My search for Savino began in 1926, while visiting famous art collector and critic Sir Timothy Broughton. He was a man of ample means. His taste was highly cultivated. Night or day, a bottle of chilled champagne, always quality stuff, was by his side, and for this reason, no less than the pleasure of his conversation, I was apt to call on him frequently.
One day our conversation turned to the subject of great artists who never got their just deserts. I mentioned Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Henry van de Velde both as being artists which I thought fell into this rank, both being absurdly neglected considering their skill and the impact they had.
Sir Broughton puffed at his cigar and shook his head knowingly.
"Have you ever heard of Savino?" he asked, with a rather indescribable look in his eyes, something like a magician might have when imparting a secret formula.
I thought for a moment, gently sipping my champagne, and then informed him, with some slight embarrassment, that I had not heard of Savino. He rose gravely from his seat and requested me to follow him into his study, which I did with much curiosity. When we reached the room, he pointed to a quadro hanging from the wall. It was obviously a relatively recent acquisition, because I had been in the room several times before and never noticed it—and though not in any way loud, it was a very noticeable bit of work. It was a strange stretched canvas, painted all in blue, a damn haunting shade of the colour, a sort of gloaming tint, full of melancholy. The depiction itself was of a rhinoceros, standing in the midst of a forest of strange letters and symbols. I could not make head or tail of it, but was sure that it was full of some deep meaning, possibly sinister, and I had great trouble dragging my eyes from the piece.
"Is this his work?" I asked, with some emotion.
"Yes. That is Savino. Back of Anthony Wexler you're looking at now."
I did not know what to reply. Sir Broughton calmly lit his pipe and pointed to a stack of papers on his writing table.
"Take a look," he said. "It is a catalogue I'm working on—For Sotheby's and all that sort of thing."
I took up a sheet and read:
The Property of a Gentleman
FOR CHARON: Two Confederate American gold coins, one obverse on the left eye, one reverse on the right, tattooed on the eyelids of retired Confederate Colonel Josiah Stoat, Georgia, United States of America. An inscription in black beneath the left coin reads 'For Charon', inks of ochre and cadmium
45mm x 13mm and 44mm x 12mm
From the collection of Prince Georg Lubomirski, Formerly deposited in the Museum at Lemberg, Poland
THE SPICE RIVER: A single dhow, piloted by a richly-dressed oriental merchant (actually a portrait of the client Xhien Xo Pyang) slowly floats down a languid river. The river's water is stained with the hues of cinnamon, cardamom, anise, turmeric, coriander, powdered ginger and peppercorns, ink of charcoal and mixed spice ink concentrates, right eyelid of the merchant Xhien Xo Pyang.
39mm x 10mm
The Property of a Gentleman
HIS LOVER'S EYES: A collage of twenty-three irises and pupils, each image taken from the body of the original. Each eye reflects the face of the client—the much-feared and renowned rapist and serial killer Renault DuChampe—at various ages. Behind this montage is a single large iris of deep brown: that of DuChamp's un-named hangman, manganese based salt inks, left eyelid
39mm x 10mm
The Property of the late Madame Winifred de Rothschild
COPY OF MOORE'S THE EPICUREAN, WITH SEVERAL PAGES SKETCHED ON BY ENZIO SAVINO, in one volume printed by A. & R. Spottiswood, New Street Square 1832, bound in leather with gold lettering on spine, slight foxing
List of pages on which these drawings appear:
a vi, recto: Slight study of one fat gentleman, black chalk
p. 3: Uncomplimentary study of Ferdinand Keller, black chalk
p. 164: Study of Zeus, black chalk, touched in pen and ink
Three loose pages of blank paper inserted at this place
p. 270: Study after a porphyry sculpture of the emperor Heliogabalus, black chalk
End page: Study of Prometheus saved by Hercules, black chalk, touched in pen and ink
The Property of Mrs. Lisa Stewart, of San Francisco
ROMNISOVIC'S SUPERNOVA; RIGHT EYELID: White stars superimposed on a light blue grid over a black background. The single brightest star is named for the client, Sergei Romnisovic, who discovered it in the midst of much public controversy over his private life and heretical religious beliefs, charcoal and rye inks
38mm x 10mm
The Property of Mrs. Lisa Stewart, of San Francisco
ROMNISOVIC'S SUPERNOVA; LEFT EYELID: Block-scripted letters and numbers listing information regarding the star:
inks of charcoal and soot
38mm x 10mm
His victims, his lovers, his comrades, whores he picked from the street and boozing oafs he snatched from the bars: drawn back to his chambers: his dark Berlin studio in that third phase of his career.
