I was looking at the rusty sign banning motorbikes from entering the narrow street that led up through the old quarter of Amantea and wondering whether or not anyone actually heeded its message. The little stylized rider sat comfortably on his motorcycle inside the faded red circle that blended with the equally washed out, dilapidated wall on which it hung. As I snapped a photo, a car pulled up, dropping off an older gentleman, who greeted me with a slight turn of the head and a warm smile.
Entering the street in question, a lane that zigzagged up the hillside, eventually reaching the castle (castello), we formally greeted one another and somehow moved quickly from pleasantries relating to the weather and the old town to life’s whys and wherefores.
SALVATORE TONNARA, SIDEWALK ARTIST IN AMANTEA
A self-described “pittore da marciapiede” (sidewalk painter), Salvatore Tonnara exhibits his work, literally, on the sidewalk in his hometown of Amantea, which sits on the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Province of Cosenza in Calabria, Italy. His gallery is Via Margherita, the town’s main street that extends from the historic hillside settlement down through the more modern section towards the sea.
Well-known to local residents both young and old, Salvatore can be found along this shopping street on evenings and Sunday market days, weather permitting. In the summer, the town and consequently Salvatore’s street gallery swell with out-of-towners seeking out the rather popular beach destination. Thus, the simple, low-tech sidewalk artist has attracted a much larger, even international community of what we call “followers” today.
A PRIVATE SHOWING
Not having met Salvatore in his public gallery on Via Margherita, but on the street just outside his residence, my impressions of his work mingled with those of him as a person. He had graciously opened up his second-story flat and welcomed the complete stranger taking pictures of a discolored street sign into his private world.
His home was full, very full. Books and canvases reached from floor to ceiling, on walls and in piles. Salvatore both devoured and produced … in great abundance and with incredible enthusiasm. His interests were broad, with natural sciences topping the list. He had been a teacher of science, but the more he read and studied, the more he himself had became the student.
His living room was a working studio, with paint cans, brushes and works in progress dominating the available space. Or just the space, as there didn’t appear to be any available. He lived for his work and his study. What was refreshing was how much he enjoyed it all. He couldn’t be described as a young man, but he was certainly young at heart. Add natural, unassuming, genuine and curious.
Salvatore focused on nature and health that day. As for food, a favorite subject for almost all Italians, he emphasized nutrition. His staples were wholegrain pasta with beans, raw vegetables and fruit. No meat or dairy. Well, not exactly what I would have expected, but he was convinced and he certainly managed to wrestle plenty of energy out of a very lean diet, if only judging by the number of canvases that filled his living quarters.
His paintings covered all the wall space not occupied by bookshelves and the occasional, discreet religious icon. Completed works were also stacked on the floor, leaning up against the bookcases. I spotted what appeared to be the basic structure for a nativity scene in the corner of one room. It was a bit overwhelming.
The work was eclectic. Salvatore paints what he feels. He doesn’t follow a school or particular approach other than what he refers to as la sua cultura (his own culture) or his own path, his vision. He describes himself as a colorist, and this love of color is apparent in his work.
Salvatore also paints what he likes. The life of a painter has given him the liberty to do what he wants, and he enjoys this freedom both as a person and an artist. He’s not rich, but he has a rich life. He has a need to express and to share.
To me, he seemed the most at home when painting his hometown. I gravitated toward the vibrant, harmonious colors and geometric simplicity in his representation of Amantea’s cathedral, as it anchored the cluster of buildings on the edge of the hill overlooking the beach and the sea. Straightforward and aesthetically pleasing, it was home, captured in a special light, perhaps a bit idealized, but with a nod to its long history in the brushstrokes of the facades.
The outcropping known as Coreca is a favorite image for those who live in or have visited Amantea. Beautiful rock formations can really enhance the look of a beach.
Salvatore also painted people, mostly women. His repeated depictions of Native Americans caught my eye and struck me as unusual, featuring so prominently amongst the works of a painter in the toe of the Italian boot. Singly, in pairs and then portrayed in large numbers, staring forward, matter-of-factly with teepees behind, as if saying, “We’re here,” but at the same time intently examining what’s before them – you, your culture, with everything that it entails – both past and present.
Salvatore felt a connection with these people, so far from his world, yet seemingly so close in his thoughts.
A FINAL BOMBONIERA
Perhaps it was Salvatore’s generous spirit. People often ask me how I decide what to write about and how I manage to meet the people I do. Someone like Salvatore answers those two questions together. When I think about it, I suppose I’m looking for honesty, genuineness. People don’t pay me to write about those things. This blog isn’t an advertisement for fancy hotels and must-see entertainments.
A number of small canvases of colorful butterflies were resting on the floor, drying. Salvatore often sells these miniature works as bomboniere or party favors. He insisted I pick one to take back to America with me. I chose the red and he penned a lovely dedication on its reverse side. As I slipped it into my backpack, he pressed a large paper bag filled with his dried figs and sundried tomatoes into my hand. “Thank you, but I can’t possibly eat all these before returning to the U.S.” He assured me I could, as I should be changing my diet in accordance with our earlier nutrition discussion. I’d need all the dried fruit I could get my hands on when I cut most of everything else out of my diet.
After heartfelt kisses on both cheeks, Italian style, I hurried down the stairs, the street and hill. I had a good half hour walk to the train station. I turned back for one last look, and there was Salvatore, enthusiastically waving goodbye from up on his second-floor balcony. He was a serene, happy person, and he passed that joy forward. Later in the train, I was very glad for the sack of dried figs.
Interested in what there is to see and do in the toe of the Italian boot? Take a walk in my shoes in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book that explores daily life, history, culture, art, food and society of this fascinating southern Italian region. Available in paperback and electronic versions.
CALABRIA: THE OTHER ITALY makes a great gift!