Art review: Migration Stories: Valentina Bonizzi, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Photograph of Jessica Verrecchia, born Paris 1997. Picture: Toby Williams
Photograph of Jessica Verrecchia, born Paris 1997. Picture: Toby Williams
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A MASSIVE bronze hand, foot and ankle and some scattered stones sit in front of St Mary’s Cathedral at the top of Leith Walk in Edinburgh. Thousands of people walk past them every day, but I suspect not many feel much curiosity.

Migration Stories: Valentina Bonizzi

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh


Self-indulgence by contemporary artists is the norm, why puzzle over it? The bronze and stone is, of course, Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture, Manuscript of Monte Cassino, and Paolozzi was not like that. He thought deeply about what he was doing and especially deeply about this particular work. It is a message to his native city about destruction and reconstruction, tradition and innovation; how things are constantly broken down, yet how we struggle to build anew. But it is also very personal, about his own experience as the child of Italian immigrants living in difficult times in an adopted land.

Paolozzi was born at the other end of Leith Walk and as a boy he went to church at St Mary’s. The stones scattered round the sculpture are from Leith Station. Now demolished, it once stood next door to his birthplace. Its stones are like fragments of the artist’s childhood rudely shattered by the war. The main sculpture itself is composed of fragments too. Like the remnants of some colossal figure, the hand, foot and ankle invoke classical antiquity, whose great art we know from just such broken pieces. The inscriptions on the bronze are in Latin, language of the Antique, and from an eighth-century poem by Paulus Diaconus, a monk from the monastery of Monte Cassino. He too was an Italian emigrant. His poem is a letter written in exile as, far away in Germany, he dreamt of the peace and tranquility of the monastery, the home he had left behind. The scriptorium of Monte Cassino, where the monks copied classical texts, was the narrow bridge across which much of classical literature and learning was transmitted to us; fragments again, bits of an old civilsation from which in the Italian renaissance a new one was built. But Monte Cassino was senselessly destroyed in the war by American bombs, obliterating a place essential to the very civilisation they were supposed to be fighting to defend.

Paolozzi’s family came from Viticuso, near Monte Cassino, and they too were almost destroyed. When Italy entered the war in 1940, the position of Italians in Britain as enemy aliens was difficult and dangerous. In Edinburgh there were anti-Italian riots. The men were interned and Paolozzi’s father, grandfather and an uncle were put aboard the Blue Star liner, Arandora Star, to be transported to Canada. The ship was torpedoed by the Germans and they and many other Italians were among the 805 people lost. It was a peculiarly pointless death, killed by the Germans with whom they were suspected of sympathising. Paolozzi himself was interned in Saughton jail. His sculpture is testimony enough to how he reconstructed his own life from its shattered pieces, but it goes much further than the merely autobiographical to reflect on the dislocation of the life of the Scots-Italians and beyond that, on the nature of civilisation itself; how it must constantly be renewed or face extinction. It is no mean piece of public sculpture, but it has no adequate interpretation to explain it, nor anything to point out how it commemorates the tragic sinking of the Arandora Star.

If we are now conscious of how much the Scots-Italians have enriched life in Scotland, it was not always so and another Italian artist, Valentina Bonizzi, has taken up the story in a small exhibition in the Portrait Gallery. It is part of a series devoted to Scottish migrations, both inward and outward. Bonizzi is also part of a group exhibition at Stills with a similar theme. She is herself part of the migrations that followed the establishment of open borders across the EU. She came to Scotland eight years ago on an Erasmus scholarship and stayed. She came to study language and literature, but found pictures were better and started to take photographs. At Stills she has put together a small group of portraits and documents together with two films reflecting on Italian emigration. She feels that the darker side of the story in Scotland, the side implicit in Paolozzi’s broken stones, has been lost from sight. She also adds two grim footnotes to Paolozzi’s own story. A letter from the chief constable of Edinburgh, dated 28 June 1940, to Mrs Valenti of Duke Street, Leith – the next street to Paolozzi’s birthplace – tells her that as an alien she has three days to remove herself to somewhere at least 20 miles from the east or south coasts. Even more brutally, a newspaper cutting proposes “question of the week”: “Was it necessary to risk [a] grand ship like Arandora Star in transporting enemy aliens to [a] place of safety? Wouldn’t some old tubs have done as well?”

Bonizzi’s interest is in the women who, like Mrs Valenti, were left behind to try to piece their lives together. The questions they faced then continue to be relevant even in the more humane circumstances of the present day. How do you make a new life? How does it relate to your old one? How do those you left behind see you in your new life? So she takes 
reflective portraits of women of several generations, some born here, some who have settled, others who have been and gone. One particularly fine portrait is of Florinda Gallo whose life exactly parallels Paolozzi’s. Born in Edinburgh in 1927, her mother was from Cassino and her father was lost on the Arandora Star. As Paolozzi also had to do, she took over the family shop when barely a teenager.

With the title Il Gancio, the Hook, one group of Bonizzi’s subjects all come from the village of Filignano in the region of Molise. One girl was born in Filignano, another in Paris, a third in Glasgow. Thus they represent a small diaspora, but also, she says, a community without borders. Another group called Work and Intimacy is of portraits of women who have come to Scotland, as she herself has done, during the last 30 years. Indeed, one of her sitters has returned to Italy after 14 years here. Her portrait seen from behind suggests how she has twice turned her back, first on old her home, then on her new.

In one of Bonizzi’s films, a woman remembers how, at the end of the war, she was carrying water on her head when liberating troops stopped her to take her picture. What happened to that picture, she wonders. Where did it go? An abandoned house which appears both in Bonizzi’s film and in her photographs becomes a metaphor for that kind of dislocation. A bowl she found in the house is displayed in the gallery. It was once so precious to someone that, although badly broken, it was elaborately repaired, but then, abandoned; it became an amnesiac souvenir, a forgotten memory.

Also at Stills, three photographs by Frank Monaco taken in 1950 and also set in the region of Molise – two of emigrants leaving and one sent to someone already abroad – have been reprinted by the artist and are now paired with film by Agapito da Pilla of people remembering those separations long ago. It is very moving and of course, it resonates with the Scottish story too. These photographs find their exact parallel in Scottish painting, in McTaggart’s Emigrant Ship, or Thomas Faed’s Last of the Clan in the 19th century, or in David Shanks Ewart’s The Emigrants of 1926. Migration is universal, part of the human story.

• Until 22 September