Anarchist Balladeer

Knife-wielding assassins, desperadoes of dynamite, avengers with nickel-plated Brownings, gentle and murderous, dreamers and martyrs — here are some of them, brought back by Flavio Costantini's painstaking brushwork to testify to what they were about. A tale of isolated acts but an epic also. All of their acts, captured in the moment, adding up to feats of men out to turn the world upside down.


Auguste Vaillant of the soft (almost contemplative) eyes and high, domed forehead, a beard gnawing at his cheeks, clutches to himself the nail bomb he means to hurl into the hallowed precincts of the Palais Bourbon at the "fish-tank feeding frenzy", to wit, the deputies there. Emile Henry (30a), the fair-haired ascetic graduate of the Polytechnic, clutches in his hand the device with its fuse alight which is about to eviscerate the customers of the Cafe Terminus (22), the petits bourgeois he despises on the basis that they are the belligerent lap-dogs of the mighty but who cannot even compete with their masters' splendour…


Add to these the heroes from Spain, young Angiolillo (25), head lowered under the garrote, like an El Greco figure, under the penetrating, unctuous, solemn gaze of a foul crucifix-carrying priest (ah, those eyes!); or the learned Ferrer (13), teacher and propagandist, paying the price for having had the effrontery to have yearned for a world of justice, his breast bared to his killers, set in a circle of stone and rifles. Lots of names are left out, theorists or dabblers in green ink, communists or poets, journalists and agitators; but then, this is not an encyclopaedia. Instead we have a succession of live wires, a wreath of raw moments, a romance of the struggle — or indeed stained-glass studies sometimes painted by Costantini with a bitter serenity


Flavio Costantini, one-time naval officer who loved the sea but who was not a good sailor, introduced to utopianism by his reading of Wells before succumbing for a long time to the siren song of communism, after having travelled all over the globe, stumbled upon Leninism's handiwork on a trip to Moscow in 1962 when he was 36 years old: "An unending stream of curiously silent peasant-tourists shuffling across Red Square", he wrote. "Neither happy nor sad, they had been funnelled into this witless, downcast pilgrimage. The revolution was well and truly over." He reread Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary, having previously despised it.


Ever since then, since 1963, he had devoted his life to using his brushes to reproduce the pure song of the revolutionaries who rejected all compromise- and who never disappointed. His song is of anarchism. Is that any reason to complain?