Fausto Melotti, La cena in Emmaus (1933)
This artwork, which Melotti sculpted at the beginning of the thirties, is significant especially because it is a modern and personal interpretation of a traditional Christian subject. There are three versions of La cena in Emmaus, all dated 1933, but sculpted in different materials. The plaster sample (92x65x28 cm) pertains to a private collection: already in 1933, it was exhibited at the Mostra d’Arte Moderna at the Dopolavoro of the Cotonificio Fratelli Dell’Acqua in Legnano (Milan); more recently, it was included in the exhibition Anni ’30. Arti in Italia oltre il fascismo (2012) organised at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. The second sample (88x57x30 cm), exhibited at the I Mostra Sindacale fascista (1933, Florence), is in bronze, while the third and last one is in terracotta (83x52x35 cm).
The Legitimization of the Artist/Intellectual's Participation in the Public Sphere
The Role of Cosmopolitanism in the Modernization of the Italian Artistic Field
Citizen’s Media Manipulation: Entertainment, Escapism and Consensus
At the beginning of the thirties, Fausto Melotti’s main artistic interest is focused on sacred themes: among others, in 1933 he works on La cena in Emmaus. The subject is an evangelical episode taken from the Gospel of Luke, in the New Testament: after the Resurrection, in the village of Emmaus, two pilgrims meet a man they recognise as Jesus only during the dinner, when he breaks the bread, a gesture that recalls ‘the Last Supper’. The representation of this episode is very common in the history of art (e.g. the two painted versions of Italian painter Caravaggio, from 1601-1602 and 1606). However, it is treated by Melotti in an innovative way.
The flattened perspective, the basic composition and the surfaces of the sculpture, carved in a linear and pronounced manner, recall a Middle-European cultural context, such as the German expressionist group Die Brücke. In fact, one can retrace here the same lengthened shapes as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s and thin faces like the ones painted by Erich Heckel. La cena in Emmaus can be thus considered a starting point, a milestone in Melotti’s career: looking at this composition, it is actually easy to imagine a sculptural follow-up like I sette savi (the first version dated 1937).
The outcome is a sculpture that emerges from the national context and embraces an international perspective, contributing to the renovation of the Italian sacred art, still connected to an old, deep-rooted tradition. In fact, the religious subject is treated in an innovative way: while many ‘Emmaus scenes’ represent a populated and animated moment, Melotti chooses a simpler and less detailed composition. Around a rounded table – overturned in favour of the viewer – one can recognise three men: Jesus, in the centre, and the two disciples that do not recognise him on the side. Where there were perspective and movement, now there are clarity and unstable precariousness – the three figures at the table look like they might fall at any moment. Moreover, the moment Melotti wants to represent is far from being the climax of the episode, i.e. when Jesus breaks the bread. Rather, it is a common and familiar moment: an intimate conversation around a table.
The sacred descends into the ordinary life, in order to engage the viewers and let them identify with the subject. Actually, we understand that the main character is Jesus – and not just any man – only because of the title, which clarifies the situation: otherwise, we could mistake the scene for our familiar routine in a common but anonymous place. This is exactly the language the PNF (National Fascist Party) pursues for its potential voters during the Ventennio: a language creating a common, national and understandable consciousness shared by everyone, from the spiritual to the economic and political field. The artist must be able to codify a simple message containing ‘standard contents’ of the Italian tradition, coming from the past and still ongoing, through the centuries.
Celant, Germano. 1995. Fausto Melotti. Catalogo generale. Milan: Electa.
Negri, Antonello, Bignami, Silvia, Rusconi, Paolo, Zanchetti, Giorgio, and Susanna Ragionieri (eds).2012. Anni ’30. Arti in Italia oltre il fascismo. Florence: Giunti.