1879 (September 24): Raoul Ferenzona was born in Florence, Italy.
1880 (April 19): Ferenzona’s father, a controversial political journalist who wrote under the pseudonym “Giovanni Antonio Dal Molin,” was assassinated in Livorno. Raoul would later change his last name to “Dal Molin Ferenzona” to honor his father.
1890 (ca): Ferenzona was enrolled in a military college in Florence and subsequently in the Military Academy in Modena.
1899: Ferenzona published in Modena his first book: Primulae – novelle gentili (Primulas – Gentle Tales), a collection of tales.
1900: Ferenzona made his first artistic apprenticeship in Palermo under the guidance of the sculptor Ettore Ximenes.
1901: Ferenzona was admitted to the Art Academy in Florence, renowned at that time for its nude art classes.
1902: Ferenzona travelled to Monaco, where he became influenced by the works of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. In Rome, he was introduced to sculptor Gustavo Prini and his circle.
1906: Ferenzona travelled to London, Paris, The Hague, and Brussels.
1908: Ferenzona’s closest friends, Domenico Baccarini and the poet Sergio Corazzini, both died from tuberculosis.
1911: Ferenzona travelled through Prague, Graz, Brünn, and Seis am Schlern.
1912: Ferenzona published Ghirlanda di stelle (Garland of Stars). He had two art exhibitions together with Frank Brangwyn in Vienna, Austria, and Brünn, Moravia.
1917: Ferenzona attended meetings and events organised by the splinter Theosophical group “Il Roma” at the Theosophical League headquarters.
1918: While he was staying in Bern, Ferenzona underwent a spiritual crisis. He left Switzerland and was sheltered in Santa Francesca Romana monastery in Rome.
1919: Ferenzona published Zodiacale – Opera religiosa. Orazioni, acqueforti e aure (Zodiac – A Religious Work. Orations, Copper Engravings, and Auras).
1921: Ferenzona published Vita di Maria: Opera mistica (Life of Mary: A Mystic Work).
1923: Ferenzona published AôB – Enchiridion Notturno. Dodici miraggi nomadi, dodici punte di diamante originali. Misteri rosacrociani n. 2 (AôB – Nocturnal Enchiridion: Twelve Nomadic Mirages, Twelve Original Engravings, Rosicrucian Mysteries no. 2).
1926: Ferenzona published a collection of poems and lithographies, presented as three “essays:” Uriel, torcia di Dio – Saggi di riflessione illuminata (Uriel, Torch of God – Essays of Illuminated Reflection); Élèh – Saggi di riflessioni illuminata (Élèh – Essays of Illuminated Reflection); Caritas ligans – saggi di riflessione illuminata (Caritas Ligans – Essays of Illuminated Reflection).
1927: Ferenzona took part in the Second International Exhibition of Engravings in Florence.
1929: Ferenzona had a solo art exhibition in Florence at Galleria Bellenghi, and some of his works were exhibited in Rome at the Mostra del Libro Moderno Italiano (Modern Italian Books Exhibition). He also published Ave Maria! Un poema ed un’opera originale con fregi di Raoul Dal Molin Ferenzona. Misteri Rosacrociani (Opera 6.a) (Hail Mary! A poem and an original work with Raoul Dal Molin Ferenzona’s friezes, Rosicrucian Mysteries, work no. 6).
1931: Ferenzona exhibited at the Salon International du Livre d’Art in Paris.
1945: Ferenzona illustrated the collection of poems by Paul Verlaine, L’Amour et le Bonheur.
1946 (January 19): Ferenzona died in Milan.
Raoul Dal Molin Ferenzona (1879-1946) [Image at right] was a prolific and multifaceted artist. He was a renowned painter,
illustrator, and engraver/printmaker; he was part of the Art Nouveau movement. Although he used to call himself a “Pre-Raphaelite,” in fact Ferenzona’s work was more deeply influenced by Belgian and Czech Symbolism. Ferenzona was also an influential proponent of Theosophical and Rosicrucian ideas in the twentieth century artistic, literary and occult milieu.
