16.05.2018. Best of the Coast
In a crumbling Medieval watchtower on the Amalfi Coast, a bikini-clad woman is suspended upside-down in mid-air, frozen in the midst of a graceful dive. Nearby, another seaside beauty with a serious expression scans the ceiling as if waiting for enlightenment – her solemn absorption only slightly undermined by the fact that her hair is a huge, undulating marine sponge, decorated with a sprig of long-branched red coral.
Welcome to the world of Paolo Sandulli, a Campanian artist, sculptor and poet who has lived and worked in Praiano since 1993, in a circular tower that seems to merge organically with the rock it’s built on. For the 69-year-old artist, this charmed spot above the waves, rich in symbolic energy and folk-tale associations, is an indissoluble part of the pieces he creates here: “If there’s a force in my work”, Sandulli muses, “it’s largely thanks to the place where they’re created”.
Sandulli’s delicate female busts are inspired by the ladies of the Aragonese court sculpted by 15th-century Dalmatian artist Francesco Laurana, one of which –Beatrice – can be seen in the Frick collection in New York, while another, Sandulli’s muse Eleonora, is one of the prize exhibits of the Palazzo Abatellis museum in Palermo. “She was born in a tower overlooking the sea not very different from this one”, the artist points out of the Aragonese princess, who in 1473 would seal a dynastic union by becoming the wife of Ercole I D’Este, Duke of Ferrara.
Graceful, abstract, Laurana’s nine surviving female heads drift away from life-study portraiture to distill an ideal of female beauty. Sandulli pursues the same essence of femininity in his clay and terracotta busts, but adds “a touch of irony and modernity” by adding those extravagant, often brightly-hued sea-sponge wigs – “that way there’s no mistaking Laurana’s ‘Ladies of Aragon’ for the ‘Ladies of Sandulli”, he adds with his characteristic shy smile.
A series of terracotta planters, a selection of which can be seen in the garden of Positano’s Palazzo Murat hotel, recently extended Sandulli’s range of female busts. Instead of sea-sponge wigs, these women have verdant, growing plant hairdos – making the gathering of herbs an exercise in hair-styling.
The Avellino-born artist also paints and sketches landscapes and scenes of local life. A series of portraits of Praiano fishermen, done first in pen and ink then as a series of terracotta busts, teeter engagingly between character and caricature. Local fishing techniques, such as night-fishing for squid with lanterns, are also immortalized in a collection of small sculptural vignettes. “I see my role as one of cultural protection as well as creation”, Sandulli explains. “I’m a custodian of memories as well as an artist”.
Sandulli welcomes visitors to his tower-studio. “I enjoy the direct contact”, he explains, “and I realized years ago that I could live and work quite happily without merchants, without politicians”. And if his inspirations derive in part from ancient energies and traditions of the Italian south, he’s not immune to the Amalfi’s Coast fascination as a holiday destination. “I always associate towns like Praiano or Postiano with joy”, he enthuses, “with seduction, young suntanned bodies, young people falling in love”.
A long-running legal dispute with the family that owns the tower has recently seen Sandulli’s 25-year tenure threatened. “I’m here for now”, he says with a shrug. “The court case is ongoing. I don’t know what will happen in the end, but I’m going to do my best to prevent the tower from being turned into just another commercial space”.
Paolo Sandulli, Torre Asciola, Via Terramare, Praiano
Tel+39 339440 1008
Photos © Roberto Salomone