To my own time, to reach Guastalla coming from Parma, the easier thing to do was going on the big riverside of the Po River and follow it until it entered the city. The carriage was running on top of this huge plane that the sun lights up of strong yellow and green; the same plane that become quite creepy when invaded by the rain and the fog.
In these lands, riding a motorbike between Gualtieri and Guastalla, spent the most of his life the greatest Italian naïf artist: Antonio Ligabue.
Antonio Ligabue was born in Zurich in 1899: his mother was Italian, from Belluno, and his father was unknown. A German family fostered him when he was only one year old and he stayed with them until he was 20. His natural mother later married Bonfiglio Leccabue, coming from Gualtieri, and she had other three children: Antonio took the last name of the stepfather and changed it into “Ligabue” many years after, when he accused Bonfiglio to have killed his mother and siblings. Ligabue had an awkward aspect due to his ricketiness and possible vitamin deficiencies that blocked his physical development. As a child, he was instinctive and unpredictable: he attended the primary school, but since the beginning, he found difficulties of learning and socializing, so he was sent to a differential class. When he was 13, he was sent to an institute for problematic kids and then he changed many schools, being always expelled for bad attitude. He often had nervous crisis and he could find peace in drawings; moreover, he rather stayed close to animals, incredibly interesting to him, than humans.
Expelled once again from the institute, he began working as farmer, until they sectioned him in a psychiatric hospital and then expelled him from Switzerland in 1919, after a fight with his adoptive mother. They sent him to the native town of his stepfather: Gualtieri. Ligabue tried to escape and return to Switzerland, even because he could not speack Italian, but they caught and closed him in a hospice of begging. Therefore, he began working on the riverside of the Po and in those years, he got closer to the painting: he started painting for himself and for some equestrian circuses.
In 1928, there was the turning point: the painter and sculptor Renato Marino Mazzacurati, who was also the founder of the School of Rome, got interested in Ligabue and taught him the technique of the oil painting. This way Antonio could enter the World of Art. Soon he began producing big canvas, attracting the attention of critics and clients. His subjects were mainly “beasts”, as he used to call them, wild or domesticated, fighting against each other. Ligabue used to represent the wide plane of the Big River where suddenly appeared a wonderful jungle of intense colours. From time to time, he made some self-portraits, as to symbolize a minute of peace in the continuous fight that was his life. He made also some sculptures, mostly representing animals with much more realistic shapes than the ones he painted.
This way Ligabue began having a certain economic stability that allowed him to live of his own art and cultivate another of his passions: the motors. In his life, he bought sixteen motorcycles and a car. Friends, clients and protectors, often hosted him and his life seemed like having reached normality. However, it did not last for long, as in 1937, he was sectioned in the asylum of Reggio Emilia because of acts of self-injuring and he was diagnosed with depression. Antonio continued drawing and painting even in the psychiatric hospital and he exit it thanks to a friend and sculptor, Andrea Mozzali, who invited him to stay at his place in Guastalla.
During the war, Ligabue worked as translator of the German troops, but an episode made him return to the asylum in 1945: his spontaneous behavior made him attack a German soldier with a bottle. Here he received the visits of journalists and when he exit the asylum, in 1948 his fame was exploded: many more critics and art dealer were interested in his works.
In 1955, some of those were exposed in Gonzaga and the following year he was involved in the “Suzzara’s Prize”. In 1961 in Rome, it was opened his first personal exhibition that marked his definitive success: he attracted many writers, journalists and critics so he became internationally notorious as the greatest Italian naïf artist. They also took pictures of him and made documentaries on his life while alive. Actually, even though his success, he never stopped being a weird and creepy character, with his particular German accent: he bought a car to go from Gualtieri to Guastalla and he hired a chauffeur to drive it. He also wanted the chauffeur to bend down to him and open him the door. He used to stop to catch a landscape of these lands and then transpose it on the canvas, reinventing it with vibrant, violent and nostalgic tones, where imagination mixed up with the real scenes of the countryside life.
One day, while he was on his motorcycle, he had an accident that made drop his artistic production, followed by a partial paralysis. Antonio Ligabue, called “the German” or “the crazy” by the community and “Toni” by his friends, died in 1965, after being baptized and confirmed. They buried him in Gualtieri.
After his death, there were many exhibitions of his works: from the first retrospective in Rome in 1965, to the big anthology exhibition in Milan organized by the Centre of Studies & Archive of Antonio Ligabue of Parma in 1980, then replicated in Bordighera, Lugano, Paris and Strasburg. In my Land it was organized an exhibition at the Magnani Rocca of Travesetolo in 2011, while in his towns, Gualtieri and Guastalla, they stood particularly attached to the character: here they regularly organize exhibition of his artworks, it has been opened a mall with his name and the naïf culture spread in the decorations of both the localities.