Unfairly regarded as a minor painter and illustrator, he was rediscovered by critics in the 1970s (Quesada 1978, 1979) and hailed as one of the most creative and multifaceted Italian artists of the first half of the twentieth century. The famous Italian painter Gino Severini (1883-1966) in his autobiography described him as “an extremely lively, clever, little young man with French style moustaches. He defined himself a Pre-Raphaelite painter and did not want to hear the very word Impressionism […] Surrealism could have been his field” (Severini 1983:20).
Ferenzona was born in Florence, Italy, on September 24, 1879, to Olga Borghini and Giovanni Gino Ferenzona. The latter was a news correspondent for the national Italian daily Gazzetta d’Italia in Livorno. He wrote several articles, and a couple of novels, against Italian revolutionary general Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) under the pseudonym of Giovanni Antonio Dal Molin. Ferenzona Sr. was murdered on April 19, 1880 by a partisan of Garibaldi. Raoul was left orphan at age one, and moved to Florence together his mother and his brother, Fergan. Later, Ferenzona Jr. would add “Dal Molin” to his last name in honour of his assassinated father.
Raoul started a military career by enrolling first in a military college in Florence and then at the Military Academy in Modena. During the summer holidays, he wrote his first book, Primulae (novelle gentili). This is a collection of six short stories where, apart from mythical creatures, decadent characters, and dark cruel atmospheres, we find several autobiographical elements. One of the tales (“Somnia Animae”) has as a protagonist, Mario. He is a painter living in an attic and unable to truly love a real woman because he is in love with a figure of Judith portrayed in one of his paintings. It is amazing how the character of the painter closely resembles Ferenzona as he would become as an adult. The story also shows how important and prominent female figures and portraits were in his work.
More interested in the arts than in his military education and career, Ferenzona moved to Palermo in 1900 to pursue an apprenticeship under the well-known sculptor Ettore Ximenes (1855-1926). It lasted only a few months however, because Ximenes advised Ferenzona to pursue his studies on his own. Therefore, in 1901, Ferenzona moved to Florence and was admitted to the Art Academy. Here, he became roommate and friend of Domenico Baccarini (1882-1907), a native of Faenza and a promising young painter and sculptor. Both the friendship with Baccarini and the resulting connection with the cultural scene of Faenza were an important step in Raoul’s artistic and spiritual path.
In 1902, Ferenzona travelled to Munich. From then on, he dedicated himself primarily to graphic arts and painting. In Munich, the work of Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) and Albrecht Dürer (1471-1523) introduced Ferenzona to a new conception of art (Bardazzi 2002:12). The impact of Dürer on Ferenzona’s work was crucial, specifically for what concerned the use of certain printmaking techniques. Knowing that Dürer’s etchings represented or constituted part of an alchemical process (Calvesi 1993:34-38; Roob 2011:411, 430) exerted an immense fascination on the young Ferenzona and his work.
In 1904, Ferenzona moved to Rome with his friend Baccarini. In the Italian capital, they were both introduced to the circle of the sculptor Giovanni Prini (1877-1958). The circle included Italian artists who were at that time part of the movement known as Divisionism, including Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Giacomo Balla (1871-1958), and Gino Severini, as well as by representatives of Art Nouveau and Cubo-Futurism such as Duilio Cambellotti (1876-1960) and Arturo Ciacelli (1883-1966). Severini tells us that Ferenzona often quarrelled with Boccioni and Balla (Severini 1983:23) because of his Pre-Raphaelite conception of art (i.e. the primacy of dream, myth, and imagination over the inner world of the artist). This latter had a central role in French Impressionism, a movement that Ferenzona despised. In the same year, in Rome, Ferenzona also became friends with the poet Sergio Corazzini (1886-1907), and they collaborated in the journal Cronache latine.
In 1906, Ferenzona travelled through Europe, visiting Paris, London, Bruges, and The Hague. He tried to follow an ideal spiritual path and in the steps of his favourite Symbolist authors and artists: Félicien Rops (1833-1898), Robert Ensor (1877-1958), Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), Marcel Lenoir (1872-1931), Carlos Schwabe (1866-1926), Jean Delville (1867-1953), Jan Toorop (1858-1928), Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), René Laforgue (1894-1962), Francis Jammes (1868-1938), Albert Samain (1858-1900), and Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898). It is not a coincidence that most of these artists were interested in Rosicrucian movements and took part to Les Salons de la Rose+Croix (Pincus-Witten 1976:110-15) organised by Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918). Some were also members of the Theosophical Society. The overwhelming influence of Toorop on Ferenzona’s work is self-evident [Image at right]. The representation of the eternal feminine is recurring in Ferenzona’s paintings and engravings, and assumed both a Symbolist connotation and certain spiritual and esoteric meanings during the first decade of the twentieth century.
