The portraits of the Messina artist Nino Cannistraci and all those faces that tell the story

Photo of author

By John

L’Astrolabio was one of the newspapers that historically marked the Italian sixties. Founded by Ernesto Rossi and Ferruccio Parri, who was its director for a long time, first fortnightly and then weekly, it was a political voice listened to and even feared, precisely because of the quality of the contents. Alongside Parri (anti-fascist, partisan, constituent and then senator for life), for about four years the Messina Luigi Ghersiwho we know as an excellent painter and sculptor, he was the deputy director responsible, author of important articles and investigations, such as the one conducted in the field immediately after the death of Che Guevara. A journalistic adventure that can now be followed step by step thanks to the initiative of the Senate Library “Giovanni Spadolini”, which has put all the issues of the magazine online, freely consultable (astrolabio.senato.it).

But there was another artist who, arriving from the Strait, left his mark on the newspaper, above all as a designer, but also as a layout designer. A little-known story even in his city and which comes from another illustrious Messina. The designer-layout of the Astrolabe is Nino Cannistraci, 87 years old and always in full creative activity. After graduating in Political Sciences, despite his desire to dedicate himself totally to painting, in 1960 he managed to move to Rome, with the excuse of attending a three-year course in poster design, which had been suggested to him by a man from Messina in Rome, about to to become famous as one of the recognized fathers of the Italian theatrical avant-garde: Carlo Quartucci. But as luck would have it, that course turned into something else. Back then there were neither cell phones nor social media and it was not easy to find friends, even consolidated ones, in a city as large as Rome.

«In 1963 – says Cannistraci – in a trattoria I met Luigi Ghersi, with whom we had done paintings and exhibitions in Messina. I can say that I have always known him. She immediately proposed that we move in with him, so we could split the costs, and I immediately accepted. We lived in Via Baccina, near the Fori Imperiali.” But soon another proposal would arrive: «After the killing of Kennedy, in November 1963, Ghersi proposed that I draw the face of Lee Oswald, his assassin, for “The Astrolabe”.

Thus began an adventure that lasted until 1968, when the magazine began publishing photographs instead of drawings. Cannistraci’s portraits (which are never caricatures) span the period of the Sixties with the most important and well-remembered characters even in our times, drawn with a jagged and always significant sign, in which, apart from the perfect recognizability of the faces, the expression is striking, which always makes them alive and even more similar, almost as if those heads, alone, were (and still are) capable of making us imagine an entire body in movement. I think, for example, of the portraits of Paul VI, Aldo Moro, Emilio Colombo, Giorgio La Pira (the mayor of Florence, also linked to Messina, where he spent his youth). Aside from those on the cover, many introduced articles signed by Parri or Ghersi.

«I mainly used black ballpoint pen – explains Cannistraci – but also pencil and ink. It was very important for me because the portrait is ideal for the study of form, for the approach to the figure. Also for this reason, in that period I attended the Free School of the Nude in Rome, where I met the most famous painters who worked in the capital”. The world passed through his pen, Italian and otherwise: from Churchill to De Gaulle, from Ho Chi Minh to Togliatti, from La Malfa to Mancini and many others. Meanwhile Cannistraci, after being hired as a graphic designer and after three years of cohabitation with Ghersi, had moved to a house in via Panisperna, the historic street where the group of physicists led by Enrico Fermi had operated. But it didn’t last long: enticed by a professorship in the School of Art, which was then on Viale della Libertà, he returned to Messina and dedicated himself to teaching until his retirement.

Ghersi told me that he had always disapproved of his decision, not for nothing that for him Cannistraci was the only artist with whom he felt he had a figurative debt. Ghersi was probably right: «Helped by him, I had an important solo exhibition in Rome in 1973 for the Incontri d’Arte series. It was a great success.” But then Cannistraci, shy as he is, remained to paint on the banks of the Strait: «I have always continued to draw, for me it is a daily activity, I live it as a Zen practice».