At first he used nightshade, hypnoticon, the Solanum manicon described by Dioscorides, a drachme intermixed with wine. But the results were twice fatal, and getting rid of corpses was awkward business. He toyed with belladonna, but found it too potent: the victims often sleepy for forty hours and more. So he settled for the fabulous sleeping apple: a concoction made from opium, mandrake, juice of hemlock, the seeds of henbane and a touch of musk. This he rolled into codling sized balls—He need simply give one to his guest and ask her/him to sniff it, a marvelous incense, which was attractive and often smelt, and eyes gently closed and them bound in unbreakable chains of sleep. Unclothed, naked and resting on their stomachs, and the canvas was ripe:
With water intermixed with salt ammonide, quicklime and the oil of galls, he went to work: painting away with rapid, predatory strokes: The designs initially appeared white, but after drying disappeared altogether from sight, the victim awaking with only a rather red and sore region, mere traces: Apply to the skin a mixture of litharge, vinegar and salt and they would reappear, even if a hundred years might expire. (Note Enzio Savino's last will and testament and the instructions held therein.)
[From an interview with Graham Lynch, cousin of Anthony Wexler]
We had received a letter from Tony regarding the museum piece and the commission Enzio was to receive from Frau von Bekken, which effectively solidified the couple's financial base for life. A few weeks later, Tony sent us the following:
Enzio completed his commission work a week ago—a startling composition depicting the mythical hunter Cibembe and his dog cresting the Usagara mountains just east of the Uhehe region. The Colonial Arts Commission felt strongly that, while Chief Bembele was clearly the source of the ill-fated Mele Mele uprising, his bravery warranted recognition. Thus Enzio was hired to etch this African icon of strength and determination over Bembele's eternally-closed eyelids. His head remains on display at the Berlin National Museum . . . '
Their future looked quite bright and we hoped that Enzio might now be able to spend more time with his ailing lover (Tony passed on only two years later), but this was not to be the case. Tony's next letter arrived two weeks later:
Enzio's behaviour has grown odd, to say the least. While I trust his loyalty and love for me—which he expresses nightly—I worry for his mind.
Two nights ago, after staying out considerably later than is usual, he returned home only to wake in the middle of the night crying, "I've done it, Tony! I've fixed that bitch for death! I've fixed her right up!" I have no doubt something is wrong with his state of mental health . . . '
Of course neither Tony nor I could interpret Enzio's meaning. Only
on Frau von Bekken's death, several months later, did we begin to understand what Enzio had done.
[Extracted from The Avantguard Artists of the Nineteenth Century, by W. B. Fry, London, William Heinmann, 1924]
Though certainly not the most successful, if success can be measured in terms of conventional fame, or monetary gain, Enzio Savino was possibly the most influential painter of the symbolist movement, surpassing even Redon and Moreau in influence amongst his fellow artists, and prestige amongst the culturally literate.
Born in Possagno, near Treviso, the son of a house painter, he was at a young age seduced by the German artist Ferdinand Keller, and moved with him to Paris in 1880, where he published his first series of lithographs Concerto Campestre, at the age of eighteen—a project that was undoubtedly financed by the purse of the older man.
