New York

“The Departure of the Argonaut”

Composer, novelist, playwright, and painter, Alberto Savinio was a career dilettante traveling the byways of Modernism. Born Andrea de Chirico in 1891 (the younger brother of Giorgio de Chirico), he was among the founders of the Metaphysical school of painting. He wrote his first opera, Carmela, at the age of 17, and four years later appeared in Apollinaire’s revue Les Soirées de Paris. Hermaphrodito, his compendium of stories, poems, and theater pieces, was published in 1918. Savinio continued to write, paint, and design for the stage until his death in 1952.

“The Departure of the Argonaut” constitutes the final section of Hermaphrodito (it is also the longest and most clearly autobiographical section). It appears here both as a livre de luxe published by Petersburg Press, with English translation by George Scrivani, and as an installation of unbound two-page spreads. (A trade edition in reduced size has also been published.) Francesco Clemente (who coincidentally was born the same year Savinio died) embellishes the work with his graphic inventions.

Savinio’s story is ostensibly concerned with the author’s induction into the Italian army and his subsequent departure for the Salonika front in 1917. Savinio’s textual journey transcends time and space, his weirdly delicate and elliptical prose making reference to such diverse characters as Dante Alighieri, Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, Alex Godillot (inventor of the lifejacket), the Three Fates, and Don Quixote. The writing exudes a fascination with the colorful marginalia of existence. Every object, hour, taste, and aroma is treated with exquisite, if brief, attention.

Clemente’s wildly diverse interests, wedded to his substantial inventory of drafting techniques, makes him a most appropriate visual interpreter of Savinio’s masterwork. He approaches each of the book’s five chapters, plus an epilogue, differently, exploring, among other things, the capabilities of lithography and the structure of the book form. The result is an extraordinary counterpoint of pictorial and linguistic fancies.

One spread in the first chapter features Savinio’s notes about soldiers who must endure the tedium of train travel; it is overlayed by a looping platoon of male figures in ancient Roman garb. Minus legs and one arm, each gestures with his remaining limb, upward-pointing fingers touching the next torso in the arrangement. The military inferences, of martial mutilation and parade formation, engage the story at several levels. Clemente addresses the convoluted narrative in chapter 2 with a series of bizarre sailor’s knots, tying the halves of each spread together across the gutter. Little boxes float beneath the type column on all but one right-hand page of this chapter. These containers hold a variety of hieroglyphlike symbols bearing no direct relation to Savinio’s text, adding another layer of mystery.

The large size of the book—each page measures 26 by 39 inches—provides Clemente with an ample working field. The lovers in the fourth chapter gambol upon great washes of color, the gutter here assuming an overtly sexual reference. Turning these pages becomes like pulling back the covers from a bawdy bed. The sumptuous, folded Japanese kozo paper sheets have the supple feel of bedclothes as well. Indeed, “The Departure of the Argonaut” functions as a kind of paginated seduction chamber within which the reader is aroused by color, texture, the heft and density of materials, as well as by the perambulations of its words and images.

Buzz Spector