by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Surrealist Sculptor and his House of Books

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 1 November 1994
Livio de Marchi, Venice
Casa dei Libri, Sant'Anna d'Alpago, Veneto
by Livio de Marchi, 1990



'I was in Ginza, in Tokyo, when the idea came to me,' said Venetian wood sculptor extraordinary Livio De Marchi. 'My work was being shown at the Hiro Gallery, and I had to be there to greet the people, talk to them and so on - but I couldn't just sit there doing nothing. So I started to draw...'

What emerged on the notepad of the man who could justifiably lay claim to the title of the World's Greatest Living Surrealist was the 'Casa dei Libri', House of Books, a fantastic construction to be composed entirely of wooden books. 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to build it, I thought,' said De Marchi. The gallery agreed. But, although the artist had already received an enthusiastic Japanese response to his smaller sculptures - from beautifully and wittily carved life-sized trench coats, jackets, ties, socks, jeans and women's knickers to shopping bags, suitcases, tables complete with wooden table cloths and chairs made of giant asparagus - the House of Books proved just a bit too wacky to find a home in Japan at that time.

On his return to Italy De Marchi was reluctant to abandon his scheme but, living as he does in the center of Venice, his first problem was to find somewhere to put it. 'I went up to the mountains north of here, to Tambre d'Alpago, where I'd been when I was a child and knew people. I said to the local council: 'Look, I'd like to build this work. If you give me a piece of land, I'll pay for everything, and after my death, it will be yours.'

The deal was struck, and very soon the project was under way. The result - over 3,000 feet up, and set against the lovely backdrop of high peaks and alpine meadow at Sant' Anna on the hillside above Tambre - is both amusing and astounding. This dream cottage's walls are built of nearly a thousand wooden books, from weighty tomes to pocket-sized editions, the roof an upturned mother of all coffee-table books. The chimney is an old-fashioned fountain pen, the path to the house a series of stepping-stones in the form of erasers, the gate a pair of spectacles that swing open in the middle, the gate-posts pen tops with brass clips, and the surrounding fence a serried rank of tall, finely-sharpened colored pencils. Even the staircase, chairs, tables and beds inside are built of wooden books.

Captivated by the original, a German admirer had De Marchi build another one for him at Berneustadt (between Frankfurt and Cologne) last year. And now, finally, the idea is coming home to Japan. When I spoke to De Marchi, a twirly-mustachioed, congenial man with an impish gleam in his eye, at his studio-cum-gallery on Salizzada San Samuele, close by Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal, the artist had just finished the herculean task of carving several hundred volumes for the walls of the new House of Books, which will be on the seashore at Ihama on the Izu peninsula, south of Tokyo. Two containers of books were about to be dispatched by sea, and De Marchi and his Japanese wife Mieko were set to fly to Japan in late September to direct the building of the house (which should be completed by early November). Sales of his other work combined with this major project mean that Japan will overtake the US as De Marchi's biggest market this year.

That De Marchi's sculptures should hold a special appeal for the Japanese lies not only in the technical mastery they display, but also because they are made of wood. 'The Japanese love wood, and it's a very important part of our culture. Wood, we believe, gives us energy,' said Mieko. And, one might add, the simple, clean finish and aromatic freshness of the wood the artist uses - among his favorites is a very fine grained, silky 'cirmolo', or stone pine, which he takes enormous care in selecting - is obviously much appreciated in a country where, when a venerable old temple becomes dilapidated, it may well not be restored, but entirely dismantled and rebuilt of brand-new materials.

'All the Book Houses are different,' said De Marchi. 'They revolve around the idea of the book, but interpreted in different ways. And I think that the Japanese one will be the most beautiful of the three. In this one there's an enormous bathroom and a huge bath - because the Japanese love baths - which will be open to visitors, and a little gallery showing some of my work.'

Woodcarving has for centuries been an important and highly-esteemed art-form in Venice - but how De Marchi evolved out of this ancient tradition and developed his startlingly original repertoire remains a mystery, even to himself. 'I started early, so early, in fact, that I can't remember exactly when,' he said. 'I began making things from wood when I was a child, four or five years old. My problem was that the wood I was using to make things was the wood for the family stove!'

'We were five children living in an old house, and we were poor people, but hard-working. I was a rather strange child. When my mother asked the teacher how I was doing at school, he said: 'Mamma mia, signora, he doesn't understand anything - his head's always in the clouds, he's always dreaming. I don't know what will become of him when he grows up.' I was hopeless at most subjects - but fortunately good at carving wood, and by the time I was eighteen, I had my own studio. But my work then was making copies - antique cornices, chairs and other furniture. But even making these copies encouraged my fantasies, until the people buying said: 'No! Keep to the original! Keep to the original style!' So, gradually, I turned in on myself, returned to the dreams of my childhood. And I started making things just for myself - never thinking that this would bring me success.'

A Venetian born and bred, for De Marchi it was only a matter of time before his flights of fancy took to the water in the form of a series of surreal craft. The first was a 'paper hat', big enough for his children to row along the canals. There followed a giant wooden, oar-driven, woman's high-heeled shoe and an outsized floating Dove - inspired by Japanese origami. Both the Hat and Dove are now permanently displayed in the Central Park in Himeji. De Marchi's love of traditional Venetian rowing finally gave rise to an amazing acquatic conveyance, which remains his piece de resistance to this day.

'I used to take my son out in a little old boat I had along the small canals to teach him how to row. One day we rowed on a stretch of the Grand Canal - I was appalled, terrified by all the motor traffic whizzing up and down, and I said to my son: 'Let's go back! It's become an autostrada here. The idea came to me, there and then...'

Not long after an immaculate, lifesize 1937 Touring Jaguar rolled out of De Marchi's workshop, made entirely of wood, with a keel and motor discreetly concealed in the trunk, which De Marchi proceeded to drive around the lagoon, his son ensconced in the passenger seat, at a sedate and civilized pace. 'I never get involved in politics,' De Marchi said, 'but this was my little message, my way of making a protest to the authorities about this terrible wash from the motor boats that's utterly destroying our poor Venice.'

Last year the Jaguar was carried off by an American buyer, and indeed De Marchi seems remarkably relaxed about parting even with his most spectacular works, some of which he will have spent many weeks or months working on . 'When I'm making a piece,' he said, 'I put all my energy, all my enthusiam, all my passion into it. I don't keep anything for myself. My sculptures give me pleasure when I am working on them - I don't feel the need to keep them. To have made the piece is enough for me. After that, I'm already off on some new idea...'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023