FLAVIO BISCIOTTI: INVISIBLE CITIES
By Peter Frank
I have constructed in my mind a model city from which all possible cities can be deduced. It contains everything corresponding to the norm. I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others. I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception exist. I would achieve cities too probable to be real. – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
[all highlighted quotes are from Calvino’s book]
Visual artists and architects, you would suppose, would think about cities similarly, as built landscapes, as entirely manmade spaces to be admired and despised, by turn or at once, for their artfulness. But the difference between the artist’s eye and the architect’s is fundamental in at least one respect: the artist thinks in terms of representation – concept and appearance in and of themselves – while the architect thinks in terms of presentation – the organic presence of the thing itself. Many artists and architects, of course, have a grasp of both presentation and representation; but when the artist in question is also a practicing architect (or vice versa), that grasp is broad and complicated, encompassing exactly the kinds of contradictions that spark creative response.
The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content. (Cities & Desire 2)
Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. (Cities & Signs 2)
It is as an artist that Flavio Bisciotti has set out to realize his painting project “Invisible Cities;” but he comes armed with an architect’s mind no less than an artist’s soul. And it is that mind that allows him (although it is that soul that guides him) into the “repertory of images” Italo Calvino speaks of. Bisciotti’s “Invisible Cities” paintings, inspired and to some extent shaped by Calvino’s eccentric novella, consist of what we might call portraits of cities done from memory, elaborate but lucid fantasies set in motion by what remains in Bisciotti’s mind’s eye of places visited or inhabited. And if these fantasies begin in the mind’s eye, they begin with Bisciotti the architect and ultimately describe Bisciotti the artist. In recapitulating these cities, Bisciotti builds himself.
… sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place. (Cities & Memory 5)
To date, all his Invisible Cities have been places where Bisciotti has been, although the abstracting and streamlining approach(es) he takes to them would suggest that he is capable of conjuring cities he doesn’t know, and that doing so would make perfect sense in the context of the series – and certainly in the context of Calvino’s fanciful story about fanciful men. Indeed, the formulations Bisciotti paints are designed, if anything, to argue with others’ recollections, presenting as they do often very familiar architectural landmarks from skewed perspectives, in painterly rather than natural colors, with certain aspects and angles emphasized over others. Bisciotti the artist takes knowing liberties with cities and the structures that define them – and Bisciotti the architect abets this exercise in artful distortion, making sure that the details are initially correct and that the elaborations maintain at least an inner logic.
With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else. (Chapter 3 prologue)
That inner logic is crucial to the “Invisible Cities” project, as there is another voice besides Calvino’s that shapes Bisciotti’s quest. Andrea Palladio, the 16th-century Venetian architect, is as well known for the Four Books of Architecture he wrote as for the buildings he designed, and a particular section of that tome, Chapter XX, has provided Bisciotti a kind of counterweight to the ethereal musings of Marco Polo, Palladio’s fellow Venetian, that constitute Calvino’s far briefer book. In Chapter XX Palladio goes after “the Errors and Abuses introduc’d into Architecture” (per an 18th century English translation), railing against “that form of Building… which is so contrary to what Nature has taught us, that it deviates from that Simplicity which is visible in things by her produc’d, and departs from all that is good, or true, or agreeable, in the way of Building”. In his screed against excess, Palladio condemns “Modern Ornaments” that “give others only a confuse[d] Idea of Architecture, without any pleasure or satisfaction”. And in his own renditions, Bisciotti keeps in mind this anti-Mannerist injunction to keep matters simple.
From one part to the other, the city seems to continue, in perspective, multiplying its repertory of images: but instead it has no thickness, it consists only of a face and an obverse, like a sheet of paper, with a figure on either side, which can neither be separated nor look at each other. (Cities & Eyes 5)
What, then, makes Bisciotti’s cities “invisible”? Certainly not their debt to Palladio, who insisted on keeping things real. Certainly not Bisciotti’s own architectural impulses, which align naturally with Palladio’s (and to which Bisciotti gave quasi-artistic form in ambitious drawings made three or more decades ago). The condition of invisibility in fact is apparently absent from Bisciotti’s visually sumptuous paintings, so Bisciotti the artist as well as architect seems also to be caught up in establishing urban identities and making urban spaces palpable. But look more closely. Each painting essentially describes a city by a single thing, a church façade, a bridge, a tower, a quay, at most a skyline, reducing (but not diminishing) that city to a single motif. In every instance, one characteristic not only dominates all others, it obscures them. Everything about that city save one token, the one that in a glance or over time etched itself onto Bisciotti’s memory, has subsumed into that token. The token is very visible, but the city it now represents is not. Sometimes a cascade of written notation (including in at least one case Palladio’s Chapter XX) serves as the obscuring factor; but more frequently, that factor is an architectural device brought forth to represent a city now hidden behind it.
The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins. In the last pages of the atlas there is an outpouring of networks without beginning or end, cities in the shape of Los Angeles, in the shape of Kyoto-Osaka, without shape. (Chapter 9 prologue)
An ”invisible city,” after all, is not a vanished city, but a living, breathing city that happens to be living and breathing out of view. As you read this, most of the world’s cities are not seen by you. They may be visually available to you through the Internet; but even that availability, compressed into a screen across which play so many millions of images, effects a de-visualizing process. You can’t look at all those pictures, after all, and when you look at any of them, all you’re seeing are pictures, all the same size. Subject matter is obliterated. The city, finally, escapes the eye. In his paintings, as in his early drawings, Flavio Bisciotti posits a more positive invisibility than this: his cities may be invisible behind their synecdoches, but they are at least present, forcefully so. As artist and architect, even as he hides his cities from view by shrinking them to their essences, Bisciotti individuates them and thus saves them from the black hole of on-line information. Palladio and Calvino alike would have rued the indiscriminate of architecture and its elements into electronic indistinction. Bisciotti, working in their wake, strains against such indistinction, reaching out to save the magic of cities by revealing such magic even as he hides it.
Los Angeles May 2018