It was more than thirty years ago? Venice / reminds me instinctively of Istanbul /
the same palaces over the sea / red sunsets fading into emptiness…
With these lyrics from Franco Battiato’s song running through my mind, I cross the Bosphorus with my loyal travelling companion, Alberto.
We are looking for Niyazi Sayn and Mustafa Duzgunman. He read about their work in a Turkish text on marbleized paper: ebru, from an ancient Persian word, ebri, literally meaning “cloud”. We ask around for some time, and finally come up to a dark, stifling shop selling colours, hardware and ancient-looking detergents. At the counter, looking placidly friendly, a stout man, twinkling eyes in a round face framed by thin plastered hair and the inevitable well-groomed moustache, wrapped up in a grey apron, welcomes the two strange customers, who are clearly not here to buy any of his wares. Alberto only wants to express his admiration, to touch with his own hands the papers he saw reproduced in the book.
The master is almost suspicious, reluctant; it is getting harder and harder to communicate. I tell my friend that the time has come to show him the works he has brought from Venice as presents. He does, with the utmost modesty. Mustafa Duzgunman’s eyes shine with excitement. He studies those “creatures” carefully, touching them gently. Then his face opens in a wide smile, his hand moving repeatedly in a gesture: fingertips gathered around the thumb ” which with us means <<what do you want?>>, while for the Turks (we have learnt it during our first days in the country) it stands for appreciative satisfaction. The same happens later with Niyazi Sayn ” more of an intellectual, a musician who plays the flute ” though we leave his house with the feeling that the comparison with his own work has touched his sensitivity. This is why on our way back, in the red light of sunset, I whisper in my friend’s ear: <<From now on I’ll have to call you: Master>>.
Alberto Valese, a Venetian born and bred, begins his adventure with marbleized paper in 1973, after experimenting with graphic design and printing. He always loved colours, and their impact on paper: his first workmates nicknamed him “penèo” (paintbrush in dialect), and I never found out if it was for the competence of his artistic flair, or for the aristocratic leannes of his figure. To earn a living, he takes a job as apprentice bookbinder. In a dark closet used as a workshop, Alberto discovers an old French handbook on arts and crafts, and is passionately taken by the pages on fantasy papers.
His obstinate research for the original ingredients, wiped out from the market by modern chemicals, drives his old pharmacist friend almost mad. He boils concotions of lichens in massive pots, and engages desperate battles with obnoxious gall. He makes his own combs, wider or thinner, and bigger and bigger trays. Friends consider him something of an alchemist; but Alberto is learning to control the expansion of drops of colour on the jelly, and finally, to his great joy, the shapeless colours are captured by paper. This self-taught, almost secret, apprenticeship, goes on for a couple of years. Then, at last, he rents a ground-floor room, below sea level and subject to “acqua alta”;
a small workshop with a window on the street. Alberto decides that his work is worthy of being shown to the public. And so it is: people locals, and tourists, who were then somewhat rarer, and less intrusive than they are now stop by, curiously spying his movements. He is aware of them, though he’s always concentrated on his work, and sometimes he artfully emphasizes the ritual quality of his gestures, surprising the occasional audience. For a while, when I have the chance, I give him a hand, just to have a chat. I see his competence evolving, day by day: he is mastering the ancient technique devised by Venetian bookbinders. To them is was a marginal, secondary work, only used for the production of endpapers. But Alberto never stops researching, browsing texts, hunting out samples.
And so he encounters the Turkish technique, marbleizing as an end in itself, the framing for Koranic verses in magnificent and mysterious calligraphy, ebru with its flowery subjects, mostly red roses and poppies, obtained by artfully controlling suspended blots of colour, fluid and never fixed.
He immediately feels this technique based on transparency, lightness, liquidity, as his very own, perfectly attuned with the primeaeval essence of Venice. Whenever he can, Alberto forgets colours and paper and vanishes on his fast boat between the “barene” of a lagoon flaming with reflected sunsets; maybe this water holds the real meaning of his enterprise, giving substance to the Japanese name of the technique: suminagaschi, “China ink on a stream of water”. Alberto is surprised that so much lightness is employed in reproducing the heavy matter of marble.
I once find him absorbed in the study of catalogues of stones, to learn their magnificent colours, the veins, the speckles. Then, with unbelievable craft, he reproduces them on the jelly’s surface. Paper is no longer enough: he now marbleizes solid bodies, spheres, cubes, and then, through an incessant succession of experiments in the techniques of submersion, more complex objects: obelisks, or even reproductions of classical busts, taking the ancient sculptor’s role in the choice of the relevant marble. But lightness is the real essence of this art, and he cannot forsake it. Again, he decides to exploit its utmost possibilities. He goes over to textiles, especially impalpable silks, producing scarves, dresses and costumes.
Along the way, he even comes across the world of theatre and fashion, working with costume and scenery designers. I’ll never forget an imposing green cloak made for emperor Altoum, Turandot’s father: covered in what appears to be marble texture, the protagonist stands rigid in all his royal majesty, but the slightest movement quickens the stone with bewildering effects. Alberto knows that the true mystery, and the ancient charm of his craft derive from transparency, from the daring suspension of colours which are then manipulated, drawn out, compressed or expanded with infinite patience. He gives up the production of flowers in the Turkish manner, and creates bizzarre sea-beds and magical aquariums, inhabited by small curious fish and improbable smiling octopus: creatures that don’t exist, cartoons of stories from the lagoon. Or else, he explores deep skies dotted by far-away stars and flashing comets.
With these works the craftsman, by now a fully fledged artist, returns today to Istanbul, invited by an important cultural institution to exhibit his production; or should I call them paintings. As I had prophesied, so many years ago, he is now welcomed in Turkey as a new Master.
Venezia, il primo giorno di settembre dell’anno 2012