Mario Di Donfrancesco, from Lecce and versatile artist, has been a painter, sculptor, papier-mâché maker and restorer for 43 years. His life unfolds in the studio in the historic center of Lecce on Via D’Amelio.
As you cross the threshold, you seem to enter Alice’s land and admire all its wonders: baroque paintings and human-height papier-mâché statues that seem to want to greet the unexpected guest, while others, placed on wooden shelves, watch over him because . These carefully crafted clay hands don’t need to suffer jarring for sudden movements. Even feet with tiny fingers or hand-decorated dresses and paintings are not placed on the new easels, the only element of modernity in a world that marvels and smells of the past.
I move between the paints, brushes, glues and plasters made using ancient techniques and I do it slowly, with my eye on every detail that seems small but instead underlines the greatness of the artist.
Interviewing him is a difficult task, not because he keeps working as he speaks, but because in a place like this, unique to Lecce, stopping and writing is the least obvious thing to do.
These are places where life in its most beautiful and complete form, ie art, seems to stand still to breathe without problems; or rather, to breathe a sigh of relief when life becomes unfair or difficult. Here everything is calm and tastes good and good. Just like Mario, with his peaceful and simple nature and his desire to share with me all his works and therefore his entire existence. But Mario doesn’t think about calm and serenity, because he has a lot to do here, above all the coordination of his familiar students who surround him, as well as affection – as befits an artist who puts humanity at the center of his work – also of artefacts, for which they ask him for advice, which he always declines with a smile. Many commissioned works to be restored, and then the didactic activity, the exhibitions, the reception of tourists, at least this small niche of those who in Salento go to discover, in addition to the beauty of the sea, also those of the fine arts.
I interview him and the first question I ask him is about his talent because to see it in person is a privilege for me too.
How did you find out?
From a young age I loved drawing and I realized that there was nothing I could do in life other than myself.
In 1979, after attending the artistic high school and the art academy, I opened my laboratory. There was a fierce debate about contemporary art at the time, and I was one of the few who didn’t support movements that wanted to put aside academism and replace it with absolute, unbridled modernism, devoid of technology. You can make modern art, but you have to know the technique.
What painting technique do you use?
The baroque technique, rich in light effects, always starts with the construction of the paintings, each painting is created in close collaboration between me and the client. Most have religious content and are displayed in churches. One of the most recent works given to the Pope is a polychrome statue of Saint Joseph and 80 cm high.
How long does it take to paint a picture?
Sometimes even years, for the last painting depicting the ecstasy of San Rocco, which is now on display in a church in a town near Potenza, it took me two years. It’s a painting that I define as ‘crowded’, that is, with many figures, many charoscuri and also many colors.
Where can you see the papier-mâché statues?
In Lecce in the Salesian Church, in that of Castromediano, in Frigole, in Santa Rosa, almost everywhere.
I can imagine that in a city like Lecce, your art and studio were also the subject of interest from TV channels.
Some scenes of a film were shot in my studio that evokes the historical events of Salento papier-mâché, in which I also play a small role as a humble worker in the Maccagnani factory. At Easter, a national German broadcaster shot a documentary about my work. I remember that some national television programs also filmed some reports in my studio, for example “A Sunday in the Family”, and then Piero Angela, Lorena Bianchetti and others were also here. I enjoy it, fame doesn’t interest me much, which I’m happy to pass on to others, also because none of my three children went my way.
Speaking of Maccagnani, are you one of the teachers at the Eugenio Maccagnani School in Lecce?
Yes, it is a school for artists, teaching art to new generations who want to reclaim the old art forms.
I teach painting using the ancient and ubiquitous techniques, realism in painting, drawing, modeling, papier-mâché.
Do you also teach tourists?
Yes, Francis Ford Coppola’s son did a paper mache internship this summer.
What do tourists say when they see you at work?
For them, what is happening here is part of an unknown world, art lovers come, I help them create works after a few hours of classes, and then they happily take them back to their countries, thus exporting our culture to other countries.
Do you also work with the workers’ society?
Yes, the workers’ society was founded over 150 years ago as a charity for disadvantaged families and has an exhibition space in Lecce aimed at all artists who need important visibility in the city.
What work would he never leave behind?
From an Apparition of the Madonna of the Trinitarian Fathers found in Sardinia, Oil on canvas depicting the Madonna della Mercede.
What message would you like to leave to those who make a living from and love art?
Always believing in the good examples of the past, because I believe that art can redeem itself and continue its work of saving a world if it follows the path of tradition.