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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

The Sensational Berkeley Talk that Never Was

Aggiornamento: 20 ott 2023

I was already on Carmelo Bene’s side. He was said to have been stunned and had his way in the world changed for good by a reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. So in Paris in 1977, I hurried one Sunday evening to the Opèra-Comique. Bene in a one-night stand was going to show Paris what he was all about. Hamlet was the pièce de résistance and I have to confess it disappointed me. It was Bene’s about-me take on Jules Laforgue’s languorous take on Shakespeare.

All the same, his loaded enunciation defined Bene. He was primarily about language, not about mise-en-scène. This was novel at the time when leading directors concentrated on setting their plays up with brilliance on stage. Robert Wilson, the American luminary, had been in Paris with his Edison. It was a series of breathtaking stage pictures that did without words. At the Opèra-Comique I picked out Peter Brook in the audience come to size up Bene. Brook had left London for Paris in 1971 to found his international company at the Théâtre des Bouffes-du-Nord. It played Shakespeare in accented English. Ophelia was an Indian maiden and his Player King recited in ancient Greek. Brook’s mastery was of simplicity, not letting language keep his characters apart. Bene was, it seemed, as he tortured more meaning out of Italian, going his own way, countercurrent.

When I came to know Lecce in the 1980s, I felt I was in Carmelo Bene country, a stone’s throw from his birthplace in Campi Salentina. But as his career went from scandal to triumph to more scandal, Salento folk appeared in two minds about him. Their only cultural player on the larger European scene left them in a blue funk. Was he the wayward son who would disgrace the family?

I moved to Venice where I got to know Bernard Hickey better. He would be on his way in no time to teach in Lecce. In Venice he had created a social club that met to hear guest speakers and whose discussions tended to irrupt in raucous singalongs led by the inimitable Hickey. Bernard saw his role as that of an essentially middle-brow animator. It was no use suggesting to him my dream of an evening devoted to Carmelo Bene. The satirical claws of the boy from Campi were always poised to maul events like Bernard’s jovial Venetian get-togethers.

Bernard brought his good humour and idea of a cultural club with him to Lecce. With other stalwarts of the English language, he launched the Berkeley Circle. My connection with it was soon interrupted by two decades of gallivanting in faraway places. When I returned to live in Lecce in 2005 Carmelo Bene was dead, only one or two scandals still smouldered, and the cultural establishment had decided that the man was a genius. The process of turning him into a public monument was going ahead. Lecce named an out-of-the-way square after him. People of the sort he held in contempt were claiming him as one of their own. What’s more, the theatre world had changed and I was ready to leave Bene to the historians and obsess over some other artist.

In 1980s Lecce I had been something of a flâneur, nosing about its old-town streets in my leisure. Never having outgrown a skint-student past, I was adept at saying no in a hundred different ways to requests for a handout. Lecce begging techniques were nothing special and easy enough to scuttle. There was nothing original like the panhandler in San Francisco who when turned down lectured me on my untidy hair style.

Nothing new, that is, until one day I was met by a meaty face breathing yesterday’s wine at me through ruined teeth. He wasn’t aggressive. But his smile went over my head and upward, not really for me. Extracting a roll of paper from a tube container he confronted me with an outline figure of a rangy nude woman in cheerful colour. I was taken aback. It was early on a sunny morning. Paris sellers of dirty postcards only came out after dark. Besides this nude wasn’t pornographic. I took a longer look, too long. The heavy figure re-rolled his offering and trundled off toward a better prospect.

I watched him palaver from a distance. No sale ensued, but the business intrigued me. I slipped into a habit I picked up living in Venice. Some might call it a vice though I thought of it as research. I would follow a couple of tourists around for a while just to see what they got up to. Our man with the tubed beauty ended by entering a quite ordinary bar. I followed. He was met by the barman’s faux-friendly, arms-raised greeting. They jabbered in dialect and he with the tube passed into a second room. I had a coffee standing at the bar. Looking around, playing the gormless foreigner, I spotted another rangy woman in undress pinned up on the wall.