In 1907, Ferenzona lost both of his best friends: Domenico Baccarini and Sergio Corazzini. Both died from tuberculosis. In 1912, Ferenzona travelled again through Seis am Schlern, Klagenfurt, Graz, Prague, and Brünn, and in the same year he published Ghirlanda di stelle (Garland of Stars). The book, dedicated to his deceased friends, is both a collection of poems and an account of his past travels and experiences. Ghirlanda di stelle attests to a remarkable change in Ferenzona’s narrative style, both in visual arts and poetry. Poems, drawings, and engravings became part of the same narration. A new kind of narrative was emerging from Ferenzona’s work: rather than books of art, he wanted to produce an “art of the book.”
Between 1910 and 1912, Ferenzona visited several cities in Central and Eastern Europe, and also exhibited his works in Vienna and Moravia together with paintings by the British artist Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) (Bardazzi 2002:81). Exactly in the same time period, the Czech painter Josef Váchal (1884-1969) together with Jan Konůpek (1883-1950), František Kobliha (1877-1962), and Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977), founded the Sursum group, involved in both artistic and spiritual and occult activities (Introvigne 2017; Larvovà 1996). Váchal, who was obsessed with the figure of Satan (Introvigne 2016:233-34; Faxneld 2014), had dedicated his first series of watercolours to the Devil (Bardazzi 2002:15).
Even if Ferenzona’s stay in Prague in 1911 is well-documented (Ferenzona 1912:186-189), it is hard to prove that he got in touch with Váchal or any other member of the Sursum group there. Nonetheless, Italian art historian Emanuele Bardazzi observed that Ferenzona’s work “Gaspard de la nuit,” [Image at right] presumably referring to the protagonist of the novel of the same title by Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841), shows a strong influence of Vachal’s style (Bardazzi 2002:15-16).
In 1917, Ferenzona was in Rome, where his interest in the occult and Rosicrucianism flourished. He reportedly joined the circle of followers of the Italian esoteric master Giuliano Kremmerz (1861-1930) (Quesada 1979:19), but he was mostly active in Rosicrucian and Theosophical milieus. Ferenzona was invited in 1909 and 1910 to lecture on German Theosophist, and future founder of the Anthroposophical Society, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) (Bardazzi 2002:81), but it was between 1917 and 1923 that Raoul fully expressed his “occult” potential. In July 1917, Ferenzona exhibited eighty works together with some illustrations of American painter Elihu Wedder (1836-1923), at the headquarters in Via Gregoriana, Rome, of the Theosophical League, a splinter Italian group led by Decio Calvari (1863-1937) that had separated from the Theosophical Society. He also gave a lecture on “Apparizioni artistiche relative e concordanze supreme” (“Artistic relative appearances and supreme concordances”). Ferenzona started the lecture by arguing how particularly gifted artists have a natural attitude towards occult disciplines, followed by a critical analysis of artists who dabbled in the occult, such as William Blake (1757-1827), Elihu Wedder, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), and many others. Ferenzona argued that a peculiar trait identified this kind of gifted artist, the presence of the “artistic appearance.” This is defined as “a magical fact resulting from all the combined (known and unknown) forces of the Cosmos that operate through the artist” (Ferenzona 1917:40). Ferenzona also gave another lecture in Rome in August 1918 on the origins of artistic inspiration. In the effort of tracing back to primordial civilisations the source of inspiration, Ferenzona introduced elements evidently inspired by Steiner’s Occult Science (Ferenzona 1918:40).
