Remembering Italy
"Romance Among the Paint Pots"

[Regions of Italy]

When I first went to Rome, my intention was to visit for two weeks--I never dreamed I would fall in love and stay twenty years. Go figure.

Gian Battista Salatino, a real, live, starving-in-an-attic artist, had a small room in a large, second-floor studio down toward the end of Via Canova; it housed four other artists, three struggling and one successful and well-known. Named for sculptor Antonio Canova [1757- 1822], whose studio was at Number 17, the fascinating and historical street extends for one long block, from Via del Corso down to the Tiber, in Rome's centro storico. One side of Via Canova is the Ospedale San Giacomo (a hospital dating back to 1339!). On the other side, bits of statuary and pieces of marble plaques with Roman writing on them are cemented into the walls, as well as a bronze bust of Antonio himself.

GB's tiny room was just as I had always imagined an artist's studio would be: paint pots and tubes and brushes and multi-colored rags everywhere. Canvasses stacked on the floor against every available bit of wall space. An easel with a half-finished oil on it. Outside the room, a door led to a charming garden--trees, flowers, greenery, a trickling fountain--where the spillover of sculptures and canvasses from each artist's room was strewn haphazardly from end to end. It was almost too much for a New York gal to bear...I was no poor, consumptive Mimi, but I was in absolute La Boheme heaven!

Jose Ortega, Deux Femmes
One day a short handsome Spaniard peeked in, curious to see who GB was romancing. This was Jose Ortega, a well-known painter of considerable stature in art circles. A friend and one-time student of Pablo Picasso, Ortega had left Spain to live in exile in Paris declaring, just as the great painter himself had, never to set foot in Spain again until the dictatorship of Franco had fallen.

We hadn't been introduced for more than two minutes when Ortega asked if I would sit for him. I hesitated shyly, and GB pulled me aside. "Are you crazy, don't you know who he is? What are you waiting for? Go, go!" Well, of course, I didn't know who "he" was; at the time I didn't know who anyone was. But, urged on by my lover, I followed the Spaniard down the hall to his studio.

After a couple of hours and several discarded sketches, he presented me with a handsome charcoal-on-paper portrait, signed and dedicated, which I still have and treasure to this day.

Over the years, I attended several Ortega shows presented in Roman galleries. I just loved his paintings; they're very Spanish in flavor and color--the Picasso influence is quite visible in a good deal of his work. Much of it has been reproduced and prints are sold in European galleries. He has quite a following; many have his work in their collections. Jose died several years ago and I would imagine his collectors would hold onto any paintings of his they might have...I certainly would never give mine up. Many Ortegas hang in European museums and galleries, and there was even a book published on his life and work. At any rate, when in Rome or Paris or Madrid, just ask in the galleries; they'll have more information.

GB Salatino, Bowlers with Skates
If you stop to have dinner at some small eating place in Rome's centro storico, take a look around you; almost always you'll find the walls adorned with original paintings and drawings by artists you've never heard of. You can bet that many of them were traded for meals. Directly below GB's Via Canova studio was just such a trattoria; it served good home cooking and we ate there a lot. Two or three of the many paintings on the walls were Salatinos. That's how he managed to survive, trading paintings for meals.

Up toward Via del Corso on the same side of the street there was another trattoria where both known and unknown artists wrote and drew all over the walls throughout the years--you could really have a good read here while doing lunch. If it's still there and you should choose to take a look, try to find the place where Ortega once wrote of his undying love for my German friend Ira and drew a haunting sketch of her. You might also come across another rather sweet and romantic couplet GB wrote to his "Rosmery."

By the way, I've heard that GB gave up starving in a garret long ago. The Salatino name is well-known in Italian art circles and nowadays, his work hangs in many collections. He even teaches!

GB Salatino, Bird of
Paradise and Bowling Pins

ut this is not unusual. Most, perhaps all, famous painters we revere so greatly today had a poor and desperate life before they achieved some success, living in squalid conditions for years, buying supplies with their pennies instead of food, trading their paintings for a couple of meals, most never being "discovered" until after their deaths. Today their works hang on walls or stand on pedestals in the Vatican Museum, the Louvre, the Prado or the Uffizi, and we walk by, admiring, enraptured, carried away by the joy their art creates in our hearts and souls. We forget the cruel sacrifices so many of them made before gaining recognition and a place in the great museums of the world.

by Rosemary Torigian, Los Angeles

[Regions of Italy]