At lunch I told my partner about my morning walk. Lecce-born and full of the city’s facts and fictions, she sniggered. The peddler of dreams was “our artist painter, Edoardo. Everyone knows him. He’s come down in the world although he was never on top of it.”

“Fell into the wine cellar, did he?”

“Afraid so, and his busted head was put back on crooked. He caught me in the street a couple of times. I’ve got his drawings rolled up somewhere.”

And so it began, we were collectors and I had another local creator to daydream over. Imagine my thrill when I read something the painter Antonio Massari had written. He recalled a performance in Lecce by an already famous Carmelo Bene. It happened that Massari and Edoardo as kids had been part of a tight little group of wannabe artists that had palled with Bene. Edoardo, now as always broke, stood ticketless outside the Lecce theatre where Bene was appearing. Edoardo called to him, “Carmelo, Carmelo, questi qui non mi fanno entrare perché non ho i soldi, i soldi….”. “Come in,” said the great man, and Edoardo did so, with four of his friends, also penniless.

This coming together of Carmelo Bene and Edoardo De Candia in Lecce got me started on a new fixed idea. Though I failed to get us talking in English about Bene, I’d try to get Edoardo in the Berkeley spotlight. There was a difference. Bene was a figure on the national and even the international scene. Edoardo was bound to Lecce and he himself tied the knot. His admirers insisted that given his angelic innocence—“grezzo, istintivo, infantile”—he was at home nowhere under the moon. However, after sullen loitering in Milan, a bout of buffoonery in England, stopovers in France and vagabondage elsewhere, he returned to Lecce. It was an avowal that he could exist nowhere else. While he said thereafter that the overriding desire of his life was to flee, he stayed put in his birthplace like a slug.

Edoardo repeated in high art and poète maudit dress the familiar Italian impulse to return to the maternal nest. He needed the streets he knew and the sea at hand—eleven km barefoot walking distance to San Cataldo. That he would run into trouble on his home ground was inevitable. His habit of promenading naked and conducting his life in treetops—he revelled in the pet name Tarzan—would provoke hostility from more than the city’s bigoted philistines. It was his father who had him incarcerated to launch his lifetime encounter with psychiatry at its most damaging.

Just as inevitable as his running into trouble in Lecce was his attracting more interest in his behaviour than in his painting. Average citizens had no time to puzzle over modern forms of art. But a zany lush capering in their streets could amuse them. Edoardo had refined admirers, among them Massari, Antonio Verri, Maurizio Nocera, and Ennio Bonea. Even they, however, seemed more concerned in pitting Edoardo against an ignorant and hypocritical city than to fix attention on his work. They exalted his character as ingenuous, childlike, gentle and unworldly more than they scrutinised his pictures.

In retrospect all this seemed more provincial and behind the times than the provincialism they were opposing. After all, Lecce wasn’t more hostile to an eccentric homegrown modern painter than dozens of European cities of the same size were to their own black sheep artists. The casting of Edoardo at his death in 1992 as a stereotype mad and saintly genius was a dated cliché. Charles Baudelaire’s musing on the subject ended in 1867. Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, Antonin Artaud in 1948, in the very years Thomas Stearns Eliot buried the romantic fantasy for good by sitting at a London banker’s desk.

My own fantasising was to find someone who could explain the structure and spirit of Edoardo’s painting and fit it into the history of art. That person would speak understandable English, stand before the Berkeley Circle and direct the projection of relevant slides of the artist’s work. My search turned out fruitless but was more than rendered redundant in 2017 when the Museo Provinciale Sigismondo Castromediano held a splendid retrospective of Edoardo’s work in the exhibition space of the San Francesco della Scarpa ensemble. The presentation did touch on the artist’s life but only marginally. The two hundred or so items displayed were the overwhelming centre of interest. The excellent catalogue reproducing them, Edoardo De Candia Amo Odio Oro, is an admirable effort to make amends for any neglect the artist may have suffered in the past.

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