The marvelous work of Rossana Petrillo first struck me when I was wandering through an art gallery in Ravello (see Blog Post: Romantic Ravello and Lacing Wars). There were several of Rossana’s large paintings on the wall and I loved the gentle, round women, in elaborate hats and gloves, calmly enjoying a fairy-tale atmosphere, indifferent to the occasional Lilliputian men who appeared floating around the painting.
I am not an art expert, but there was something that reminded me of the works of Italian painter Modigliani in the long, slender necks, and something Botero-esque in the roundness. I particularly liked the use of rich damask fabric. The gallery owner explained to me that the artist painted directly on the damask cloth.
The advantage of being a journalist is you feel you can find anyone and ask them questions. I left the gallery and told my husband that I wanted to find Rossana Petrillo and learn more about her work. I wrote her an email and she wrote back and taught me a new work in Italian, “lusingata”. She said she was “lusingata” (flattered) by my interest and would love to have me visit her studio in Caserta.
The train to Caserta leaves you smack in front of Reggia di Caserta — the gigantic palace of the Bourbon kings built in 1750s as an imitation of Versailles.
It is breath-taking in its size — apparently it has 1200 rooms, 34 staircases and vast gardens that stretch for 3 kilometers. Little did I know there would be a link between this magnificent palace and the artist I was to meet.
I emerged from the station to find Rossana waiting for me. She is small with sparkly blue eyes and short grey hair which she says she occasionally covers for fun with long blond, red or brown wigs that she buys at an American market in Naples.
Rossana took me to her studio and I stepped into a whimsical land of voluptuous women with valentine lips, elaborate hats, floating hot-air balloons, and mini men. Rossana immediately got to work with her paints brushing busily at the long neck and adjusting the heart-shaped lips of a woman and adding masking tape to separate parts of the painting.
Rossana explained to me that she started painting when she was 14 and attended a “liceo artistico” – a high school for future artists. She went to university to study architecture but dropped out to continue her other work.
She has always had an interest in textiles and has incredible manual dexterity. She has worked making gold jewellery, fancy leather hand bags and continues to work as a sculptor making ceramic statues.
Rossana says her work was inspired by the 20th century Italian artist Salvatore Fiume and that her inspiration for diminutive male figures comes from Italian artist Franz Borghese. Later in the day, as she took me up the staircase of her home that is lined with her paintings covering a wide variety of styles that she has used over decades, I could see hints of Gauguin, Degas, Van Gogh, and Chagall.
In her studio it was hard to miss the shelves overflowing with pieces of damask silk fabric.
Her first paintings were on canvas but then an upholsterer friend in Caserta suggested she try painting on damask silk fabric. The Caserta area has a long tradition of silk fabric production. The Bourbon Kings had a taste for fine silk cloth and in the 1780s created a “Silk Weaver’s Royal Colony” in the nearby area of San Leucio (Now on the UNESCO World Heritage list) to provide silk fabrics for the royal family. Rossana’s husband explained to me that the Bourbon King Charles and his son Ferdinand attempted a “socialist experiment” letting the silk workers run their own community with their own set of laws. The Bourbon Kings brought in the most modern equipment of the day for the silk production and built homes for silk workers. They studied techniques used by the best damask making artisans of the day who were in France. Although the factories are now open as museums, the area has remained a center for high-quality fabric production. Rossana’s husband said local companies have provided fabrics for The White House, The Kremlin and Buckingham Palace. Rossana’s friend and art lover Francesco Cicala, of the famous Cicala Fabric makers in Caserta, provides Rossana with the fabrics she uses in her paintings.
After leaving her studio, Rossana took me up the road towards San Leucio, but we stopped at her home and entered through a green wooden door to a fabulous courtyard filled with orange trees. Inside her home, her husband and two sons were preparing a delicious meal with fresh vegetables from their own garden, local mozzarella di bufala and ricotta, pasta with mushrooms they had gathered and an exquisite local red wine. The walls of their home were filled with Rosanna’s paintings, giving the place a warm and cheerful atmosphere. As I dug into the pasta and sipped the red wine, I felt as though I might be in a Petrillo painting myself, all I needed was a damask silk dress, some gloves and a puny man in a top hat.
If any blog readers are interested in seeing some of Rossana Petrillo’s paintings, here is a list of galleries in Italy:
Ravello: Le Petiti Prince, Via San Francesco 9
Rome (Trastevere neighborhood): Pavart, Via dei Genovesi 12
Chieti: Galleria Trifoglio Arte, Piazza Gian Battista Vico 6,7,8
Cortona: Arte Nocchia Cortona, Via Nazionale 61
Civitavecchia: La Pace di Nocchia, Via A. Cialdi 3/D
Or if you aren’t in Italy, you can check out Rossana’s website:
Studio: Via Ricciardi 53, Caserta
Cell Phone: 333-377-8549
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.