At the meetings of the Theosophical League, Ferenzona also made the acquaintance of another well-known figure of twentieth century Italian occultism (Evola 1963:28), Julius Evola (1898-1974). They would share both artistic and occultist experiences. In the early 1920s, together with Evola, Ferenzona joined Arturo Ciacelli (whose acquaintance Ferenzona had already made in Prini’s house) and his circle, “Cenacolo d’arte dell’Augusteo” (Art Circle of the Augusteum) (Olzi 2016:24-25). Amongst the activities of Ciacelli’s circle, there were an exhibition of Ferenzona’s paintings, a declamation of Evola’s poems, and a dance performance in the style of Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, which was connected with the artistic movement Dadaism that Evola was part of at the time (Paoletti 2009:40-48).
The experiences he shared with Evola in both the modernist art and Theosophical fields changed (although temporarily) his vision of art and spirituality. Amongst the works of his early thirties, Ferenzona produced a series of paintings of Zodiac signs and Cosmos, which could be seen as the result of this experimental and temporary phase [Image at right]. In 1918, during a brief stay in Switzerland (first in Zurich then in Bern), Ferenzona suffered from a “spiritual crisis” that lead him to seek asylum in the Catholic monastery of Santa Francesca Romana in Rome. This event influenced the style of his successive works, as well as their conception.
Ferenzona’s popularity was not limited to Theosophical or modernist milieus. In November 1919, he started giving lectures every Wednesday, in the shape of an “Esoteric Course of History of Art and Spiritual Science,” in a studio in Via Margutta, in Rome. It is also attested that Ferenzona lectured on the same topics in other cities apart from Rome. In a letter dated April 12, 1919, Ferenzona accepted the invitation of Lamberto Caffarelli (1880-1963), a composer who was a member both of the Anthroposophical Society (Beraldo 2013:421-54) and of the Italian Gnostic Church (Olzi 2014:14-27), to give a lecture in Faenza. Attached to this letter, there was a programme with the titles of all lectures from his “Esoteric Course” held in Rome. Amongst the titles, one in particular draws attention: “I Rosa-Croce (1300/1910)” (The Rosicrucians, 1300-1910). Although the text of this lecture has not been found, in the correspondence between Ferenzona and Caffarelli there are several references to Rosicrucianism. In another letter sent to Caffarelli, Ferenzona first quoted a famous Rosicrucian book that was published in Paris in 1623 (Naudé 1623:27) and then proposed to create a new Rosicrucian brotherhood in Italy. According to Ferenzona, the most suitable place for the meetings of this brotherhood would have been the convent of Santa Croce of Fonte Avellana, near Potenza (Ferenzona 1920:5).
The project of the new Rosicrucian community never materialized, but Ferenzona’s lecture documents his occult interests at that time. Although Ferenzona was interested in all the artists and authors that took part in the Salons de la Rose+Croix, he admitted in a letter to Caffarelli (Ferenzona 1920:9) that he never had the chance to find a copy of Constitutiones Rosae Crucis et Spiritus Sancti Ordinis edited by Péladan, and as a consequence did not really know how the Rosicrucian order at work behind the Salons operated (Fagiolo 1974:129-36). At the very beginning of the same letter, Ferenzona stated that a “Rosicrucian should be sufficient unto himself.” This statement was not an apology for arrogance, but referred to a self-initiation independent of any organized structure or order. From the early 1920s, Ferenzona started naming and considering his illustrated books as “Rosicrucian Mysteries” and tools for self-initiation.
One of these “Mysteries” was conceived and published in the period Ferenzona spent “in-between Bern and Rome” at the end of World War I. In 1919, Ferenzona published Zodiacale – Opera Religiosa (Zodiacal: A Religious Book), a “book dedicated to God” whose content was a collection of twelve prayers, twelve copper engravings, and twelve tales. The number twelve had two meanings: twelve are the signs of the Zodiac, and twelve is a multiple of four, the number of the conditions to access the truth in the most renowned treatise written by French esoteric master Éliphas Lévi (1810-1875) – “to know, to dare, to will, to remain silent” (Lévi 1861:110). These “four words of truth” serve as the conclusion of Zodiacale. The book includes twelve sections. Each section is introduced by a prayer (a brief poem), a copper engraving, and a tale. These narrative pieces are surreal tales populated by magicians, mad painters, enchanted puppets, alchemists, and psychics engaged in bizarre adventures. Zodiacale is both a magical and alchemical book. “The art of the book” of Ghirlanda di stelle becomes here the activation of an alchemical process. Each character in the book is a facet of the author’s self, and every engraving [Image at right] is a further step in a process of transformation. Like Dürer, Ferenzona proposes an opus alchemicum through his engravings. Through the cycle of the twelve zodiac signs, and through the poems and tales, both the author and the audience are invited to transcend themselves. Both Caffarelli and Evola received copies of this magical book from Ferenzona.
