Light from the Silence

The most striking thing about a Flavio Costantini picture is the quality of the light emanating from it. If I had to call to mind other artists who have succeeded in capturing the radiance of light to perfection, the likes of Vermeer, Georges de La Tour and the later Van Gogh in the countryside around Arles spring to mind. Costantini strives for the light with the obstinacy and tension of someone thirsting after love in a desert of loneliness. The cool glow in his paintings is overwhelming, becoming tangible and almost absolute and it affords the subject two seemingly irreconcilable qualities — a compact presence and unreal depth.


The poet and critic Théophile Gautier wrote that Vermeer painted "with incredible strength, a precision and intimacy of tones". These are the very three qualities that also characterise the works of Flavio Costantini who has a remarkable sense of the harmony of colours and of the architecture of composition. He works with the strength of truth married to a fake detachment; in his pictures the relationship of tones and the structure are governed by a mathematical precision — and here I employ that adjective in its literal sense — and the colours melt into one another with a knowing graduation of layers. In Flavio Costantini's oeuvre there are startling analogies between his poetics, his working methods and those of Piero della Francesca.

In the first part of his De Prospectiva Pingendi, Piero stipulates that beauty resides in the design, in commensurateness and in colouration. As Piero saw it, the importance of design sprang from the need to "be able to outline properly on the plane all things that man means to do". And finally, as Eugenio Battisti comments, to reproduce one's subject "in likely fashion, which is to say, offer a clear designation of their physical nature".

By commensurateness, Piero understood the mathematical arrangement that should govern the composition. Among other things, commensurateness looked to the suppression of any detail that might mar the compositional harmony. The stress on commensurateness is mirrored in the significance that Piero attached to perspective which he looked upon "as a real science". And there was an equally acute desire to refigure with the utmost precision the subjects that he borrowed not just from old Roman collections so as to reproduce these as faithfully as possible, but he even constructed extraordinarily complicated graphic models of solid bodies.

In Costantini's cast too, the essential desire is the desire to capture the real in its most immediate physicality, thereby successfully capturing its poetic essence. His formal language is similarly characterised by the geometric rigours of design, of the arithmetic calculation of both volume and chromatic scales. In order to be able the more faithfully to render the play of light and study issues of perspective, he too manufactures three-dimensional models of his subject. Prefaced by numerous studies and sketches, the completed work displays no faltering in its lines, but rather an emphatic conciseness. Rhetoric is utterly missing from his compositions: he discards all useless detail and strips his forms of any redundant features; plainly the artist's wish is to arrive at the same raw harmony that is the mark of Piero's works, thanks to a refined orchestration of tones and volumes bathed in assimilated and limpid light.


Costantini's most recent works, given over to the garden theme, are the product of a tortuous ideological travail. In the summer of 1979 he finished his series on the anarchists with the picture featuring Caserio (30) standing outside the shop where he has just purchased the dagger to be used to kill Sadi Carnot. From then on, Costantini wrote me "I have no further interest in who does the killing or why, but only in death per se, in our death which is after all our mysterious foundering, the only irresistible reality." He then dealt with the place of death in The Ipatiev House 1918 (51) (1979), in the basement of which Nicolas II, his wife, their five children and three retainers were murdered on the night of 17 July 1918."The picture featured neither persons nor blood. It was the death site and in my intention, there was nothing save silence", Costantini stated at the time.


In the 1980s, The Anarchists was followed by a Titanic (31) (32) (33) (34) (35) (36) (37) series — another "death site" — where the foundering of the trans-Atlantic liner also stands for the foundering of our age's ideologies and hopes. In 1991, he carried on with his exploration of the scene of the crime with his room by room visit to the Ipatiev House (52). From where he descends the 23 steps leading to the basement — the scene of violent death. The following year, Costantini preferred to dwell instead upon "the wait for death". The Romanovs were captives in Tsarskoye Selo (56) (58) and in Tobolsk I (57) in 1992 he shows the four Romanov grand duchesses reduced from beautiful young women to wretched ectoplasm.


Another year and another change of scene. We are in the gardens of the Alexander Palace. The artist quickly encapsulates the atmosphere of affliction and ruination in Tsarskoye Selo (1993) where a double line of naked torsos and rubble mirrored in stagnant canal water are a metaphor for the tragic fact of death and desolation. Other works — The Great Folly, The Chinese Theatre, The Cross Bridge, The Dockyard, etc. — recall with ill-concealed nostalgia the architectonic features of the now uninhabited parkland. Using the pretext of a trip into the garden maze he is in fact visiting the labyrinths of his memory, as well as of our own.


Looming over Bullfighting (1) (2) (3) series, The Anarchists, the Titanic series, the Ipatiev House series and now the Tsarskoye Selo gardens series at all times is a highly dramatic climate which Costantini manages to bring off by reminding us that life springs from death. It may well be that in order to obscure this, the world he evokes with a realism so minute as to border upon unreality becomes a-temporal; immersed as it is in a silent tension that ignores movement. Hardly surprising therefore if there is a glow from that rarefied aura of the mystery known to us as beauty.