Salento A Parte: Mario Di Donfrancesco

Mario Di Donfrancesco, from Lecce and versatile artist, has been a painter, sculptor, papier-mâché maker and restorer for 43 years. His life takes place in the studio in the historic center of Lecce in via D’Amelio.

When you cross the threshold, it is as if you are entering the land of Alice and admiring all its wonders: baroque paintings and papier-mâché statues at human height that seem to want to welcome the unexpected guest while others, placed on wooden planks, watch over him because, those clay hands that are meticulously crafted, don’t have to undergo shocks from sudden movements. Nor are the feet with tiny fingers or hand-decorated clothes and paintings on the new easels, the only element of modernity in a world that amazes and smells of the past.

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I move between the colours, the brushes, the glues and plasters made according to old techniques and I do it slowly, with my eyes on every detail that seems small, but instead underlines the greatness of the artist.

Interviewing him is a difficult task, not because he continues to work while he speaks, but because in a place like this, which can only be found in Lecce, the least obvious thing to do is to stop and write.

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These are places where it seems as if life, in its most beautiful and complete form, that is, art, stops to breathe without any effort; or rather, to breathe a sigh of relief when life becomes unfair or difficult. Here everything is calm and tastes both good and good. Just like Mario, with his peaceful and simple character and his desire to let me participate in all his works and thus in his whole existence. Yet Mario does not think of keeping quiet and calm, as here he has a lot of work to do, first of all coordinating his trusted students who surround him, as well as affection – as befits an artist who puts humanity at the center of his work – also of artifacts for which they ask him for advice that he always refrains from smiling. Many works commissioned, to be restored, then the didactic activity, the exhibitions, the welcome of tourists, at least of that small niche of those who, in Salento, come to discover, in addition to the beauty of the sea, that of fine arts.

I interview him and the first question I ask him is about his talent, because it is also a privilege for me to see it in person.

How did you find out?

From a young age I loved to draw and I realized that in life I couldn’t do anything else but what I did.

In 1979 I opened my laboratory after completing artistic secondary school and fine arts academy. At the time, there was a lively discussion about contemporary art, and I was one of the few who did not support movements that wanted to put academism aside and replace it with an absolute, unfettered modernism, the one without technology. You can make modern art, but you have to know the technique.

What painting technique do you use?

The Baroque technique, rich in light effects, always starts with the construction of the paintings, each painting is born with the close collaboration between me and the client. Most have a religious content and are displayed in the churches. One of the last works was delivered to the Pope, it is a polychrome statue of Saint Joseph and 80 cm high.

How long does it take to paint a picture?

Sometimes even years, for the last painting depicting the ecstasy of San Rocco, now exhibited in a church in a place near Potenza, it took me two years. It is a painting that I define as “full”, with many figures, many charoscuri and also many colours.

Where can you admire the images of papier-mâché?

In Lecce in the Church of the Salesians, in that of Castromediano, in Frigole, in Santa Rosa, almost everywhere.

I can imagine that in a city like Lecce, your art and your studio have also been the subject of interest from television broadcasters

In my studio some scenes from a film were shot that recall the historical events of the Salento papier-mâché in which I also play a small part, a humble worker of the Maccagnani factory. At Easter, a German national broadcaster made a documentary about my activity. Some national television programs also made some reports in my studio, I remember, for example “A Sunday in the family” and then Piero Angela, Lorena Bianchetti and others were also here. I enjoy myself, fame doesn’t interest me much, what I like is to pass my job on to others, also because of my three children none have followed my path.

Speaking of Maccagnani, are you one of the teachers of the Eugenio Maccagnani school in Lecce?

Yes, it is a school for artists that teaches art to new generations who want to regain possession of the old art forms.

I learn to paint with the old and ever-present techniques, realism in painting, drawing, sculpting, papier-mâché.

Do you also teach tourists?

Yes, Francis Ford Coppola’s son did an apprenticeship in papier-mâché this summer.

What do tourists say when they see her at work?

For them, what happens here is part of an unknown world, art lovers come, I help them to make works after a few hours of class and then they gladly take them to their country and thus export our culture elsewhere.

Do you also work with the Workers’ Association?

Yes, the workers’ association was born more than 150 years ago as a mutual aid society for underprivileged families and in Lecce it has an exhibition space aimed at all artists who need significant visibility in the city.

What work would he never leave behind?

From an apparition of the Madonna of the Trinitarian Fathers found in Sardinia, an oil painting on canvas depicting the Madonna della Mercede.

What message would you like to give to art lovers and art lovers?

To always believe in the good examples of the past, because by treading the path of tradition, I believe that art can redeem itself and continue its saving work of a world now adrift.

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