Though not attending, he spent much of his time at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he made friends with Gerôme, by whom he was much admired, though to an equal degree feared. Carolus-Duran and Alexandre Cabanel, through uncontrollable jealousy and hate, had a petition passed around to ban Savino from the precincts of the school. The document stated that the young Italian was an evil influence on the other students and that his presence prevented them from going about their work. Savino slapped Cabanel in public and the latter challenged him to a duel. Savino, caring more for vengeance than honour, pulled out a stiletto and stabbed the teacher on the spot, though as luck would have it not mortally wounding him. After spending three months in jail, the young man was released, due to the influential intervention of Keller, who was still living in a nimbus of liquorice fascination.
His early work is vigorous and naturalistic (cf. The Tree of the Hanged, Bayerisches National Museum, Munich, 1883), but later his style became solemn and flushed with mythological influence, his subject matter for the most part being gleaned from ancient Egyptian and Greek lore. In 1884, he took part in the Salon des Indépendants, with high expectations of success. Unfortunately his work went largely unnoticed and was only praised by a few fellow artists. Enraged and frustrated, he tore his studio apart and left Paris. He was in debt to numerous persons, and involved in countless affairs of the heart. Needless to say, his sudden disappearance caused a great stir, and not a few friends to become enemies.
Many regarded him more in the light of a low adventurer than a skilled artist, and it must be said that his actions did much to form opinion in this wise. Edmond de Goncourt wrote: "He had the quasi savagery of all southern natures."
For nearly two years he was unheard of, and that period of his life is clouded in an almost resinous mystery. In Paris his name was heaped with ridicule, and rumours abounded. Some said that he had been seen in London, promenading between Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner; others claimed that he was in Germany, living at the expense of an immensely wealthy Baroness. Whatever the case, the year 1886 saw him reappear in Rome, a greatly changed man.
When he had left Paris, his personality was that of a gifted guttersnipe. When arrived in Rome, he did so as a man of culture—not subdued, for his nature was still as firey as ever—but one with greater knowledge, ability and inner strength.
He had acquired money. Not a great deal, but enough to dress like a gentleman and open up a studio on the Corso Magenta. In 1887 he exhibited at the Salon della Arte Metafisica, where he created a major stir with his Night of Cain (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfort). This grand canvas was his first major work and was hailed as a masterpiece. Wrote Adolfo de Carolis: "With that [Night of Cain] he showed us the path. He demonstrated how enormous difficulties might be cleared away with ease and made many great painters of the day tremble in despair [fearing] that they would lose the world's esteem."
That same year he produced over ninety canvases, including a number of works which today are regarded as some of his finest creations (e.g. Arte Etiopica, Museum of Art, Cleveland; Minotaur, Louvre, Paris; Tribute to Exechia, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Colon).
[Excerpts from a police interview with mortician Gustave Schnittke by Konstable Hermann Bergen]
[A few documents written by Savino to Wexler during his last months]
Oh, you needn't be that way about it. I am absolutely miserable and you should have a little sympathy. If I say I need money, you can be damned well sure I do. As you know, the lawyers have a lean on my work and I cannot even set my hands on my past paintings, and I cannot set my hand to new projects for lack of funds. I need a new studio, paints, brushes, all sorts of things—or give me but a stick of charcoal and a bit of cloth and I will do you something for £1. Honesty my friend, things are getting to the edge. Do you know that I will be evicted from this room in a week? Well, it is true. So I tell you plainly: Hurry up and get me something SUBSTANTIAL to set myself right. Seriously.
"Art-for-Art's-sake is no safe metier, not even for a prodigy such as he who under this, my stylus, bows in subjection. I embed in him, as my student again, the seeds of the fruition of my greatness, the scorpion's sting of stale vanity, of glory come and gone. May his fame, once invisible, again be manifest to those who never knew 'The Painter of Eyes'."
Tattooed to the back of Enzio Savino.
About the author
Brendan Connell writes about monks, tongues and films, often on his blog.