In 1923, Ferenzona published another book that included twelve engravings and twelve poems, AôB – Enchiridion Notturno. Dodici miraggi nomadi, dodici punte di diamante originali. Misteri rosacrociani n. 2 (AôB – Nocturnal Enchiridion: Twelve Nomadic Mirages, Twelve Original Engravings. Rosicrucian Mysteries, no. 2). As stressed in the title, this is the second of “Rosicrucian Mysteries” dedicated to Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849). Poems and engravings [Image at right] work as initiatory tools that reveal the secret nature of magic.
Besides the Rosicrucian Mysteries, in 1926 Ferenzona carried on a side project with a series of three “essays of illuminated reflection,” These are Uriel, torcia di Dio (Uriel, Torch of God ), Élèh (Élèh), and Caritas Ligans (Caritas Ligans), three collections of poems and lithographies. The images are strongly influenced by the artistic movements known as Cubo-Futurism. Although the poems are dedicated to figures of the Jewish-Christian tradition, the influence of Theosophy is apparent in all three books.
In 1927, Ferenzona was one of the artists exhibiting at the Second International Exhibition of Engravings in Florence. The event was organised by art critic Vittorio Pica (1864-1930) and writer Aniceto Del Massa (1898-1975). Del Massa wrote several articles under the pseudonym of “Sagittario” (Sagittarius) (Del Ponte 1994:181) for the occult journal Ur edited by Arturo Reghini (1878- 1946) and Julius Evola. Del Massa was also a member of the occult-initiatory group of the same name connected with the periodical, “Il Gruppo di Ur” (The Ur Group). Coming back to Rosicrucian works, Ferenzona in 1921 and in 1929 published respectively Vita di Maria. Opera mistica (Life of Mary A Mystic work) and Ave Maria! Un poema ed un’opera originale con fregi di Raoul Dal Molin Ferenzona. Misteri Rosacrociani (Opera 6.a) (Hail Mary! A poem and an original work with Raoul Dal Molin Ferenzona’s friezes, Rosicrucian Mysteries, Work no. 6). Both of these books were collections of poems and images. Besides recurrent references to Medieval mysticism and Rosicrucianism, the importance and the role of femininity in these books is crucial [Image at right].
In the 1940s, Ferenzona illustrated several Italian classics, from Inni sacri (Sacred Hymns) by Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) to Idilli (Idylls) by Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). However, the illustrations realised for L’Amour et le Bonheur, a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), deserve a mention for their spiritual and esoteric meaning. An image that effectively expressed the conception of transcendence and spiritual realisation was his alleged self-portrait [Image at right]. It could be connected to the final sentences that seal the end of the book Zodiacale: “A NEW MAN […] A new religious man who is a lover of life and death, of natural and spiritual science, freed from desire, wise and manly, good, he uttered out loud to the four direction of the new Era the four action: to know – to dare – to will – to remain silent. And finally, this kind of authentic Christian was praised by the Almighty” (Ferenzona 1919:141). These words may perhaps serve as an epitaph for Ferenzona, who always regarded himself as a Christian esotericist. He died in Milan on January 19, 1946.
** All images are clickable links to enlarged representations.
Image #1: Ferenzona, Autoritratto a pastello (1913).
Image #2: Ferenzona, Image d’autrefois (1909).
Image #3: Ferenzona, Gaspard de la nuit (1920).
Image #4: Ferenzona, Zodiaco (ca. 1930).
Image #5: Ferenzona, Scorpione, acquaforte per Zodiacale (1918).
Image #6: Ferenzona, A ô b Enchiridion notturno (1923).
Image #7: Ferenzona, frontispiece for Vita di Maria (1921).
Image #8: Ferenzona, illustration (possible self-portrait) for Verlaine’s L’Amour et le Bonheur (1945).
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3 March 2017