me; just more atrocious loneliness, as always...In some moments, I still delude myself. Then the horrid and gloomy wind starts blowing anew...Everything fell apart in the last few months, everything. There’s nothing left but rubbles and fear.”
And in a 1945 or 1946 letter he wrote: “But what came later was even more lugubrious...I saw things that even my bitter philosophy wouldn’t have allowed me to imagine. I saw the atrocity of life and the bestiality of human nature.”

To Sironi, who didn’t seek refuge (like many others did), in last hour changes of allegiance, the end of the regime was a devastating moment; and in fact it wasn’t just emotional suffering, because on the 25th of April (the day of the fall of Fascism) he also ran the risk to be executed.
Several versions of this dramatic episode have circulated. Some are clearly unbelievable, like the Marco Valsecchi’s account, who claimed Sironi went out in the street in Milan, amidst the shooting, and walked for hours, with his little she-dog, until he reached Lake Como, which is almost 50 kilometers away. (Valsecchi, 1913-1980, was an Italian art critic, professor and author.)
In reality, as witnessed by the writer Gianni Rodari, Sironi, with his dog on a leash, took indeed the road to Como, but he was stopped at a roadblock by a group of Resistance fighters. He would have been shot on the spot if Rodari, who belonged to the partisan brigade, hadn’t recognized him. “I don’t know if I should be proud of it,” Gianni Rodari said. “I signed his safe-conduct pass, in the name of Art.”
There’s no record that Sironi ever endured any political “purging” process, notwithstanding the violent climate of the period immediately following the war. However, on June 15, 1945, on the paper “Gli Insorti”, (the Rebels), one Albano Rossi published Sironi’s La Famiglia, demanding imperiously the elimination of all the artists of the “Novecento.” 

The Family

His desperate bitterness for the collapse of his civic and political hopes was compounded by the grief for the suicide of his daughter Rossana, who took her own life in 1949, at the age of nineteen. Nevertheless, he never stopped working; although very often, in his paintings, a fragmentation of shapes and a slackening of composition syntax replaced the powerful energy of the construction of his early works. It’s not by accident that one of his last pictorial series was dedicated to The Apocalypse.  
During the post-war years, he refused polemically to participate to the Venice Biennale, but he kept showing his work throughout Italy (at the 1951 Milan’s Triennale and at the 1955 Rome Quadriennale) and abroad, in an itinerant exhibit with Marino Marini in the U.S.A., in 1953.
The monographic book Mario Sironi Pittore, by his old friend Agnoldomenico Pica, which to this day remains the most important publication dedicated to Sironi, was published in 1955.

In 1956 Sironi was elected Member of the Academy of San Luca: an award which he received with scorn. “A farce,” he wrote to his brother.
In the meanwhile his health had been deteriorating, also for the manifestation of a form of progressive arthritis. In August of 1961, while his partner Mimì was abroad, Sironi was taken to a hospital in Milan with pneumonia. He died a few days later, on August 13.

Some time before that, he had written to Luigi Gobbi, his barber and one of his few confidants: “I can’t say anything about myself. In the vegetable garden, right in front, there’s a little pile of trash and it looks to me like my life, my heart, my hopes...Let’s hope that, after so many storms, so many tempests and so much bestial suffering...we’ll reach a harbor where we’ll find peace and silence for our miserable heart.”

Elena Pontiggia is an Italian art historian and author. She teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera, and writes about art for several newspapers and publications.
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