A forgotten artists’ paradise by Margaret Stenhouse (Italian Insider Newspaper)

Civita d’Antino – Just over a century ago, a remote Abruzzo village became a flourishing art centre for Scandinavian artists, but the story of the colony was largely forgotten after the tragic Marsican earthquake in 1915. Could the experiment be repeated today? As part of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Unification of Italy in 1911, Rome put on an “International Exposition of Art” in a specially constructed neo-classical building in Valle Giulia adjoining the Villa Borghese Park, which was subsequently to become the National Gallery of Modern Art that we know today.

According to the catalogue, the show “represented all the civilized nations of the world.” The long list of artists from the “civilized nations” taking part in the exhibition included a group of Scandinavians from the Kristian Zahrtmann school, which was based in a remote mountain village of Abruzzo called Civita d’Antino. Among them was a talented young Swedish painter called Anders Trulson, whom Zahrtmann himself had singled out as being “of great promise.” Zahrtmann, one of Denmark’s leading artists of the period, had stumbled on the poor and picturesque Abruzzo village in the Roveto Valley in 1883 and fallen in love with it. The village was well off the beaten track and was only accessible by climbing a steep and winding mule trail. However, the Dane was captivated by the kindness and hospitality of the villagers, as well as the quality of the light and the availability of cheap and willing local models. He set up residence in the Casa Cerrone, the town’s only pensione and invited his artist friends and pupils in chilly Copenhagen to come and join him, so that they could paint all summer long in the warm and welcoming Abruzzo clime -”a place as near to Paradise as you can imagine” he wrote. Some eighty artists were to take advantage of the offer over the next twenty years.

Among them was Trulson, who came to join the artists’ colony in June 1911. Unfortunately, his stay was to be short. A mere ten weeks later he was dead and buried in the Old Cemetery of Civita d’Antino, far from his native land. His story would have been forgotten but for local researcher, Antonio Bini, a professor of tourism sociology at the University of Teramo with a passion for conservation, history and tradition. In his capacity as tourism advisor to the Abruzzo regional government, he was involved in promoting the culture and attractions of the lesser known areas of the region. In the course of his work Bini stumbled on the largely forgotten story of the Danish artists’ colony in Civita d’Antino at the turn of last century and was so intrigued that he embarked on a lengthy research project that took him to Copenhagen to consult records and archives. Largely thanks to his efforts and publications on the subject, the little mountain village is slowly emerging from a century of oblivion and attracting new attention. In 2003, Bini was contacted by Swedish writer and journalist Johan Werkmaster, who was interested in investigating Swedish artists who had been part of the Civita d’Antino school. Werkmaster knew about Trulson’s premature death and wanted to find his grave. After struggling through fields knee-high in undergrowth, the two men tracked down Trulson’s tomb in the abandoned “Napoleonic” or Old Cemetery situated on a rise outside the town.

This turned out to be what Bini describes as a “tiny jewel of a monument” that bears no resemblance to a cemetery as we think of it today. Instead, it is a rare example of a 19thcentury communal mausoleum, constructed according to the canons of the French Edict of St. Cloud, which was introduced into Italy in 1805 while the Kingdom of Naples was governed by Napoleon’s brother Joseph. In accordance with the egalitarian principles sanctioned by the French Revolution, the Edict stipulated that all burial places had to be situated outside inhabited areas and all the tombs had to be identical. The mausoleum is a rectangular stone building, divided into long corridors, with six windows looking onto the valley. Since so many foreigners passed their way, with more than one remaining forever, the little community of Civita d’Antino had provided for non-Catholic burials, which the Catholic church did not allow in consecrated ground. A walled-in grassy area adjoining the mausoleum and open to the sky was reserved for the “unbaptized just” like the Protestant Trulson, whose last resting place is marked by a bronze plaque inscribed by his friend and fellow artist, Louis Nillson. Zahrtmann left a moving written account of his pupil’s last tormented days, saying that Anders Trulson was already ill when he arrived at Civita d’Antino. “He had lost weight and was somewhat sallow. He no longer had confident footing.”

Zahrtmann suspected TB but Trulson insisted it was a trivial kidney complaint and refused to see a doctor. He insisted on curing himself with a diet that apparently consisted of “eating almost only lemons” and taking long solitary treks into the mountains. Obviously, he only made his condition worse. He died on Aug. 24 after a violent haemorrhage, mourned by the entire village, as well as all his artist friends. The Zahrtmann community itself met a dramatic end. In 1915, Civita d’Antino was virtually wiped out in the devastating Marsica earthquake that claimed over 30,000 victims in the Avezzano area. The Nordic artists’ little “Paradise” was gone forever. Zahrtmann himself died soon afterwards in Copenhagen. Bini’s dream is to revive the remarkable past of Civita d’Antino and draw more visitors. Like many other mountain communities in Italy, it has seen its population steadily dwindle since World War II. He believes that “tourism would be the answer to revert the process of decline.” Despite all the setbacks it has suffered, Civita d’Antino still has many attractions. Reconstructed after the earthquake, its main monuments are intact, including the monumental stairway leading to the Porta Flora – the main entrance to the town through the medieval walls and a favourite subject for the Zahrtmann school – and the old Casa Cerrone, where the artists stayed in convivial company, decorating the dining-room wall with their invented coats of arms. This is now a private house and not normally open to the public, though Bini is working on it. He is not alone in his efforts to rekindle interest in places like Civita d’Antino.

Swedish-Italian entrepreneur Daniel Elow Kilhgren has made a largely successful job of launching hitherto unknown Santa Stefano di Sessanio, near L’Aquila, which was visited by English writer and illustrator Edward Lear (best known for his nonsense poems, known as Limericks) in 1843. Kilhgren has converted many of the abandoned buildings in the picturesque historic centre into tourist accommodation, creating one of the earliest alberghi diffusi (a “hotel” with rooms spread over separate buildings) in Italy. The promotion of Abruzzo as an artists’ centre has been given a boost by interior designers Bimbi Bellhouse and Spencer Power from Notting Hill, London, who have achieved the ex-pat dream of a home among olive groves in one of Italy’s most unspoiled areas. For the last three summers, the couple have organized an important exhibition of contemporary artists in the nearby Casoli Ducal Palace. Past editions have featured Michael Sandle, hailed as “one of the world’s leading sculptors” and photographer Peter Webb, known for his work with Paul MacCartney and the Rolling Stones. Not only that, but a new Scandinavian summer art school has been set up by Danish artist Kirsten Murhart in the mountain town of Gagliano Aterno, between L’Aquila and Sulmona, where she and her husband have a home and an art gallery. Like Kristian Zahrtmann, she praises “the calm and daily rhythm” of the village life and finds Abruzzo “an eternal source of inspiration.” Her gallery in an 800-year old cantina is a showcase of works by numerous contemporary Danish artists, thus recreating some of his enterprise and spirit.

By MARGARET STENHOUSE December 2, 2011 The Italian Insider (Italy’s first english language newspaper)